Tolkien and D&D

Just how influential on D&D was JRR Tolkien?  Believe it or not, this is a bit of a divisive question!  James at Grognardia has argued at length that Tolkien was not as important as the “pulp” fantasy writers and other sources listed in Gygax’s famous Appendix N to the DMG.  Indeed Gygax repeatedly distanced his creation from Tolkien, and did so before and after the Tolkien estate sued TSR.  (Interestingly, the R.E. Howard experts at The Cimmerian argue rather convincingly that Howard is not terribly influential on D&D either, Gygax’s claims notwithstanding!)

Delta’s D&D Hotspot (a very good blog, BTW) has recently argued strenuously in the other direction, claiming that the Chainmail wargame rules fantasy supplement, which D&D grew out of (in part)  show Tolkien to be a prime influence.  Delta doesn’t try to give an exhaustive argument, and one could add many more details (for example Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor and the Judges Guild’s City State of the Invincible Overlord both had a lot of connections to Middle Earth).

I think a distinction should be made between the influences of Gygax and Arneson (which clearly are far wider than just Tolkien) and the influences on the players of the game.  I don’t think I know anyone who plays D&D and has not appreciated Tolkien.  Anyway, Middle Earth is recognizable to many people long before they encounter D&D.  I certainly saw the  Ralph Bakshi Lord of the Rings movie, and probably the Rankin-Bass TV specials, before I was old enough to play D&D, but only began to read Tolkien after playing D&D.  If you were to describe D&D to someone who has never played, Tolkien would almost certainly be the reference point, right?

Published in: on January 29, 2010 at 2:37 am  Comments (15)  
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  1. Certainly when I began RPing Tolkien was the primary insperation. After all there was an adventuring party with a dwarf, elf, ranger, and wizard. Most of the other literature people point to have A hero not many. It always seemed to me that elements form other sources (particullary more rogue type heroes) were added from non tolkien sorces but the basic Good party was pretty much solely Tolkien.

    D&D has always been a group thing and I don’t really know many books that did that prior to tolkien.

  2. There IS a lot of other literature, and some of it does have “parties.” Poul Anderson’s Three hearts & three lions came out a year before LOTR, I think. But yeah, Conan, Elric, Fafherd & Gray Mouser, those are all one hero & a sidekick or just two adventurers. Not sure if that counts as a party. Three/four musketeers? Beowulf and his dozen or so men? Jason & the Argonauts? The Odyssey? Knights of the round table? Roland & the paladins? I think there are plenty of other “parties”. But whatever JRRT didn’t invent, he definitely popularized in the public’s mind, especially young people.

  3. […] a genealogy of the adventuring party Tom’s comment on a previoust post raises a really big issue that I haven’t seen anyone in the blogosphere really discuss […]

  4. The three musketeers were a party but not really D&D like.

    The round table, Roland, Odyssey was a bunch of people who largely went on their own separate adventures or one hero and followers.

    Fafherd and the Gray mouser yeah I guess they qualify as a D&D party.

    I disagree though JRRT did invent the idea of a party delving into dungeons to fight evil. Even if it was not his intent.

  5. I think the Odyssey in particular was more about a single hero and his entourage. The Lankhmar books were about a heroic pair. I agree that many of the Arthurian stories ended up being about individual quests or storylines.

    Rare is the fantasy story that involves a party of adventurers who are all equal in character (obviously their relative power level doesn’t matter, just how much of the story focuses on them) and are primarily human-type. I think this is important because the standard D&D game revolves around human-type player-characters and non-human non-player characters.

    Sure Three Hearts and Three Lions had a party, and one could argue that the swanmay and the dwarf were human-types. Although in that story the Elves and Dwarves were of the Fairy folk and weren’t really part of the Law side where we expect the adventurers to be.

    Tolkien’s Hobbit had a party of largely faceless dwarves (Fili and Kili for example were (almost?) always paired, as were Oin and Gloin and Bifur and Bofur. Effectively these pairs were single characters. Only Balin, Thorin, and Bombur really got to be their own individuals, for the dwarves. Then we had Bilbo and Gandalf, but Gandalf took the place more of an NPC in the group. So it really seems like that would have been a single-player experience from the perspective of Bilbo, or at best players controlling Bilbo, Balin, Thorin, Bombur, Fili/Kili, and the rest as NPCs or drop-in players.

    Tolkien’s LoTR featured a more diverse party, but I’d still argue that Merry and Pippin were effectively the same character. Even when kidnapped they both go together. Might as well be conjoined. But the other characters in the story could easily have been different players: Aragorn, Gimli, Boromir, Frodo + Sam (henchman), Legolas, Merry/Pippin. I still say Gandalf was more of an NPC in this case, but that comes from knowledge of what he is in the rest of the literature. Anyway, this gives us a very standard D&D party.

    Furthermore, the structure of the storyline fits with a “normal” D&D campaign. The DM clearly wanted Bilbo and company to travel through Mirkwood. Why don’t they just go around? Because goblins control the north and the “Necromancer” controls the south. Why do the Fellowship have to go through Moria? Because Saruman rocks the passes over the mountain range and his bird-spies own the lands around it (plus they’d have to travel past his tower if they went around). Classic railroading tactics.

    I’d say Tolkien’s Hobbit and LoTR were less about dungeon delving to fight evil, and more about overland journey to fight evil. The barriers that seem dungeon-like (Goblin caves, Mirkwood, Moria) are really just the metaphysical barriers in the traditional heroes’ journey tale.

    • Have you already looked at the follow-up on this regarding “parties” (
      I suppose the bottom line is that most books feature one main character because of the conventions of storytelling, whereas RPGs have multiple main characters because there are multiple players. I don’t know if we can really lay it all at JRRT’s feet, because after all even he thought there was a hero to the story (Samwise) and the others are just supporting characters to the tale (if not to events).

      • I’m not sure we’re all talking about the same thing.
        But to defend the non-Tolkien camp, I don’t really see the characters in LotR as being equal in any way (spotlight time, development of character, importance to story and mission, etc.). If it’s just the idea of a group working together to fight evil, Tolkien didn’t invent that. I take the claims of the creators of D&D with a grain of salt, but I don’t think you can just dismiss their claims that D&D is based on earlier pulp literature. And I don’t think that Tolkien invented all the hero’s journey stuff which both LotR and the pulps borrow from.

        Also, railroading is not classical D&D, it’s post-classical. The railroad came into fashion with the Dragonlance/Ravenloft bandwagon, or that was my experience — from that period on most DMs (not Tom!) wanted to tell a story rather than play a game.

      • It’s interesting that much of the material Gygax published camr from one on one gamez with a mage pc. The multiplayer party was a later development of tournaments. D&D is a much more logical game if not used for tournament style multiplayer dungeon crazy ls, much of it that seems clunky or tedious is only so because people are playing it the way TSR promoted it to dumb kidsx rather than how he actually played.

        • Yeah, Gygax’s games, based on what I’ve read, involved a lot of solo adventuring because a few of his players (his sons and Rob Kuntz in particular) wanted to play all the time. I’m not sure how reliable Kuntz’s accounts are in general because he always seems very intent on claiming credit as a co-equal of Gygax and Arneson. 0_o
          But Arneson’s games started out with a number of players and seem to have always had a good number. They did not always work together, but it seems like they quickly divided into teams at least rather than a free-for-all.
          But you’re right that a lot of the Greyhawk adventures Gygax published came out of solo adventures. I don’t there has been a lot of analysis of that, despite the billions of electrons that have been spilled discussing RPG history!

          • I might suggest that it hasn’t been looked into, in part, because Gygax never emphasized this fact/facet in publication, and later TSR and most players simply assumed party play was the norm.

            I do think it’s perfectly possible to play a ‘serious’ party game in D&D that is free of silliness like alignment and railroad plots, but it depends on having a flexible DM and players who can and will roleplay rather than video game it. This is a rather small proportion, IMO, and most of them have abando ed Dungeons & Dragons.

            One might also look at Elric! For the BRP system, which has no position on party or solo play and displays a general disinterest in mechanical bapance (Melniboneans are more ‘unbalanced’ than Rolemaster Elves).

  6. Excuse my posting this so long after the fact, it only came up on a search today. Below is my opinion only as D&D player for a little more than a decade (early 80s to early/mid 90s) and heavy reader of the same fantasy authors in these discussions.

    In all discussions of “Did Gygax plagiarize Tolkien?”, there is one series of books not mentioned as an influence yet Gygax mentions it himself, and the books were popular around the time D&D came out: Michael Moorcock’s books. This is not just about “Elric”, but other characters and series such as “Corum” and “Hawkmoon” and even Jerry Cornelius.

    All of Moorcock’s “Eternal Champion” stories had an obvious theme of morality, of individualism versus group, and had a heavy influence on D&D’s concept of “alignments”. It’s a concept and theme that few authors wrote of as often and in as much detail as Moorcock.

    Few D&D monsters were borrowed from Moorcock (many came from Tolkien’s same sources of myths), but many of Moorcock’s themes were employed. I’d wager that Moorcock would have more to gripe about than Tolkien’s family ever would.

    Read the fourth paragraph on this page. I still remember that Phil Foglio “What’s New?” comic nearly 30 years on:

    • Thanks for commenting, better late than never.
      I’m surprised you don’t see more credit to Moorcock for Law vs Chaos, even if he stole the general idea from Poul Anderson (see Three hearts & three lions for the most explicit statement of the conflict).

  7. Gygax based his elves primarily on those of Poul Anderson (The Broken Sword), and the Elric series, itself heavily influenced by Poul Anderson’s. The Dwarves are very much Scandinavian, and also like those of Poul Anderson.
    Tolkien is similar because these authors all make free use of Norse ane Celtic mythology, resemblance is otherwise coincidental. Anyone who knows Tolkien elves knows that the short, spell throwing armored fae of D&D really don’t made match up, but Anderson’s elves and the Melniboneans (specifically, Emperor Elric [“elf king”]).
    D&D has been Tolkienized Nd the elves turned to goody two shoes by later writers who had only read Tolkien and crappy derivatives. The original elves were Chaotic, but by no means ‘good’ in Mystara, they were largely indifferent to men.
    Now Elric Is partly influenced by Tolkien, but it’s not the strongest. Elric is more Bizarro Conan than Elrond.

    • I think the Tolkienization was there from the get-go, maybe Arneson’s influence more than EGG. Look at the monsters in Chainmail & the original LBBs. I mean the Tolkien estate intervened about “ents” “hobbits” etc. being explicitly mentioned. Gygax may not have been a big Tolkien fan but the Tolkien influence was there from the get go. Did it become more pronounced over time though? Yes, certainly. And you are correct to point to all bad Tolkien ripoffs (among which I’d count the Dragonlance books) as being bigger influences than the pulps and the Swordsmen and Sorcerers’ Guild of America writers that EGG loved.

      • Dragonlance is not only an excellent example of a shoddy Tolkien knockoff, it is also a major step forward – as supplements and modules – toward railroad plots and crazy munchkin races like minotaurs and Irda. Not that powerful PC races are an inherent problem, but given the buffing of classes and races and the aforementioned railroad modules with unavoidable combat confrontations, having such races encourages players to choose these Roided Races because combat prowess is the only way not to die.

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