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How Lord of The Rings Changed the Gaming Community

28. October, 2012Tags: Lord of the Rings Online, MMO Blog

One Ring to Rule Them AllIt can’t be denied just how much of an influence JRR Tolkien has had on the world of fantasy, in literature, fantasy role playing games, video games, film and even in music. The hippy equivalent of N4G users may have knocked the six books and their author in the sixties (including Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons and Dragons), but the increase in sales of all sorts of fantasy, plus the widespread acceptance of it as a genre, can largely be attributed to that body of work. Perhaps it is for that reason that the Tolkien estate is so protective of their property, why you’ll only ever find hobbits in official Lord of the Rings games (or the upcoming Hobbit games). This over-protectiveness changed up some of the freedom of people writing D&D style games, but continues to have an effect on MMO games today.



One Ring To Rule Them All

It took a while for Lord of the Rings to hit the point where it was synonymous with the fantasy genre. For over a decade it was seen as a critical and commercial failure. It had underground success, finding fans in the sort of people who lived on communes and wrote slogans on subway walls. The sort of person who enjoyed Lord of the Rings was the sort of person who may have enjoyed Dungeons and Dragons (or its predecessor, Chainmail) and many used it as a way of expanding Tolkien’s world, or increasing their role within it.

Tolkien and Lord of the Rings Games

Chainmail (and early runs of Dungeons and Dragons) openly used the Lord of the Rings monsters and names in their texts. Hobbits, ents and more, as well as the way in which things like dwarves were portrayed, were obviously derivative of Tolkien’s work, and there’s no more proof of this than, when the cease and desist order came from the Tolkien Estate’s lawyers, the game changed quite recognisably. The very book that had popularized the genre and helped sell the games had now become the controller of everything influenced by it, an extra surprise given the almost communal nature of the fantasy genre.

How it Changed (Middle) Earth

"No longer were people allowed, at least in public games, to use characters and creatures from The Lord of the Rings in their role playing".

That might seem like a minor thing, especially given that some of the changes were so little that it hardly makes a distance (hobbit to halfling, for instance, something that Gygax and co wouldn’t have gotten away with since the mass use of that phrase in the films), but it actually had a big effect on the D&D world, and later on MMOs.

Firstly there’s the obvious: Lord of the Rings has remained popular as a series of books, as a series of films and as a series of video games. The Lord of the Rings games, especially Lord of the Rings Online, is very specifically Tolkien, to the point where you can recognise the world at almost first glance. That feeling of uniqueness is down to that first cease and desist letter, because the Tolkien estate decided to be very choosy about how Middle

Earth and its inhabitants were portrayed. Sure, it may not have been the fairest of decisions (and I imagine there were people who just created their own games around the franchise anyway), but without that letter we probably wouldn’t have had the Lord of the Rings film trilogy on the scale that it was presented and we probably wouldn’t have Lord of the Rings Online, a successful MMO and a true digital representation of much of Tolkien’s work.

Lord of the Rings Online Games and Orcs

Read our Lord of the Rings Online review here

It goes deeper than that though, in that many other games in the fantasy genre, MMOs or otherwise, feels decidedly “unfantasy” because they’re missing something that originated in this archetypal, all-consuming franchise.

There’s a reason that so many fantasy MMOs feel generic, and that’s because, frankly, they are.

In many ways it might be said that that cease and desist letter set back creativity on many levels. In a genre in which wearing a pointy hat makes you a wizard and having stubble makes you a ranger, having restrictions on how you can evolve things is a difficult blow. It also set a worrying precedent, and it allowed Gygax and others to stamp down hard on their intellectual properties years later. Forget that nobody really knows for certain how the game came about or how many people were involved at any given time, forget that fantasy authors had always been fairly open to sharing creatures and themes: if Gygax owned it, Gygax didn’t want you misappropriating it.

This left game creators with a very basic palette from which to work It meant that, for the first time, there were legal limits on the imagination; it meant that creators and players had a finite amount of things to play with.

The One Rings Adventures Over the Edge of the Wild

As more and more creators tried to protect the things they’d created specifically for their game from being used elsewhere, there became less and less additions to the generic fantasy stock. A hobbit was a hobbit and you couldn’t use it in your game without permission (which you’re never going to get).

Breaking Out

As things become generic in public consciousness, the trademark can become invalid.

From petrol to aspirin to zipper, all of these were, at one point, legally protected and could only be used by one company.  The same, I suppose, has happened to many fantastical creatures, created by a kind of public consciousness but originating from a single person. Vampires weren’t created by Bram Stoker, but his book remains our number one source on information about vampires. Frankenstein’s monster was created by Mary Shelly, but not having use of that character in certain context would be odd.


This is the first of our articles with information based on Jon Peterson's Playing at the World; look out for more coming soon.

There will come a time, perhaps not in our lifetime, that writers, creators and people who imagine will have access to ents and black riders and a whole manner of monsters and creatures as seen in Tolkien.

Probably by which point, people will care less than they do now. There are Lord of the Rings games, both digital and table top, that keep people from needing to use things from the book. 

If they already have access, what’s the point in using them elsewhere? It’s an interesting case, I think, and one that defined many things we take for granted. Tolkien’s estate is infamously difficult to work with, part of the reason the BBC plays of Lord of the Rings are now relatively difficult to come across, and in many ways, that’s been a good thing for both fans of the books and fans of fantasy in general. But it’s also have negative knock-on effects, effects that we continue to see through to this day.

M. Growcott

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