Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Holmes's Appendix N

Dr. Holmes, of course, didn't have an actual Appendix N, but he did digress briefly in his Fantasy Role Playing Games to give the reader his thoughts on the literary inspirations of both D&D in general and his own campaigns. This digression, I think, ought to viewed side by side with the even briefer comments made on the subject in the Blue Book, where he lists Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, Fox, and Greco-Roman mythology as the game's main inspirations.
Literary inspiration for the worlds of fantasy role playing games comes from many sources. The fantasy worlds of Dungeons & Dragons and Chivalry & Sorcery are based on myth and fairy tale. The field of literature is dominated by the work of one man in this century: J.R.R. Tolkien. Without the popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, fantasy role playing would not have found the wide public it now enjoys. Despite this, most fantasy games are closer to the wild, bloodthirsty worlds of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, and L. Sprague de Camp. The magic system of Dungeons & Dragons is partly derived from the books of Jack Vance. De Camp's The Compleat Enchanter discusses magic as a separate kind of reality with its own rules of logic. As a Dungeon Master, I have drawn extensively from the works of A. Merritt, Andre Norton, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H. Rider Haggard.
As he so often does, I think Holmes strikes the right balance here, pointing out that, while D&D really has more in common with swords-and-sorcery literature in the vein of Howard and Leiber, it was the wide popularity of Tolkien's works that laid the groundwork for the fantasy roleplaying fad in the late 70s and early 80s. I think this squares well with Gygax's contention from 1974 on that the direct influence of Tolkien on D&D was superficial, while its influence on many gamers was significant.


  1. Now that I have read quite a bit of Leiber, I'm amazed that people still claim that Tolkien had a larger influence on D&D. Sure there are Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings, but the activities which these characters are doing have far more in common with the Northerner and his city-dwelling companion than they do with the activities of the Fellowship.

    Of course, I list the Hobbit as one of my primary influences, and one can certainly see Thorin and Company as a pretty standard D&D group, but I think this is largely the book's affect on me rather than its effect on D&D.

    I could be mistaken.

  2. The early issues of The Dragon are disproportionately devoted to articles about Tolkien, letters from readers complaining that this or that rule in D&D is at odds with Tolkien, and exasperated designers maintaining that D&D is not about Tolkien, no doubt with a lawyer shaking his head from across the typewriter.

    As you pointed out, Tolkien may not have been one of Gygax's foundational influences, but he certainly piled on a thick Tolkienesque veneer in OD&D, and the *hobby* beyond wargaming circles was very much about Tolkien.

  3. I've come to admire Dr. Holmes for his taste in games (D&D) and authors (ERB). What would an ERB inspired game written by JEH have been like?

  4. I like the nod given to The Compleat Enchanter. Really enjoying reading Vance and DeCamp and Pratt.

  5. I'd agree that Tolkien's influence is more in the minds of the players. A friend once commented, upon first reading THE HOBBIT, "It reads like a sourcebook!" I can see that for the races, although there's a lot of Poul Anderson and others in there. But the players (and later editions) of D&D seemed to be skewed toward the Tolkienesque version of elves and dwarves. Certainly Tolkien cast a long, heavy shadow over Silver Age D&D with the growing interest in (and emphasis on) high fantasy both on bookshelves and in gaming resources.

    Whatever Gygax's (and Arneson's) original vision of D&D, by the mid-1980s, Tolkienesque high fantasy was in and the sword-&-sorcery genre wasn't as in vogue.