“D&D is Lord of the Rings: the Game”

Every once in awhile, you get someone who comes along and insists that despite all of the evidence to the contrary, Dungeons & Dragons is nothing more than Lord of the Rings: the Game–everything that is not taken from Tolkien is just window dressing that Gygax added because he was sued by Tolkien’s publisher to distract from the fact that D&D is just Lord of the Rings.

To these people, challenging this notion that Tolkien is the be-all, end-all of Dungeons & Dragons and “the basis of all fantasy” is the same as hating the man and denigrating his works.

It’s so very tiresome…

But what if D&D were “just” Lord of the Rings? How much of the window dressing would you have to strip away?

Well, we’ll start with the PCs:

Hobbits and Dwarves are in, naturally. I think we can keep them without any real changes.

Fighters? Yes! Fighters are very much a hallmark of Lord of the Rings, and you don’t see them in very many other fantasy works.

We’re off to a great start!

Now, Wizards and Magic Users… are out, because Wizards are actually a race and there are only like five of them, and they don’t really cast spells from the spell list. So, uh… NPC Wizards only.

Elves: this should be easy! I mean, we’ll have to give them all 6-12″ in extra height, but that’s no problem! But they’re all fighters except for the NPC elven kings and queens who have access to very subtle magics.

Thieves: these guys are pretty universal, but I don’t recall a lot of traps or locks that needed dealing with in Lord of the Rings.

Clerics are right out because there was no organized religion in Middle Earth since the second age, and there aren’t that many undead to turn, and since nobody has magic except for the Maiar and the eldest of the Elves, no humans, dwarves, or hobbits could be clerics. Maybe give 1st level cleric spells to NPC elven kings? Oof, this is starting to get not very D&D-like!

You’d probably have to roll Ranger’s woodcraft abilities into some kind of non-magic proficiencies, and without religion, no Paladins, either…

Um… let’s go to monsters! Maybe we’ll do better there!

  • Goblins – check
  • Orcs – check
  • Nazgul – check
  • Wights – check
  • Balrogs -check
  • Ents – Check
  • Wolves/Wargs – check
  • Giant Spiders – check
  • Trolls – well, they’re radically different from D&D trolls, but we’ll call this check
  • Dragons – no check…? There’s only one dragon left in the Third Age and if you’re playing a “Serious” Lord of the Rings game, he’ll probably have plot armor. You might find more if you play in a First or Second Age game, but that’s not “Lord of the Rings” is it?

Okay, you’ve got a decent basic monster list, but you’ll probably have to leave out the overwhelming majority of monsters D&D is best known for if you’re going to go with “D&D is just Lord of the Rings.”

More Thomas Burnett Swann – Day of the Minotaur

day of the minotaur

Clockwise from Center: Eunostos the Minotaur, some random Panisci, probably Amber the Bee Queen, Thea the half-beast Cretan princess, a blue monkey, and either Chiron or Moschus.

I recently snatched up a stray Swann paperback at the library’s overstock outlet store / art cafe and got around to reading it this week.

I’ve ranted at length about how much I enjoy Swann, particularly Cry Silver Bells, another of his minotaur stories.

Day of the Minotaur is another cozy fantasy romance set on Crete; the island faces Achaean invasion, leading to the half-beast children of the king being forced into exile in the wilds of the island’s interior. All of Swann’s hallmarks are there, though some of the characters come across as a little thin [Cry Silver Bells, a prequel to Day of the Minotaur, fleshes out characters like Zoe and Moschus more, so reading this after having read CSB everyone came off a little strange].

But we’re given our share of monster boys and monster girls, touching romance and bromance, and the tragedy of the ever-retreating magic from the world.

One thing I’ve noticed about a lot Swann’s books is that Ace’s packaging for them are, well, odd and sometimes promise things that aren’t exactly there or might disappoint someone unfamiliar with the sort of stories Swann actually writes.

The tagline “They fought at Time’s dawn for the world of today”? I… I don’t even know what that means, but it takes very loosey-goosey interpretation to arrive at anything close to that from the story therein.

Another thing is the forced Tolkien comparison on the back of the book.

It’s interesting that for how hard Ace pushed Swann as “like Tolkien”, not only are his books very un-Tolkienian in most known senses, but he apparently had not read much Tolkien. In fact, in the one interview published, Swann claims to have only ever read The Hobbit.

Where they are similar, however, is the whimsical portrayal of the pastoral; Tolkien’s Shire and Swann’s pagan realms of fae share a magic that is made more precious by their inevitable decline and disappearance in the face of modernity.

Of course, no one thinks of that as being “Tolkienian” these days. Tolkienian means big sprawling worlds, huge battles, wars against darklords, etc. None of which you’ll find in Swann–a common complaint against him–as he wrote cozy pastoral romances

With the everpresent question of “just how influential was Tolkien really” on fantasy, it’s worth noting that it was being referred to as Tolkienian (or rather ‘like Tolkien/in the vein of Tolkien’) at a time before what was understood to be “Tolkienian” had taken shape. Even before “Tolkienian” fantasy took hold, Tolkien was becoming a marketing buzz-word in the 60s paperback world. Similarly Zebra slapped Tolkien’s name on Adrian Cole’s Sword & Planet stories in the early 70s. While Tolkien’s writing influence may not have been all over SFF in the 60s and early 70s, his name had huge market weight in the wake of the illicit LOTR paperbacks.

The fantasy of Swann is more like that of Dunsany, though this is incidental in that they were both drawing from a common mythical well (Swann’s writing and narrative styles are not particularly Dunsanian, though the theme of magic’s retreat is found in much of both writers’ works).

Finally, I’ll add that for those of our friends who have expressed that while they like stuff like Monster Musume in theory, they’re not actually into lewd stuff and bad oppai jokes: y’all need to be reading Swann. He’s got you covered in the monster girl department. Harpies, Sphinxes, Dryads, Tritons, goat-girls, bear-girls, bee-girls, dolphin-girls….

Also, knowing that A.A. Milne is one of Swann’s favorite authors and influences makes the snacky bear-girl in this that much more pureTM.


Spending the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit Jotting Down More Notes on Yesterday’s Tolkien Thing

Okay, there have been lots of conversations going on that are conflating certain things and certain arguments as being one and the same, and this leads to a lot of goal-post moving, so I’m going to try to untangle stuff here.

  1. Dungeons & Dragons was not “Tolkien + a few other things”
  2. Dungeons & Dragons was “Lots of things, including some Tolkien”
  3. Elves in the Hobbit are substantially different from Elves in Lord of the Rings and later Tolkien Legendarium; they are not “Tolkienesque” in the way that the term is generally understood.
  4. “Dungeons & Dragons is a Tolkien/Middle Earth adventure game” is a false statement.
  5. Chainmail, however, does include significant elements from the Hobbit; saying that the fantasy portion of Chainmail is Tolkien-the Game, is not entirely ridiculous.
  6. The Hobbit was far more influential on Chainmail and Dungeons & Dragons than the Lord of the Rings proper.*
  7. Elves in Chainmail are not explicitly “Tolkien elves”; they bear little resemblance to Lord of the Rings elves, though they do resemble elves from the Hobbit or the Rankin & Bass cartoon.
    1. Do people consider the Rankin and Bass elves “Tolkienesque”?
    2. Chainmail elves are mechanically identical to Fairies and share an entry.
    3. Chainmail elves can turn invisible at will;
  8. Orcs in Chainmail ARE explicitly “Tolkien Orcs”; their tribes are described in terms of “Hand Orcs”, “Mordor Orcs”, etc.
  9. Elves as they appear in D&D are substantially different from Elves as they are depicted in either the Lord of the Rings or the Silmarillion. Though a case can be made that they bear similarities to the wood elves from The Hobbit, they bear a much stronger resemblance to humanoid fey races from Poul Anderson.
  10. PC Races in D&D do owe some to Tolkien, but only Halflings are explicitly Tolkienian
  11. Tolkien did not have a literary monopoly on stout and hardy dwarves who live in the mountains, mine for treasure, or craft fantastic weapons; it does not pass a reasonable-doubt check, but it’s not far-fetched to say they were, if they did not become, Tolkien dwarves.
  12. Shifts in D&D towards more Tolkienian/Tolkienesque/Tolkiengrotesque races and trappings are the result of Tolkien becoming the “Goto” name in fantasy from the late 70s on as Tolkien Clones and Branded Gaming Fiction began to dominate the market and public conscious and therefore the minds of the people playing and later the people developing the game; this was not by design.

Note that all of the above is completely separate from the original discussion that:

  1. I hypothesize that The Hobbit had little/no impact on the 1st and 2nd waves of 20th Century Fantasy, though I remain open to and will look for evidence to the contrary.
  2. The Lord of the Rings’ influence on fantasy in the 70s and beyond is undeniable; its influence on fantasy prior to the mid-60s highly suspect
  3. Questioning Tolkien’s influence on literature from periods immediately contemporary with him and the intervening years between the Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings or the latter’s eventual paperback release =/= dismissing Tolkien’s work or his subsequent influence or denigrating it ala Michael Moorcock.

Lastly, if I’d remembered that this was the 80th Anniversary of the Hobbit, I probably would’ve avoided the topic entirely.

*:This one definitely needs citation, and I am looking for it, but it came from an interview with Gary where he pretty much comes out and says something along these lines.

A Brief Note on Tolkien’s Influence on Fantasy

Inspired by J. Manfred Weichsel’s remark describing Fritz Leiber’s “Swords and Deviltry” as “a mix of Dunsany, Tolkien, and Piers Anthony.”

Tolkien is often heralded as the lord and father of Fantasy, but consider the following:

The Sword & Sorcery genre predates the Lord of the Rings by decades.

All of the classic first wave Sword & Sorcery had been written and was already old news when Lord of the Rings came out. Lord of the Rings was published at the very tail end of the Pulp Era, and would’ve likely had very little immediate influence on those writers.

Robert E Howard’s, C.L. Moore’s, and many of Fritz Leiber’s Sword and Sorcery stories predate the Lord of the Rings. Even relative late-comer and Edgar Rice Burroughs fan-boy Philip Jose Farmer had already won a Hugo Award a year before the Lord of the Rings was published.

It would be interesting to see how much, if any, influence the Hobbit had; compared to much of the fantasy contemporary with it, this debut is relatively straight-forward: a guy goes on a long walk with strangers who press-gang him and gets some treasure from a dragon. The Ring is just a plot device, and the encounter with Gollum part in a series of episodic encounters on the way to said dragon. Given the corpus of fantasy fiction upon which the 1920s and 1930s Sword & Sorcery genre was building, it’s hard to imagine The Hobbit making a significant splash or being regarded as any kind of “serious seminal work” by the writers hard at work crafting the foundations of the modern fantasy genre.

I really don’t think there is a smoking gun; you probably are not going to find any of the important and influential fantasy writers from the pulp-era saying in the 1930s or 1940s “Man, that Tolkien guy is gonna change the way people read and write Fantasy forever!” If there is, though, I’d love to see it!

Guest Post: Matthew D. Ryan

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 @MatthewDRyan1.

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.

V – Varg Vikernes

Fantasy has always had big impact on metal, and metal has had a big impact on fantasy. But so rarely have the two been joined so integrally as by Varg Vikernes. Sure Summoning, which is a great band, may put out album after album of (often obscurely) Tolkien themed black metal, but at the early forefront of the movement was Varg. While many of the other black metal bands had ‘cool’ ‘evil-sounding’ names in English, Burzum stood out. Meaning ‘Darkness’ in the Black Tongue of Mordor, Burzum was the brainchild of its sole member, ‘Count Grishnakh’, whose name was also an obscure lord of the rings reference. The project sprung out of an earlier effort, Uruk-hai, but beyond and apart from singing songs about elves and hobbits, as most metal bands are wont to do, Burzum explored the black and white morality presented in Tolkien’s world as it could be applied to the real world, viewing it through the lens of his own unique brand of Norse pagan nationalism.

Tolkien’s Middle Earth is a setting heavily influenced by old English and Scandinavian culture and mythology. However because he was a Christian writer essentially writing morality tales for a Christian audience, his cultures tended to be rather flat morally, which could be seen as a bowdlerization of the peoples from whom they were derived. His Orcs were uniformly evil, and his Men of the East were all barbarous, vile and amoral; a traditional view of less civilized pre-Christianized warrior societies and cultures.

For Varg, darkness represented the adventure to be had in the world, and when the light had purged that darkness, society would become decadent for that lack of adventure. Recall for a moment, how little of any import or interest happens in the 4th age; though it may be Middle Earth’s ‘happily ever after’, there is something sad about Sam all alone in his final days, looking to the west. In a more real-world sense, Varg explores the ideas of an ancient world that has been purged and homogenized by Christianity. The old ways and ancient culture is inevitably lost. It’s a recurring theme in fantasy, the departure of magic from the world. From the exodus of Dunsany’s Magician in the Charwoman’s Shadow to the last desperate attempt to stop the march of man’s progress by the Woodsy Lord in Thief, fantasy is filled with stories of a world diminished by the absence of these things. Man creates light to push back the darkness, because man fears the dark. But that is where the magic is.

Over his long career, he has recorded several albums that run quite the range of genre and style, never easy to peg down. His stuff gets lumped in with Black Metal because of the time in which Burzum was recording and individuals associated with him, though he has distanced himself from the movement and scene which he was never actively a part of.

This track from the album Hvis Lyset Tar Oss (If the Light Takes Us) is quintessential black metal, provided you like keyboards in your black metal:

This track from Filosofem is more along the lines of (oldschool) industrial metal:

This track from Daudi Baldrs (The Death of Baldr), which was recorded while in prison (for the slaying of Øystein Aarseth, who had concocted an elaborate plan to murder Vikernes, in self-defense), is something else entirely.

If I ever get around to playing Daggerfall again, I fully intend to go through with my plan to swap out the original sound files for the Daudi Baldrs album.  As a fellow fan of the Elder Scrolls, I think he might be able to appreciate that.

After being released from prison, he put out a pair of excellent metally albums, but has been on a much more experimental bent the last few years with Umskiptar (neo-folk with some heavier elements) and Sol Austan, Mani Vestan, which admittedly reminds me a lot of the stuff I was doing with Medicide before I had my mid-life crisis.

There are plenty of reasons you can find to not like Varg or to discount his body of work, but I won’t go into them here. You can do your homework and come to your own conclusions. As for me, I’ve found that despite any disagreement, qualms or whatnot, I’ve found his output incredibly enjoyable and excellent inspirational material for fantasy settings. Oh, yeah, and have I mentioned he’s working on an RPG? MYFAROG.org. You can find a lot of his thoughts on music, gaming and other things at Burzum.org.   He regularly blogs about religion and survivalism over at Thulean Perspective over on the blog-list there.




I’ve been fairly forgiving of the Peter Jackson LotR movies, and they’re nice shiny fantasy eye candy, even if they lack in substance.  But seriously?  Introducing a random female elf character in the Hobbit screams awful bad idea.

All of the parts with Liv Tyler’s fish-faced Arwen were the most tedious and groan inducing moments in the original trilogy.  But at least her character was semi-canonical (it’s been ages since I read the books, but I vaguely remember at the end of RotK, some elf lady kind of showed up out of nowhere and Aragorn is all “By the way, she’s with me, read the appendix if you care.”)

Also, I find it amusing the spin they put on her being a “lower” elf .  To really get what that means, you kind of need to be familiar with a lot of First Age stuff and inter-elven racism.  Basically, most of the elves in Middle Earth are “Dark Elves”.  There is a huge flowchart out there on a site somewhere or another that gives all of the details, but basically, there are 2 kinds of elves.  The light elves, who went to Valinor, and the dark elves who didn’t.  Of the Dark elves, there were the Grey Elves who started off toward Valinor but for some reason or other didn’t make it, and then there were the really Dark Elves who said “Walk across two continents AND sail over an ocean? No thanks!” (these should not be confused with the one guy who is specifically referred to as a “dark elf”).

So, um… she’s a “low” elf kind of the way that tribes of Israel who didn’t cross the River Jordan to settle are “low” Jews. It’s a bad explanation that doesn’t really give the appropriate context to idea they’re trying to convey.