Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons

J.R.R. Tolkien once lamented, in a now famous letter (to a potential publisher) that his goal of creating an artful secondary world set in a faerie realm of his invention seemed then to be fading. He was having trouble finding a publisher for the The Lord of the Rings and the realization that his major artistic effort may never reach its full audience loomed large. He wrote in 1951, “[O]nce upon a time (my crest has long since fallen) I had a mind to make a body of more or less connected legend… and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.” 1

We now know that quite the opposite happened. Tolkien found a publisher and the influence of his imaginary work, primarily centred in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, is now a world-wide enterprise that has inspired a multi-billion dollar industry in literature, film and games. In addition to the revenue generated is Middle-earth’s influence on forming a cultural narrative: hobbits, orcs, dwarves (rather than dwarfs) and much more are now ingrained in the imagery of Western culture. Communicated in Tolkien’s work is not just the details of the characters and plot, but also core values and political beliefs.

Gandalf. Artist: kimberly80.

The relationship between an artistically built imaginary world and the primary world is a complex one. Cultural studies scholar, Mark Wolf (2012) explains, “To give oneself over to a painting, novel, movie, television show or video game is to step vicariously into a new experience, into an imaginary world. This can be as true for the author of the work as it is for the rest of the work’s audience” (p. 70). 2 An American political science professor, Murray Edelman (1995) adds that artwork doesn’t just describe our social/political world, but actually creates it. 3

I have argued elsewhere that culture is not monolithic: multiple narratives compete, and work in collaboration, to form a collective identity. 4 In this article, I explore this premise by forming the argument that Tolkien’s work was an essential ingredient in the creation of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeon & Dragons (D&D), but in a critical turn D&D has altered, and re-imagined how Tolkien’s legendarium has been received in popular culture.

Dungeons & Dragons

The “White Box” booklet II cover for the original Dungeons & Dragons game. Authors: Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson.

Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), developed for the market by Tactical Studies Rules (TSR) in the 1970s, started as a paper and pencil role-playing game, allowing players to become heroes in a fantasy world, following rules supplied by the game designers. 5 Originally, D&D was derived from historically-based war games such as Gettysburg and Napoleonic battle simulations. It was aided in its creation through a community-based war gaming society which built the game mechanics and play-tested them at early gaming conventions.

TSR, the corporate distributor of D&D, based in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was co-founded by E. Gary Gygax, Don Kaye and Dave Arneson, along with a few of their friends and family—mainly by providing low-cost labour and financial backing. 6 In essence, TSR began in a basement around a gaming table, in the 1970s, and grew into a multi-million-dollar business through the sales of the core rule-books and other game supplements. Others have documented the rise and eventual fall of TSR, including its financial ruin, as well as destroyed friendships. This is largely a tale about corporate mismanagement and inflated egos. 7 8 Rather than retell that saga, it is enough to note that the obvious claim that the these passionate hobbyists seemed far out of their depth when trying to manage a complicated corporation. Yet, my purpose is not to assess D&D’s impact on the market, it is to support a more general claim on how it has shaped popular culture and the meta-narrative for generations of gamers and others. Despite TSR’s tumultuous and brief existence, the role-playing fantasy game phenomenon it was central to creating still has a significant and sustained cultural impact.

A Classic D&D monster: the Beholder, Jeff MacLeod, digital painting, 2017

D&D: Crush Your Enemies

“Crush enemies, see them driven before you and hear the lamentation of their women” is the infamous quote, uttered by the character Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger), from the cult classic John Milius film, Conan the Barbarian (1982). 9 In many ways, it captures well the sentiment of the sword & sorcery narrative of the 1980s – the hero sees a problem, identifies an enemy and moves in directly for the kill: the stronger warrior or the more adept wizard wins the battle. Then, of course, you get your reward: you take the defeated enemy’s possessions and make it part of your ‘loot.’ It also involves a fair amount of saving the damsel in distress and taking her as a prize. 10

A generation of gamers have been raised on this narrative; many have become artists in the game industry and leaders in many other fields. The influence of this aspect of the D&D worldview is present in a variety of media, movies, graphic novels, video games, sitcoms, etc. 11 D&D has also resurged as a cultural force, due to a revamped edition of the game published by Wizards of the Coast, and hit D&D live-stream shows like Critical Role and Dice, Camera Action.

The evidence I muster to support the claim that early D&D rests on a ‘Crush Your Enemies’ (CYE) trope is captured in the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide and the Players’ Handbook published in 1979, which both credit Gygax as the sole author. 12 13 It is evident that he had a very clear idea on how the game was meant to be played. He prescribes a strata for organizing play; he (1979) asserts: “By ordering things as they should be, the game as a whole first, your campaign next, and your participants thereafter, you will be playing Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as it was meant to be” (p. 230). 14 Therefore, his rules system came first, the game master’s needs are second, and the players expectations and enjoyment followed. In addition to this clear hierarchy, in Gygax’s version of the game, players were expected to conform to player character archetypes – fighters needed to fight, thieves stole loot and wizards cast spells from a distance.

The AD&D Players Handbook and Dungeon Masters Guide, both authored by Gary Gygax.

The DMG allowed the dungeon master (DM) to withhold experience points for those who didn’t “pull their weight” and play their character, as prescribed by Gygax. Moreover, there was little incentive for players to find non-violent ways to resolve encounters. The rules here are clear, “Monsters captured or slain always bring full experience point award. Captured monsters ransomed or sold bring a gold piece: experience point ratio award” (p. 107) 15 Although, the rules did allow the DM to award experience for avoiding monsters using a ‘subjective’ system – however, the scant attention given to this implies the author didn’t expect this award would be used often.

Moreover, Gygax also makes assumptions about the moral character/values of those who would play D&D, and suggests they will follow a CYE trope: “Participants will always be pushing for a game which allows them to become strong and powerful far too quickly” (p. 7). 16 He asserts that they will not only attempt to push their own agenda as a player character to become more powerful than they should, they will also try to take over the game completely, “Each will attempt to take the game out of your hands [DM/GM] and mold it to his or her own ends” (p. 7). Gygax also applies a rigid perspective on the tactics employed in the game in order of have a ‘successful’ adventure, this includes a militaristic doctrine prescribing parties to set objectives, avoid getting lost, retrieve slain characters, etc. (p. 109). 17

Gygaxian Adventures

As mentioned previously, Gygax saw himself as the sole-author of the AD&D games system; in the preface of the Players’ Handbook, the core rulebook for the AD&D system, he claims, “The whole of Advanced Dungeon was a project involved varying degrees of my thought (emphasis added); imagination and actual working time over a period of more than a year…” (p. 5). He goes on to cement his claim by stating, “Who better than the individual responsible for it all as creator of the “Fantasy Supplement” in Chainmail, the progenitor of D&D; and as the first proponent of fantasy gaming and a principle in TSR…” (p. 5) 18

He not only prescribed a fairly rigid rules system but he forcefully advocated an approach on a process for play. His primary trope and game style is reinforced in the game adventures (modules) he published, again, as sole-author.

During his career at TSR, Gygax was a prolific author and penned numerous modules including: B2 Keep on the Borderlands, S1 Tomb of Horrors (1978/81), S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980), S4 The Lost Caverns of Tsojcath, D1-2 Descent into the Depths of the Earth (1978/ 81), D3 Vault of the Drow (1978/81), G1-2-3 Against the Giants (1978), T1 The Village of Hommlet (1979/81), T1-4 The Temple of Elemental Evil (1985), WG4 The Forgotten Temple of Tharizdum (1982), WG5 Mordenkainen’s Fantastic Adventure (1984) and WG6 Isle of the Ape (1985).

A survey of the content of these adventures show a clear ‘Crush Your Enemies’ theme. I will consider a few of them in a little more detail in order to make this point.

B2 Keep on the Borderlands (1981)–the ‘CYE’ theme cannot be more clearly expressed than in this adventure. It was distributed as part of the D&D basic-set and seemed to be intended as an introductory skill-building test for new players–thus, setting the tone for the overall feeling for the game and an example of how Gygax expected that game to be played. It features a limited open-world sandbox where characters can travel from a wilderness- based keep (their home base) to a nearby swamp, a forested area, and two caves–the Cave of the Unknown and the Caves of Chaos.

Gary Gygax, B2 Keep on the Borderlands, TSR.

A party adventuring to the Caves of Chaos will be expected to encounter a series of caves in a ravine-like area: settled within these caves are kobolds, goblins, orcs, a minotaur, gnolls, zombies, skeletons, evil cultists, and a medusa. Their lairs are constructed with a variety of evil temples, torture chambers, crypts and cells (as well as storage rooms and the like). The narrative link between this diverse cast of monsters is not overtly apparent in the text of this adventure, they just seem to dwell there in order to await the arrival of the party. In the “Notes for the Dungeon Master” section, Gygax tutors new game masters on how to train your players to fight effectively, he notes, “The DM should be careful to give the player characters a reasonable chance to survive. If your players tend to be rash and unthinking, it might be better to allow them to have a few men-at-arms accompany them even if the party is large… Hopefully, they will quickly learn that the monsters here will work together and attack intelligently, if able. If this lesson is not learned, all that can be done is to allow the chips to fall where they may. Dead characters cannot be brought back to life here!” (p. 2). 19 The lesson is clear – play like a smart wargamer or your character will be terminated.

The overriding assumption is the party will defeat the mash-up of monsters through combat. There is little (or no) incentive to use other means, in fact, diplomacy or mercy is actively discouraged. For example, the last encounter in the module is set in a cell, which features an imprisoned “fair maiden,” but players quickly learn she is a medusa chained to the prison wall. Characters who have not been turned to stone by her gaze outright will find that she will then bargain with them for her release; however, as Gygax notes, “If freed she will attempt to “stone” her rescuers” (p.23). 20 There is no game mechanic presented where she will allow her captures to depart untouched. Again, the message is made clear to players: monsters should be killed and mercy is rewarded with betrayal.

Another example which presents the ‘Crush Your Enemies’ theme in an introductory adventure is Gygax’s module: T1 The Village of Hommlet. 21 This scenario is presented as a novice adventure for first-level characters. What is notable is the lack of a coherent narrative or story “hooks” beyond simply seeking ‘fame and fortune.’ This is significant because it frames D&D for new players as a simple ‘Crush Your Enemies’ trope. Although, the introduction presents some information on the context of the adventure and situates it’s geographic and historical context, yet none of it has any bearing on the rest of the adventure. For example, Viscount of Verbobonc is mentioned as a significant noble in the region, but players do not meet him in the adventure and he doesn’t seem to have any impact on the village. Also, there is mention of the Temple of Elemental Evil, but that location is not included in this adventure and it took six years before the sequel to this module would be published by TSR.

In short, players are presented with a random village that they are simply assumed to want to explore. The second part of this sixteen-page adventure has characters confront some monsters in a Moathouse in the outskirts of the village. Within dwells a strange array of creatures who have no apparent connection to each other and no overall story. Monsters simply seem to be waiting there to be slain (or to slay) the player characters.

Like B2 Keep on the Borderlands, characters find a series of rooms and a dungeon in the Moathouse, including a torture chamber and various other cruel crypts. The monster list includes: an ogre, bugbears, ghouls, gnolls, guardsman, giant frogs and a giant snake (amongst others). Again, none of these creatures seem to be aware of each other or have a narrative hook. The players never learn what is compelling these creatures to slay whomever they met.

T1 The Village of Hommlet, Gary Gygax. TSR.

An aside, there is an interesting surface connection to Tolkien’s work – in one room in the Moathouse, players encounter guardsman, “garbed all in black, with gold eyes of fire embroidered upon their tunics and cloaks” (p. 15). 22 A not even subtle adaptions of the imagery of Sauron’s lidless eye—the antagonist in The Lord of Rings—into the symbols employed by guards linked to the Temple of Elemental Evil. Moreover, these same guardsman make a “low hooting sound” to alert their companions in the adjacent room—reminiscent of the tactic the dwarves advise Bilbo to employ when he encounters the trolls in The Hobbit.

The point here is that, as an introductory adventure, it imprinted on the first generation of D&D players on how the game should be played. The CYE frame is implied and overtly stated, there is no mechanic which allows players to navigate the Moathouse without murdering human and monsters alike. Some even refer to it now as a classic fundamental aspect of D&D.

An opportunity to expand Gygax’s adventuring trope beyond the CYE format presented itself in S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks (1980/81). 23 In this adventure, the players’ are given the task of traveling to the Barrier Peaks (a mountain range) to investigate monsters in the countryside that seem to be terrorizing the Grand Duchy of Geoff. Typical of almost all of Gygax’s assumption is that player characters will follow the path which is laid before the party, often this is referred to in gaming culture as a ‘railroad’ or an adventure on ‘rails’ – this adventure has a twist though, the dungeon the party finds is actually a futuristic spaceship which has crashed in the peaks. Players enter the ship through a mountain entrance and from there they proceed to investigate a world of robots, alien creatures and a variety of nasty traditional D&D monsters (e.g. Mind flayers and an intellect devourer). The concept is interesting enough – although it is curious to note that this storyline was created in order to support a then potential new science fiction game METAMORPHIS ALPHA and also to potentially link to their existing futuristic role-playing game GAMMA WORLD (S3, p. 2). Therefore, S3 was very much designed as a marketing exercise to give fantasy role-playing enthusiasts a taste of a different genre.

While S3 clearly presents players with a replication of the CYE frame, where Gygax presents six levels of a spaceship where every creature therein exists as a threat to destroy the party – there is absolutely no incentive to do anything else but engage in combat with everything on board, while attempting to appropriate their technology, usually laser weapons, grenades, etc. This story is devoid of a plot, it is not clear where this ship comes from or its purpose. One could argue that Gygax was simply presenting a basic framework, where he then expects DMs to supply the narrative detail; yet, the expectation that players are in a ‘hunt or be hunted’ environment is reinforced in every encounter. It would be tedious to recount every combat encounter in this module; it is sufficient to say that the vast majority of encounters are expected to be met with violence by the party. Also, Gygax returns to his familiar trope of ‘a beautiful woman as a threat’ (recall the medusa in Keep on the Borderlands discussed earlier). Consider the numbered encounter: 4: “MOTIONLESS FEMALE FORM: This is a seemingly unconscious beautiful human female, but in reality it is a “berserk, malfunction android” (p. 7).

I do not think it is trite to point out that if one encounters a helpless ‘beautiful’ woman in a Gygax adventure, there is a pretty good chance she will turn into a monster and attempt to kill your character.

In summary, this offering is a thirty-one page adventure which only allows characters to succeed by defeating a virtual army of monsters (and looting their stuff). Indeed, I cannot find a single example of a Gygax adventure which does not predominately follow the CYE format.

Gygax and Arneson – is there a difference?

Dungeons & Dragons, as a corporate game system, is officially co-created by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (a third initial creator, Don Kaye died during the formative years of TSR’s growth). Arneson worked briefly for TSR and clearly tension developed between Gygax and him. 24 25 Eventually Arneson resigned (or was fired), but his co-creator status was maintained as TSR continued to pay royalties to him for the sale of the game as the result of an undisclosed legal settlement. Part of Arenson’s creative contribution to D&D was his original D&D campaign setting titled, Blackmoor (Greyhawk was the other setting developed primarily by Gygax). He co-wrote three modules to commercially support it: DA 1 Blackmoor, DA 2 Temple of the Frog, and DA 3 The City of Gods. A fourth module was published, but without authorial assistance from Arneson. Why it is relevant to this analysis is that the ferocity in which Gygax asserted the CYE trope in his modules is not quite as evident in Blackmoor.

Dave Arneson, DA1 Adventures in Blackmoor, TSR.

The Blackmoor modules are more story-based adventures. Yes, there is treasure and monsters to be fought, but it also supports a fairly well-developed narrative frame to animate it all. For example, in the Temple of the Frog, players are motivated by in-text exposition to follow the path of the warrior—Baronese Ryssa Aleford, who has been reported missing after leading a band of her warriors to repel bandits terrorizing her realm. Players are introduced to an intricate plot involving time-travel, court politics and eventually they uncover an alien spaceship. The DM is greeted with over two full-pages of dialogue designed to acclimatize the party to the scenario. Also, players have an extended journey over an ocean, rivers, then a swamp before they find “frog island.” Along the way they may be aided by a cast of NPCs (back-up party-members) and a ship captain and crew. There is even exposition where the DM is encouraged not to have their sailing ship too damaged and other forms of guidance to help facilitate the story; in addition, the party can work with some of the NPCs to aid in the revealing of an intricate story.

When reviewing Arenson’s work, his passion for a varied and complex setting and plot contrasts significantly with the content supplied in Gygax’s modules. One wonders how D&D may have developed if Arneson’s vision was able to flourish over Gygax’s?

A counter to my claim about Gygax’s affinity for CYE is the various rules manuals he authored in which he merely sketched a broad framework, potentially allowing the DM and players take control of their game and tell the stories they want by not following the rules too closely. Yet, this claim is contradicted by the many assertions he makes about how the game should be played, and it is reinforced by the incentive system present in the game adventures he authored. A CYE alternative simply doesn’t fit into Gygax’s game system.

D&D: Gygax’s Playground Wins

It is now clear that the cultural frame Gygax championed, captured in CYE, has found a receptive audience and flourishes today. Transmedia elements of Gygax’s adventures have dramatically influenced contemporary cultural media; evidence of this is apparent through multiple versions of his “classical” modules being reprinted and converted to subsequent editions of D&D and indirectly through the almost countless examples of his core game mechanic and story-line being expressed in other platform and mediums. For generations of role-playing gamers CYE is an accepted trope and a preferred game style.

However, one could argue that The Wizards of the Coast, Dungeons & Dragons: 5th edition departs from CYE by allowing for a wider variety of narrative options and game mechanics which do not overtly reward characters who simply slay monsters. For example, the ‘story reward’ mechanic in the 5th edition version of the vampire tale, Curse of Strahd, allows players to progress by reaching story milestones which are not contingent on slaying or looting NPCs found in the game. An adventuring party starting at first-level will not likely find success beyond the mists of Barovia if they follow a strict ‘hack and slash’ strategy.

That said, CYE is still very present in the current version of D&D; Wizards of the Coast has published an entire hard cover game supplement, Tales from the Yawning Portal, which reprints (edited and converted to 5th ed) many of the early game adventures – including Gygax’s Tomb of Horrors, and Against the Giants.

CYE is also apparent in Mathew Colville’s Kickstarter funded (over two millions USD) 5th ed D&D game supplement, Strongholds and Followers, which provides players a game mechanic to use their loot and forge their own castle (or similar structure) and maybe expand it to build an empire. As Colville often asserts on his popular YouTube channel, D&D is about “killing monsters”, but it seems, in Colville’s view, it also about amassing political power and military strength. 26

Many other table-top RPGs and card games entirely depend on CYE as their core mechanic and narrative push. Examples include Magic the Gathering, and Vampire: The Masquerade. Even board games that are licensed to use Tolkien’s IP adopt, as a core mechanic, CYE; consider Warhammer’s Middle-earth series, chess games, etc.

Video games, which by some estimates is a 116 Billion dollar industry, expresses CYE in many of the industry’s leading titles, including: World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto, Dark Souls, D&D Online, The Witcher series, Final Fantasy (to name a few). Also, the HBO television series A Game of Thrones is thought to have evolved from the author’s experiences with D&D and embodies CYE; but it does seem fair to note that in Season 8 of Game of Thrones (the series finale), the main characters’ obsession with political power and conquest seem to lead many of them to a tragic end.

Tolkien and Enchantment

There is no evidence J.R.R. Tolkien ever heard of E. Gary Gygax, or was familiar with Dungeons & Dragons. Given Tolkien died in 1973, around the same time as D&D was entering the market in the United States, it is, therefore, unknowable how Tolkien would have reacted to his legendarium being appropriated into this game system. My purpose here is not to enter into a speculative debate over how Tolkien would have responded to D&D, but, rather, it is to address the competing tropes evident in Tolkien’s secondary world and Gygax’s game system/ published adventures. I have built a case throughout this essay that Gygax evoked a Crush Your Enemies (CYE) frame in his version of D&D, while Tolkien’s competing frame is what I term an ‘Enchantment Narrative.’

The sense in which I evoke the term enchantment in Tolkien’s work is in the context of his treatment of political and military power in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. 27 There is a tradition in Tolkien scholarship where enchantment is related to Tolkien’s concept of Elvish Craft, which some have related to his writing craft/style; indeed, my co-authored articles with Dr. Anna Smol contribute to this sense of enchantment. 28 29

The Lord of the Rings, three-volume paper back version; featuring Tolkien’s artwork on the covers.

Moreover, Tolkien himself addressed enchantment in the context of Elvish Craft in his famous essay, On Fairy Stories 30 My claim here is different from that scholarly tradition; for my purpose, I make a distinction between enchantment and magic in relation to how characters and institutions approach armed conflict and political intrigue in Middle-earth.

From the outset, it is important to remember that Ardra/Middle-earth is a fairy realm of Tolkien’s invention. It is not a field manual on military tactics or a guide to what a primary-world state should do if threatened with annihilation by a hostile power – this is a faerie story and primary-world laws and mores do not directly apply (although they may be applicable). So, as a tactical guide for wargamers wanting to bust out their miniature figures and play a wargame, Tolkien’s Middle-earth may prove wholly unsatisfying, especially since members of the Fellowship of the Ring and other ‘good’ characters often do not behave in a way that a military tactician would find plausible.

I maintain that Tolkien’s enchantment, in this context, describes the relationship between the peoples of Middle-earth and nature. In particular, it applies to the elves (especially the Noldor) who draw great ‘magical’ power from nature and are in return in tune with it. For elves, gaining knowledge and achieving a ‘state of enchantment’ are ends in themselves, and are sought in order to better understand and contribute to the natural balance in Middle-earth. Elvish skill as creators and nurturers is gleaned over long study and communion with the earth. Using personal ‘magic’ to dominate or persue one’s narrow self-interest is a spiritual sin for elves and runs counter to their core.

This is captured artfully in the concept of the ‘long defeat’ where elves accept their racial decline in Middle-earth, but bear it with grace and fade willingly, accepting their role in a greater tapestry. Elves reluctantly go into battle and do not seek personal wealth or attain political office to satisfy personal pride.

Another example of elvish enchantment is found in the properties of the Three Rings forged by the Elves, which governed much of what they created in Middle-earth. During the Council of Elrond, in Book II of The Lord of the Rings Elrond describes the properties of these Rings:

The Three were not made by Sauron, nor did he ever touch them…they were not made as weapons of war or conquest: this is not their power. Those who made them did not desire strength or domination or hoarded wealth, but understanding, making, and healing, to preserve all things, unstained. These things the Elves of Middle-earth have in some measure gained, though with sorrow. 31

Of course, there are examples of elves who succumb to the ‘dragon sickness’ such as King Thingol in the lay of Beren and Luthien, leading to not only his personal destruction but also the near ruin of his realm. 32 In Tolkien’s secondary realm, elves are not perfect beings, and some fail. In addition, elves do seem to honour martial heroism and respect skill in battle.

JRR Tolkien. Beren and Luthien

The distinguishing feature is the elvish trait of seeking to understand and appreciate the ‘other,’ rather than trying to exploit others for personal gain (there are exceptions, such as the self-interest apparent in Feanor and his brothers from the Silmarillion). This understanding is often mediated through art – songs, poems, sculpture, etc. – elves seek to understand the complexity (and beauty) of the living world by making art about it. In essence, enchantment involves love, grace and respect for the ‘other’ – something notably absent from the CYE frame.

In addition, elvish enchantment recognizes the damage of violence on all involved. In D&D your character is rewarded for violent conquest – you gain levels, more abilities and magical power. In Tolkien’s world, a character may improve their martial skill over time, but it takes its toll in other ways. Recall that Frodo never recovered from the bite of the morgul blade at Weathertop. J. Trilling explains Tolkien’s thinking in this regard well:

These and other such passages in the letters explain why, although there is a great deal of enchantment in Tolkien’s work, there is very little overt magic: magic represents an unhealthy extension of the will, a gratification of the “I want it now” impulse. (p.297) 33

Whereas Gygax’s adventures encourages players to seek wealth and power, Tolkien’s good characters caution against it; in brief, the use of magic in Tolkien’s frame seems compatible with CYE–Sauron, Saruman and their respective followers all employ magic and CYE as a dominating tool to force submission on those who oppose them.

Tolkien’s message seems clear, even the study of the craft of Sauron (magic/ CYE) may lead to the corruption of the character who adopts it; that is, the more one inhabits the study of magic the greater the risk of succumbing to it. An obvious example in The Lord of the Rings is the fall of Saruman from the Istari order (the council of wizards). Elrond attributes this decline chiefly to his immersion in the study of Sauron’s craft: “It is perilous to study too deeply the arts of the Enemy, for good or for ill. But such falls and betrayals, alas, have happened before” (p. 347). 34

Another major weakness in the CYE frame is the assumption of many of its adherents that most people think alike; that is, that given a certain strategic situation rational actors will think (and behave) similarly. Tolkien inserted this weakness into the most vile elements of Middle-earth; it can be argued that it was this blindness which contributed significantly to Sauron’s demise. Gandalf makes that point several times throughout The Lord of the Rings, for example, he observes of Sauron:

He supposes that we are all going to Minas Tirith; for that is what he would himself have done in our place. And according to his wisdom it would have been a heavy stroke against his power. Indeed, he is in great fear, not knowing what mighty one may suddenly appear, wielding the Ring and assailing him with war, seeking to cast him down and take his place. That we should wish to cast him down and have no one in his place is not a thought that occurs to his mind. (p. 115-116). 35

Moreover, it is this flaw which underscores the entire strategy of destroying the Ring, contemplated at the Council of Elrond, Gandalf defines it:

Let folly be our cloak, a veil before the eyes of the Enemy! For he is very wise, and weighs all things to a nicety in the scales of his malice. But the only measure that he knows is desire, desire for power; and so he judges all hearts. Into his heart the thought will not enter that any will refuse it, that having the Ring we may seek to destroy it. If we seek this, we shall put him out of reckoning. (p. 353) 36

Indeed, the need to constrain power is evident into the make-up of the Istari itself – Gandalf, as well as the other wizards in this order, have been placed by the Valar into the bodies of old men, seemingly in an effort to constrain the temptation to depart from enchantment into the ‘quick fix’ of magic. Obviously, given Saruman’s fall as the head of of the Istari, this constraint was not sufficient. This point is made effectively by Frank Riga, through contrasting Gandalf and the archetype wizard, Merlin – who seemingly had no qualms about using his power to dominate others. 37

JRR Tolkien.

For Tolkien, enchantment can overcome magic (and perhaps CYE). This sentiment is evident in The Hobbit when Thorin Oakenshield seems to mourn his ‘dragon sickness’ by expressing on his deathbed that another path would seem more profitable, he states: “If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world…” (p. 271) 38

Perhaps the strongest repudiation of the magic/CYE frame is apparent in Sam Gamgee’s struggle with the Ring when he decided to wear it for a time while attempting to retrieve Frodo from his capture by the orcs. Tolkien’s text is a powerful affirmation of enchantment:

Already the Ring tempted him, gnawing at his will and reason. Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr. And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit. He had only to put on the Ring and claim it for his own, and all this could be.
In that hour of trial it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm; but also deep down in him lived still unconquered his plain hobbit-sense: he knew in the core of his heart that he was not large enough to bear such a burden, even if such visions were not a mere cheat to betray him. The one small garden of a free gardener was all his need and due, not a garden swollen to a realm; his own hands to use, not the hands of others to command. (p. 206) 39

It seems Tolkien armoured Sam with a power greater than The One Ring – a deep sense of self-awareness, including a love for himself and others.

Indeed, enchantment, at its core, is a respect (even love) for the other and one’s self, and the willingness to devote energy and study to the understanding of multiple frames/narratives. It also asks for a focus on creative acts in order to facilitate this understanding – this, to me, suggests enchantment rests not just on rational considerations, but also the subjective insertion of feelings. To feel another’s pain or joy is to join with them in a process of making and delight, something which is central to the success of Tolkien’s art.

Enchantment also reimagines political power – dominant control over others is as damaging to the one who wields such authority as it is to those subject to it; a condition which is evident in the primary-world as well as many thoughtfully developed imagined worlds. Tolkien presents other options for sharing political (including military) authority, which is absent from the CYE frame.

Tolkien and D&D

It does not seem to be a controversial claim that TSR built D&D on the back of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth. This has been well documented by others, for example, see John Rateliff 40 and Jon Peterson 41 So much so that in the 1970s Tolkien Enterprises, a production company owned by Saul Zaentz, sent a cease-and-desist letter to TSR claiming that the creators of D&D appropriated Tolkien’s intellectual property. TSR responded by altering some of the more obvious examples of where content was copied from Tolkien’s work. For example, Hobbits were changed into halflings and the Balrog became a Type V demon. Indeed, the recently published tome on the history of the art in D&D shows a hand-written chart (p. 53) by Gygax, ‘Balrog’ is written on the table where demons are being converted into game statistics – the notes describe this creature as having bat-wings, with a whip and jagged sword – a clear reference to the Balrog demon encountered by Gandalf, and the rest of his companions, in the Mines of Moria. 42. Another subtle reference to Tolkien is found in the first edition AD&D Players’ Handbook (authored by Gygax), where character progression titles for the ranger class bestow the title of ‘Strider’ (p. 25) at second level; Strider, of course, is the nickname given to Aragorn the ranger by the people of Bree and used affectionately by Sam Gamgee in the The Lord of the Rings. Moreover, on a general design level, Tolkien’s concept of a small party of multi-ethnic and multi-classed ‘adventures’ who seek to claim (or destroy) an ancient artefact is entirely captured in the core structure of D&D. A fantasy trope, before the time of D&D’s creation, present in Tolkien’s work and few others of this genre.

Middle-earth RPG advertisement, Iron Crown Enterprise, Dragon, Vol. IX, No. 10, March 1985.

As TSR became more successful Gygax attempted to minimize Tolkien’s influence. In an article in a TSR published marketing magazine, Dragon,  Gygax explains it by asserting,“As anyone familiar with both D&D games and Tolkien works can affirm, there is no resemblance between the two, and it is well might be impossible to recreate any Tolkien-based fantasy while remaining within the boundaries of the game system” (p. 13). 43

It seems apparent that Gygax is making a distinction between the core game mechanic and the overall flavour of the narrative of his conception of D&D (AD&D) with Tolkien’s lengedarium. Although it is easy to refute Gygax’s claim that he didn’t borrow heavily from Tolkien’s secondary world, there may be a valid argument in Gygax’s claim that he altered Tolkien’s content to suit his game system, and by extension removed many of the important characteristics present in Tolkien’s original work.

For example, lost on Gygax is Tolkien’s deep consideration of the relationship between magic and enchantment, including the harmful impact that using naked military and magic force will have on those who use power aggressively (as well as the destruction wrought on the recipients of such attacks). Thus, for Gygax, a fantasy character’s usefulness rests entirely on their martial/magical power to defeat opponents in direct melee. This isn’t surprising given his wargaming roots, but it also points to a blindness to the value of alternative elements of fantasy literature.

His bias is further revealed when he takes Tolkien to task for not supplying his characters with sufficient power, he laments, “Gandalf is quite ineffectual, plying a sword at times and casting spells which are quite low-powered” (p. 12) (in terms of the D&D game). 44 In Gandalf’s defence, he did defeat an ancient demon (Balrog), was raised from the dead, and devised the strategy to defeat an ancient devil (Sauron). Yet, he used his abilities in a subtle way, he did not need to employ overt/dominating forms of magic, but Gandalf’s use of power is not recognized as valid by Gygax. That is why, in general, Tolkien’s characters cannot be easily converted into the D&D game mechanic without losing much of the original flavour in Tolkien’s lore. Although Gygax can be heavily criticized for having a limited appreciation for dynamic world-building, his assertion that Tolkienian and Gygaxian artworks are minimally related seems sound.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that in the very magazine that the CEO of TSR rages against Tolkien’s influence, there is a full colour ad for a Hobbit RPG produced by Iron Crown Enterprises only a few pages from Gygax’s article -profiting from Tolkien’s IP never seemed to be a problem for Gygax.

In brief, D&D (as constructed by Gygax) is not an extension of Tolkien’s secondary world; in many ways it lies entirely in opposition to its central themes and core values. Tolkien tilled the cultural soil for D&D to take root, but D&D has grown into its own garden that often competes, and even negates, the tree Tolkien planted.

Mike Cook (Publisher) Dragon, Vol. IX, No. 10, March 1985.

Middle-earth and D&D

So there you have it: Tolkien was first, Gygax and TSR’s work came later and in many ways is derivative of Tolkien’s legendarium. Yet, Gygax/TSR and the resulting gaming industry have been able to significantly re-image Tolkien’s art work from an enchantment frame to CYE.

My argument, in summary, is that Tolkien should be given much credit for establishing a cultural landscape prepared to accept role-playing games where players assume the persona of fantasy heroes in worlds inspired by Middle-earth. Indeed, it is probable that Dungeons & Dragons would not exist without Tolkien’s work, but these later art-works have managed to unmake much of the original trope in Tolkien, and altered it to form a very different narrative.

Moreover, I assert that the core mechanic of D&D, including the current 5th edition version, resists a credible conversion to a Tolkienian RPG. Even Gygax conceded that developing a Middle-earth RPG, or even a module/ adventure, would be problematic, as he states in an interview when responding to the question: “Did you ever consider making the Lord of the Rings into a module?:

Frank Frezetta’s take on Eowyn and the Nazgul. I can’t find any references to chain-mail bikinis in Tolkien’s work.

“No, because it seems to me that the RPG system would have to be tailored to accommodate the environment, its magical features. Perhaps more importantly, what JRRT fan would want to alter the plotlines and outcomes of the underlying work?
What could be done is to create “later-time” spin-off material for Tolkienesque adventuring. That sort of approach might be viable, given licensing and some really good writers and game-adventure designers” 45

Even as early as 1972, Gygax notes that D&D rules are not suitable for a Middle-earth campaign:

“Tolkien purists will not find these rules entirely satisfactory, I believe, for many of the fantastic creatures do not follow his “specifications”, mainly because I believe that other writers were as “authoritative” as he.” 46

There have been attempts to employ the D&D mechanic (and variant game systems) unto a Middle-earth campaign system. For example, in the 1980s Iron Crown Enterprise released a series of adventures in Bree, the Wilderlands and Rohan. More recently, a UK-based company, Cubicle Seven, published a players’ guide and game master’s guide specific to Middle-earth (under license from The Saul Zaentz Company). Yet, despite these and other attempts to capture the D&D phenomenon in Middle-earth, none have seemed to penetrate the market to create a significant audience. Perhaps part of the reason why Middle-earth has not been easily adapted into D&D as a popular campaign setting is that the CYE mechanic is not able to capture Tolkien’s enchantment frame. In order to play an RPG in Middle-earth, and get a satisfying experience for those familiar with Tolkien’s secondary world, would require a major revision of the dominant D20 game mechanic; it is not enough to adorn it in the shell of the characters (names/descriptions) but in order to evolve it into an authentic Middle-earth experience requires a major rethinking of the D&D core game mechanic. It is beyond the scope of this essay (and my skill) to outline a framework for a new game system which could support an enchantment frame, but, I assert, it is a necessary step for those who want to experience Middle-earth as an RPG.

The Future of D&D

At this point, it must be stated that it is not my goal, in this work, to dictate to anyone how to play Dungeons & Dragons or to prescribe what cultural content to create or enjoy. I am merely pointing out what I’ve observed as the impact of Gygaxian D&D on Tolkien’s legendarium. Yet, I do think an artist/designer does have some responsibility for the impact their content has on their audience, even after recognizing that the artist only has limited control on how their work is received. The core of enchantment, as an art process, is the artist and audience participate together to create the artwork. In that sense, Gygax, to me, has done some damage in developing an artful game that prescribes violence as the main remedy to solving problems. Yet, in fairness, he alone certainly can’t be held to account for this – comic books, video games and movies (and other table-top games) of fantasy art/culture of the 1970/80s in North America have reverberated with this style of imagery/narrative.

Dungeons & Dragons is remarkable, although Gygax did not solely create it, his work certainly propelled it, and fortune and clever marketing placed it before a general audience. Over fifty years after its inception, D&D is experiencing a mighty revival as a tabletop RPG, largely through the 5th edition platform authored by Wizards of the Coast. Through a revamped rule system, and inclusive marketing, WotC has allowed a greater variety of narratives to flourish. The popular D&D livestream Critical Role has assisted by demonstrating, in an artful manner, that this game can be about varied content and play-styles, including having great fun – while still vanquishing dreaded foes. 47In short, D&D can be about something more than the sum of its parts: it taps into the essential human trait to make art; and game designers and players have embraced a wider canvas to play with. Perhaps, this new renaissance, and the inclusion of more diverse creative influences in geek/nerd culture, now allows for the possibility that Tolkien’s enchantment may experience a revival – a welcome thought for those who hold an affection for Tolkien’s brand of elvishness (and the old wizard, Gandalf).

Gandalf, after John Howe. Artist: Jeff MacLeod, acrylic on canvas.

Footnote: I would like to thank Mount Saint Vincent University professors, Drs. Anna Smol, Diane Piccitto and James Sawler for their editorial advice on this article. Also, I am grateful to the audience for my panel presentation at Hal-C0n, 2018 (Halifax, Canada) and The Culture Studies Association, 2019 Annual Meeting, Tulane University for their support and feedback on early drafts of this essay. Also, my thanks is extended to Ms. Katelyn O’ Brien for her editorial assistance.

Works Cited

  1. Tolkien, J. R. R. (2015) Letter 131 to Milton Waldman (~1951). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. Retrieved from
  2. Wolf, M. J. P. (2012). A History of Imaginary Worlds. Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory and History of Subcreation. New York, NY: Rutledge.
  3. Edelman, M. (1995). The Cardinal Political Role of Art. From Art to Politics: How Artistic Creations Shape Political Conceptions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  4. For example see: MacLeod, J. & Webb, N. (2011) Imagery as Political Action. International Journal of the IMAGE. 1(2). Retrieved from
  5. No author. (2006). 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast. (Original work published 2004)
  6. Ewalt, D. M. (2013). Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. New York, NY: Scribner.
  7. Witwer, M., Newman, K., Peterson, J. & Witwer, S. (2018). Dungeons & Dragons, Art & Arcana: A Visual History. California/New York: Ten Speed Press.
  8. Witwer, M. (2015). Empire of the Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons. New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
  9. Feitshans, B., De Laurentiis, R. (Producers), & Milius, J. (Director). (1982). Conan the Barbarian [Motion picture]. Universal Pictures.
  10. See MacLeod, J. (2017). Women, Culture, and Politics: Buffy’s Critical Bite. The Artifice. Retrieved from
  11. For example, see Witwer, M. (2015). Chapter 42. The Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons (pp. 538 – 563). New York, NY: Bloomsbury.
  12. Gygax, E. G. (1978). Advanced D&D: Players Handbook. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games.
  13. Gygax, E. G. (1979). Advanced D&D: Dungeon Masters Guide. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games.
  14. Gygax, E. G. (1979). Advanced D&D: Dungeon Masters Guide. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games.
  15. Gygax, E. G. (1979). Advanced D&D: Dungeon Masters Guide. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games.
  16. Gygax. E. G. (1979). Advanced D&D: Dungeon Masters Guide. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games
  17. Gygax, E. G. (1978). Advanced D&D: Players Handbook. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR Games.
  18. Gygax, E. G. (1978). Advanced D&D: Players Handbook. Lake Geneva WI: TSR Games.
  19. Gygax, G. B2 Keep on the Borderlands. TSR.
  20. Gygax, G. B2 Keep on the Borderlands. TSR.
  21. Gygax, E. G. (1979/81). The Village of Hommlet. TSR.
  22. Gygax, E. G. (1979/81). The Village of Hommlet. Lake Geneva, WI: TSR.
  23. Gygax, g. (1980/81). Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. Lake Geneva WI: TSR
  24. Witwer, M. (2015). The Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons. New York: Bloomsbury
  25. Ewalt, D. M. (2013). Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and the People Who Play It. New York, NY: Scribner.
  26. Matthew Colville. (n.d.). Home [Matthew Colville]. Retrieved from
  27. See MacLeod, J. (2015) Tolkien’s Art and Politics: Is Middle Earth Real? The Artifice. Retrieved from
  28. MacLeod, J. J. & Smol, A. (2008). A Single Leaf: Tolkien’s Visual Art and Fantasy. Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature. 27.1/2(#103), 105-26. Print. Available for download: 9
  29. MacLeod, J. & Smol, A. (2017) Visualizing the Word: Tolkien as Artist and Writer. Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review. Volume XIV, West Virginia University Press.
  30. Flieger, V. & Anderson, D. A. (2014). Tolkien On Fairy-Stories. London: Harper Collins Publishers.
  31. Tolkien. J.R.R. (1994). The Council of Elrond. The Fellowship of the Ring (313-356). HarperCollinsPublishers. (Originally published by George & Unwin 1954)
  32. Tolkien, J. R. R., Tolkien, C. & Lee. A. (2017). Beren and Luthien. London: Harper Collins Publishers.
  33. Trilling, J. (2016). Disenchantment: The Price of Victory in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Common Knowledge. 22(2), 284-300.
  34. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The Council of Elrond. The Fellowship of the Ring (313-356). HarperCollinsPublishers. (Originally published by George & Unwin 1954)
  35. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The White Rider. The Two Towers (104-127).  HarperCollinsPublishers. (Originally published by George & Unwin 1954)
  36. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994). The Council of Elrond. The Fellowship of the Ring (313-356). HarperCollinsPublishers. (Originally published by George & Unwin 1954)
  37. Riga, F. P. (2008). Gandalf and Merlin: J. R. R. Tolkien’s Adoption and Transformation of a Literary Tradition. Mythlore: A Journal of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Mythopoeic Literature  27.1/2(103), 21 -44
  38. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1991). The Return Journey. The Hobbit (269-276). HarperCollinsPublishers. (Originally published by George Allen & Unwin 1937)
  39. Tolkien, J. R. R. (1994) The Tower of Cirith Ungol. The Return of the King (201-225). HarperCollinsPublishers. (Originally published by George & Unwin 1955)
  40. Rateliff, J. D. [tolkienmoot]. (2012, Jun 28). Tolkien Moot 2008 MerpCon IV John D. Rateliff solo speech History of the Hobbit author [Video file]. Retrieved from
  41. Peterson, J. (2012). Playing at the World (pp. 614-660). SanDiego, CA: Unreason Press.
  42. Witner, M., Newman, K., Peterson, J. & Witwer, S. (2018). Dungeons & Dragons, Art & Arcana: A Visual History. California/ New York: Ten Speed Press.
  43. Gygax, G. & Cook, M (Publisher). (1985) The influence of Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D games: Why Middle Earth is not part of the game world. Dragon, IX(10).
  44. Gygax, G. & Cook, M (Publisher). (1985) The influence of Tolkien on the D&D and AD&D games: Why Middle Earth is not part of the game world. Dragon, IX(10).
  45. Gygax, G. [Interview]. Retrieved from
  46. Gygax, G. (October 1972). Fantasy battles. Wargamer’s Newsletter. 127.
  47. Critical Role. Retrieved from

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I'm a Canadian professor and artist. I've published articles on women and culture, politics, Dungeons & Dragons, and on the work of JRR Tolkien.

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  1. Betzcaker

    Amazing article.

    I had the pleasure of chatting with Gary Gygax via the forums at Dragonsfoot.

    He was not, or so he told me, a fan of classic literature. JRRT was a far more classic writer, than, say, REH or ERB. It doesn’t surprise me that Gary wasn’t a fan of The Lord of the Rings but I think that was a limitation of Gygax as a reader rather than Tolkien as a writer.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks….I never met Mr. Gygax, I would have loved to talked to him about Tolkien. Thank you for sharing your story.

  2. Todays, DnD games are completely overrun with LoTR cliches. And badly too.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      I love cliches, they often make the best stories 🙂

      • Amyus

        Too true.

        “Head ’em off at the pass.”
        “I hate that cliché.”
        Slim Pickens in ‘Blazing Saddles’ – a film that delights in ridiculing clichés.

  3. Tolkien, from what I can tell, would love the idea of RPGs and collective storytelling. I doubt he’d like the main few settings of D&D but I reckon he might have liked some of the more obscure ones. What do you all think? Would he like DnD?

    • Jeff MacLeod

      I think he enjoyed collective storytelling, he did it himself with his friends. I don’t think he would have liked Gygax’s version of D&D though. Of course, I am just speculating.

      • D&D is very morning chbthe kind of fantasy that he seemed to dislike. He took great care in his books to avoid many aspects which are central to the D&D worlds and concepts. Strictly speaking I don’t think he woul necessarily disapprove of it as a form of entertainment. The variety possible in the system rather precludes that. However I doubt he would have done more than use the framework of rules. Personally I dislike all the world/lore elements of D&D using it I read as a rules set to build my own stuff from.

        • Jeff MacLeod

          Perhaps, my guess is he would have found the rules, including the restrictions on class and levels, annoying; no doubt he would alter them.

          Could you imagine playing in a game with Tolkien as DM?

    • I think he’d find the idea of group joint storytelling incredibly interesting. He was a scholar and linguist, sure, but he was also a passionate storyteller, even so far as to write a book largely in letters to his children.

    • I get the feeling that Tolkien would see it as a quaint curiosity of little interest.

  4. Many thanks for this piece. It moved me to delve deeper into my geekdom.

  5. As a kid growing up playing d&d I always thought it was based on Tolkien.

    Tolkien is a little dry at times with too much history. Gygax was definitely going for more of a hack n slash adventure. But all of that Tolkien detail really added a lot of depth to d&d IMHO. The game wouldn’t be the same without it. Plus I still suspect that litigation with the Tolkien estate really forced them to distance the game.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thank you for your comments. I agree, I think the litigation had a significant impact – but it was unethical to use Tolkien’s art without permission.

  6. I will tell a little story instead of discussing Tolkien to death.

    My extended family was attending a con many years ago, and my youngest brother, who was 16 and new to cons, woke up early one morning, and went down to the lobby to get something to eat. We figured that was what had happened, so we walked down to the lobby to find him and get breakfast, and there he was, chatting with two people who looked very familiar. And he proceeded to introduce us to this nice older couple who had just bought him breakfast, whose names were Ian and Betty Ballentine. We hardcore fans in the family just stood there in awe, as the nice old couple walked away. “Do you know who that was?” I asked. “Well,” he replied, “They said they work in publishing, and I think they have something to do with The Lord of the Rings trilogy, because they were quite happy when I told them it was my favorite book.”

  7. While Tolkein is understandably at the heart of most modern fantasy, and it is important not to underplay just how crucial his work is, I don’t actually like it all that much on the whole. Individual moments, yep, among my favourite in literature. The whole tale .. not so much.

    My problem is that his worldbuilding was more focussed with linguistics and the grand sweep of history, and less with the specifics of plot and geography.

    Which means each time he writes himself into a corner, he uses a fairly poorly set up deus ex machina to get out of it again. To his credit, Shamus Young’s DM of the Rings skewered this rather nicely. An awful lot of what happens seems like a poor DM railroading the plot, Gandalf is the biggest NPC xp whore ever, and the backstory keeps getting more convoluted, then dropped, then jammed back in again.

    The Armies of the Dead for example are like the ultimate weapon, yet they then put them away before going off to fight a futile battle. Yes, there is a story reason why, but its pretty flimsy. You have an unstoppable superweapon, YOU USE IT!

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thank you for your comment.

      Your analysis runs counter to the enchantment narrative I think Tolkien was trying to express. Frodo possessed an “unstoppable super weapon” in the form of the One Ring and attempted to destroy it rather than use it – that is the whole political message in Lord of the Rings, don’t use weapons of mass destruction.

      Your point related to plot and geography is unclear to me. The plot seems pretty well developed, as is the geography in Middle-earth (he supplies several maps in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings). Tolkien was a visual artist as well as a world-class linguist.

      I think we will probably just have to disagree on these points. I do appreciate you taking the time to read my work.

      • JamesBKelley

        Good reply, Jeff! This discussion made me think about the giant eagles in LOTR. In Tolkien, they’re independent creatures with their own minds and own histories. In D&D, they would have been depicted as being under the complete control of the summoner or simply the random person wearing the Ring of Animal Control. There are worlds of difference there!

        • Jeff MacLeod

          I agree entirely, the eagles are often misunderstood in D&D circles. It is hard for humans to imagine a species that is above them in the spiritual realm.

    • Thank you for bringing up Shamus Young’s wonderful inversion of LotR and D&D, GM of the Ring, which brilliantly puts the polyhedral cart before the Rohan horse, showing both the affinity of the game for the books and the equally difficult task of getting any game to recreate a work of fiction (which, perforce, is pretty much the definition of “railroading” of characters by an author).

  8. Joseph Cernik
    Joseph Cernik

    An interesting essay. We had a small group of faculty members that played D&D back in the 1980s, probably had that going for some three years.

  9. Zoroaster

    Ummm, some editorial suggestions and then on to the core in one simple remark: 1)You go on many tangents in almost every paragraph. 2)You have used materials that only reinforce your argument of CYE, but not those that counter it (even some contained in the references you cite) 3)The paragraph tittles are non-sensical because a.They don’t follow any certain structure (and as a fan of classical literature you should have some) and b.They all devolve into the same argument instead of focusing on the paragraph topic.

    And now to the core of this article: Tolkien repermutated and “reinvented” myths that came long before him for the current age – didn’t really invent anything new. It’s insulting to those myths to call those tropes “inhabitants of Middle-Earth” as they’ve long since been inhabitants of normal Earth’s folklore.

  10. Zoroaster

    And to criticize the CYE comments about DnD – I think it’s a logical phalacy to compare a work of literature and game, and henceforth claim that said game holds less artistic value (but rather a “CYE” nature). DND has an overwhelming number of modules that do NOT focus on damage x health solutions. Additionally, you should consider that your so called “enchantment” narrative is NOT translatable in numbers and hence not gamifiable – yet it is something that many players experience by themselves when they are deep enough in a module. Attempts have been made to do such things in WoD’s “Mage”, however at the end of the day, a game needs to be a game, and if players have unhinged narrative options it just turns into a sci-fantasy novel writing session. There is no fun in games without limitations, and those limitations in DnD are the stats and dicerolls.

  11. Mr.Cantwell

    I don’t feel one way or another about LotR. I like the story well enough, but as I didn’t read it until the movies came out (despite being a life-long nerd), I don’t have the nostalgia associated with the series that a lot of people do.

  12. I love LOTR and am fairly new to D&D, so this article was lovely.

  13. Things were definitely wilder and woolier back in the day — in the first issue of The Dragon there’s an ad on the inside front cover for a revised edition of a TSR game called The Battle of Five Armies.

  14. I have to confess I’ve never enjoyed LOTR. I’ve attempted three different times and each time I have to put it down because a) the nastolgia for a golden age that never was and b) everyone who looks anything like me is evil or corrupted or corheresed into an evil army and I honestly can’t stomach it. So I have no doubt about his talents as a writer and as an academic but his fiction work is not for me.

  15. I think the most significant thing Gygax took from Tolkien wasn’t Elves or Dwarves or Hobbitses or Orcs — it was the idea of the “adventuring party”, which enabled him to create a game where you could be acting out a sword & sorcery-style kill & loot adventure but with six or seven characters with different, complementary skillsets, as opposed to classic S&S which was pretty much either solo protagonists or hero & sidekick.

  16. Amyus

    A great read and, if you don’t mind, I’m going to send a link to this article to a friend who is into his role-playing/war-gaming/D&D worlds.

  17. A very interesting article. However, I felt like the integration of roleplaying games and the setting of Middle-earth was given short shrift, at least from a modern perspective. Both The One Ring ( and Adventures in Middle-earth ( are very well regarded games that work hard to evoke the feeling of Middle-earth, especially the enchantment of it. In Adventures in Middle-earth (which does use the D&D rules engine with completely custom classes and cultures and new rules for Shadow corruption, etc.) you can gain inspiration by simply taking the time to appreciate a beautiful sight while you’re on a journey.

    Are you familiar with them? It’s a completely different experience, one not centered on CYE.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thank you for your comment.

      I own the cubicle 7 game and I played MERP in the 1980s ( I still have a copy of the Isengard adventure and the Minas Tirith hard-cover book).

      The main point I made in the article is that these games have not been as successful commercially as D&D. I don’t think I said they were bad games. However, I didn’t really think they captured an enchantment narrative when I played/read them. However, based on your comment, and the one below from Gamaleo, I will give them a second look.

  18. Gamaleo

    Have you looked at The One Ring roleplaying game designed by Fancesco Nepitello and published by Sophisticated Games and Cubicle 7 ( If not, you should. In my opinion, it is a sincere attempt to be true to the spirit of Tolkien’s work in roleplaying game form. The adventures are set between the end of The Hobbit and the Beginning of The Lord of the Rings. The premise is that your characters become aware of the growth of The Shadow and join forces with those who are trying to oppose it. The motivations are more saving people and places you love from falling to the shadow, helping others to resist the shadow, or gathering intelligence on the plans of the enemy.

    The design of the game is stunning, in my opinion. Some famous Tolkien artists have contributed art for the look of the game. The Dice are even beautiful, looking like they were found in a Dragon’s treasure hoard (with Tolkienesque runes on them). It’s definitely not about “killing random monsters and taking their stuff”, which I always found boring frankly.

    You’re characters are definitely the “little people” standing up to evil and corruption. There is magic, but it is more of the inherent, enchantment type. You can’t be a magic-user or wizard (in the D&D sense).

    There are special rules for influencing someone significant to help you in your cause (encounters), long journeys during which the characters will experience hardship, corruption by the shadow by too much exposure to darkness, etc.

    The feel of the game is more of an immersive story where you can actually visit the places and meet the people you love from Tolkien’s stories. Loremasters (i.e., gamemasters) are encouraged to read and re-read Tolkien’s work so that games sessions can have as much verisimilitude as possible to the world Tolkien created.

    I’d love for you to take a look at the game and write a follow-up article about its attempt to be true to the spirit of Tolkien if you’re so inclined. As a roleplaying game, I feel that it is a work of art and very unique.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks for this thoughtful commentary.

      As I mentioned to Tarl (above your comment) I have played, own or read the Cubicle 7 games (One Ring/ 5th ed Middle-earth) and ICE’s MERP. I think these are quality products, I merely stated in the article that they are not as commercially successful (or as well known) as D&D.

      As I said above, based on both of your comments, I will give Cubicle 7’s game(s) a second look (I believe ICE went out of business).

      • I don’t think anyone’s claiming that ICE’s MERP was evocative in the way that The One Ring is. The ‘technology’ of the game systems then just wasn’t there. Same for Decipher’s game system, which was heavily tied to the movies.

        But as evocative of the setting that The One Ring is, it’s never going to beat D&D. Neither is the most evocative Star Trek game, or cyberpunk game or whatever. The first mover advantage and the assumptions that D&D has seeded the fields of both tabletop and computer gaming are too strong.

        But we can be happy that there are strongly evocative games out there that we can use to play in Middle-earth, either using the D&D idiom (Adventures in Middle-earth) or using a custom system for maximums effect (The One Ring).

  19. Carlos Mondragon

    This is one of the most stimulating think-pieces regarding Tolkien and D&D that I have come across. Thanks ever so much! I am especially grateful with how you convey the ‘Enchantment Narrative’ trope [begging pardon for tooting my own horn here, I recently wrote a small essay -in Spanish- on how Tolkien’s cartographic imagination was central to his idea of enchantment and secondary world creation].

    To the point: In addition to Arneson’s vision of varied and complex setting and plot, I would point to the UK series of AD&D modules, which reflect an interest in having PCs resolve problems and puzzles without necessary recourse to violence. Most notable are probably UK1 Beyond the Crystal Cave and UK4 When a Star Falls. These and others became templates for my particular style of DMing. I am blessed with an exceptional group of players who have reacted very well to it.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thank you for your kind comments, Carlos. I would like to read your essay. Also, I will look for the adventures you mention; the Crystal Cave adventure sounds familiar.

      Again, thanks for your interest in my essay.

  20. LOTR was one of the first fantasy novels I read and, by extension, one of the first SFF books I read. Granted, I always looked at it from an unusual angle since many of the first dozen fantasy novels I read were by Terry Pratchett but I’m still fond of the trilogy, even as I wait for the genre as a whole to break free from its influence. (The rest of Tolkien I didn’t get round to for a while, so I don’t really have the same connection with them.)

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks for the comment. I feel the same way about Pratchett, a good read (for me) but it doesn’t have the same impact Tolkien did. It is probably because I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was 12 or 13.

  21. There was an article in an early Dragon magazine where Gygax basically said that he loved the Hobbit but thought LotR was trying too hard or something.

  22. Antoine

    Let me say… even though I never played D&D, I very much liked this article being a great Tolkien fan.

  23. The influence of Tolkien on early D&D is really impossible to deny. Gygax was definitely talking sour grapes through his hat. His elves are entirely Tolkien elves and neither Sidhe, nor Norse elves, nor the silly elves of children’s literature (including the Hobbit — tra-la-lally? Seriously?); the dwarves are Tolkien dwarves (including the plural), not Norse dwarves; orcs are totally JRRT; and the first iteration of hobbits in ODD were so horrendously overpowered, I hate them utterly in gaming and usually exclude them from any campaign I run.

    As for Tolkien being a vector for the game, I think it’s more a case of the time being ripe for both of those sorts of things in the 70s. There was simply an explosion of high fantasy in the period that was even expressed in the music. There’s a reason for the canard that songs in the 70s were all 14 minutes long and about hobbits.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      I agree with your analysis entirely. I just gave a few examples of the ‘crossover’ from Tolkien to ODD in the essay. Frankly, TSR had an awful habit of poaching other’s artwork without giving proper recognition or compensation. In one case, someone at TSR was tracing comic book art from Marvel and publishing it in TSR products; Gygax was in his 30s and allowing this and should have known better.

      I did read somewhere that Gygax tried to defend his use of Orc stating it was the Irish word for pig. The legend has is that is why the orcs in the Monster Manual are rendered with pig-like features. I am not a 100 % sure that story is true, but there is some evidence to support it.

  24. Hutchison

    I think that for forty years, people have been complaining that D&D doesn’t let them create their own LotR style epics, in spite of the fact that elves, dwarves, hobbits, and orcs feature so prominently in the game.

    Because nobody listened back in the 70s when Gygax said that his game was about Conan and John Carter and Elric style adventures, not epic fantasy.

    Now The Hobbit, on the other hand, being a story entirely about a heist of dragon gold, is just about the perfect sort of D&D adventure…

    • Jeff MacLeod

      I think you’re right. The defence that Gygax used other sources in D&D and AD&D has some merit, but you do not see anywhere near the amount of content from Robert E. Howard’s work (an author I like) in the pages of early D&D. Conan is most often a solo adventurer and there are no elves or hobbits in Hyboria; the appropriation is just not there. I did read once in a now out-of-print book that Tolkien was influenced by Howard, and they actually corresponded (but I have never been able to verify that).

      The Hobbit is a perfect D&D adventure, however Thorin was overtaken by the ‘dragon sickness’ and Bilbo was able to resist it – OD&D expects players to embrace it.

    • Aw man, it’s been ages since I read Conan, John Carter, and I only ever got my hands on the one Elric novel. Think it was the first one?

      What would you say differentiates an adventure in that vein from the epic fantasy of Tolkien? Is it the level of threat being stood against? Only obvious thing I can think of is that for the most part, Conan, John, and Elric were singular protagonists, with a few NPC’s at best, while Tolkiens epic fantasy has a whole party. But that can’t be it, unless he was advocating for single player games.

      I’d love to run some games in the style, as I’ve always loved those stories, but it’s been so long I can’t recall what made them different.

    • Solange

      I seem to recall reading that Gygax thought more highly of The Hobbit than he did of LotR, unsurprisingly.

    • its also worth mentioning that gygax thought people should play one way, and when he saw tournaments were ending more quickly than he expected, he realized not everyone played the same.

  25. Gygax wanted a game that had clear goals and criteria for “winning” and a defeat your enemies, take their stuff model works very well for that. But the very fact that Gygax had to constantly defend and emphasis this as the “only way to play” shows that people quickly took the ideas and ran in all sorts of directions with them. The Gygaxian mode of play is highly present, especially among new groups, because it is easy to grasp and play but it rarely survives long term engagement with the players (and DM) who often, even usually, want more than just bigger fights and piles of gold. Role-playing, world-building, interaction with people and the setting to build stories are the biggest draw of the RPG to my mind This is my observations and experience from being a D&D player since ’77.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      I think you nailed it! Perhaps part of the endurance of Tolkien’s work is its ability to express on many levels. The D&D you describe can be like that, too. Again, it is not a crime to enjoy CYE wargaming – I played and DMed Keep on the Borderlands myself (and lots of other content like this). But, to me, we may be at the point where this hobby/game is becoming an art form; I don’t think Gygax foresaw that.

  26. Another area in gaming that has this problem interestingly enough is Star Trek.

    Take a look at Star Trek Online and the type of quests you get (and the ever increasing hunt for more/better phasers and torpedoes) vs simply exploring and finding new life and civilizations, boldly going where no one has gone before…

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks, I will check that out. I played Star Trek Online briefly a while ago, but not enough to get a real flavour for the whole thing. If I can find some time, I will take a second look.

  27. I think the worldbuilding by Tolkien was definitely something that DnD took inspiration from. Being able to create such a complex world and a series of languages is amicable, and I think Gygax did that so fantastically when he created the game.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks. However, Gygax didn’t create D&D, which I argue in the essay.

      • I misspoke. I meant to say influenced the game. It was early, my apologies.

        • Jeff MacLeod

          Thanks! Sorry to be so defensive on this. I really am trying to dispel the fiction that Gygax created D&D. I have formed the opinion that Arneson and his group played the first game of D&D in their Blackmoor campaign (Gygax was not present for this formative period). Arneson introduced the game to Gygax and his associates, who then worked with Arneson to bring it to the market (a little later Gygax and co. pushed Arenson and his friends out of TSR). Gygax had long maintained that the Chainmail Supplement that he authored was the forerunner to D&D, yet when you read that document it does not look, feel or play like an RPG…it is a war-game with few RP elements. Anyway, I guess it is not a huge issue, I just feel the history of this wonderful game has been obscured by spin.

  28. I feel there is an undeniable influence of Tolkien on D&D, Mr. Gygax’s demurrals notwithstanding. I have confessed before that the reason I read LotR was because I was playing D&D in high school and I needed to learn more about the various flora and fauna like ents and hobbits/halflings and why elves and dwarves disdained each other.

    And I was really, really grateful that the prologue, “Concerning Hobbits”, spared me from the “tra-la-la-lally” stuff in The Hobbit until I was older and could appreciate it on its own terms.

  29. Blockbusters

    Gygax was a gamer. He understood that most people don’t care about the history of the longsword they’re reforging, they just care that it goes “schwing!” and can cut through steel and how awesome that is. He built D&D to be fun. D&D isn’t meant to be the Poetic Edda, it’s meant to be The Tower Of The Elephant.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      I agree Gygax was a gamer. However, The Tower of the Elephant was written by an inspiring world-builder and author, Robert E. Howard, who had a writing style that, in some aspects, was comparable to Tolkien. Yet, very little of Hyboria made it into early editions of D&D.

      To me, Hyboria and Middle-earth are both fun and artful.

      I have outlined the weaknesses I see in Gygax’s CYE vision, you may or may not be persuaded by that argument.

      Thank you very much for sharing your views.

      • I imagine Gygax probably wouldn’t have liked narrative RPG systems like FATE or Fiasco.

    • Are you implying that Tolkien didn’t intend his stories to be fun?

      • I’m pretty sure fun was not at the top of Tolkien’s priority list for Lord of the Rings. It probably was for The Hobbit, he’s subverting heroic fantasy tropes left and right in that one.

      • TechDude

        Maybe fun isn’t the right metric, but I don’t think Tolkien was trying to write a classically good novel, he was making his own ancient manuscript.

        Tolkien was a history professor with a focus on ancient manuscripts and legends, and you can see a lot of influences of those in LotR. Hell he wanted to recreate a mythology that was obliterated by the french fairy-tales in England.

        But as a result, there are a lot of storytelling cul-de-sacs that you will find in a hodge-podge of oral traditions that were at some point written down, or collaborated stories that were revised over many generations.

        For example if you go all the way back to the story of Gilgamesh, it has two endings:

        1. Gilgamesh aimless quest meanders without an ability to defeat death, and it is a lesson on the inevitability of death.
        2. His buddy Endiku comes back to life, and everything is great again, and they walk into the sunset for their next adventure because it doesn’t have to end.

        The second is at times referred to as a bad fanfic that was added long after the main body of the Epic of Gilgamesh was created, and completely undercuts all the authorial intent of the prior portions of the story because another audience didn’t want to pick up what was being put down.

        My larger point… Let’s face it, Tom Bombadil is a bad character and his inclusion is a distraction that doesn’t advance the plot or do anything meaningful with the characters. It would feel at home in a sloppy narrative assembled over a long period of time, but it doesn’t work to make a smooth and cohesive narrative.

        I love LotR for what it is, but it isn’t a classically well written book. You can fly through a Stephen King novel with ease, because he writes with readability in mind. His prose aren’t simple either, they’re beautifully complex and nuanced, but your eyes can move through them with ease.

        • Tom Bombadil is there to be held up as an ideal of simple folk who have no interest in power. No he does not advance the plot nor does he do anything meaningful with the characters but he does contribute to the symbolism and themes of the books. You could argue it’s in a way that is redundant, but I would hardly call him a bad character.

          • Tom Bombadil and the belligerent old mountain that refused to let the party cross are two characters that are very important to The Lord Of The Rings in a subtle way. They show that the great war between the men, elves, et al vs. Sauron, the orcs, et al is not all there is in the world. They show that the “enchantment” is deeper and older than the current war and is immune to it.

  30. When I was still playing D&D (back in the days when the Elves were at Cuivienen) there was a story going around about a campaign that went through some strange misty portal-like portal to encounter a group consisting of four hobbits, two men, an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard.

    So, what do you think happened next? Well, it did. And it was quick. Fireballs and vorpal swords, you know. This party had taken out beholders and balrogs, and it wasn’t going to screw around with some random roadkill.

    Sauron then appeared, took the One Ring of a hobbit’s corpse, thanked the party and sent them home. What else could the poor GM have done other than kill all of them?

    • Jeff MacLeod

      What a fantastic story!

      A student at the university I teach at ran a D&D experiment: he took a group of players through a 5th ed. D&D game based on the encounter in the Mines of Moria – none of the players had read The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings. What happened? The found gollum and killed him – Sauron now rules their world.

  31. M. L. Flood

    This is so thorough and well thought out; your connections between Tolkien’s legendarium and D&D are inspired. As a lover of both, it was fantastic to read such a well-written essay on the subject. Thank you for sharing this with us!

  32. This is fantastic—I think the connection between Tolkien’s work and role-playing games in general is fascinating and demonstrative of great works of fiction, whether in novels or interactive entertainment.

  33. To me, LotR has always been kind in the Intrigue mold of campaigns if I had to assign it a genre and not really the high fantasy epic that many people attribute to it. Certainly a game of intrigue can be run in DnD but I think many people would also agree other systems lend themselves better to that.

  34. farboooy

    Great read.

  35. D&D’s was never great at long, gruelling journeys, and those are kinda a hallmark of Tolkienesque fantasy. D&D has always dealt best with exploration within a confined space, interspersed with occasional combat (with no more than a dozen total participants) and the occasional chance for simple social drama and interaction. You could turn certain parts of the Hobbit or LotR into a fun D&D game, but you couldn’t really do either story in its entirety. And his other works are essentially nonstarters.

    Probably the only influence of Tolkien on D&D comes down to the creatures and monsters of the world. Halflings are a famous example, but also the D&D representations of Dwarves, Orcs and Elves… hell, I’m pretty sure that the “personality” of Red Dragons was a deliberate reference to Smaug.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with your partially, in my essay I agrue Tolkien’s influence was greater than you allow. No doubt the early red dragon (and dragons in general in 1e) follow the Smaug template.

  36. Scarbrough

    I’ve been reading a Gygax interview on He says that the trilogy moved too slowly for him as a pulp swords and sorcery fan (though he liked Bombadil and the Nazgul) but also that his players demanded lots of Tolkien material in the games, much of which had to be replaced with suspiciously similar substitutes after the first edition.

  37. Martell

    Just want to say thanks for this comprehensive article. It was great and I even got turned on to a couple of new books to read.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks. I am glad you find the reference list interesting – the book on D&D art (Art & Arcana) is fairly new and a really good history lesson on D&D.

  38. Prof. Tolkien would be far from the first or last fantasy author to rely on the occasional deus ex machina – GRR Martin pulled the old “cavalry coming over the hill” card out for the Battle of the Blackwater.

  39. Hamblin

    Terry Pratchett said that Tolkien in fantasy is like Mt. Fuji in Japanese art. Sometimes it is large and in the foreground. Sometimes, it is small and in the background. And sometimes, you can’t see it at all because the artist is standing on Mt. Fuji.

  40. This is such an interesting article! A great read.

  41. I totally agree that culture is not monolithic and it’s interesting to see someone draw the comparisons between Tolkien’s work and the inception of D&D, good job.

  42. This is a great article. Tolkien really set a great stepping stone, to say the least, in order for the general public to indulge in the fantasy world. D&D allowed this same public to now join in. With the same idea as the Goosebumps books (or any “Choose your own adventure genre, really), however now you could customize at will. I feel like both D&D and Tolkien’s novels have stayed relevant through the years.

  43. Nicholle

    I’m a fan of Tolkien as a worldbuilder, but it took me a lot of time to manage to read through the first four chapters of LotR, I just couldn’t manage to, and too often the book had a very slow pace.

  44. Tolkien was only a minor influence in D&D (although, perhaps it did a bit more than Gygax was willing to give credit; after all, he was NOT the sole creator of the game).

  45. Seeing how his imagery of the elves and orca have pretty much become the template fort he creatures in many other mediums it’s hard to imagine a world where his work wasn’t published

    • Jeff MacLeod

      What a thought-experiment, imagine a world where Tolkien’s work wasn’t published – what would D&D look like? Would it even exist?

  46. Derek

    As a long-time D&D player myself (15+ years of DMing!), I enjoyed the article considerably. I think your elucidation of the two fantasy genres carved out by Tolkein and Gygax is spot on. There is an interesting tension at the heart of the D&D that, as you point out, has been there since page 7 of the original DMG. Gygax’s sense of how D&D ‘should be played’ runs counter to how most players enjoy the game. In my experience, cartoons like Adventure Time capture the spirit of D&D play better than Gygax’s adventure modules do – a blend of silly antics, CYE moments with the forces of evil, weird landscapes, DM flourishes, recurring jokes, and plentiful diplomacy.

    Your article has given me a lot to think about as I work on my next campaign… which intends to tackle environmental themes and make violence a costly and ugly option. Thanks!

  47. Noe Vera

    D&D has other influences, but Tolkien is its biggest one. None of this means your or my D&D need be Tolkien padtiche, or if it is that it needs to ignore the same bits of Lord of the Rings that Gygax did.

  48. Gygax cared about characters, and abilities, but not worlds.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      I agree to the extent that I think he thought a lot about statistics related to character classes and how that worked in the mechanics of combat.

  49. It’s quite clear that the Lord of the Rings had a profound influence on D&D. As to his opinions on the works, I see no reason not to believe Gary when he claimed he found Tolkien’s novels boring.

  50. I think the shadow of Tolkien fan fiction looms large both on D&D and on a particular strand of American fantasy that became popular after TLotR, that is itself in a sort of symbiotic relationship with D&D.

  51. “It is also involves” grammatical error.

  52. Will Nolen

    Cannot agree more! Michael Saler’s 2012 book As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary PreHistory of Virtual Reality explains how the literary works of certain writers at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries worked to “re-enchant” the world (counter to Max Weber’s claim that scientific modernity disenchanted the world) by offering audiences large alternative world systems that they could participate in collectively. One of his primary examples was Tolkien. Here, your essay takes Saler’s argument one step further by fleshing out how D&D built interactive shareable worlds of fantasy out of Tolkien’s foundation.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thank you for this insightful comment. I haven’t read Saler’s book, I will now take a look at it based on your note.

  53. I”m a huge Tolkien fan, and have immersed myself in his works. The Hobbit was my first introduction to Tolkien, but it wasn’t too long before I got into LoTR and then the Silmarillion and many other connected works.

    So needless to say I was very interested in this article, and it is an amazing read. No one can underestimate the influence Tolkien has had in the fantasy genre, and you see LoTR cliches everywhere. I”ve never played D&D but I recently got a starter pack, and having read this article, I can’t wait to get started!

  54. majorlariviere

    Very nice work! You’ve piqued my interest in the evolution of D&D over the years of it’s publication. It makes me wonder: has time made a difference in it? D&D was conceptualized, as you put it, in the era of CYE, and thus exibits inevitable markers of that time. But as new editions were published, perhaps the game has begun moving incrementally closer towards the capability of fulfilling Tolkien’s ‘enchantment’ ideal? It’ll be especially interesting to see what changes may come in the future editions; the time between the release of 5e D&D and now has seen an uptick in interactive narratives that fulfill in more ways than hacking off heads (Undertale and Disco Elysium, for example). How these new cultural phenomena ultimately impact the medium will be an interesting future topic.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thank-you for your kind comment. I think the 5e system, is open-ended enough that it allows for more Tolkienesque game play; however, the guiding ethos of CYE is so pervasive that it seems hard to imagine it will take hold in D&D culture. I note that the One Ring game system has announced it is discontinuing its Tolkien line. I don’t despair though, with more diversity in gaming culture there may be hope. Again, thanks for reading my article.

  55. Thank you for this article! Dungeons and Dragons is a truly underappreciated game. An interesting spin-off from this article might be how Dungeons and Dragons has expanded from traditional game-play inspired by Tolkien. I recently stumbled upon a prewritten campaign focussed entirely on the world of Harry Potter. Others I have seen include the Star Wars Universe. I look forward to reading more from you!

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thanks! I agree, RPG’s have moved pretty far from their roots in Tolkien’s legends. D&D 5e has really taken the RPG world by storm where almost anything goes. I think the current movement is moving this game from a battle of monster statistics to an art form. I’ve become a fan again.

  56. Hi there! I loved this piece, I found it very well articulated!

    I am just curious as to if you have thoughts on the role of race/racism in both Tolkien and Dungeons and Dragons? I know Tolkien has recieved criticism for his depiction of Orcs, Easterlings, Harad, etc. as naturally evil/weak/backwards, but I want to pick your brain on how DnD has either done better, or how it has reinforced racial stereotypes.

    • Jeff MacLeod

      Thank you for your kind comment.

      The question you raise on racism is complex and deserves its own essay. I note that The Hobbit was published in 1937 and The Lord of the Rings was launched, as a trilogy, in the 1950s. Some terms Tolkien employed ring shrill in our ears, and some aspects of his narrative deserve critical rebuke. Yet, I don’t think there is much evidence that Tolkien viewed his legends through a racial lens (that is it wasn’t a story about how one race is better than another). He viewed all races/people as “fallen” which was informed by his religious belief. Indeed, his tale on corrupt political power and inhuman bureaucracy being overcome by a multi-racial fellowship governed by free will suggests he wrote from a progressive frame, especially for his time. Again, your question deserves a much more detailed examination, but those are my initial thoughts.

  57. The “Gygaxian” adventure narrative that you identify in your essay was inspired by the “Conan” and “Fahfrd and the Grey Mouser” stories by R.E. Howard and Fritz Lieber, where roguish adventurers wander the world chasing treasure. It was not a corruption of any Tolkienesque adventure narrative.

  58. Jorgen X

    Tolkien was trash that only got popular because of D&D. People were able to pretend Tolkien’s trash Hobbits were Gigax’s halflings. Otherwise that garbage Tolkien wrote would have never been made into a movie.

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