Sunday, May 29, 2011

Holmes & Cook: Tolkien

For any one who has spent any amount of time reading blogs in the OSR corner of the internet, Appendix N is a very familiar term, because it is part of our shared experience of this hobby. In fact, if I understand correctly, when Goodman Games tosses their hat into the arena of FRPGs with Dungeon Crawl Classics, it is largely an exercise in tapping into source material like that found in Appendix N of the 1ed DMG.

In contrast, neither Homes or Cook provide much of a list of literary source material. I have yet to find anything at all in Cook (I am guessing he was quite comfortable with the list provided by Molday in his Basic Edition) and the only thing that resembles an Appendix N in Holmes reads as follows:

The imaginary universe of Dungeons & Dragons obviously lies not too far from the Middle Earth of J.R.R. Tolkien's great Lord of the Rings trilogy. The D & D universe also impinges on the fantasy worlds of Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Gardner F. Fox, classical mythology and any other source of inspiration the Dungeon Master wants to use.

I find this fascinating in both its brevity and its emphasis. Whereas other editions of D&D obviously invite payers to celebrate in a smorgasbord of pastiche of both fantasy and science fiction, Holmes seems to elevate Tolkien above every other entry in his abbreviated list of potential sources.

This emphasis is not limited to this list, either. He cites Tolkien twice in his monster section. He says of specters:
The "Nazgul" of Tolkien fall into this category.
And of wights:
Barrow wights (as per Tolkien) are nasty nearly immaterial creatures who drain away life energy levels when they score a hit in melee, one level per hit.
In addition, he uses the word hobbit on five different occasions for halfling. For example, in his explanation of the Cure Light Wounds spell:

During the course of one melee round this spell will heal damage done to a character, including elves, dwarves and hobbits.

He also mentions balrogs in a pair of explanations. For example:

Large or powerful creatures like demons, balrogs and dragons may be highly resistant to certain kinds of spells especially if thrown by a magic-user of lower level than their own level.

Having now spent the amount of time that I have with Holmes, I am not really all that surprised by how large a shadow Tolkien casts over this particular edition of the game. It explains the underlying culture implied by Holmes that moves from paganism to Christianity, because Tolkien's own devout Catholic faith heavily influenced the stories he told about Middle Earth. It also helps to understand the Dungeon as NPC that seems to ooze from the pages of Holmes. It can be understood as an expression of Tolkien's vision of the Long Defeat — where heroes descend into the depths to fight evil, knowing that even if they win today, ultimately they will fail.

There was a time in my life when I would have resented this overt homage to Tolkien and his creation. He was never, and may never be, one of my favorite fantasy authors. I do appreciate him, however, and I have come to realize that his influence over me has been more profound that I ever imagined. As such, I now appreciate the way that Holmes has allowed Tolkien to influence his edition of D&D. In many ways, this influence has resulted in a version of D&D that I have always wanted to play.


  1. Don't forget the Green Dragon Inn in the Sample Dungeon!

    Most of the Tolkien references in Holmes come straight from the original OD&D booklet text. Exceptions are the sentence in the section on literature you quoted above, the Green Dragon, and his mention of a lawful werebear (which was likely inspired by Beorn).

    Holmes was certainly a fan of Tolkien. He later wrote in his 1981 book that "this epic adult fairy tale, without a doubt the greatest work of fiction produced in this century, inflamed the imaginations of an entire generation" (pg 63)

  2. @Zenopus
    I knew I hadn't caught all the Tolkien references. Thank you — especially for the quote. It reinforces everything I've managed to glean from what is quickly becoming one of my favorite editions of this game.