Chainmail, Tolkien, and Gygax Again…

Thursday , 28, January 2016 9 Comments

Jon Peterson’s research over at Playing at the World has lead him to uncover the source of not just D&D’s iconic fireball spell, but also the root of a great many of the Tolkienesque elements that were incorporated into the earliest editions of the game. As he reports there:

I was aware of the existence of Patt’s game when I wrote Playing at the World; in fact, I speculated in a footnote that, “It is certainly possible that news of the positive reception of NEWA’s Tolkien game influenced Gygax’s decision to include fantasy rules in Chainmail” (pg44). Fantasy rules were, at the time, virtually unheard of. But until now, I had erroneously supposed that NEWA “opted not to publish their system,” when in fact it simply appeared in a place I hadn’t yet been able to unearth.

Along the same lines, when I gave a close look at Chainmail last year, I noted that you could play the Battle of Pelennor Fields with it. What I didn’t know was that in 1970… a guy named Leonard Patt had done exactly that– and that his rules were the basis from which the original fantasy supplement were derived from.

I also noted that there seemed to be a distinct approach to the fantasy in Gygax’s D&D from the more Tolkien oriented rules in Chainmail. I laid out evidence in order to demonstrate just how far Tolkien was from being a major player in Gygax’s imagination. I went even further and claimed that “a half dozen authors would have easily been considered on par with Tolkien in the seventies.” Not everyone agreed with that and some people could not even imagine that being the case, but Jon Peterson’s discovery more than puts to bed any remaining concerns about whether that was true for Gygax himself when D&D was first being put together.

This post from Delta’s D&D Hotspot is a good example of what I’m talking about, especially where it makes this claim:

It’s a bit silly for Gygax to argue that “some bits and pieces from Tolkien were thrown in to entice certain readers”, when the fact is that all of the monsters and character-types of Chainmail and core OD&D come directly from Tolkien, nearly in the same order of appearance as in the LOTR books. Tolkien is the first fantasy author mentioned in Chainmail fantasy, and Gygax’s earliest writings show that the whole game was played in that context.

This was a reasonable argument when we didn’t know what Leonard Patt’s contribution to the game was. But those days are gone!

9 Comments
  • Blue SFF Reader says:

    For those who want to compare Patt’s rules to the OD&D version, the original set of 3 booklets has just been released by WotC to the DriveThru websites.

    Link: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product_info.php?products_id=28306

  • Aeoli Pera says:

    The other possibility is that Gygax hadn’t read Tolkien and was unaware of the contradiction. Maybe just the first and last chapters? It wouldn’t be the first time somebody had done something like that.

  • L. Beau Macaroni says:

    Ralph Bakshi > Rankin-Bass. Just sayin’.

  • Scholar-at-Arms says:

    I got the impression from Grognardia that a lot of the guys EGG would have been playing wargames with seem to have liked JRRT more than he did. I think it was possible to replay the Battle of Five Armies or Pelennor Fields in Chainmail because there were guys who wanted to do that. I recall a facsimile of an interview with him in pre-D&D days that James M dug up where he was at pains to say that unlike many wargamers, he did not regard Tolkien as the last word.

    BTW Jeffro, have you read Tom Simon’s essays on how fantasy publishing changed in 1977? I think they’re very relevant to your conclusions on Appendix N, though approaching the matter from a very different direction.
    The first in the series:
    http://bondwine.com/2007/01/19/1977-from-zeuss-brow/

    • Jeffro says:

      Boy, that really is the year, isn’t it?

      I haven’t seen that; thanks for the tip!

      • Scholar-at-Arms says:

        Glad to be of service! Really, all of Mr Simon’s essays are excellent, both those on fantasy writing and his miscellaneous stuff, and his two novels are very fine as well. I just wish his rate of production was higher.

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