Sunday, January 3, 2010

Happy Eleventy-Eighth, Professor

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.

19 comments:

  1. Was just re-reading the Holme's rules again yesterday, and was surprised at how many outright Tolkien references were included in the book (check the monster descriptions). It appears that some people (like Holmes) saw Tolkien as a direct influence/inspiration to parts of D&D.

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  2. I identify strongly with your description of your world-building efforts as a youngster; I did the same thing, and these days would also prefer a rather more mysterious, organically grown milieu. The trouble is, I've put so much work into my main campaign area that I'm loathe to discard it all :)

    Fortunately there's a whole extra hemisphere of the planet sitting in the wings, mapped out but hardly explored at all and just waiting for some adventurers to start tearing it to bits. If I can nudge the party in that direction I can have my cake and eat it too.

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  3. > Judging from the fantasy novels that followed in the wake of Tolkien's success in the 60s and 70s

    aside: that was (late 60s/early 70s) primarily a swords & sorcery and earlier fantasy revival with a small amount of genuinely "new work". The Tolkien devolutionists (apeists? *g*) came rather later.
    For that earlier period the in-depth delvers/imitators/budding authors were primarily in the burgeoning Tolkien fandom ( http://www.tolkienguide.com/modules/wiwimod/index.php?page=FanzineHistory ) rather than the "mainstream".

    > having produced what is quite arguably the most influential fantasy novel in the English language -- perhaps any language.

    Very little "arguing" for recent times IMO despite the Rowling apologists. ;)
    (Further back, it was a different world and people did things differently, then. It's a bit pointless comparing bluntly with Alice in Wonderland, the Divine Comedy or the Epic of Gilgamesh, for example).

    > 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).

    *nods* Beloved by world-creating GMs the world over, regardless of literary preference and/or whether they'd wish to admit to that. *ducks* :p

    (Y'could add Doc Smith, A.E. Van Vogt & co. on the /SF/ RPG side, too, of course; since on /that/ scale we've left the readily encompassable and catalogable behind and have little choice but to freewheel rather more of the time - even allowing for 2,500+ literary installment series. ;)

    verification word: rolex (hmm...)

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  4. Good post, the only caveat I would add is that given enough time, enough campaigns, a setting will wind up looking like Middle Earth in terms of organization.

    While Middle Earth was never roleplayed by Tolkien, lest people forget he built Middle Earth piece by piece starting with a few notes on a language and a tale before World War I. The process is detailed in the History of Middle Earth series complied by his son Christopher.

    Blackmoor and Greyhawk (the original version) were likewise built up the same way. Starting with a castle and a dungeon the world grew around them piece by piece.

    It seems that the best settings are those that grow in this fashion rather than spring full flower from an author's mind.

    I am still trying to figure out the best way to help people jump start this process without having to go through 30 years of campaigning.

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  5. Good post, the only caveat I would add is that given enough time, enough campaigns, a setting will wind up looking like Middle Earth in terms of organization.

    Absolutely. Any setting, no matter how shallow at the start, if played enough, will develop Middle-earth levels of complexity over time. But that complexity isn't necessary to start a campaign nor do I think it's particularly conducive to a campaign's long-term viability -- just the opposite, in fact.

    It seems that the best settings are those that grow in this fashion rather than spring full flower from an author's mind.
    That's my experience as well.

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  6. "the best way to help people jump start this process without having to go through 30 years of campaigning."

    In my campaign, the thing that has most accelerated the growth of the setting from the undefined region around the dungeon has been Arneson's "wine, women, and song" XP rules. By encouraging players to spend their gold on the special interests that matter to them, this has really driven the development of towns, NPCs, power structures, etc. The reason I think XP-for-spending-GP works so well is that by definition it generates setting elements to fill a need that's arisen through actual play. I also encourage people to define the setting through their PCs' backgrounds, but this has had much less of an impact because it rarely comes up in play.

    I'm with James, though, in that as much as I've enjoyed watching the accumulation of detail I also see it as a problem. Even after less than 100 hours of play, the mass of stuff that there is to know becomes daunting for players to keep track of - or, perhaps more accurately, creates a disparity between those who like to remember all the details and those who'd enjoy a more wide-open canvas. This problem is especially acute for our NY Red Box campaigns, which have an irregular cast of players and frequently need to introduce newbies without letting them get lost in setting details.
    - Tavis

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  7. Great post here.

    I too am among those that tried to make their original campaign worlds "Tolkien-esqe".

    My later worlds evolved a bit more organically from a central location and then growing out based on adventures or a shift in mood or focus. If we wanted something with an eastern feel, we then added a "asian" setting to our world someplace far away on the map and left the parts between it and the other places mostly blank.

    I recently ran into the problem of too much detail again when I tried to run a game in the world that had been building on its own since junior high. This world had become so complex that I found it nearly impossible to run any sort of meta plot without creating a domino effect throughout my understanding of the game world.

    "If Ravania does this, then this will happen in the Merchant Princes, which will them cause problems in the Konigslande which will ripple throughout the world, etc, etc."

    I finally had to hit the reset button and start building a new campaign world. This one started small and very localized in a rustic valley that I detailed. From here, the rest of the world would grow.

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  8. After loving Tolkien's romantic conservatism as a kid, I'm freaked out by social conservatism as an adult and I don't let it anywhere near my fantasy. In my own campaign, the ancient artifacts are potent because the first experiments with magic were rash, naive, and unspeakably dangerous, not because Truth has been Lost to Time.

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  9. JB: "Was just re-reading the Holme's rules again yesterday, and was surprised at how many outright Tolkien references were included in the book (check the monster descriptions). It appears that some people (like Holmes) saw Tolkien as a direct influence/ inspiration to parts of D&D."

    I tend to find more Tolkien the older the D&D product is. In Holmes, the only thing I see is references under Wights & Spectres, and those are the same as in Gygax' original gameplay (see James' post 12/2/09). Are there other examples?

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  10. Good post! I also like starting with a small area these days. I used to spend hours and hours designing worlds. In the end, they hardly got used, and while I like world-building, I'd prefer to make stuff that gets seen in play.

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  11. Interestingly enough, my younger brother is attending a Tolkien birthday party today at the Tolkien Archives attached to Wheaton College outside Chicago.

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  12. Tolkien created a super dense world that lends itself to having limbs pruned and grafted onto different trees, because his work borrows or is analogous to other myths, legends and history. People borrowed from it because of the modular way it was constructed by Tolkien over the decades made it easy to do so.

    I find Tolkien's obsessive world building approach, similar to super detail oriented GMs, or even the truly obsessive and disturbed Henry Darger.

    The works they create become rich sources for other artists, writers, film makers, and DMs, to pull from.

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  13. If you think about it. The Tolkien level of detail is great from an author's POV but not so great from a DM's.

    Over-planning can be the bane of even the best DM. The best layed plans sledom survive encounters with players and that perfectly crafted world can turn into an ever-shrinking box that crushes the DM under his own creativity.

    -Eli

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  14. I don't think there's anything wrong or bad with a GM going into detail onto his world, but I think it's best to use it as creative fodder and not get to hung up on interjecting it into every game session.


    .

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  15. Totally agree there. But it's easy to do if you are not careful.

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  16. My campaign has a little bit of everything out there- from Greyhawk to Middle-Earth, to Darksun with intertwined histories and my own additions/modifications. But many of these have changed over time behind the scenes, and do evolve as the characters [and myself] learn more about the truth of this world. Much of this background has been speculative and turned out to be false. So, even though I have detail, it still evolves. It does not bog me down, because the players learn what I give, and I control the flow of lore as DM. The world is large but they can only explore it a little at a time, which is manageable. Recently I've started a new generation in a small village and slowly have them grow outward from there. Such things are easy if you do not go into too much detail. However, somethings will remain a mystery. Hey, you have to retain something if you incorporate Lovecraftian elements like I do... Drink full my brothers, for life is a fast and elusive nymph...

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  17. Has anybody ever tried the 'Final Fantasy' approach?

    That is to say, in the Final Fantasy series of computer RPG's, each one is set in a world that is not the same as the previous game.

    In D&D, this could play out as every campaign takes place in a different world, realm, or plane and there is no way to get back to the previous one. Sort of Sliders, perhaps, if you will.

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  18. Coincidentally, I was looking through my hardbound copy of The Hobbit this weekend and was struck by Tolkien's maps on the flyleaves. Wondering what was tugging at my mind, it hit me: it was those maps, way back in the early 70s that set me on the road to roleplaying games. I wanted to adventure in Middle Earth, both the grand quest and the lowly local adventure. Much as I came to love Howard and Leiber (and others), my RPG "imprinting" came from those crude maps, with their mysterious runes and terse notes.

    Happy belated eleventy-eighth, Professor. And thanks. :)

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  19. As a professor of Anglo-Saxon literature at Oxford, Tolkien brought to bear considerably more knowledge to his World of Middle Earth than most fledgling GMs and authors are capable of doing. He was top of his field in a prestigious university at the head of his department and a man who profoundly loved and was devoted to his art. It would really be very difficult to compete with him in this. So we shouldn't be surprised or dismayed if our efforts fall a bit short of his, I think. I strive, but with no especially grand expectations. Give me another 40 years and maybe...

    Tolkien's lifelong study of the subject allowed him to gain insights into the ancient modes historical thought that borders mythology. The Lord of the Rings is an amazing fusion of a myriad of myths, with additional extrapolations, reinterpretations, and mythopoetic inventions by Tolkien.

    I think it is not so much that the quantity of details of Tolkien's Middle Earth make for a Great World - but the wonderful insights into the ancient modes of though and myth that Tolkien brought into his World through those details. There is a very fine book on this topic titled Tolkien's Ring

    His ability, in addition, to frame and narrate a wonderful adventure story in the old style of voice and tone was also, imo, a culmination of a lifelong study of mythology and classical literature. He was a master of the art who learned from the masters. I should like to honor him for that, and encourage others who would wish to emulate him to do so by following in his footsteps. Read, read, read, study, study, study, reflect, reflect, reflect. Do that long enough, make it your life's work, have genius, and you may prosper.

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