J. R. R. Tolkien is pretty much the granddaddy of fantasy roleplaying games. That title comes from his enormous influence on how we see the Fantasy genre today. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, rich in its languages, cultures and topography, is the root for a huge number of imitation worlds. It’s not by accident that Dungeons & Dragons has elves, dwarves, and halflings; Gygax’s initial wargame was spun out of the genre that Tolkien founded.
Being that he’s kind of a big deal, I wondered if Tolkien might have something to contribute to roleplaying games in general. I dug up an essay he wrote called “On Fairy Stories” that gives a few of the reasons he thinks fairy tales are important and good for human beings. His insights also apply pretty well to fantasy roleplaying games. Here are five ways that fairy tales are good for you, and some ideas about how this dovetails with fantasy roleplaying games.
1) Fantasy Allows Us To Explore New Worlds
Tolkien makes the case that fairy stories, which I will refer to as capital-f Fantasy, satisfy a number of fundamental human cravings and desires. The first desire is to make imaginary things become real. One of the fundamental attractions of fiction is the ability to participate in a secondary world that has different laws from our own. The purpose of Fantasy is for someone to become what Tolkien calls a "subcreator" of a world and to share it with others. Good Fantasy is detailed and rich enough that it creates 'Secondary Belief,' the sense that the sub-created world is a real place. Good Fantasy is also the result of a cooperation between the author and the reader that results in both being enchanted.
There are clearly parallels to this in roleplaying games. Roleplaying games are basically the definition of Fantasy: a cooperative creation and exploration of a secondary world. It was interesting, also, that Tolkien mentioned “different laws.” The rules systems in roleplaying games lend a sense of realism to the game world because there are limitations to what characters can do. Though too many rules can be clunky, sometimes you need a bit of crunch to develop Secondary Belief.
2) Fantasy Encourages The Recovery Of Wonder
Good Fantasy can reorient our perspective. We might look at real life a bit differently after reading a great story. Ordinary things might hold wonder for us again. What does a hike in the mountains mean after reading about a man who became one? Or perhaps the people we meet bear a resemblance to characters from a story in the way they help or hinder us. To be amazed is to be like a child in the best sense, to see life with new eyes. Fantasy can also inspire the wonder that comes of seeing something altogether new. Not only do old familiar things become ‘wonder-full,’ but Fantasy helps us to dust off our sense of wonder for new things, which adults have often put on the shelf.
This isn’t something I had previously considered when playing roleplaying games, but I have to say that it definitely applies. A good game can offer the thrill of discovery and the excitement of victory, though you’re technically only sitting around the table dropping polyhedrons. Even if the only thing recovered is a love for playing games and make-believe, that’s a win.
3) Fantasy Is A Kind Of Escape
Old man Tolkien comes down pretty hard on people who dismiss Fantasy as escapism. He lists plenty of things that suck, things that people want to escape from: hunger, thirst, poverty, pain, sorrow, injustice. He further says that even if you don’t face big problems like these, it can offer an escape from other inevitable human limitations: not being able to fly, not knowing the future or the past, being unable to communicate with animals, being stuck in a body that will get old... In some ways, Fantasy can provide an escape even from the idea of death! Finally, Fantasy enables us to say, “this world is not the way it could be,” or even, “this world is not the way it should be.” It can help us to grieve problems in life, or give us a chance to reflect on them. This kind of self-reflection on heroism or virtue may also inspire us to make changes in our life.
No doubt this rings true for many roleplaying game enthusiasts. It can be very satisfying to go from the grey world of office politics to a black-and-white, good-vs-evil reality where problems can be solved with a club! At its best, though, roleplaying “escapism” helps us to become better people. Consequences in game don’t actually have real stakes, which allows us to practice being a bit more brave, a bit more curious, and a bit more persuasive. All such habits have real world value.
4) Fantasy Consoles Us, Telling Us That Everything Will Turn Out All Right
Tolkien argued that one essential characteristic of the fairy-story was the happy ending. The final moment, when all the problems are solved often provides the reader with a glimpse of pure joy that is somehow greater than can be described. A joy that is “beyond the walls of the world,” hinting at something greater, maybe even sacred. In the end, don’t we all want a happy ending? It seems to be what we are meant for, in a way.
However, not all roleplaying games have a happy ending, let’s just lay that out there now. When you do wrap things up with a neat happily-ever-after, you get a taste of the joy that Tolkien was talking about. It can be as good as, or better than, the ending of a movie or a book itself. It can be hard to design games with a happy ending while maintaining a sense of urgency or uncertainty, but it should definitely be a consideration when planning a game.
5) Fantasy Connects Us To What Is Essentially Human
The idea that everyone wants a happy ending is just one of the ways that Fantasy taps into our humanity. Fairy tales let us see into an archaic past which, by its unfamiliarity, allows us to see what is common amongst us. Fantasy stories reflect the deepest human desires for justice, resolution, adventure, peril, triumph, the victory of good over evil, and vivid beauty. Tolkien suggests that fairy tales give us a peek at the building blocks of what makes us human. Things like the importance of doing the right thing, even if it works to our detriment. Respecting prohibitions. Keeping promises. Being honest and kind. Stories about nameless people from 3000 years ago got thrown into one big pot of soup where now they rub shoulders with princes, princesses, and the gods. Even if fairy-stories are not historical, in the strictest sense, they are broadly historical; that is, the stories probably happened to someone, even if the real names have been lost over time. The storytellers tell stories that have happened to familiar people, but they recast the characters as gods.
At its very best, this is what fantasy roleplaying games can bring us. We connect to what is best about our humanity (honor, heroism, sacrifice) and play it out as a reminder that we can always aspire to more. Roleplaying games are a great venue to practice the virtues that we hope to develop in our own lives. I hope you can take that and run with it, bringing your games up to the next level!
Landrew is a full-time educator, part-time art enthusiast. He applies his background in literature and fine arts to his favourite hobby (roleplaying games) because the market for a background in the Fine Arts is very limited. He writes this blog on company time under a pseudonym. Long live the Corporation!
Picture Reference: http://mentalfloss.com/article/59736/10-things-you-might-not-know-about-jrr-tolkien
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.