Worlds of Design: Reassessing Tolkien’s Influence

In September 2020 I wrote a column about Tolkien’s influence and how world builders are “trapped” by his influence. I was not writing with Tolkien in my sights. But now I am.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Tolkien’s List​

How influential has J.R.R. Tolkien’s work been on RPGs, and is that influence a problem? I’ve made a list of some characteristics of Tolkien’s world (in no particular order):
  • Characteristics of Dwarves and Elves
  • Very low-magic levels of Middle-earth
  • Lack of religion, of “gods” that interfere
  • Impossibly long history without significant change in technology
  • An overarching “dark lord”
  • A single magical object that can determine overall success or failure (The Ring)
  • Group quest
  • “Monsters” and other detail

Dwarves and Elves​

Dwarves and Elves in RPGs are usually Tolkien-like, much different than earlier folklore notions. Consider the dwarfs of the Nibelungenlied, and the small and often nefarious elves of many stories about the Fey world. This may be where Tolkien’s influence is most obvious. (If you haven’t read the older stories you might not be aware of the striking difference. It’s like the so-called “classic” pirate accent (yaarrhh) – it didn’t exist in movies before 1950’s Treasure Island and Long John Silver’s west Cornish accent.)

Low-Magic Levels​

What evidently hasn’t influenced RPGs at all is the low-magic levels of Middle-earth. Magic items are just about non-existent. Spell-casters are just about non-existent. An inhabitant may hear of such things, but actually getting involved with one in any way, even just to see it, is nearly unheard of. In the USA today you’re as likely to see the President of the United States up close and personal as to see a magic-user in person in Middle-earth. Similarly, you’re more likely to see a gold bar in the USA than to see a magic item in Middle-earth.

Lack or Organized Religion​

Tolkien’s lack of organized religion, and of “gods” that interfere hasn’t been an influence. Gods that manifest in the world, if only through the spells of clerics/priests, are common in RPGs, perhaps heavily influenced by D&D. Gods that interfere in the “real world” are also common from what I hear of RPG campaigns (something I don’t use myself).

Little Technological Advancement​

Impossibly long history without significant change in technology. This is a big influence on literature as well as games. As an historian I recognize that this is virtually impossible. Yes, technology changed much more slowly in, say, 2500 BCE. But it did change immensely over time, and in so many games (and books) it doesn’t seem to change at all over many millennia. Heck, even the science fantasy Star Wars has very little technological change in tens of thousands of years. Having said that, my wife reminded me of the new “infernal/demonic engines” of Saruman, both at Isengard and in Hobbiton. Yet those technologies were very much frowned upon by the “good guys.”

A Dark Lord​

An overarching “dark lord” threatening the world. I have never used a Sauron-equivalent in my campaigns, but I’d guess that many GMs do. This is hardly an invention of Tolkien, but Lord of the Rings could certainly have influenced many GMs. There’s no evidence as to how much, though.

A MacGuffin​

A single magical object that can determine overall success or failure (The Ring). More than just a MacGuffin (“an object or device in a movie or a book that serves merely as a trigger for the plot”), it is the be-all and end-all of the entire story-arc. In LOTR it is Sauron’s lost Ring of Power, of course. Not something I’ve used (I avoid “saving the world” situations), but who knows how many others have used it? It’s more practical if the magical effect is much reduced, and the story scaled back from “saving the world” to accomplishing something worthwhile.

Was this new with Tolkien? Only an expert in pre-Tolkien fantasy fiction and myth could answer this question. What first comes to mind is the Ring in Wagner’s Nibelungenlied opera cycle, but that ring was not the overwhelming object of Power that Sauron’s Ring was. As with several of these questions, even if Tolkien was not the first, he may have been far better known than any preceding work.

A Group Quest​

Group Quest. Early science fiction and fantasy was dominated by a single protagonist hero, or hero and sidekick. Tolkien’s main books depicted quests by groups of characters rather than by individuals. How much this actually influenced RPGs, I have no idea.

Archetypical Monsters​

“Monsters” and other details. Apart from the characterizations of dwarves and elves, Tolkien’s influence shows in other species respects. For example, Orcs are direct transfers from LOTR, as are Hobbits (now changed to halflings). Ents (now changed to treants) are from LOTR, as are Balrogs (changed to Balor). Also, there is a “Common Tongue” in Middle-earth. This is a convenience for gaming that might have been invented by anyone, but Tolkien showed the way.

Does It Matter?​

I’m not trying to gauge whether Tolkien’s influence is “bad” or not. His work certainly influences RPGs, but perhaps less than many think. Newer gamers, coming to Tolkien through the movies, may see more of his influence than older gamers do. Some GMs are certainly more influenced than others. Yet I’m not sure how any literary influence on RPGs could be “bad”, insofar as inspiration can come from anywhere, and be used for any purpose. Any game designer is free to ignore Tolkien, or not, as preferred.

Your Turn: How do you incorporate (or avoid) Tolkien's influence in your campaigns?
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

SteveC

Doing the best imitation of myself
This is really interesting stuff. The thing with Tolkien's influence is that it comes from things that were in happening in literary culture at the time when D&D started. There was a time when LotR and Tolkien were not very popular, and were in fact looked down upon pretty heavily. One of my professors (who taught the Silmarillion) had a huge poster of subway graffiti that said "Frodo lives!"

The fact that our games owe so much to Tolkien comes in large part because there was a Renaissance for the books when D&D was starting. If that didn't happen, we'd have much more influence from Howard and similar authors (Leiber comes to mind as well) as well as other authors like Moorcock.

Since Tolkien, I'd say there have been very few writers who have been that influential in fantasy. Martin was one of them, I remember my dad giving me a photocopy of an article which called him the "American Tolkien" but I would say his influence is failing. The other author I think who could have similar effects is Rowling, but she hasn't been interested in turning her works into RPGs.

You can count on Tolkien's influence coming from the interest at the time the game was created, along with no other writer being able to take that title from him since then.
 

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CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
This is really interesting stuff. The thing with Tolkien's influence is that it comes from things that were in happening in literary culture at the time when D&D started. There was a time when LotR and Tolkien were not very popular, and were in fact looked down upon pretty heavily. One of my professors (who taught the Silmarillion) had a huge poster of subway graffiti that said "Frodo lives!"
wow, i'd never of guessed, i've always lived in a tolkien appreciating age.
 

Voadam

Legend
I think it's reflexive at this point. First inculcated repetition of Gary's post-cease & desist denials, and then folks actually learning about all the less obvious influences. Especially since a segment of the younger (although still more Gen Xers and older Millennials rather than actual young folks) community actually started digging into Appendix N and seeing all the very real and substantial stuff that clearly did go into the game. Tolkien absolutely was a huge influence, of course. I think people have a reactionary response to what they see as over-emphasis on the Tolkien influence.
I recently read Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions for the first time and I was astounded at how much D&D is taken from there. The specific dwarves noting underground tunnel slope and grade ability from 1e was not something I was expecting.
 

SteveC

Doing the best imitation of myself
wow, i'd never of guessed, i've always lived in a tolkien appreciating age.
The professor I had when we studied Silmarillion was older and said that Tolkien was often thought of as a joke in serious academic circles. There was a really attempt to push him out. Now popular culture hit back in many ways and we really appreciate his writing today. As some others have said, it really is waning again, but if something is going to take its place, a writer has to step up. Maybe it's the situation where fantasy has pretty much left the realm of "serious" fiction, I don't know.
 

Tonguez

A suffusion of yellow
The professor I had when we studied Silmarillion was older and said that Tolkien was often thought of as a joke in serious academic circles. There was a really attempt to push him out. Now popular culture hit back in many ways and we really appreciate his writing today. As some others have said, it really is waning again, but if something is going to take its place, a writer has to step up. Maybe it's the situation where fantasy has pretty much left the realm of "serious" fiction, I don't know.
I dont know if fantasy has ever been considered as serious fiction in academic circles, Tolkien may be one of the few to actually break through the literary ceiling and rise up from the dross of ‘popular fiction’
 




Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Considering that serious authors will avoid being put in the sf genre like the plague I don’t think sf or fantasy has ever really been taken seriously.
I suppose that depends on how you're defining "serious authors." Considering Sanderson's kickstarter, I would say that he qualifies as a serious author.
 


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