19 August 2010

I get it, you like Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien (right) apparently cackling?
It can hardly be said that worship of Tolkien is primarily a roleplayer's affliction, at least. The movie versions of the tomes were enormously popular amongst the general public, and it was unusual for a while to hear people who'd never rolled a polyhedral die in their lives talk about dwarves and elves and goblins and stuff. And hey, it was a really good movie. Nobody denies that.

But there are so many other influences that could have been taken by fledgling roleplayers, that it's simply a shame. There are the sword and planet novels of the likes of J. Vance, the pulp fantasy worlds of R. E. Howard, the dark cosmic horror of Lovecraft, to name but three. All three have more life, more energy, and more interesting features than Tolkien, but Tolkien's features are still by far the most popular.

Elves that are beautiful and near-immortal, dwarves that are gruff craftsmen, hobbits with hairy feet and skill with slings, evil and enraged orcs, small and cunning goblins- it's almost as if D&D, and by extension, the entire world of fantasy is just another Tolkien rip-off.

Before I get further, I'd like to point out that the real reason it's as annoying as it is, is that every game from the beginning has been influenced /heavily/ by D&D. It's no joke. Every game has the exact same player-to-DM relationship, and in some cases the exact same mechanics. But don't take my word for it. Take the word of the inestimable and occasionally divisive Ron Edwards, via his essay, "Fantasy Heartbreakers." It's a good read, and covers what would take me at least a couple more paragraphs. It ties in, I promise.

The real point that I guess I'm trying to make is that Tolkien is ok. He's alright, but his version of fantasy is overplayed. If I see another elf/dwarf/halfling player race combination, I'll probably go insane. It's gotten so bad that people who do "homage" his works are regarded as "generic fantasy." Seriously, you knew that. Every game that has pretty-boy elves, bearded ass-kicking dwarves, green-skinned brutish orcs, and tiny pastoral hobbits is considered stock fantasy now. And why? There are so many more races to choose from, so many more ideas that have yet to be mined. For example, and this is off the top of my head, you can take the "stout and trustworthy" aspect of dwarves and make a race of people made literally of stone, a la the Herculoids. You could go the other way with Elves and turn them into literal immortals, detached watchers like those one guys whose name escapes me in the Marvel Comics. The Sentinels, I want to say, but I think that's the name of those gigantic purple (?) robots.

But the point is the same, really. Don't copy Tolkien any more. We get it. You like the Lord of the Rings for some reason. So have the other fifty guys before you. Quit it.

Not pictured: Generic fantasy
I want to take a moment and point out an excellent fantasy game that was in no way Tolkienesque- "The Mark of Kri", a Playstation 2 game. The entire game was based around Polynesian myth, if I remember correctly, and was so much more interesting and vibrant than another pale shade of Tolkien that it makes me literally angry that nobody else bothered to get the memo. Is it really that hard not to blatantly copy the name of the biggest and most famous fantasy author in the english-speaking world?

Am I really the only person who would rather look at the Mark of Kri than another Lord of the Rings-styled game?


  1. And so I leave a summary: Young man irritated by the preponderance of fantasy works being regurgitated Tolkien. News at 11 ;)

  2. I can assure you that you are not alone on this subject. The authors you've mentioned, as I'm sure you have noticed, are all big favorites of players of the original fantasy rpg. (OSR, but you didn't hear that from me.) I've read a bit of Jack Vance and have many of his books left to read. Michael Moorcock is another writer whose books I own and have yet to read. We could posts the names of writers, nearly, all day that can substitute for Tolkien’s influence on fantasy gaming.

  3. With RPGs as a shared experience I think there's something to be said for sticking with the stereotypes at times. I know my players at times want to get on with the hack and slash and don't have time for hours of setting based description. Having said that, moving away from the cliches is so much more enjoyable when you can manage it....

  4. @Chris: That's exactly why it's so bizarre. I hear about people being inspired by the coolest things, but mainstream fantasy cleaves so closely to Tolkien's works. Also, you should really read Moorcock's Elric series, and the Corum series, if you can get your hands on it. Try and read it in order of publication, but you probably knew that. Those gigantic omnibuses try and put the works in chronological order, often resulting in a muddled, weak storyline. It'd be like watching the prequel Star Wars movies before the original three.

    @ Tom: I agree that it's a lot easier to stick with the stereotypes, but it's more satisfying not to, if you catch my meaning. If you can't summarize your setting in one or two sentences, then you've gone too far.

    Of course, with pure hack and slash games, it's probably not worth it when your players won't care if they're dwarven pirates slaying the imperial navy or half-ogre mercenaries on a starship marauding across galaxies.

  5. I totally agree - which is why I quickly switched from original D&D to Empire of the Petal Throne back in about 1976! Because it draws on myths and cultures that aren't familiar to us in the West, EPT takes a lot of getting used to - but it has certainly been worth it, and in decades of roleplaying it remains the most rewarding setting in terms of memorable adventures and characters.

    I reckon Pixar's John Carter movie might just possibly unlock some interest in the planet-based fantasy of the old pulps (carried on by the likes of Vance) which I'm pretty sure Tolkien would never have read.

  6. Btw those "immortal, detached watchers" in Marvel Comics... they're the Watchers :)