Content of the article: "De-Tolkiening Your Setting"
The works of JRR Tolkien are probably the greatest single influence on fantasy today. I thought about adding the provision "in English," but since the movies he's had a pretty big effect on non-English fantasy as well.
Why should one de-Tolkien your campaign then? What is to be gained from getting away from this massive influence? Well, there's plenty of reasons. First, it's old and tired, and we can tell some very different stories by changing a few things here and there. George RR Martin did not lean on Tolkien too heavily, and his works are doing fine (I mean, monetarily). So maybe you just want to try something new. Second, Tolkien's works are the product of a set of cultural assumptions from around WWI and WWII, cultural assumptions that don't really jive with who we are today. I guarantee some people will argue in the comments, and honestly I believe him that he detested allegory and made no point to make one with his works, but just because he wasn't writing Animal Farm doesn't mean that the world he lived in did not impact how he wrote. And you can build a more inclusive game that better reflects who we are today by doing away with some of the legacies he left us.
In the end, I don't care why you want to de-Tolkien your campaign, I want to give you a list of the foundations that D&D (and other fantasy settings) have taken from Tolkien and how to get away from them. This list is more of worldbuilding, I don't think you can de-Tolkien a campaign or a world that is in the middle of play: you'll have to start from scratch. Just a warning ahead of time.
Tolkien is famous for making new languages for his books. Elvish is a coherent, learnable language that he just invented, which is bizarre to me. This influence is so strong, it has transcended the genre, because I'd argue that the existence of a spoken and coherent Klingon is related to Tolkien. So destroying that legacy is one of the first ways to de-Tolkien. So what exactly is Tolkien-influenced language?
To Tolkien, language is racial. Every race has one unified language, and it has been their language since time immemorial. A dwarf can read the works written by their ancestors no matter how many years have passed; an Elf from the far north of Mirkwood can speak perfectly with an Elf from the south of Lothlorien.
The easiest and first way to de-Tolkien is to ignore this honestly ridiculous concept and build language a little more like how it works in real life, in that it depends on culture, time, and location. An easy fix would be to assign languages to regions, and all characters get Common and their regional language to start, rather than some racial language. Even if there are racial empires (only dwarves live in the kingdom below the mountain) that speak racial languages, there is no reason why dwarves from a different area should speak the same language. So build languages after regions rather than races. Build some dead languages to give you scholarly characters more time to shine.
Which brings me to common; it shouldn't come out of nowhere. Tolkien never really addressed why everybody can speak the same basic language (as far as I know, I am no Tolkien scholar), and that sort of assumption pervades D&D settings. There are all these languages people use, and then the common that really isn't the purview of anybody. It just is. I think that this is one of those failings of Tolkien in his times because that's his approach to English, even though English has a long history of imperialism that has made it the global common. So common should come from somewhere, it should have a history, an explanation for why so many speak it. And if you don't have a good one, make extra Commons; Chinese was a 'common' across East Asia at the same time that Latin was being used as a common across Europe, pidgin languages have developed in all sorts of nexuses of multiple cultures, and they exist alongside many other languages. See the appendix at the bottom of this post for some additional ideas on how to make non-native speakers feel, well, non-native.
Counterpoint to some of what I said above, Humans in Tolkien don't fall prey to any of the problems of single languages. They have multiple nations and languages, they aren't a monolith, so clearly I am wrong about Tolkien, right?
That brings me to the point though; races are generally portrayed as monolithic in Tolkien, and the exceptions only make the problem more glaring. The fact that some races are allowed diversity and change and dynamism is as much of an indictment of how he treated races as the existence of the monolithic races themselves. To Tolkien, some races were dynamic and interesting and allowed to have distinct variations within themselves, and others were not.
The easy way to fix this is to, like languages, break the silos. You don't even have to change racial modifiers and abilities or anything like that, just break the idea that there is a Nation of Dwarves and a Kingdom of Elves and a Land of Halflings. There might be more in one area or another, but allow for places to be mixed and diverse. Once they are there, they can speak the regional language, as noted above. Even if there are single-race nations, there should be a reason, and allow for not only different expressions of those races when they come from different lands, but cultural variations even within those distinct racial nations (for example, there might be cultural and slight linguistic differences north vs south in this place, or a religious split).
I like this as a solution, because it not only breaks the language issue, but the monolithic culture issue. An Orc from Thay might be totally different in language, temperament, attitude, and cultural ethos from an Orc from Waterdeep. Those places should have an influence on who they are, more so than their genes. A corollary is that if you get away from race being key to a person and replace that with culture or region, then you can make them evil and still avoid some problematic issues. It's not that specific types of people are born evil, but that it's just an evil empire over there, one defined by its stances on issues like, I dunno, evil things. I'd still avoid too much "Faceless, Menacing Hordes from the Exotic East" in your Evil Empires, but at least it isn't totally racially motivated.
This might be more of a pet peeve, and I think there is a lot less literature out there about this, but I blame Tolkien for making maps where the borders just end arbitrarily. There's Mordor in the East, and then…. the map ends. There's no real borders, either mountains or sea, that suggest that there's an end to things there. In fact, throughout the story, there are many times where people from out there are brought up (as servants of Sauron, usually), so clearly the map didn't just end. I think this is again one of those sorts of mistakes coming from his time, because the people out there were just not important, their cultures boring, their influence minimal, they were not worth mapping. We see this in a lot of fantasy since, though in fairness some modern stuff like GRRM and Sanderson's Stormlight Archive have stopped doing it.
The way to change this is to have a map that keeps going. Even if it's in your head and the players never see it, you know what is beyond the edge of the page. And the edge of the page should suggest why it is not mapped any further; there's a sea at the edge, or landscapes that prevent exploration. The map should say that too, it can end with question marks and let the players know that nobody knows what is out there. You don't even have to know what is out there yet until it comes up, but make sure that there are reasons why the map ends where it is, and that if you ever get there, you're ready to give it the same treatment that you've given the other parts of the world, and the players can learn it with you, new and fresh to the setting.
The Lesser Age
This is one of the more nefarious and tricky bits to tease out of a setting, because it is so implicit, so buried, and so pervasive to fantasy as a whole that it is hard to disentangle from the rest of fantasy. What I mean by "The Lesser Age," is that in Tolkien, the events of the books we know occurs during an time when things are just less cool and fun and awesome than they had been in the past. In the past, people built great empires and cities, they enchanted powerful magic items, and did deeds of great heroism and import. In the time of the books, the empires are shadows of what they were, magic is disappearing from the world, and a darkness threatens to end everything.
But that's fantasy, isn't it? The 'Dungeons' in D&D implies that there are ruins of lost civilizations kicking around, so clearly there are bygone ages of yore to explore and loot. There has to be scary, world-ending things arising from the depths of history to threaten the players and make them heroes. How to do that if not for making the past of your world more exciting and advanced than the present?
By making the world exciting, lively, and full of innovation. I think it's cool that some cataclysm set your world back by generations, but to avoid Tolkien, make the re-attainment of previous heights possible, and in fact, show that the world is moving that way. That could even be a major plot point; what caused the cataclysm, and will society's and magic's ongoing research to re-attain prior levels reactivate it?
But even without that point, you could get by without the cataclysm and just approach it as if the truly exiting things in magic are new and just being developed. A third option is to bring new powers into conflict with the old, showing how emerging understandings challenge existing power structures. For example, maybe all illusion magic is just brand new, people are making it up as they go, and the wizard colleges are just not having it, persuading governments to ban this trickery magic as giving all proper magic a bad name? You can have conflicts between the past and present without, like Tolkien, setting the world up as a lesser version of the past that still must deal with its legacies.
So for a TL;DR, if you are worldbuilding and want to break some of the foundations Tolkien set, for whatever reason, then make regional languages, build cultures around places and ideas rather than races, don't end your maps arbitrarily, and make your present vivid and progressive rather than always living in the shadow of the past.
I built this list for Yuri Fetisov, an NPC in my podcast campaign, MarrieDnD (@MarrieDnD, www.marriednd.com). It is a compilation of sayings from other cultures translated directly in words rather than meanings into English. They are great ways of showing that these characters do not speak common as their native tongue, because while they know the words, their original language's idioms do not translate well. It's an effective tool to get across this diversity of language and culture I have been talking about in this post, I've found. It isn't really a dx list because they are all too situational to be used randomly.
Life is no ponyfarm (life's not perfect)
If you call yourself a mushroom, you must go in the basket (walk the walk to talk the talk)
In quiet pools do imps live (quiet water runs deep)
Only grave cures baldness (a leopard cannot change its spots)
There is no truth in the legs (one think's better sitting down)
Without torture there is no sciences (no pain no gain)
Wolf is fed by the legs (learn better by doing / must do the work to accomplish anything)
Three men make an owlbear (repeated rumors become fact)
No point climbing trees to catch fish (do it the right way / measure twice, cut once)
Like giving jade beakers to Ivan (to trust fools with important things)
Like a fox calling wolves family (to use powerful connections)
It is fool that moves mountains (mind over matter, you can do anything you put your mind to)
Lets open the door to the mountain (let's get started)
A man who sails like a demon will meet them (advising caution)
Be the pelican among gulls (stand out)
Where Ivan sees a crime, a criminal will be found (there is always blame to go around)
Where flowers bloom, butterflies will come (help comes to those that help themselves)
Do pigeons know the hearts of swans? (be true to your promises)
There are many paths but one death (all roads lead to Rome)
Umbrellas do not cause the rain (correlation is not causation)
Wolves and bears do not share (between a rock and a hard place)
Noisy wyvern, quiet dragon (bark is worse than its bite)
Single men can always find attractive partners (dive into the deep end / many options but must commit to one)
- Why I like Witcher better – From a LotR huge fan
- My Players are asking me to change to our mother language!
- A translator’s rant – The non-English languages need some love
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