Tuesday, April 9, 2024

#AtoZChallenge2024: H is for Hobbit

The Hobbit
 "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."

A very unassuming start to an epic adventure. Not just the epic adventure that propelled the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, and his dwarf companions from the quiet of the Shire to a dragon's hoard and a great battle, but also how it shaped what would become Dungeons & Dragons.

It doesn't take a scholar of either J.R.R. Tolkien or of Dungeons & Dragons to see the similarities between the two. Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Dragons, Were-bears, Goblins, Trolls, Hobbits-er Halflings, and Dragons. Ancient underground areas, dark forests, and a grand adventure. 

It was enough that "Chainmail" and the first version of Dungeons & Dragons (often called the "Original Edition" or 0 Edition), had Hobbits, Ents, and Balrogs in it. Which got TSR a lot of threatening letters from the Tolkien Estate. So instead, we now have Halflings, Treants (Tree + Ent), and Balors (like the Irish Balor, but in name only).

Where it Began, Part 1: Chainmail

Prior to D&D there was Gary's first game, Chainmail, described as "Rules for Medieval Miniatures."  These rules were for War Gamers and not Role-Playing games, which did not really* exist yet.

*Yes there were and have been close games and others that were RPGs in all but name, but the term and the genre did not exist yet.

Chainmail allowed you to play medieval war games with minis. Most often made of lead and played in a large sandbox.  It was released in 1971, but there are claims that the rules in one form or another, existed in Gary's basement since 1968 after the first Gen Con. As people played with these rules, they expanded on them. One of the expansions was the Fantasy Supplement. Here, creatures like dragons, orcs, elves, Balrogs, Ents, and Hobbits were added.

OD&D 1st Print and 3rd Print with Chainmail

These additions proved to be very popular among some, and not so popular among older War Gamers. Yes. Even then the Edition Wars had their first salvos. 

This popularity and the notion that people wanted to play individual characters led to the first drafts of what would become Dungeons & Dragons.

The Tolkien Estate, of course, noticed. 

While sales stopped on TSR's "Battle of the Five Armies" (1975), copies of Dungeons & Dragons and Chainmail had to be edited to change to the more "Tolkien-approved" terms. My copy of Chainmail above still has Hobbits, Ents, and Balrogs. My 1st printing of OD&D has them, my more complete 3rd-4th printing does not.

Of course, there were missives in Dragon Magazine on how D&D was not even remotely inspired by Tolkien, but honestly they rang as hollow as the ones of D&D and AD&D being completely different games. Likely for similar reasons.

Years later on TSR had the chance to do a Lord of the Rings/D&D game and somehow managed to mess that deal up.  Competitor Iron Crown Enterprises (I.C.E.) would have their own Middle-Earth Role-Playing Game, and it was wildly successful. 

Where it Began, Part 2: Rankin/Bass

It is hard to think about a time when The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings were exclusive to literate geeks. We are far removed from the time when you could see patches on student's backpacks that proclaimed "Frodo Lives!" While today we have the massive Peter Jackson movies, back in the 1970s we had Rankin/Bass and "The Hobbit."

The Rankin/Bass Hobbit movie, appearing on TV in 1977, was my generation's gateway drug to D&D. I consider myself the 2nd (maybe a little on the 3rd) generation of D&D gamers. I did not come to this hobby because of wargaming. I came here because I read The Hobbit.  In fact, the book pictured above was the one I got for Christmas in 1981 along with my Moldvay Basic set because I was tired of borrowing other people's copies.  I had first read it in Jr. High and had already been exposed to D&D; this was exactly the right book at the right time in my life. I would later go on to read the Lord of the Rings and try to read The Silmarillion. I would finally succeed years later. 

For me, and many others, the Hobbit/Lord of the Rings and D&D are deeply linked. I have even joked that everyone is allowed one "Tolkien rip-off" character while playing D&D. Mine was a Halfling with the completely uninspired name of "Bilbo Perrin."

I reread the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings every few years or so. They are still among the best "D&D" tales out there, even if Gandalf only has the spell-casting power of a 6th-level D&D Wizard.


Tomorrow is I, and I will talk about Imagination.

The A to Z of Dungeons & Dragons: Celebrating 50 years of D&D.


Tamara said...

What a captivating journey through the origins of D&D and its intertwining with Tolkien's masterpieces! It's remarkable how a single line from "The Hobbit" sparked a legacy that continues to enchant and inspire adventurers across generations.

PT Dilloway said...

I read The Hobbit in 4th grade so it was probably about 1988. I think my uncle had a video game of The Hobbit sort of like those King's Quest type games where you had to enter commands in and hope the computer understood.

The thing with early D&D and Tolkein reminds me of my B entry for Battletech. Early Battletech games featured mechs based on Macross/Robotech robots but then rights issues made FASA and whoever else have to pull those from the games. Makes me wonder how much miniatures of those would be worth today, especially still in the package.

TWW said...

My wife is dyslexic, but she made herself read 'Lord of the Rings' and 'The Hobbit', it took her a while, but it is still her proudest reading achievement.

I have the beginners (modern) DnD set, but still no clue about it, or time to get a clue, soon I hope.

Amrita said...

I had no idea the Hobbit inspired the dungeons and dragons!Interesting read.

Chrys Fey said...

I can see where The Hobbit could've shaped and inspired D&D. Tolkien created such an incredibly rich world.

Martha said...

Very interesting, you sure know your Dungeons and Dragons! I never knew D&D came about because of the Hobbit.

Ganga said...

Stopping for the first time and I love hobbits. Not read but watched all the movies. So you did catch my attention.

Donna Smith said...

Read "The Hobbit" back in the 70's and loved it so much. Started the trilogy then, and didn't like it. Never even tried D&D. Although I have little knowledge of games of this ilk, it was interesting to read about them. I can imagine (my word for I) that it might not have taken me much to get involved!

Sundari Venkatraman said...

Hi, I don't know anything about gaming. But The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien I can relate to. It has been on my TBR for a long time. Thanks for the reminder. Happy A to Z blogging

martine said...

Hi, visiting from the A to Z challenge. It had never occurred to me that Tolkien was an inspiration for D&D. I have never played but I love the books. I read Lord of the Rings aloud with my daughter and we were so absorbed in the world that I did not want it to finish.

JazzFeathers said...

Really enjoyed this! I don't consider myself a gamer, though I played for a while with a little group, a long time ago.
But I am indeed a life-long Tolkien fan ;-)