Matthew D. Ryan, author of the Ashes of Ruin Series: Drasmyr, The Children of Lubrochius, and The Sceptre of Morgulan (out now!), drops by to talk Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons. He can normally be found blogging at matthewdryan.com or on Twitter @.
I’ve been involved in the fantasy genre for most of my life. One of the first book series I ever read was The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. That stands as a kind of monolith in the fantasy genre. It was probably the first series of books in the modern age that really put fantasy on the map as a serious genre. Prior to that what you had was mostly folk tales and epic poems like Beowulf and such. Good stuff, but The Lord of the Rings was a game-changer. Its influence was felt by virtually everything that followed it; this includes the entire fantasy gaming industry. I mean, where would Dungeons and Dragons, Warhammer, or what-have-you be without the blueprint of the classic fantasy quest so eloquently conveyed by Frodo’s journey into Mordor?
Nowadays, there is so much other fantasy on the market the influence of LOTR is fading (although it did spawn six highly successful movies). Harry Potter, I think, is taking over the reins. In my youth, though, the pinnacle of fantasy was LOTR. We even had to read The Fellowship of the Ring in high school English class. It was regarded as serious literature.
Anyway, LOTR was probably one of the strongest influences on my entire fantasy career. It affected my writing, my gaming, everything. I read the entire series at least a half dozen times in my teenage years. As far as my writing is concerned, I loved the eloquent way Tolkien used language—a kind of modern/old English fusion that no one else has ever come close to mastering like him. I loved the names of his characters, creatures, and nations. Laketown, Dale, Smaug … they all fit together in a symphony of sound. I appreciate the skill it takes to achieve that fluidity. There were other influences of course: Dragonlance, Pern, and more. But the lion’s share belongs to LOTR.
As a gamer, the influence was felt in every gaming session. What is a gaming career but a series of adventures not unlike the quest to destroy the Ring? I DM’ed a lot. Created my own worlds and campaign settings, always referring back to the gold standard itself: Middle-Earth. I named my own creatures and lands trying to capture the same flavor of language Tolkien used. Sometimes I did that well; other times, not so much. All of that—the designing of worlds and such—overlaps with fantasy fiction writing. The two go hand-in-hand.
One thing I’ve learned to appreciate from my gaming days was that the best adventures had more than hack and slash. I learned to appreciate the riddle. Something to challenge the intellect of the players in a way that dice-rolling simply won’t. Not just the mysterious cryptic rhymes like those found in The Hobbit but also more general problems that required out-of-the-box thinking by the players. A few years back, I DM’ed a thief campaign. Thief characters usually have very specialized skills which sometimes don’t translate well into the typical fantasy quest (even though Bilbo Baggins was hired as a burglar). In my experience, thieves are probably the weakest character class in AD&D 1st and 2nd editions; I don’t know how they match up in later editions; my player group never moved beyond 2nd. In 2nd, they don’t fight well; they don’t have magic; and the bulk of their skills are very situation dependent. So, I ran an adventure with low level thieves just starting out and joining their first Thieves Guild. It stretched both my skills as a DM and the skills of my players; but it was great fun. It invited a whole new host of problem-solving skills.
Another facet of writing I’ve come to enjoy and implement is the twist. This is found in most genre writing, not just fantasy. It relates to the riddle above, but is meant more to shock and surprise the reader/gamer rather than challenge. The best ones are those you don’t see coming. I’ve used them in games and in writing both. Again, influences in this regard are probably too numerous to name.
So, we have the quest, the riddle, and the twist; those are probably the three facets of my writing that have been shaped the most by the many other writers (like Tolkien) I have read and my many years of gaming both as a player and as a DM. They are critical elements of both the game and the book. They form the skeleton of any basic fantasy adventure. And when used properly, they can bring about untold hours of fun.