Okay, that’s a bit harsh. What I really mean is Tolkien‘s elaborately crafted setting didn’t do us any favors but the title was getting wordy. That’s not to say that, like many readers, I don’t love his setting. I do adore it, from its linguistic elements to the ring with its history back into the earlier ages of the world. It’s all great stuff and much of what makes The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) the story it is.
The disservice is that such a setting is not a requisite for a good fantasy book or even a long running series. Especially for those of us who come to writing through refereeing fantasy roleplaying games, it can be a time-consuming pitfall. You see, having enjoyed Tolkien’s appendices, The Silmarillion, and other assorted bits, it is easy to take this level of detail as a requirement for a good fantasy setting, when it isn’t. It worked for Tolkien but let’s not forget he was a philologist and university professor: he created this great world as much as for a hobby as for his novel.
You can tell the setting only matters so much because Tolkien actually put very little of it into LOTR. Certainly some is present, but only enough to serve the story. There’s even less of it in The Hobbit. Granted that was an earlier book but it is interesting how little of his great setting shows up in the Hobbit, yet we still love it.
It is easy to forget that and dive into creating an elaborate setting for your own D&D campaign or novel. If you like creating settings, go to it. I love it myself. The thing is neither your D&D players nor your readers are really going to ever appreciate an intricate setting because it won’t matter much to their enjoyment of the game or book (unless you happen to become the next Tolkien but, while fun to daydream about, that might not be a great goal for allocating your time.) These days, most readers seem extremely reluctant to read even a word of appendix, and who can blame them after so many tedious examples of ones, post-Tolkien?
If you want to be a successful fantasy writer, you certainly do need a good premise. But beyond that, elaborate setting history is dangerous. A the very least, it is a distraction, keeping you from spending your precious time on writing your fiction. More insidiously, if you do create all that wonderful history, you might find it sneaking into your book as unnecessary backstory, sapping the very life from your novel.
So, enjoy Tolkien’s world for the wonder it is but have a care before making one yourself.