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Author Topic: Tolkien and his legacy  (Read 4579 times)
Eric J.
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« on: November 18, 2002, 03:37:35 PM »

I don't know what forum to put this in, but here it goes:

Roleplaying came about, primarilly, from wargaming, as it was transformed in the form of Dungeons and Dragons correct?  D&D spawns from J.R.R Tolkien's masterpiec: LotR.  Now, I'd like to examine his ideals with his world and the attempted emulation by the genre as a whole.  (Yes, I just bought the collecter's edition, and it is one of the factors that spawned this.  So file a suit against me...)  Tolkien studied the fantasy of our world, and was in several clubs that centered around this one premise.  He was in love with mythic fanstasy and worked on it almost vocationally.  He sprouted many languages and created thousands of pages describing Middle Earth.  This resulted in one of the greatest classics of all time.  Now, LotR is so famous that I can use it's acronyme exclusivelley in a post like this, and have it's name recognised. The point that I'm trying to make is that his works were excellent as they were the product of his life, and were inspired by huge amounts of mythe.  Tolkien was a proffesor.  Now, I'm getting to my point.  How can modern mythic fantasy even compare to his works using his elements without spending as much time creating the richness that is so pervasive throughout his themes and works.  This is especially so in a genre such as RPGs which live off of depth and thought.  

D&D(and its clones) : LotR as
LorR : Mythology that LotR is based on

I am left with few choices.  I can either create my RPG using a totally different type of fantasy.  I can write in Sci-Fi.  I can do other things (historical, ect.)  

Whatever path that I choose, I hate Tolkien for creating such high expectations, and yet it is, in part, why this forum and type of game exists.
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Kester Pelagius
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Posts: 508


« Reply #1 on: November 18, 2002, 07:51:14 PM »

Greetings Pyron,

As I am typing these words while online I shall try to be brief.

Hello, BTW.

Quote from: Pyron
I don't know what forum to put this in, but here it goes:

Roleplaying came about, primarilly, from wargaming, as it was transformed in the form of Dungeons and Dragons correct?  D&D spawns from J.R.R Tolkien's masterpiec: LotR.


Not exactly.

The early Fantasy Wargamming hobbyists were interested primarily in re-creating the epic battles of LoTR; that much is true, I think.  However, from what I recall of my DMG (1st ED) it seemed like the goal of the AD&D game was to emulate a compounded version of "novel" based fantasy based upon various authors from Asprin (Thieve's World), Moorcock (Corum/Elric), Leiber (Fafhred and the Grey Mouser), to Tolkien (Hobbits).  MOST efforts produced in the 1980 were, more or less, AD&D derivatives.

However, there was also "basic" D&D, which was a somewhat more "classic" fantasy Tolkien fantasy milieu.  But, for the most part, the early games tried to be mini-multiverses where Leiber/Moorcockian Warrior-Heroes, Asprin styled Rogues, and the archtypal Wizard could go adventuring.

Hmm.  Where did Clerics come from?

Were they holdover from Fantasy Wargamming, thus the fantasy equivalent of "medics"?

Brain freeze.

ANYhow... so, yes, what you say is relatively accurate.  Until we get into the AD&D era.  Thre were some good systems put out in the 80s, perhaps not all very original, but there were a few good ones.


Quote from: Pyron
How can modern mythic fantasy even compare to his works using his elements without spending as much time creating the richness that is so pervasive throughout his themes and works.  This is especially so in a genre such as RPGs which live off of depth and thought.  


Easy, use something *other* than Scandinavia mythology, and research it well prior to playing with it.

For instance (from memory):  Illuvater (sp) is essentially Odin, the Nordic "All-Father", more or less.  Tolkien's tale is unique because it is set *inbtween* eras/epochs.  The time of the elves is ended and the age of man is about to commence.  In Greek myth most tales are well established as falling *within* one of the established epochs.

Thus you have to also consciously decide wether to set your mythos *within* a established epoch or whether you are going to have an established mythos with epochs, but set a story as occuring between them, as Tolkien did.

IE: Instead of setting up a story in the Silver Age, set it during the pivotal turning points in which the Silver Age (and thus the Races of that Epoch) is in decline and the Iron/Steel Age is on the rise.  Of course you'll have to establish a reason for *why* the one age is fading into another, which is the background story of the LoTR.


Quote from: Pyron
I am left with few choices.  I can either create my RPG using a totally different type of fantasy.  I can write in Sci-Fi.  I can do other things (historical, ect.)  

Whatever path that I choose, I hate Tolkien for creating such high expectations, and yet it is, in part, why this forum and type of game exists.


Yes, a lot of ground has been covered.  (Especially the Angel/Demon war in heaven/hell on earth theme.)  But not all themes have been mined out, yet.  Thus you may actually you have quite a few choices that you probably wouldn't think to use otherwise.

For instance:  Tolkien, and many who immitated his novels, used what is primarily known as the Nordic or Scandinavian myth cycles.  Thus there should still ripe fields in the mythos of the Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Indian/Hindus, American Indians, Aztec/Mayans (keyword search: Popul Vuh), and etcetera.  Lots to work with in reald world myth.

But who says you *have* to base your ideas upon a established mythos?

There are a lot of fairytales and folklore out there to work with as well.
Of course you could just take the simple path and set your world in a fantasy realm thta is: -elves, -hobbits/halfling, -orcs, and -wizards.  Most of the creatures Tolkien used exist in folklore, and they are often *very different* creatures in the folktales.

It all depends on what *you* want to do.


Kind Regards,

Kester Pelagius
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"The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis." -Dante Alighieri
Mike Holmes
Acts of Evil Playtesters
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Posts: 10459


« Reply #2 on: November 19, 2002, 08:09:10 AM »

Or don't depend on an estalished mythos at all. Make it all up from scratch. The problem is that there are certain resonant images that the extant myths conjure that you'd have to work hard to make functional in your world.

But you're right. It's probably more work than any of us is capable of. Tolkien was a bright guy, who spent a lifetime creating this particular work. That's probably irreproducible. So perhaps we need another tactic.

Today, we find that one can shortcut a creative process by networking the job out. We use computers to create things "virally" and by "neural networks". I think that there's lots of possibilities out there for co-operative creativity of sorts.

The implest form of this is to just work with a friend. You'll get almost twice as much made. More with more folks, but there is a decreasing return on such effort.

What's cool about RPGs, however, is that they are systems. And as such you can "program" them to cause people to create things via play. Which kills two birds just to start. Further, since the players get out of it what they put into it, they have a strong incentive to produce a lot of work, or high quality work (or, rarely, both).

So, what I'm sayng here is, let the RPG system help you design the world. Don't try to do it all yourself (unless you are going for a doctorate in linguistics or something). The game itself, and the players can be used to create a cool world on the fly.

This is the primary design principle that I'm focused on lately.

Mike
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Ron Edwards
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« Reply #3 on: November 19, 2002, 08:17:07 AM »

Hi there,

Two current threads that offer some thoughts on this matter are:

Sorcerer (& Sword) and the LotR
D&D fantasy - what is it?

My general conclusion is that Tolkien, per se, was not adopted or adapted into role-playing in the early days, at least not in the sense of the work/text itself ... but rather that his name and certain motifs in his work were co-opted into the new hobby/activity. The same goes for Jack Vance's fantasy fiction and (grr, gnash) the by-then-corrupted shadow of pulp heroic fantasy (sword-and-sorcery).

Best,
Ron
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Walt Freitag
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Posts: 1039


« Reply #4 on: November 19, 2002, 10:20:45 AM »

Quote from: Pyron
How can modern mythic fantasy even compare to [Tolkien's] works using his elements without spending as much time creating the richness that is so pervasive throughout his themes and works?


Okay, it's swimming against the tide to try to match Tolkien for richness. But there is a relatively straightforward technique you can use to make an RPG "standard fantasy" world feel more Tolkienesque.

In summary, it's this: build (describe) everything in your world out of stories.

Everything. Forests, kingdoms, races, trees, people, constellations, cities, styles of magic, roads, wars, and rocks.

In other words, use stories or allusions to stories to describe the uniqe qualities of things, instead of descriptive facts and adjectives. Put yourself on an adjective diet.

If a forest is old and creepy and full of angry tree spirits, invent a story or myth or tall tale that describes how it came to be so. Tell of how it was once the home of the bright and gentle Fraelings, friends of the tree spirits, until they were hunted to extinction by desperate starving Men during the Year of Three Winters. Since then the trees have chanelled their sorrow and hatred to the destruction of all humanoids who dare to enter. Saying it's "dark," "gloomy," "hostile," "dense," or "dangerous" are just words. The story makes those qualities real.

If a farmer is melancholy and fatalistic, invent a story that explains why he's melancholy and fatalistic. Perhaps someone in the village will tell the sad tale of his five strong sons who went one by one to fight in King Monomet's War and never returned.

It's up to you whether to actually reveal the story in play, and if so how. It can be told or just alluded to by a mentorish NPC (just like Aragorn and Gandalf constantly do in LoTR) or a local NPC; you can allude to the existence of a story without actually telling it (look up "The cats of Queen Beruthiel" in any good LoTR concordance); you can reveal it to fulfill a player-character's successful use of a lore or knowledge skill; it can be set up as a mystery that the players must actively seek to solve (but do this rarely); or it can be kept to yourself, as a way to inspire whatever more straightforward description you provide. When the details of something are informed by "a story behind it", one can often sense it even if the story itself isn't revealed.

The simpler and more commonplace the descriptive fact, the more rewarding it is to enrich it with a story. If you want to drive home the fact that a mountain range is tall and impassable, don't just line up a bunch of adjectives for "tall;" instead, tell of how its cataclysmic rising in the Second Great Turning divided the Noratten and Sudaran branches of the Utiri race for the entire Second Age, so thoroughly that when an earthquake opened the Two Spades Pass in 3a112, the two peoples no longer recognized each other. To focus attention on an unusual tree, don't specify a particular shade of green; instead tell how legend says it's the exact color of the gown the tragic elf maiden Amariia was burnt in, made from a dye not found in this world that she brought with her from her distant home, and that the first such trees grew in the meadow where her ashes were scattered.

If your world already has a detailed history and mythology, you can make the tales consistent with them, connecting stories to events already established, adding detail in the process. (A LoTR-style combination of recent political history and deep mythic history is the most effective for this purpose. Three thousand years of which empire fought which other empire might not give you enough to work with.) If not, then this is an excellent way to start building them. At first, just make up whatever references that fit the mood for what you want to describe. Over time, start reusing references (hmm, what was the Year of Three Winters anyway, and what else might have happened in it?) and connecting them together. I wouldn't say it's exactly easy, but it's not nearly as hard as it might sound.

You'll still be twenty years of research and rewriting away from mimicking Tolkien's achievement. But your world will have a distinct and noticeable Middle Earth flavor right from the start.

- Walt
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Valamir
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« Reply #5 on: November 19, 2002, 01:09:00 PM »

That's a fantastic post Walt.

It is a big part of the reason why some of my earliest and most oft repeated advise regarding Ygg has been to start small with just a corner of the world rather than the who enchilada...because in a small corner of the world EVERYTHING can have a story.  You can have your "Weathertop" and your "Mirkwood" and places with a real history.  A history that isn't known with the precision of a Discovery Channel documentary, but rather the fuzzy etherealness of oral tradition.

"And over there is Donnaghal's rock.   In ancient times there lived in this valley an old witch woman.  She was ostracized from the community because everyone feared what she might do to them.  But whenever there was a sickness that couldn't be cured or a problem that couldn't be solved the people always went to the witch woman to help.  One day an ogre came to the valley and began terrorizing all the villages.  Finally, after many had failed, the villagers went to the witch woman and begged her for aid.  She cast a mighty spell and turned the ogre to stone."

"Ahh, and the ogre's name was Donnaghal?"

"Oh no.  Many years later bandits came to the valley.  Finally the men of the village rallied around that rock and in a pitched battle defeated the bandits for good.  The leader of the men stood on that rock to direct the fighting.  HIS name was Donnaghal, that's why its called Donnaghal's rock".

"So whatever happened to the witch woman?"

"Oh, you see, the witch woman demanded only 1 thing for her aid.  She was tired of being ostracized and cast out from the village, so she demanded that a house be built for her in the middle of town so she could live among the people as a normal person.  This was done, and after defeating the ogre the witch moved into her new house".

"And they lived happily ever after?"

"Oh no, after a few months the people found they just couldn't stand to live near the witch.  She was just to odd and made them uncomfortable, and they were always afraid.  But they had given their word that she could live at peace in the house in the middle of the village.  So one by one they all left and built a new village many miles away, leaving the witch woman once again all by herself".

"How terrible"

"Yes, and if you go to the top of witch's knoll just 3 days to the south you can find the ruins of that abandoned village, with the witch's house still in the middle.  They say that the old woman's ghost still haunts the village and if you go there and spend the night in her house, she'll appear and give you the aid you seek.  But first she'll extract an oath from you that you dare not break".

"Is this true?  Have you been there"

"Oh no.  I would never give an oath to the ghost of a long dead witch.  There's no telling what she would ask.  Its said that Old Man McCrutcheon once asked for her help, and she made him swear...."


and on and on.  I don't know how interesting this particular story is, but stories like these are what would make your world feel like a fantastic place of myth rather than a high school history paper.  But in order to work, you have to think small.  LLoyd Alexander's Prydain is a sweeping mythological epic...but the whole land is maybe the size of Road Island.
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Mike Holmes
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« Reply #6 on: November 19, 2002, 03:34:46 PM »

Here's the problem with the "emulate Tolkien" approach of writing stories, even for a small area. While potentially fun for the GM to create (and far be it from me to stop a GM from creating setting for creations sake; lord knows I've done more tham my fair share), there are two hurdles that make it if not pointless, very inefficient.

First, As an Illusionist GM in play, I find myself chucking more than half of what I write in play anyhow. The players turn left at the fork? Well, now I have to adjust my map so that the Dragon's lair is down that road. After enough edits, I wonder why I'm even using a map in the first place. Thus, the story of the guy who went right to fight the dragon changes as well (silly example, but extarapolate the potential problem).

Worse is that the players don't care. That's right. Make a world as detailed as Tolkien. Go ahead. In fact, play in Middle Earth. Do the players want you to stop in the middle of the game and describe how Isnegard came to be where it is? Nope. They don't give a rat's ass. Why? Because they are too busy forging their own epic (and trammeling all others in the process).

So, even if you intend to do completely non-forced play, and let player decisions drive them all over an objectively designed world, you will discover that they are only interested in perhaps a tenth of the stuff that they encounter. Which can only be a tenth of the world.

Do you really want to do 100 hours of work to have only 1 count?

Well, like I said, I do it for the pure joy of creation. But as a method of making a setting good, I find it dubious. To whit, all the play I've seen in Middle Earth, and I've seen quite a lot, has been crap. Consider that it was with the Rolemaster system. You need to engage the players in the setting to make it rich. This is not a novel, it's RPGs, and as such, a "Feel" has to be delivered dynamically, not through presentation.

Why not have the players get a eward for making up the story when they get to that rock? This is easier, and, I'm guessing, much more effective in play. That's the sort of thing I advocate, and similar to what Sorcerer & Sword promotes.

Mike
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simon_hibbs
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« Reply #7 on: November 20, 2002, 09:13:17 AM »

Quote from: Pyron
How can modern mythic fantasy even compare to his works using his elements without spending as much time creating the richness that is so pervasive throughout his themes and works.


Firstly, if you'e using 'his elements' already, you obviously don't need to spend as much time and effort creating such richness of background. After all, why are you using those elements in the first place, if not as a creative shortcut?

Secondly, not all fantasy novells are Tolkien, but does that mean none of them are worth reading? The same goes for fantasy roleplaying.

Thirdly, a game world doe not need to be so richly detailed to be worth playing in. Middle earth did not instantly spring fully grown from the mind of JRR. It was developed in stages over a very long stretch of his life, and in the early days was very sketchy indeed, yet it was still worth reading about even then. So too with home grown worlds of the imagination.

Finaly, good though Tolkien is, there are many moral issues and classic themes he does not touch upon. There is plenty of scope for exploring them in gaming.

Evenb in Middle earth itself, there are plenty of little-known nooks and crannies in it's history in which whole epic campaigns may lurk. How exactly was the Witch King of Angmar finaly defeated, and who was involved? What is the story of their struggle? Who exactly were the nine kings of men that became the nazgul? Where were their kingdoms and what happened to them? Going further back, the kings in the barrows between the Shire and Bree once ruled kingdoms, what were those realms like and what might it have been like to adventure in them? Don't fight Tolkien, co-opt him into helping write your campaign for you.


Simon Hibbs
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Simon Hibbs
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« Reply #8 on: November 20, 2002, 11:49:00 AM »

Excellent thread, folks. Brilliant stuff from Walt, but it's to something Mike Holmes said I'm commenting on ...

Quote
Worse is that the players don't care. That's right. Make a world as detailed as Tolkien. Go ahead. In fact, play in Middle Earth. Do the players want you to stop in the middle of the game and describe how Isnegard came to be where it is? Nope. They don't give a rat's ass. Why? Because they are too busy forging their own epic (and trammeling all others in the process).


I am very familiar with this dilemma and fully believe it to be a common problem. However, I've seen it fade away totally in my playing group in (at least) a single campaign. The game was Legend of the Five Rings.

The reason it worked then was that the players were so enthuastic about "their chosen Clans" and had deeply dwelled into their mythology (this is thanks to the excellent Clan books in the early series) that they freely sprouted the tales and ideas from those in play, through the mouths of their characters, to each other. They cared deeply about their characters, their clans, and enough about the other characters to make it work brilliantly.

Of course, this is a common tactic in design, but I haven't seen it done well many times. The traditional example of White Wolf's clans/traditions/etc fall short of actually accomplishing this and turn out to be simple "character classes".

- Joachim Buchert -
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Walt Freitag
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« Reply #9 on: November 20, 2002, 01:13:45 PM »

Mike, thanks for pointing out the downsides of a Tokienesque approach to world-building, which I neglected to discuss. Pyron asked how to do it; I didn't inquire why he wants to do it, but it's an important question.

Simon's points about using Middle Earth itself rather than trying to emulate it are important too. I think either approach is possible, with different advantages either way. And Joachim's post underscores that it doesn't have to be the GM doing all the heavy lifting, though that's what I'm most familiar with myself.

There are some ways to blunt the severity of the problems Mike pointed out. A lot has to do with presentation and timing. The time to describe how beautiful a city is not just as the characters are riding toward the gate with an orc army at their heels. That's equally true whether you're using adjectives or stories to do so. In LoTR, the beauty of Minas Tirith is already established by stories told along the way, well before it appears "on camera." Lots of other details are described when the characters get there, but that it is beautiful is already established.

I also make a distinction between stories told to add verisimilitude, and stories told to make a specific descriptive point. The stories Ralph (Valamir) posted seem mostly for verisimilitude -- and excellent for that purpose. I live in New England, where every place has stories just like those, true and false, about where towns used to be and where skirmishes or friendly encounters with the natives occurred in the 17th century and which houses accused witches used to live in. (And I'm sure that pales beside the richness of local culture in other parts of the world.) But I was talking about something a little different. Absent some other purpose in mind, I wouldn't bother inventing a story for how Isingard came to be where it is unless that story strongly underscores some property of it that I really want to emphasize, such as that it's tall and it's weird.

Think of it (all you young whipper-snappers, never mind, you won't understand) as the Johnny Carson technique.

GM: "This desert is SO hot..."
PLAYERS (in unison): HOW HOT IS IT?
GM: "It's SO hot that when the notorious tomb robber Larry Croft and his gang tried to loot the golden treasure from the tomb of Knufertu, they discovered that all the gold had melted and seeped away between the stones. Foolishly they tried to pry the stones from the floor to dig for the gold, but the sun came up and baked them alive so quickly that they had no chance to escape. Their blackened bones are still there, easy to see against the bright film of gold that still covers the floor."

Just omit everything before the word "when."

- Walt
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Marco
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« Reply #10 on: November 20, 2002, 01:22:32 PM »

On the "build your world out of stories" thing:

Right on!

When we were working on JAGS Treasure (300+ magic items, illustrated) we knew we wanted lots of cool stuff--but we could not, for the life of us, figure out how to generate it.

I wrote a magic-treasure generator. We decided it sucked.

We started with a list of generic modifiers and then mixed and matched. We weren't happy.

Then we hit on the idea of histories. Each item in the book has a history with it--a story behind its creation. Some are small, some are large. Many are funny. The histories aren't "generic" so they might have to change from world to world--but the coolness was impressed into the items.  

It's one of the books we're proudest of for this very reason: it went from being about numbers to being about stories--and even a paragraph makes all the difference.

-Marco
[ JAGS Treasure is free in the fantasy section of JAGS. Check it out here:
http://jagsgame.dyndns.org ]

-Marco
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Eric J.
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« Reply #11 on: November 21, 2002, 10:21:16 AM »

Wow.  Thanks for all of the responses.  Some of them conflict, but I'm getting a better idea on how to do this...
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