Tolkiens & Dragons

Over at Greyhawk Grognard they’re discussing how much influence Tolkien had on D&D, specifically the Advanced D&D game. Mentioned, of course, is the editorial written by Gygax in Dragon Magazine pretty much dismissing the influence altogether.

I’m not sure, but I think that that editorial was the first thing I ever read in Dragon Magazine. I was pretty new to the game at the time, with only a borrowed Players Handbook, and I recall more or less taking Gygax’s claim at face value. It wasn’t too long, though, before I acquired the DMG and the Monster Manual. And the more I learned, and the more I re-read Lord of the Rings, the more I decided that Gygax’s claim was basically full of gorgon excrement.

Over the years, as I’ve learned more about the history of the game, about the writing of LOTR, about Sword & Sorcery literature, and about the things that influenced all of them, I’ve come to believe that many of the things that inspired Tolkien inspired the S&S writers that inspired Gygax and company. Greedy dwarves and gold-hoarding dragons aren’t Tolkien creations, after all. And when it came time to create a list of monsters, magic, and character types, Tolkien’s books were used as sources even if they weren’t necessarily direct influences on the fundamentals of the game.

So, though it’s tough to claim that Tolkien had no direct influence on the inclusion of hobbits, ents, and balrogs in the early games, for instance, I also put no stock in the idea that D&D was some sort of Tolkien RPG. It’s unfortunate that so many seem to insist it’s either all or nothing on this. I think Tolkien’s direct influence is visible but not overly significant (not like Vancian magic, for example) and I think that a lot of what some see as Tolkien’s direct influence is really more of an indirect effect of others being influenced by the same sources as Tolkien.

Is it because of the relative popularity of Tolkien compared to other influences? Do some gamers think being influenced by Tolkien is akin to claiming a serious rock band was influenced by teen pop singers or that a serious film was inspired by a sitcom? Is it somehow demeaning to be influenced by something popular with the mainstream? Is it a badge of honor to be able to claim obscure sources for your inspiration?

Just thinking out loud.

Personally, I think that the influence Tolkien’s works had on D&D were much more significant than Gygax let on, though I also think that much of that influence was not intentional on the part of the early creators of the game.

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8 Responses to Tolkiens & Dragons

  1. Timeshadows says:

    From what Rob (Kuntz) has said to me, GG wasn’t at all a fan of Tolkien, and had only used the critters for two simple reasons:

    1). Tolkien was big then, and only getting bigger in popular terms.

    2). JRRT’s stuff was handy and all in one package, as it were, and with 1). above being the case, made good sense to utilise.

    • Kilgore says:

      That’s my understanding as well, from what I’ve read over the years. And I have no doubt that it’s true.

      Somewhere, and I don’t recall where at the moment, I read an account of how hobbits got into the game as a PC race: A player wanted them, Gygax didn’t, the player insisted (or begged), and Gygax relented but gave them a level limit of 4.

      As a quick summary of a re-telling of a third-party memory, etc., etc., etc., that seems to fit in with the idea that Gygax “wasn’t at all a fan” but that player’s wishes and popular opinion meant that a fair amount of Tolkien stuff got into the game anyway.

      One thing to keep in mind is that just because Gygax or whoever wasn’t a fan or didn’t intend to tap into Tolkien as an influence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Over at Greyhawk Gognard, Will M commented that since the original Ranger write-up was not by Gygax, the Ranger class being based more or less on Aragorn does not support the idea that Tolkien was an influence on the game.

      But I don’t think anyone is arguing that Gygax was TRYING to use Tolkien as a primary influence. In fact, re-tellings seem to indicate that the opposite was true. That doesn’t change the fact that hobbits have hairy feet and that Rangers operate alone or in very small groups and use crystal balls when they reach high level.

      Whoever wrote what up, whoever is to “blame” for this or that bit of Tolkien in the game, it’s in there. Just because Gygax wasn’t a fan or actively resisted being influenced doesn’t at all mean that Tolkien didn’t influence the game. Due to the popularity and the overlap of the game’s premise and Tolkien’s stories, I don’t think it was avoidable.

      Still, as I said, I think a lot of what looks like Tolkien influence is probably indirect side effects of both Tolkien and D&D being based on literature which was, itself, based on a lot of the same sources.

  2. Jack Colby says:

    You make a good point, one I agree with. People sometimes forget that Tolkien didn’t invent everything. To his credit, he took existing concepts from mythology and put his own spin on them, creating something new in the process. It’s interesting to note that some of the elements that Tolkien’s works and D&D share are not really identical. Look at elves, for example. I think D&D’s version is a little more traditional and less Middle Earth style.

  3. How does this article match up on the timeline with the lawsuit against TSR filed by the Tolkien Estate? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Gary’s vocal dismissal of Tolkien’s influence was a result of the legal stuff going on.

    • Kilgore says:

      I don’t know. I wanted to look it up but didn’t get to it. But I think the article was several years later. Someone more knowledgeable would have to provide more details.

  4. Telecanter says:

    For me, as a kid, the Hobbit always seemed the quintessential adventure, with its quest, artifact, dragon, and treasure hoard. When I devoured my secondhand 1e books, there was nothing in them to discourage the idea that it was actually meant to play that very kind of adventure, even if Gygax was thinking more of Swords & Sorcery.

    Later, when I’d explored Howard and Leiber, I found, much to its credit, that the system could simulate those kinds adventures too.

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