RETROSPECTIVE: The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

Monday , 12, October 2015 20 Comments

The extent of Tolkien’s influence on the formation of the Dungeons & Dragons game is the subject of countless arguments. Most of what Gary Gygax as said on this topic is generally dismissed out of hand as being a transparent effort to avoid legal hassles from the Tolkien estate.

Of course, the co-designer of the original fantasy role-playing game wasn’t always under such pressure. Writing in 1972 well before any lawsuits could be a factor, Gary Gygax had this to say about his fantasy gaming supplement for the Chainmail miniatures rules:¹

Tolkien purists will not find these rules entirely satisfactory, I believe, for many of the fantastic creatures do not follow his “specifications”, mainly because I believe that other writers were as “authoritative” as he.

The creatures he refers to are (in this order) Halflings, Sprites (and Pixies), Dwarves (and Gnomes), Goblins (and Kobolds), Elves (and Fairies), Orcs, Heroes (and Anti-heroes), Wizards (including Sorcerers, Warlocks, Magicians, and Seers), Wraiths, Lycanthropes, Trolls (and Ogres), Treants, Dragons, Rocs (including Wyverns and Griffons), Elementals (including Djinn and Efreet), Basilisk (and Cockatrice), Giant Spiders and Insects, Giant Wolves, Wights (and Ghouls).

This list has been held up as conclusive evidence of Tolkien’s influence on the formation of original D&D.² Taking all of the game’s influences into account it’s just not that convincing, however. Certainly, players of this rule set would have been able to recreate The Battle of Five Armies and The Battle of the Morannon. And unlike anything you’d see in the coming D&D rule sets, Bard the Hunter’s ability to take out a flying dragon with a single shot is accounted for here. But while wraiths here are clearly inspired by the Nazgul, raising the morale of their allies, causing their foes to make morale checks, and paralyzing men with fear, these special abilities also failed to survive the transition from miniatures supplement to role-playing game.

Other staples of the D&D zeitgeist are in evidence even at this early juncture: the chromatic dragons are out in force, along with the chlorine gas breathing variety from the de Camp and Pratt’s The Roaring Trumpet. The clearest example of Tolkien’s diluted authority in Gygax’s views would be in the matter of Trolls. “What are generally referred to as Trolls are more properly Ogres,” he explains. To Gygax, “true Trolls” are more in line with the one in Poul Anderson’s Three Hearts and Three Lions.

Similarly, the wizards of the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement are unlike anything from Tolkien’s corpus; they unleash “Cloudkill” on enemy armies, create hallucinatory terrain, “haste” friendly units while “slowing” enemies, and disrupt the opposing force’s command and control with “confuse”. Tolkien’s stark contrasts between good and evil are replaced with Poul Anderson’s and Michael Moorcock’s Law to Chaos alignment spectrum, with the most surprising implication of this system being that the question of whether Elves will come in on the side of Halflings or Wraiths is determined entirely by the roll of the dice!

The inclusion of sprites and pixies takes things in a direction that would not at all have been to Tolkien’s liking.³ Even with no significant mechanical differences, the addition of gnomes, kobolds, and fairies into the lineup begins to nudge things more toward a fantasy equivalent to Mos Eisley’s cantina. The inclusion of the djinn, the efreet, and the roc accords first class status to One Hundred and One Nights, and presages Gygax’s later tendency to incorporate creatures and beings from almost any tradition or mythology.

Gary Gygax really was more of a syncretist than a purist, and it shows even at this early stage. And as much as he distanced himself from Tolkien later on, there are examples of Tolkien’s work slipping into the earliest edition of Dungeons & Dragons. A goblin’s lair will have a “goblin king” and his guard just like what is seen in The Hobbit. Orc villages are liable to have high level humans serving as “leader/protector types” and reminiscent of Saruman or The Mouth of Sauron. But alongside these few stray examples are Lord Dunsany’s gnolls, Sterling Lanier’s green slime, de Camp and Pratt’s Hill Giants, Frost Giants, and Fire Giants. Gargoyles are drawn directly from medieval architecture. Angry villagers are pulled directly from horror movies to provide a means for the referee to police the players during urban sequences. And on the same wandering monster charts that contain traditional mythological creatures such as minotaurs, unicorns, dryads and pegasi, there are apts, banths, thoats, calots, white apes, orluks, sith, tharks, and darseen taken directly from Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom stories.

But the lists of monsters here are merely an aid in helping the referee get a game off the ground. They are a set of examples, not some sort of restrictive or canonical bestiary. Gygax insists that “there is no practical limitation to the variety of monsters possible” and rattles of examples from his own games: Titans, Cyclopses, Juggernauts, living Statutes, Salamanders, Gelatinous Cubes, Robots, Golems, and Androids. Not even science fiction elements are off limits here. Elsewhere he writes that “some areas of land could be gates into other worlds, dimensions, times, or whatever. Mars is given in these rules, but some other fantastic world or setting could be equally possible.” And as for the player characters, there is no limit on them under original D&D, either. Gygax states that “there is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top.”

Original D&D is explicitly wide open for adaption to almost any conceivable setting. There is nothing remotely like Tolkien’s Middle Earth that is to be taken as sort of the default background of the game. The projection of a Tolkienesque style certainly overwhelmed the line during the eighties, but the game’s original purchasers were simply not expected to sit down and work out a Forgotten Realms style campaign map loaded with various kingdoms and adventure hooks and demi-human strongholds carefully demarcated more or less in imitation of the maps of Middle Earth. They weren’t going to necessarily create their own fantasy languages as Tolkien did or work out elaborate campaign plots after the fashion of the Dragonlance novels, either.

But they were going to have go create right from the start,  and this is Gygax’s direction on how to those earliest Dungeon Masters should prepare for their campaigns:

The referee bears the entire burden here, but if care and thought are used, the reward will more than repay him. First, the referee must draw out a minimum of half a dozen maps of the levels of his ‘underworld’, people them with monsters of various horrid aspect, distribute treasures accordingly, and note the location of the latter two on keys, each corresponding to the appropriate level…. When this task is completed the participants can then be allowed to make their first descent into the dungeons beneath the ‘huge ruined pile, a vast castle built by generations of mad wizards and insane geniuses.’

This is altogether unlike anything in fantasy literature.⁴ If it was set in the world of an existing fantasy novel, it would be far more at home in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth or Lin Carter’s The Warrior of World’s End than it would in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. And while Gygax drew from all manner of stories, myths, and legends to populate his imaginary worlds, the heart of the thing he constructed was quite unprecedented. Consider just how off the wall his “mythical underworld”⁵ really was:

  • “It is generally true that any monster or man can see in total darkness as far as the dungeons are concerned except player characters.”
  • “Doors will automatically open for monsters, unless they are held shut by the characters. Doors can be wedged open by means of spikes, but there is a one-third chance (die 5-6) that the spike will slip and the door will shut.”
  • “Monsters are assumed to have permanent infravision as long as they are not serving some character.”

It’s very difficult to imagine how some of this could even make sense. But original D&D is first and foremost a game— not a toy for frustrated fantasy novelists. If someone were to insist on finding literary inspirations that could justify these sorts of design choices, then the drug infused strangeness of Margaret St. Claire’s novels would necessarily be a much closer fit than anything of Tolkien’s.

The central role of halflings, elves, and dwarves in the lineup of player character options looks at first blush to be a prime repository for Tolkien’s influence on the game. The Dwarves in The Hobbit were certainly as greedy and shortsighted at the typical player character party. And even if most games begin with chance meetings in a tavern rather than something more akin to The Council of Elrond, the diversity of race and class among party members certainly seems to have caught on as an enduring trope of the medium. Murder hobos they may be, but whatever else their faults, the adventuring party most assuredly a “Fellowship”.

But it may also be the case that the halfling was imported to the game from Chainmail not so much to ratify it as a central premise of the game, but to illustrate how a player’s wish to play something offbeat could still be accommodated even with so minimal a rule set. The level limits on demi-humans are certainly harsh enough that Gygax seems to be discouraging them as much as he can. Meanwhile, the elf depicted in the original D&D rules must choose to perform as either a fighter or a magic-user at the start of each session– something quite unlike anything in the literary antecedents. And the elf’s ability to spot secret doors and the dwarf’s ability to detect sloping passages likewise make little sense outside of the context of the bizarre fun-house dungeon environments that are so integral to the game.

The addition of the cleric class stands in stark contrast to this. This player archetype is much more of a first class entity with numerous original game mechanics developed for it. In contrast, the elf, dwarf, and halfling are presented as restricted variants of the fighting-man and magic-user classes with a game oriented perk or two to compensate for the level restrictions. If this is the brunt of Tolkien’s influence on the game due to Chainmail’s Fantasy Supplement being the original basis of the game, then the cleric illustrates how medieval history was that much more of an influence.

The inspiration for the cleric’s prohibition from the use of edged weapons originates in tapestries depicting Bishop Odo fighting with a club.⁶ The cleric’s spell list is largely modeled after biblical accounts of miracles. But rather than being part of an organized effort to, say, take back the Holy Land from Saracens, the character class seems to take more inspiration from figures from horror literature such as Van Helsing. Indeed, a whole raft of undead creatures are added to original D&D in order to provide a more fantastic nemesis for clerics to contend with than what would have been available in the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement by itself. Compared to this lavish detail, the Tolkien derived demi-humans amount to little more than an afterthought.

Needless to say, this sort of explicit religious element was something that Tolkien was at pains to avoid in his fantasy novels. And if the addition of the Paladin from Three Hearts and Three Lions as a core class in AD&D was balanced by the inclusion of the Tolkien’s Rangers, it must also be noted that the incorporation of half-elves and the Dunedain is significantly watered down in comparison to their antecedents in Tolkien’s stories. Indeed, the addition in AD&D of the Monk class which is largely drawn from seventies martial arts movies seems to be a reiteration of the “play as virtually anything” principle from the original rule set.

Of course, you can list all of the literary influences on the game and people will still see Tolkien as being a primary force in the formation of the game regardless of the actual proportion of his contributions. For a lot of people, he is such an overpowering figure in terms of his position as someone that effectively defines fantasy, it’s difficult for them to grasp that other writers that took a substantially different approach to the genre. Just like when game masters ignore rules that they don’t understand or that are too cumbersome in actual play, so too will they gloss over anything that strikes them is being too far out of bounds of what strikes them as being “reasonable” for fantasy.

The fact is, Tolkien was just one perspective on fantasy in the early seventies; he was just one voice among many and was far from being dominant. The fantasy world of the second role-playing game to be created, Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, “was based on The Lord of The Rings as it would have been done by Marvel Comics in 1974 with Conan, Elric, the Gray Mouser and a host of badguys thrown in.”⁷ The literary antecedents for the three character types of that game were Howard’s Conan, Vance’s Cugel, and Tolkien’s Gandalf. As far tabletop games were concerned, Tolkien was a major player to be sure. But Gary Gygax was just not that unusual in his propensity to mix up elements from several other fantasy authors that he would have accorded equal or greater stature to.

Add to this the fact that not even Tolkien was “Tolkienesque” in the seventies. The norm for fantasy was so different then and Tolkien’s ascendance was so incomplete, that his worlds and characters were portrayed in surprisingly incongruous ways. While it may not be all that surprising that Eowyn could get the “Deja Thoris” treatment at the hands of Frank Frazetta, it’s striking that the book covers of Tolkien’s works in the seventies were such a far cry from the Larry Elmore paintings that dominated the eighties. And in the Rankin/Bass adaption of the Hobbit to a television movie, the elves look downright weird. From their almost alien looks to their odd, long legged proportions, they are nothing like the fair haired gentle-speaking types from the more recent blockbuster movies.

People were different then. They thought differently. They took different things for granted. What we tend to think of as even being normal or inevitable for fantasy didn’t even exist when original D&D was being published. And the fact remains that the best way to get inside of the heads of both the game designers and their intended audience is to read the books that they cited as their inspirations. We do have later works where D&D was adapted to fit the expectations of people that were bred on watered down mass market epic fantasy trilogies. But the earliest efforts in tabletop role-playing bore the marks of the older, wilder pulp fantasies that lapsed into obscurity starting in the mid-eighties.⁸

The game was a product of its times, no doubt. And Tolkien certainly made his mark on the game even at the earliest stages, but there were a great many authors that had that privilege as well. As Peter Bebergal put it, “D&D is a living expression of pulp, science fiction, and fantasy literature, not merely an overly-complicated board game.”⁹ When Gygax asserted that “de Camp & Pratt, Robert E, Howard, Fritz Leiber, Jack Vance, H. P. Lovecraft, and A. Merritt” were “the most immediate influences upon AD&D”, there’s really no reason not to take him at his word.

¹ See 1972 Gygax Article at Grognardia for the full article.

² See The Primacy of Tolkien at Delta’s D&D Hotspot for more.

³ In Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories”, he explains that the Oxford English Dictionary’s association of diminutive size with fairies is a relatively recent development. He quite disliked the stories he read in that vein while growing up.

⁴ That paragraph has more in common with Infocom’s Hollywood Hijinx (1986) and Id Software’s Doom (1993) than anything in science fiction and fantasy literature from before 1974.

⁵ See Jason Cone aka Philotomy’s The Dungeon as a Mythic Underworld for more on this.

⁶ Rick Stump’s Misunderstood and Improperly Played – the Cleric is a great post on this topic.

⁷ This is from the Demon Issue Interview with Ken St. Andre in 1986.

⁸ James Maliszewski has been asserting this for a long time: Some Words about Pulp Fantasy

⁹ Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition gets it mostly right

20 Comments
  • Cirsova says:

    I think you knocked this one out of the park.

  • Arstrosorceror says:

    There is a circle going on here. The fantasy writers provided the inspiration that led to fantasy role-playing games. Now the games (both paper and computer) are inspiring new fiction works.

  • Don says:

    Excellent article. You could spend a year in a lot worse ways than reading the appendix. All solid authors and interesting stories especially for those who like rpgs.

  • celt darnell says:

    Great article. That said, maybe it’s my age, but I think you’re wrong on the dates.

    re: “But the earliest efforts in tabletop role-playing bore the marks of the older, wilder pulp fantasies that lapsed into obscurity starting in the mid-eighties.”

    I’d say mid-nineties. I can assure you, Leiber, Sprague de Camp, Howard, Abraham Merritt (read “Creep, Shadow, Creep” if you haven’t) and a whole host of others were still being read by serious fantasy fans in the late 1980s and early 1990s — those were my teenage years and I read all of them — as well as guys like Manly Wade Wellman and Clark Ashton Smith.

    Don’t get me wrong, the 1980s did see the rise of the D&D inspired crap like Dragonlance etc., but the old guard were still being read. Or, at least they were by serious fans of fantasy fiction — even if they were, like myself, teens.

    Also, even by the 1970s, Tolkien was BIG. Very big. I think, again, you’re off by a decade — this time in the opposite direction. I suspect it was the 1960s when Tolkien was just one of several.

    Finally, I’ve always regarded the argument over to what extent Gygax was inspired by Tolkien a bit silly. Obviously he was inspired by Tolkien — he was also inspired by a lot of others as well. It’s never been an either-or situation.

    • Jeffro says:

      There is a distinct difference between the intended audience of original D&D and the audience of the game in the mid-eighties.

      You could take for granted that the first would have been familiar with a diverse range of fantasy styles. But for the latter, the later they were born, the more likely the Appendix N authors would have been obscure to them.

      In the context of games and game design, these trends will have been both more pronounced and more rapid than what they were with the wider fantasy fandom.

    • Cirsova says:

      A few years may make all of the difference. By the late 90s, early 00s, everyone I knew was reading the latest Dragonlance, Salvatore, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan or JK Rowling. I never met ANYONE who my age who read or talked about even the big-name authors from the previous generations. I mean, I read a few cheap paperbacks from my parents’ collection and I’d heard of Poul Anderson, RE Howard & such from them, but no one my age talked about any of the Appendix N authors except for Tolkien & Lovecraft.

      As for the Tolkien question, it’s less whether or not Gygax was inspired by Tolkien, what was the impact on the mechanics and implied setting of D&D. I remember among people I knew there used to be some sort of argument that the Fellowship in D&D would’ve only been something like a 1st-4th level party, but that was somehow something that reflected poorly on D&D’s ability to mimic a LotR type experience. Really, it says more about the flexibility of the system in that one can have LotR type parties at low levels, Conan or Fafhrd & Mouser at mid levels, and Elrics & such at high levels.

  • Any true Tolkien scholar who is also familiar with D&D would agree with you that anyone who claims that D&D is based on Tolkien’s works is both misinformed and not particularly well read. This is a very informative post and will probably go a long way in dispelling a lot of the hearsay that OG D&D fans are use to hearing from both recent fans of D&D and recent discoverers of Tolkien.

  • David R. Megarry says:

    I fail to see why nobody looks at the journey through the Caves of Moira when they do a comparison between Tolkien and D&D. The description is a perfect example of a dungeon crawl. It is the image I had in mind when I created the Dungeon! Fantasy Board Game. Arneson and I taught Gygax how to play in a role playing setting in November 1972.

    • Thank you, Mr. Megarry, for creating said Dungeon! game. It was recommended to my parents, after my brother and I had requested getting the Dungeons and Dragons game in 1980, by our uncle. He said that if our parents found nothing objectionable in Dungeon!, they would find nothing objectionable in D&D.

      That Gygax himself preferred Tolkien’s The Hobbit to The Lord of the Rings — but more especially that he more greatly regarded the works of Vance, Leiber, and Howard (among others) is the most probable reason why nobody looks at Moria when they compare Tolkien and D&D. I was reminded of the Mines of Moria dungeon crawl when I Dungeon Mastered my brother and our friends through the old module, “Descent into the Depths of the Earth.”

      Like Dave Arneson’s stature in RPG lore, the settings within the works of Tolkien are underappreciated when it comes to being compared with D&D. The lone exception is the demi-humans, for which Tolkien is over-credited. His demi-humans, aside from the Hobbits/Halflings, greatly differ from those in (A)D&D.

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