One of the persistent controversies of the old school community is the extent to which Middle-earth was a significant influence on the creation of Dungeons & Dragons. What's interesting to me is that, when I entered the hobby, this topic never once came up among my friends and I, perhaps because not a one of us had read a word of Tolkien. I'm certain we all saw the animated versions of The Hobbit and The Return of the King (particularly the former, which we watched often on friends' laser disc player -- how's that for ancient technology), but their impact on us was minor. Indeed, I dimly recall someone commenting, after having seen The Hobbit, that "hobbits are just like halflings" or something to that effect.
It's absurd in retrospect and yet it highlights something very important: it wasn't until several years after I'd started playing D&D that I recognized any Tolkien influence whatsoever, because I hadn't read any of his books. I know I read The Lord of the Rings before I read The Hobbit and I think I first read the trilogy in 7th or 8th grade, which would mean somewhere between 1982 and 1984. By that stage, I'd already been involved in the hobby for three or more years and, to me, D&D was just D&D. Whatever elements Gary and Dave had borrowed from Tolkien didn't stand out as any more significant than the stuff they'd borrowed from Howard or Leiber or Vance or any of the other authors I'd read as a result of Appendix N and the reading list in the back of Moldvay's Basic Rules.
There's an interesting parallel in Traveller fandom. What I've noticed is that there are some Traveller players whose vision of the game is strongly influenced by science fiction movies like Star Wars. Now, I've said before that, if I'm truthful, I'm really more of a SF fan than a fantasy one and I read sci-fi much more widely as a kid than I ever did fantasy. Consequently, when I first picked up a copy of Traveller, I immediately recognized in it elements and tropes borrowed from writers like Piper, Anderson, Asimov, Niven, and Pournelle, among others. I didn't then (and don't now) detect the slightest bit of influence on the game from the films of George Lucas, or indeed any science fiction film from the 1970s (I knew people who argued Alien was "a Traveller movie" too and that's just as absurd as suggesting Star Wars was).
Despite this, the feeling persists among some fans that Traveller was heavily influenced by this or that movie, when it should be quite clear to anyone who's actually read the books Marc Miller did that Traveller evokes them rather than anything ever put on movie screens. Seriously, isn't it obvious that the game's series of double adventures was an homage to the Ace double novels published in the 50s and 60s? Or that the Sword Worlds are ripped straight out of Space Viking and the Long Night from Anderson? I could go on at length about this and yet there are still people who persist in the notion that Star Wars was a major influence on the game, even though it only came out a few weeks before Traveller was published.
Here's the thing: Traveller's inspirations are obvious to me, because I'd read them before I started playing the game, whereas a great many of its eventual fans had not. Conversely, I hadn't read Tolkien before I started playing D&D, so, to me, the influence seems not much greater than that of many other fantasy authors. But those who were immersed in the Tolkien boom of the 1970s probably see it quite differently, particularly those who came to the hobby through Tolkien rather than the reverse, like myself.
Make no mistake: I'm still convinced, as a matter of fact, that Gygax wasn't being disingenuous in his repeated assertions that Tolkien had little influence on him and his vision of Dungeons & Dragons, just as I am convinced that Star Wars played no role in the creation of Traveller. But, ultimately, that probably doesn't matter, because a great many gamers, for a variety of reasons, see these influences on these games. They approach them through lenses colored by their knowledge and love of other related things. My feeling that Poul Anderson exerted a great influence on Traveller than George Lucas is every bit as strong as someone else's feeling that J.R.R. Tolkien was a bigger influence on D&D than Fritz Leiber and for the same reason. Fortunately, both games are broad enough to accept a wide range of interpretations, which is probably why, three decades on, we're still playing them and arguing about them.