Why Middle Earth is Foreign to Fantasy Role-Playing

Tuesday , 19, September 2017 14 Comments

Most people lack the capacity to comprehend anything Gary Gygax said about his influences in the development of the Dungeons & Dragons game. The reason for this is that most people’s concept of fantasy goes something like this:

In the beginning, there was The Lord of the Rings. From this great work sprang all that is great and wonderful and awe inspiring about fantasy: trilogies, to be sure. Books with maps in the front of the book. And most importantly, ponderous and sprawling world building that eclipses nearly everything else about a work. And out of Tolkien there came The Sword of Shannara and Lord Foul’s Bane. Then came D&D and Dragonlance and The Forgotten Realms. And all of these things together begat Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time Series and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.

For a good chunk of today’s fantasy fans, this is the only world they’ve ever known. And the world that Gary Gygax came up in…? It’s largely unimaginable to them. And so when Gygax writes about the stuff that defined fantasy for him and inspired his work in the early days of fantasy role-playing games, they can’t process it. He talks about an approach to fantasy that is not founded on Tolkien’s works. And this simply does not compute! If Tolkien defines the fantasy genre… if he is the only conceivable starting point, then everything Gygax says sounds completely bizarre. Whatever facts you provide and whatever context or date they emerged from, the only sensible explanation these sorts of people can come up with is that the architect of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons game could only be lying in order to protect himself from lawsuits from the Tolkien estate.

But let’s take a look and see what Gygax actually said on the subject way back in Dragon #95 as strange as it might sound today:

As a child I was regaled nightly by fantasy stories created, on the spot, by my father. My mother read fairy tales to me from Jack & Jill magazine. I soon began reading the noted collection of the Brothers Grimm, and others (I dimly recall) from a set called Book Trails. Having read through Poe by age ten, I somehow gravitated into the realms of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. By the tender age of twelve, I was an avid fan of the pulps (magazines of those genres), and I ranged afield to assimilate whatever I could find which even vaguely related to these exciting yarns. Meanwhile, I was devouring ancient and medieval history, tales of the American frontier, historical novels of all sorts, and the Hornblower stories in the old Saturday Evening Post. Somewhere I came across a story by Robert E. Howard, an early taste of the elixir of fantasy to which I rapidly became addicted. Even now I vividly recall my first perusal of Conan the Conqueror, Howard’s only full-length novel novel. After I finished reading that piece of sword & sorcery literature for the first time, my concepts of adventure were never quite the same again.

Note that all of the things have been fundamentally transformed and that relatively few people are familiar with the original works that formed Gygax’s conception of what fantasy was and how it works.

  • Most people know of the classic fairy tales via their Disney adaptions or else through works that actively invert the characters and the principles they were intended to convey.
  • Almost everything people think they know about the pulps is flat wrong. Critical assessments of them are riddled with factual errors and outright fabrications.
  • Horatio Hornblower has been replaced with Honor Harrington, the ubiquitous”Man with Boobs” archetype that has flooded the marketplace since the nineties.
  • The Conan that most people think they know doesn’t even rise to the level of the comic book character. Those that are not fluent in the watered down iteration of the barbarian portrayed in films tend to root their criticisms of the character based on what they think he must have been going by the iconic Frank Frazetta covers alone.

Gygax operated within an entirely different set of reference points than the ones we today tend to take for granted. But note what what he says of his fantasy roots:

From these literary fruits came the seeds which grew into today’s most popular roleplaying games.

This is not just about D&D. The other tabletop game designers of the seventies have much in common with Gygax. Their works are betray the same sort of influences and assumptions and are thus as alien to us today as the original Little Brown Books of the Dungeons & Dragons game. Many of the same authors were primary influences to Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip, Mark Miller’s Traveller, James Ward’s Gamma World, Steve Perrin’s RuneQuest, and Sandy Peterson’s Call of Cthulhu. A set of widely read authors of the time which are largely forgotten today defined fantasy and science fiction for these creators. And their works are noticeably out of sync with contemporary notions of the field.

A careful examination of the games will quickly reveal that the major influences are Robert E. Howard, L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, Fritz Leiber, Poul Anderson, A. Merritt, and H. P. Lovecraft. Only slightly lesser influence came from Roger Zelazny, E. R. Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Philip Jose Farmer, and many others.

This is incontestable. And anyone familiar with these these authors will be able to find numerous examples of how elements of their works were appropriated wholesale in order to get the tabletop roleplaying hobby off the ground. In fact, you can reconstruct a significant portion of the fantasy and science fiction canon merely by compiling a list of authors that served as the foundational reference points for what people wanted to do when they sat down to play these games.

Tolkien was certainly a part of that mix, but he was far from dominant. In spite of his eventual displacement of Lord Dunsany and A. Merritt as the new “Lord of Fantasy” of the eighties, in the early to mid-seventies he was still just one fantasy author among many:

The seeming parallels and inspirations are actually the results of a studied effort to capitalize on the then-current craze for Tolkien’s literature. Frankly, to attract those readers and often at the urging of persons who were playing prototypical forms of D&D games I used certain names and attributes in a superficial manner, merely to get their attention! I knew full well that the facade would be dispelled by the actualities of play. I relied on the power of the DUNGEONS & DRAGONS game to overcome the objections which would naturally occur when diehard Tolkien enthusiasts discovered the dissimilarity. This proved to be the case far more often than not. Tolkien fans entered the D&D game fold, and became a part of its eager audience, despite the fact that only a minute trace of the Professor’s work can be found in the games. As anyone familiar with both D&D games and Tolkien works can affirm, there is no resemblance between the two, and it is well nigh impossible to recreate any Tolkien-based fantasy while remaining within the boundaries of the game system.

The old games are simply not compatible with the mass market “Tolkienesque” approach to fantasy that became the new normal in the eighties. And given paucity of session reports for something like Iron Crown Enterprise’s Middle Earth Role-Playing, it’s arguable that strict Tolkien style adventure is nearly incompatible with fantasy role-playing altogether!

Certainly, someone that comes into Keep on the Borderlands or The Isle of Dread or Steading of the Hill Giant Chief with the expectation that things will play out like what he’s read in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings…? They’re in for a rude awakening.

Meanwhile, if you want stories that can be adapted to tabletop adventures with very little effort, the pulps are going to be some of the best gaming resources you’re liable to ever come across. And if you want to get down to the core of why old games are as weird and different and just plain strange as they are…?

You’re going to going to have to read a bunch of old books in order wrap your head around that!

  • Xavier Basora says:

    ya know I’m one of those people who thought that Tolkein was the influence for D&D but was never obsessed about it either way. I did note other fairy tales/mythology from the Germanic tribes but again I just took D&D as a giant mashup and was content. I never played the games but I always enjoyed the imaginative stories as a kid.
    Now i know where to go and read the myths directly from the source. And your book providrs a great list of the retellings


    • Jeffro says:

      When I was a kid I thought the Monster Manual was dumb. All those crazy things drawn from myth and legend thrown together in one crazy milieu…? IT’S NOT RIGHT. *Everybody* knows you’re supposed to make a coherent fantasy world with its own ecology and backstory.

      How could Gygax NOT know that…?!

      Also: gotta find a REAL role-playing game and not this childish hack and slash dungeon crawling stuff.

      Serious business!

      • Xavier Basora says:

        I’m unfamiliar with that book but I get your point. I didn’t the jarring mashups. I was sort of use to it whenever I visited my grandparents in Spain.
        So I thought it made the stories more ‘real’

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Shannara and Lord Foul’s Bane are where I started to turn my back on modern fantasy. I never read any of the Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms books, and never made it past the first volume of Wheel of Time or GOT.

    Read the old stuff, folks. When you do, the fantasy RPGs written in the 70’s/early 80’s will click and you’ll start to enjoy them MORE, not less.

    *I have most of the Middle Earth books from ICE, and they’re of high quality. The maps are superb! I have no idea why MERP never caught on.

    *C.S. Forester’s Hornblower saga: if you have any interest in the Napoleonic era or in naval warfare or the Sea in general, give these books a try. They’re great.

    • Emmett Fitz-Hume says:

      Hornblower is great stuff. I had no idea they were books until I watched the A&E (back before “reality” programming eclipsed everything…) mini-series. The mini-series was excellent too.

      And as far as MERP goes, I love my books and still use them (We’ve integrated their brutal Critical Hit & Fumble tables into our weekly D&D game! “You trip on an invisible turtle…”) BUT I always found the rule system, especially character generation, to be cumbersome.

      The maps are fantastic, though, I must agree.

    • deuce says:

      I didn’t know Gygax was a Hornblower fan. Forester’s stories are pulp. Like Sabatini’s tales, many of them were first published or reprinted in American pulps like Argosy:


      Any “Before App N” project should include Forester and Sabatini — and Haggard, of course.

  • Roffles Lowell says:

    Pretty enlightening!

    I am reminded of a forum thread I read through years ago wherein a bunch of gamers were discussing the best way to adapt the Narnia universe to a tabletop rpg; only without all the pesky hangups about Christian morality…!
    For some irony, is no stumbling block at all.

  • Robespierre says:

    As far as maps in the front of a book goes, ERB drew a map of Pellucidar and published it with part 1 of PELLUCIDAR in the May 1915 issue of All-Story Weekly. The map appears in the ACE edition of the same novel as well as other places. He drew a second map which was published later.

    The world of Pellucidar may not be high fantasy but it is still considered fantasy in the broader sense. You get telepathic flying lizard women, for instance.

    Tolkien was finishing his degree at the time, and getting ready to head off to WWI.

    Jeffro is quite right, and it’s a fascinating subject.

  • Bruce says:

    ‘Frankly, to attract those readers…I used certain concepts’

    And that right there is why D&D went big. Gygax was an easy-going northern Midwestern guy. You want to play a Tolkein character that doesn’t fit D&D- okay, Gygax was easy. He wanted to attract you. Here’s stats for Faramir and orcs and elves. Over time you will come to enjoy the real D&D. Meanwhile, at Traveller, you want to be the Grey Lensman? You want to drop asteroids on your enemies? It’s technically in the rules so we won’t accept responsibility for saying no but we will run you off our websites, blah blah. Mean southern Midwesterners ran Traveller, and it never caught on big.

    • Jack Amok says:

      I got introduced to D&D through Tolkien. A friend knew I was reading LotR and said “hey, you should play this game…” But for that, all the source material I read was clearly not *just* Tolkien, and probably because I hand’t read much other fantasy at that point, D&D and it’s open-ended nature became my frame of reference. It was clear to me the flavor of a campaign could be whatever the DM and players wanted it to be.

      I never got the same vibe you have about Traveller. Maybe I just didn’t know any southern Midwesterners, but to me, it was – similar to D&D –
      whatever space adventure you wanted.

  • tweell says:

    D&D’s spell system was ripped whole from Jack Vance’s Dying Earth fantasy series, along with a lot of other stuff. When I read that series years after I first played D&D, it was like a light of comprehension coming on.

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