Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Primacy of Tolkien

I disagree with some of my most respected colleagues on the relative importance of Tolkien to the game of D&D. Frankly, I didn't feel this way until I got copies of Chainmail and OD&D in the last year, and now it seems unavoidable. I grew up reading Gygax's deflections on the issue, but the truth is that he's very much an "untrustworthy narrator" on the issue, since the first and most dangerous legal challenge to D&D came early on from the Tolkien estate.

Consider the following article on Gygax's early play with fantasy miniature rules. Note how the entire context is inspired by, and driven in terms of, representing figures mentioned in Lord of the Rings:
http://grognardia.blogspot.com/2009/12/1972-gygax-article.html

(There are places where Gygax considers some alternative statistics to be better than Tolkien's, but nontheless, the idea for what character to begin playing with in the first place comes directly from LOTR.)

More keenly, consider the following list of figures presented in the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement. Note first that it begins with hobbits (!). Secondly, it seems like a pretty clear line can be drawn from the LOTR books directly to this ordered list:
Halflings, sprites (& pixies), dwarves (& gnomes), goblins (& kobolds), elves (& faeries), orcs, heroes (& anti-heroes), super-heroes, wizards, lycanthropes (shape-changers), trolls (& ogres), giants, treants, dragons, rocs (& wyverns & griffons), elementals (& djinn & efreet), basilisk (cockatrice), chimerea, giants spiders and insects, giant wolves, wights (& ghouls).

(Question: Of these 21 distinct creature type categories, how many are not found in the works of Tolkien? Any?)

Of course, these basic types are generally the same types found in the two-page listing of monsters in OD&D. I would agree that starting with Sup-I Greyhawk, the monster and spell lists are being created uniquely for the D&D game, but not before then. It's a bit silly for Gygax to argue that "some bits and pieces from Tolkien were thrown in to entice certain readers", when the fact is that all of the monsters and character-types of Chainmail and core OD&D come directly from Tolkien, nearly in the same order of appearance as in the LOTR books. Tolkien is the first fantasy author mentioned in Chainmail fantasy, and Gygax's earliest writings show that the whole game was played in that context.

Hey, that's not a bad thing! Tolkien is great, strong foundation to build from. I can see the Tolkien-to-D&D relationship as being analogous to that of Games Workshop-to-Blizzard corporation. Our art is strongest when there's lots of borrowing going on. Fie on silly copyright regimes that restrict and traumatize even our greatest creators to such a degree.

8 comments:

  1. I agree - I think the lawsuit from Tolkien had a lot to do with claims that Tolkien had little to do with inspiring Chainmail / D&D.

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  2. I also think the lawsuit was a silly idea. Don't they have any idea how many people read Tolkien because of D&D (as opposed to the other way around)?

    Me, for one. I mean, my brother had the books, but I didn't read them until I had started playing D&D (and realized I was missing out).

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  3. Well, let's not fool ourselves, the claims/denials about the amount of influence by Tolkien's works on D&D were driven by money. Saul Zaentz, who owns the rights to market, ince sued John Fogerty for defimation because Fogerty wrote a song called 'Zanz can't dance.' He's been wringing money for the Tolkien brand ever since.
    Didn't TSR produce at least one unlicensed 'Battle of the Five Armies' games?

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  4. > Of these 21 distinct creature type categories, how many are not found in the works of Tolkien? Any?)

    I'm not that familiar with Tolkien but I don't remember any of these being in his big 4 books

    sprites pixies, gnomes, kobolds, faeries, lycanthropes specifically werewolfs there was bear change guy, rocs wyverns griffons, elementals djinn efreet, basilisk cockatrice, chimerea, ghouls

    Also, AFAIK these did not originate with Tolkien

    Dwarves goblins elves wizards, shape-changers, trolls ogres, giants, dragons, giants spiders and insects, giant wolves,

    The only uniquely Tolkien creatures are Hobbits and Treants, eh?

    Finally D&D is more than a list of creatures. Where's the Crusader Knight Cleric or Vancian Magic in Tolkein?

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  5. "sprites pixies, gnomes, kobolds..."

    In Chainmail, Gnomes are just a parenthetical variation on the Dwarf category. Likewise for kobolds, faeries, etc., etc. Looks like you've only identified one category that's not in Tolkien.

    "Finally D&D is more than a list of creatures. Where's the Crusader Knight Cleric or Vancian Magic in Tolkein?"

    Likewise neither of those things are in Chainmail. You've actually bolstered the aegument that the game starts with Tolkien at the root and evolves from there.

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  6. I missed that you consider D&D starting with Chainmail. An opinion I don not share.

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  7. "Halflings, sprites (& pixies), dwarves (& gnomes), goblins (& kobolds), elves (& faeries), orcs, heroes (& anti-heroes), super-heroes, wizards, lycanthropes (shape-changers), trolls (& ogres), giants, treants, dragons, rocs (& wyverns & griffons), elementals (& djinn & efreet), basilisk (cockatrice), chimerea, giants spiders and insects, giant wolves, wights (& ghouls).

    (Question: Of these 21 distinct creature type categories, how many are not found in the works of Tolkien? Any?)"

    Delta, I think you are correct that the Chainmail supplement largely seeks to accommodate JRRT, but if you look at that list, really only orcs, treants, balrogs, and halflings are pure Tolkien. Everything else is also present in Norse mythology (trolls, elves, dwarves, giants, wights, giant wolves, dragons, heroes, lycanthropes), Medieval heraldry (girffins, wyverns, etc.) , or European folklore (the rest).

    Tolkien had these same influences. He did not, as far as I recall (& I'm no expert) have basilisks, sprites, elementals, or chimeras. One could just as easily pose the same question about which, if any, in the list do not appear in Poul Anderson's Broken Sword. Anderson & Tolkien are each lacking four, then?

    The real issue is that the players of Chainmail fantasy (and D&D) had Tolkien as their primary influence, whatever Gygax and Arneson had in mind as they created D&D!

    So I guess I agree with you in one sense and disagree in another.

    A little more on this in my blog here:
    http://mikemonaco.wordpress.com/2010/01/29/tolkien-and-dd/

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  8. It's true. Like arguing that the Phoenix in Harry Potter is a copyright infringement because it appeared in D&D.

    Copyright aside, humans take ideas and run with them. We turn them into new things. Copyrighting an element is dangerous because those elements are what we all work with.

    What happens if someone decides to try copyrighting the "young orphan fights the evil wizard, learning magic along the way" trope? Sounds like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and a heck of a lot of other stories would be in violation.

    Or what if someone copyrights the idea of a flaming sword? Virtually every fantasy RPG and quite a few novels, as well as Star Wars, would be in violation.

    That's no different from trying to copyright a lizard that turns you to stone with its gaze, or a tree that walks like a human, or a squid-headed brain-eating alien.

    Copyright shouldn't be used to stifle the creativity of others in order to seize a greater market share, which is how it's being used today. This isn't about discovering that someone else ripped Chapters 3-32 of your book and changed some names. It's about corporate teams poring over the work of competitors trying to find a Holy Cause of Action to beat them into submission and cut away a few pounds of flesh.

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