Had he somehow attained Bilbo-like longevity, J.R.R. Tolkien would today have been 118 years old. As it was, he lived to be over 80 years old, having produced what is quite arguably the most influential fantasy novel in the English language -- perhaps any language. Now, I'm on record as downplaying the influence of Tolkien on Dungeons & Dragons, at least in its Gygaxian incarnation, a position that's the source of amusement and consternation in many quarters. As is often the case, I think people misunderstand my position, taking it as more dogmatic than I ever intended it to be, but that's always the danger of the written word, particularly on the Internet, where nuance is often a dirty word, or at least one less useful in fueling polemics.
But my intention today is not to go over old ground. Instead, I wish to discuss an area where I do think Tolkien has been influential on the hobby of roleplaying (and, of course, on fantasy writing more generally). What's interesting is that I'm not talking about the story of The Lord of the Rings so much as the world of Middle-earth, especially as presented in the appendices to the novel. This is a point that the perspicacious Rob Conley noted in a November post on his blog.
I regularly talk about the importance of Appendix N of Gygax's Dungeon Masters Guide, but nowadays it's generally taken to be descriptive, which is to say, it details the books and authors whom Gary regarded as influential on him but not necessarily on the game as a whole. The appendices of The Lord of the Rings, while not intended by Tolkien as anything more than providing additional information about the background of his novel, have nevertheless become prescriptive in the minds of many, fantasy writers and gamers alike. In their minds, no fantasy setting is complete unless it can compete with Middle-earth when it comes to history, ethnography, and linguistics.
Speaking for myself, I know all too well the gravitational pull of Tolkien's appendices. They were, as a younger man, my favorite parts of The Lord of the Rings, a novel whose story I didn't particularly like in my youth but whose depth and detail I envied. These appendices became my model in "properly" fleshing out a fantasy setting, which is why I filled many notebooks with extensive lists of kings and princes, battles and wars, and even dabbled in fictitious languages. I wanted my own settings to be every bit as real as Middle-earth seemed to be and I wouldn't settle for anything less. Judging from the articles I read in Dragon back in those days, I'd wager I wasn't alone among gamers in this regard. Judging from the fantasy novels that followed in the wake of Tolkien's success in the 60s and 70s, I'd wager this desire could be found among novelists too, whose imitation of the surface details of Tolkien's tale wasn't limited to writing novels in threes.
Paradoxically, as my love of Tolkien's storytelling grew, my desire to ape the content and presentation of his creation has grown less. I no longer craft faux Middle-earths nor do I see much point in writing histories stretching back to the Creation. I prefer more unknowable settings and tend to recoil when encountering game or literary settings that see reams of minute detail as essential. I certainly can't fault anyone who envies Tolkien his imagination or his skill in applying it to his writing. His is a work of creativity that has few equals in any field of literature and his achievement within the realm of fantasy casts such a long shadow that even those who foolishly deny its worth are in fact acknowledging it despite themselves. Who among us would not wish our own creations to be similarly lauded? Who among us doesn't feel a twinge of jealousy when reading Professor Tolkien's words? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the hobby of roleplaying has probably flattered Tolkien in the last 30+ years more than any man in history.