The following was my guest-of-honor speech at MERPcon this past August, which I thought I'd share. It's lengthy, so I'm dividing it into several postings. Enjoy!
A Brief History of Tolkien roleplaying games
When deciding on an appropriate topic for this talk, I considered various possibilities from my seventeen years in the industry, twenty-eight years as a gamer, and thirty-five years as a Tolkien scholar, and ultimately decided that it would be fun to combine all of these and share with you some stories from an insider's point of view about the long, sad history of various Tolkien roleplaying games, including some I worked on that never saw the light of day. So here goes.
I. First off, the history of Tolkien roleplaying games begins not with the publication of the first licensed Tolkienian rpg, Middle-Earth Role Playing ('MERP'), but a decade earlier with the origins of roleplaying gaming itself. At about the time of Tolkien's death in September 1973, a little start-up company with the unpromising name of Tactical Studies Rules ('TSR') was putting the finishing touches on their new game, DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. Dave Arneson had come up with the idea a year or two earlier, and Gary Gygax had figured out how to make a game out of it (in the sense of writing rules so others could learn how to play), making them the Founding Fathers of our hobby.
The original D&D was clearly based in equal parts on JRRT & on Rbt E. Howard's Conan stories,Nt1 with a magic system inspired by Jack Vance (The Dying Earth) and John Bellairs (The Face in the Frost) and an attitude copped from Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser series, w. bits of Pratt & de Camp's Incomplete Enchanter, Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, and various pulp stalwarts thrown in. Most of these influences were openly acknowledged, both then and later—see, for example, the final appendix in the 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide, 'Appendix N: Inspirational and Educational Reading' (DMG page 224)—which makes it odd that the profound influence of Tolkien on D&D is generally overlooked and downplayed. This was certainly not the case in the dawn of roleplaying, as we'll see in a minute.
The reasons for this disparagement of Tolkien's influence on D&D, and thus ALL roleplaying games, are I think twofold. First, there's the simple fact that Tolkien's innovations are so great that they have, ironically, come to be considered "generic". In fact, they only appear that way because the genre of Modern Fantasy is something Tolkien himself largely created: he is the exemplar that defines the category. The very idea of a player character party—a group of diverse individuals of differing races with differing talents and specialties who set off on an adventure together—is a uniquely Tolkienian innovation, unprecedented in earlier fantasy, where we either have a hero, or a hero & a sidekick.Nt2 In other words, Tolkien influenced fantasy and gaming so profoundly that we take his imprint on other authors for granted. His impact has become invisible—just look how many people spell "elves" and "dwarves" with a 'v' rather than elfs and dwarfs: elves may be partly due to Dunsany, though I doubt this, but dwarves is Tolkien's invention, which others use without even recognizing their indebtedness.
Second, there was a deliberate attempt in later years by Gygax and others, continuing to the present day, to play down Tolkien's influence, most notoriously in Gygax's famous editorial from the March 1985 issue of Dragon magazine (issue #95, pages 12¬–13). Titled "The influence of J. R. R. Tolkien on the D&D® and AD&D® games: Why Middle Earth is not part of the game world", it argues that Tolkien had NO discernable influence on the development of D&D, aside from a few surface similarities based on Gygax's drawing on the same sort of sources as Tolkien himself had used.
Now, there are three theories regarding this claim, which was met with incredulity at the time and more or less universally dismissed ever since, being belied by the evidence both past and present. The first is what we might call the cocaine theory, the widespread belief that years of rumored drug abuse during E. Gary Gygax's time heading up TSR's Hollywood branch had addled his brain. The second is that Gygax simply forgot by the mid-eighties how he'd created the game in the early seventies; certainly his story changed a number of times over the years, and the general trend of those changes is to shift credit away from others (e.g., Arneson) and onto himself. So maybe he simply resented sharing credit with JRRT. The third is, in a word, lawyers, and a salutary fear of lawsuits if any good case could be made for D&D's debt to Tolkien's work. And, as we'll see, he had excellent reason based on personal experience to believe this was a very real threat, which might explain why he was so adamant about denying any Tolkien influence in his 1985 piece, which freely admits to influence from a number of other lesser writers.
For, no matter how much Gygax might have later denied it, Tolkien's fingerprints are all over original D&D. Look at the four player-character races in the original three-booklet boxed set from 1973/74: Men, Dwarves, Elves, and Hobbits (Vol. I: Men & Magic, pages 6–8)—all found in Tolkien, and three out of the four directly derived from his work. And, to break chronology for a moment, a similar dominance is shown in the 1st edition AD&D's Player's Handbook , which adds half-elves, half-orcs, and gnomes; two out of three come directly, unambiguously, from Tolkien, while the single nonTolkien race proved the most unpopular player character race throughout AD&D's thirty-year history, finally being deleted with this year's release of Fourth Edition . Or, going back to 1973/74, look at the monsters these earliest adventurers were to encounter: of the sixty or so creatures listed in the Monsters & Treasures booklet (Vol II), a dozen come directly from Tolkien's work—that is, about a fifth of the whole, with the rest deriving from classical mythology (dryads, medusae, centaurs, minotaurs), medieval legend (wyverns, manticores, unicorns), folk lore (pixies), and horror stories (the undead); contributions from other modern fantasy writers (with the sole exception of Dunsany's gnolls—Vol.II page 8) are notably absent. Furthermore, the monster descriptions that follow repeatedly cite Tolkien as the source for that monster (mispelling it 'Tolkein' each time): Orcs (page 7: "the number of different tribes of Orcs can be varied as desired, basing the decision on Tolkein or random chance"), wights (page 9: 'Barrow Wights (per Tolkein) are nasty critters . . ."), spectres (ibid: "The Nazgul of Tolkein now fall into this category rather than as Wraiths as stated in CHAINMAIL"),Nt3 and even Rocs (page 17: "This term has been used to encompass large and fierce birds such as the 'Eagles' of Tolkein . . ." [emphasis mine]). And of course the book is marked with the presence not just of Tolkienian spellings (dwarves, elves) but of names the Professor invented: not just Hobbit but also Orcs, Balrogs, and Nazgul—this last was even featured, so labelled, on the title page. And I shd note that this usage continued in the early D&D supplements, such as Supplement I: Greyhawk [Febuary 1975; cf. page 5], and Supplement III: Eldritch Wizardry [April 1976; cf. page 3], and even into the earliest printings of the D&D Basic Set [i.e., D&D 2nd edition] by J. Eric Homes . Even the piece of artwork that appeared on the very first page of the original 'Fantasy Supplement' that preceded the stand-alone D&D rules was obviously based directly on an illustration from a Tolkien book.Nt4
II. Not only was D&D in its first incarnation riddled with Tolkien borrowings, but TSR even put out a Battle of Five Armies boardgame in 1976, wherein Dwarves, Elves, Men, Goblins, Wargs, Giant Eagles, and Beorn fought various permutations of the great battle from The Hobbit. Since this year's theme for MERPcon is dwarves, I should note that my favorite variation listed in the rules is the all-dwarven one where the dwarves attempt to fight off Smaug's original attack on the Kingdom Under the Mountain, which includes the special rule "For this scenario Smaug may only be killed by Bowfire. Note: In this scenario the Dwarves have no Bows." Think about that for a minute. The only thing missing seems to be The Hobbit himself, since there is no counter representing Bilbo nor any mention of him within the game; he seems to have turned invisible & missed the battle, and game, altogether.
So, we see that in the years immediately following D&D's creation, TSR products borrowed heavily, and openly, from Tolkien. Sometime in 1977/78, however, Things Changed. Words like "hobbit" and "ent" and "balrog" suddenly disappear from reprintings of the D&D digests, replaced by "halfling" and "treant" and "Type VI Demon" [Eldritch Wizardry page 3]; we hear no more of "Nazgul" but only of "spectres" and "wraiths"; no more Tolkien boardgames like Battle of Five Armies appear from TSR. That these changes were only on the surface is shown by the AD&D Monster Manual—the first hardcover rpg book, released in late 1977—describing 'Halflings' as falling into three subgroups: Hairfeet, Stouts, and Tallfellows, which correspond exactly to Tolkien's Harfoot, Stour, and Fallohide.
III. So, what happened? The answer can be found, albeit obliquely, in Kristen Thompson's excellent book The Frodo Franchise , a history of the making of the Peter Jackson movies. In her account of the way film rights to Tolkien's book got sold and resold to various filmmakers and studios, she describes how finally Saul Zaentz bought both the film and film merchandising rights in 1976, and by 1978 had set up Tolkien Enterprises to handle all licensing based on the Bakshi film (everything from Lord of the Nazgul piggybanks to puzzles that when assembled made photo-portraits of JRRT himself). This is important, because while conventional wisdom ascribes to the Tolkien Estate a reputation for laying down the law and descending like a hammer on people who use Tolkien names and characters without approval, in almost all cases I've been able to trace this is in fact not the Tolkien ESTATE—that is, the Tolkien family—but Tolkien ENTERPRISES, or Saul Zaentz. Given the uncertain state of the Tolkien copyrights in the 1970s (which is another story I can come back to later it you like), it's almost certain that it was NOT the Tolkien Estate, but rather Zaentz's Tolkien Enterprises, that sent TSR their cease & desist back sometime in late 1977. Whereupon Gygax and Company at once filed the serial numbers off, except in a few odd cases such as "orc" (which they ludicrously began to claim came not from Tolkien but from an Irish word for pig, leading to the silly-looking pig-snouted orcs of the Monster Manual [page 76]) and 'mithral' (which they simply decided to misspell) and otherwise went on their merry way.