Sunday, January 11, 2009

More on Tolkien and RPGs

I’d like to take a moment to comment on a great post over at Grognardia which celebrates the birthday of J.R.R. Tolkien and explains some of the reasons why his works are generally avoided, save for their surface trappings, by those playing older editions of D&D. I largely agree with what author James Maliszewski has written there.

In this vein I’d also like to comment upon another related topic that I have personally encountered, either in person or on various RPG message boards. This being that LOTR is too “high fantasy” and not bleak or bloodthirsty enough for the kind of D&D they enjoy. These folks’ campaigns are “serious,” avoid nonsense like “hobbits and elves” and “epic quests,” and don’t have “happy endings” like The Lord of the Rings—or so I’ve been told.

I’m going to climb on a soapbox for a moment here and state that these arguments betray a deep ignorance of Tolkien’s source material. Now, some of these people have read The Hobbit and/or The Lord of the Rings (though I’m frequently surprised by the number of gamers whom I’ve encountered that have not). In some cases they’ve only watched Peter Jackson’s films. Very few of these critics, apparently, have read any deeper.

Now, I’m not being a Tolkien snob here, and I will readily acknowledge that you can enjoy The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as standalone works. Millions of readers have and continue to do so. I did it for years myself. But there’s something to be said for digging deeper and getting at the "why."

James at Grognardia deserves praise for his continued exploration of “the history and traditions of the hobby of roleplaying” (as he describes the purpose of Grognardia). He continually reminds his readers that we cannot claim to understand why OD&D and 1E AD&D are the games they are without understanding their source material, which includes pulp fantasy and authors like Howard and Leiber, Vance and De Camp. These were the authors that informed and inspired Gary Gygax, author of D&D, as he wrote the game.

Now, you can play and enjoy OD&D and 1E AD&D without having read the pulps, and millions have. But before you attempt to “fix” their mechanics or declare them “unfun,” you should make an effort to understand why these games are written and function as they do. The authors of fourth edition D&D, for example, apparently have either not read these works, or have but decided to base their mechanics on other sources.

Likewise, you cannot dismiss Tolkien out of hand without at least making an effort to understand the roots and foundations of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. These sources include The Silmarillion and its associated tales and myths (i.e., The Children of Hurin, Unfinished Tales, and The History of Middle Earth), which in turn were inspired by northern mythology.

The history of Middle Earth (its legendarium, as Tolkien called it) was Tolkien’s true love and the work of his life; Tolkien began laying down its origins in 1914, decades before The Hobbit and LOTR. He frequently returned to this legendarium as he wrote those two books and spent the latter portion of his life revisiting his broader creation. It was Tolkien’s great regret that these foundational stories of Middle Earth never saw publication (during his lifetime, of course); Tolkien’s letters and biography reveal his disappointment when publisher Allen and Unwin rejected much of what we know now as The Silmarillion, which Tolkien sent in for consideration following the success of The Hobbit. Stanley Unwin had asked Tolkien for a traditional sequel to The Hobbit, but what he received was very, very different.

These and other sources prove that Tolkien’s greatest love was his legendarium and the northern myths from which he derived inspiration; I would argue that “old school” RPGers who deride Tolkien for being too high fantasy/high medieval/a feel good escapist may feel differently if they spent some time on the origins, tales, and the deeper “whys” behind Middle Earth. Tragic and bleak are a few of the words I’d use to describe these sources. But they’re also a great read and loaded with cool ideas and campaign hooks. In fact, some of Tolkien’s gaming critics who choose to do take a closer look may feel inspired to create a gritty AD&D/Warhammer/Basic Role Playing campaign based on the First Age of Middle Earth.

Who knows—it might make for a heck of a fun game.


Max said...

...“happy endings” like The Lord of the Rings...

I'm reminded of a reviewer of a Peanuts inspired theater piece who praised it for exploring darker material than the "saccharine" work of Charles Schulz. Good grief!

G said...

Interesting post. I guess I kind of have the opposite impression -- I think that Tolkien's world is generally too dark and somber to make a passable D&D setting on its own. IMO, Gygax's pulpier inspirations -- especially Leiber, Vance and de Camp -- tend to be on the light-hearted side. Sure, these three authors provided some pretty dark moments, but they were all mediated by an underlying optimism. Tolkien was deeply pessimistic. He definitely had more in common with Robert E. Howard -- both of them saw the world spiraling away into the cosmic shitter and incorporated this depressing (if romantic) viewpoint into their work. (I seem to remember that Tolkien enjoyed the Conan tales when he read them in the late 1960s.) There are a lot of other differences between Tolkien and Howard as authors and men, of course, but there are some interesting parallels to be drawn between Middle-Earth and the Hyborian Age. I guess my point is that Tolkien or Howard on their own may be too much of a good thing when converted to D&D settings. I think that people can run great games in M-E or Hyboria, but any attempt at running some sort of 'purist' Tolkien game is probably impossible. The capitalist/optimist outlook of Leiber/Vance/de Camp and others has been built into D&D, and trying to cull these elements would probably be futile. Even MERP/Rolemaster is guilty of D&D-ifying Middle-Earth.

Anyway, this was a great post as usual, Brian.

Kevin Mac said...

I read LOTR a couple of times before my late teens, and The Hobbit at least three or four. As an old school D&D DM, and fan of JRR, I can't imagine not being very familiar with these works and running an old school campaign with the heart it deserves. I think the most similar thing between my longtime game world and Middle Earth, besides the monsters, is the fact that you aren't going to get jumped by creatures of some kind two or three times a day while traveling on the road. Yeah, you actually have to, for the most part, go out and seek the places monsters dwell.

But I think the heart and scope of LOTR is what has inspired me most, not the orcs and balrogs and elves and hobbits...

I'm glad I discoverd this blog! I look forward to going over some of the old posts.

Mr Baron said...


Another thoughtful post. Tolkien's works are written on many layers (sort of like an onion, not a wedding cake), and I would go as far as to say that the Hobbit is more of a surface story and the Lord of the Rings offers the reader a much deeper story. I would argue that the Hobbit is an upbeat tale, and it is easy to get stuck in this frame of mind when approaching the Lord of the Rings as in both stories the evil is defeated in the end. However, upon deeper reflection there is more to the story.

I like the analogy of comparing Tolkien to the ocean. While it is clearly evident that the work is vast, only by diving deep can one really get to the larger darker meat of the story. In the role playing game, there are a number of small surface fish to scoop up and use, as they do have numerous applications that can be woven into a good adventure. The bigger fish lie beneath the surface, and may be too large for digestion in game play.

As I look over the table that is the D&D game, there is no doubt that Gary is a pulp eater, however I do notice some Tolkien fish on his plate.

James Maliszewski said...

(I seem to remember that Tolkien enjoyed the Conan tales when he read them in the late 1960s.)

This is an urban legend, alas, based on the fact that L. Sprague de Camp gave Tolkien a copy of an anthology he edited that included a Conan tale when the two authors met briefly during the 60s. The anthology in question was found among Tolkien's library after he died but there's no evidence he read, let alone liked, anything from it except a story by Lord Dunsany. It'd be great to imagine Tolkien kicking back with a story by REH, but there's little evidence to suggest he ever did so.

G said...

That really is a shame, James. Do you remember where this legend originated? I know I read it somewhere (as opposed to having it related to me).

James Maliszewski said...

Lin Carter seems to have been the source of the legend so far as I have read. He got his information from de Camp, who had an interest in making the claim. There was a discussion of this on one of the REH forums not that long ago. I just can't recall which one.

G said...

Here we go:

A footnote on page 32 of Carter's 'Tolkien: A Look Behind the Lord of the Rings' (Ballantine; I have a sixth printing) states:

"In the Conan stories -- which, by the way, Tolkien has read and says he rather enjoys..."

I'll have to look into the REH forums to find de Camp's version of the story.

G said...

The REH Forum thread in question, in case anyone's interested:

This is interesting...

On the subject of Howard, L. Sprague de Camp states the following in his book 'Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy' concerning an interview with J. R. R. Tolkien:

"We sat in the garage for a couple of hours, smoking pipes, drinking beer, and talking about a variety of things. Practically anything in English literature, from Beowulf down, Tolkien had read and could talk intelligently about. He indicated that he rather liked Howard's Conan stories."

More (check the forum for photos):

This is an actual copy of L Sprague de Camp's 1963 Swords and Sorcery anthology, given by him to Tolkien who inscribed it "J.R.R. Tolkien from L. Sprague de Camp July 1962". It contained Shadows in the Moonlight by REH, and also H.P. Lovecraft's Doom that came to Sarnath.

However, it is a Lord Dunsany piece, The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweler, that seems to have made the biggest (although negative) impression, as the book's owner has written a lengthy but "not very complementary critique" of it, which is included in this sale.


So we know that JRRT had access to at least one Conan yarn, "Shadows in the Moonlight" (AKA "Iron Shadows in the Moon"). We know that he disliked the Dunsany story (really, who can dislike Hlo-Hlo?), but we don't have any indication -- aside from de Camp's story -- on whether he liked or disliked REH's stuff. The mystery -- at least until I see something more conclusive -- lives on.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi everyone, first of all, thanks for dropping by and for the great comments and discussion. A few thoughts from me:

Max: I know, amazing, isn't it?

K. Forest: Good point, though I think the main reason why Tolkien's world is unsuitable for a D&D setting is because it's too tightly constructed and limited by its own timelines. Tolkien knew everything that happened in Middle Earth, down to the month and day (witness the fact that he had to make events in LOTR line up with the Middle Earth calendar and lunar cycle). The pulp authors you mentioned aren't nearly so rigorous, and their worlds (of those that I've read) could be expanded upon, and bent and shaped, with no ill effects and fewer issues of "deviating from canon." Leiber's Newhon, for instance, was a prime example of an AD&D 1E sandbox campaign, very wild and malleable. Just my opinion, anyway.

Brunomac: Your game world sounds pretty cool. I think there's a lot that can be successfully ported over from Middle Earth into a D&D game. The campaign I'm currently in (as a player) is proof, as it bears some definite "Tolkienian" influences. But it does make for quite a different game than was intended by the creators of OD&D and AD&D 1E, who were, as Grognardia points out, deeply rooted in the pulp tradition.

Mr. Baron: Tolkien is like a deep lake, and some critics mistake still waters for shallowness. If only they'd look and think a little deeper...

James and K. Forest: Thanks for the discussion. I had also heard at one point that the JRRT/Howard connection was a fabrication, but had never seen the source. I'd like to do some more digging on that.