Like the term "old school," trying to define the precise mix of ingredients that makes Dungeons & Dragons Dungeons & Dragons is a slippery business, so slippery in fact that many have long been quick to dismiss it as a pointless exercise. This quickness has been all the more pronounced in the last year. Between the death of Gary Gygax and the advent of a new game laying claim to his legacy, there's been much discussion of these and related topics, much of it sadly ill-informed either by history or by logic. There's a natural tendency in human beings -- gamers in particular -- to want to put ideas and concepts into nice, neat mental "boxes." I'm as guilty of this as anyone, as regular readers of this blog can attest. It's the same tendency that reduces complex discussions into simple formulae or sees lists as exhaustive rather than as mere aids to understanding.
Something like this has happened in the months since I wrote the well-regarded entry entitled "Gygaxian Naturalism." I don't think I'm flattering myself to say that it's one of the more influential posts to have arisen out of the old school blogging community. Lots of people seem to have latched on to the idea I put forward in that post, including people whose interests and agendas are very different than my own. Unfortunately, some have reduced my original post to a mantra or formula, seeing in it an exhaustiveness I never intended. In and of itself, that's not necessarily a bad thing, since I'd much rather see the adoption of a literal-minded interpretation of Gygaxian Naturalism than the wholesale rejection of it. The problem is that such literal-mindedness makes it far too easy for some to reject the principle or to argue that it's incoherent, much in the way that a child who'd been taught "all swans are white" would be at a loss to explain the black swans of Australia.
Naturalist though he was, Gary Gygax was also -- perhaps even pre-eminently -- a fantasist: "These rules are strictly fantasy ... those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers. With this last bit of advice we invite you to read on and enjoy a 'world' where the fantastic is fact and magic really works!" It doesn't take a sharp-eyed scholar to find innumerable examples of where Gygax's love of the fantastic trumps his love for the natural. For every creature whose behavior obeys an approximation of natural laws, there is another that exists wholly outside of Nature. For every place where the implied world of D&D works according to recognizable axioms, there is another place where they flout them.
The many exceptions to naturalism found in the Gygaxian canon are only a threat to a naive understanding of it -- an understanding founded primarily on tallying examples of one approach and weighing against examples of another. I suspect that, if this is the approach one takes, explicit examples of naturalism would prove far less numerous than one might imagine. That's partly because the underlying assumptions of D&D -- the things it doesn't say -- are those of the real, natural world. Gygax didn't bother to talk about such things, because he simply assumed their veracity, whereas unnatural events and effects needed specific explication. Gygaxian fantasy takes place not in a wholly magical world, but instead in a natural world to which magic has been added, which is why magic often gets a great deal more attention in his writings.
All that aside, Gygaxian unnaturalism is nevertheless an equally important principle of the game. Flip through the Monster Manual and take a look at the creatures you find there. You'll almost certainly find monsters, like demons and devils, that exist completely outside anything resembling an earthly ecology and whose existence and behavior cannot be accounted for according to "scientific" principles. More than that, though, look carefully even at many of the "natural" creatures described in that volume: dinosaurs, Irish deer, giant lynx with the power of speech, to name but three. None of these beasts is "monstrous" in the usual sense of the term, but all are largely outside our experience of the natural world, being either throwbacks to earlier prehuman eras or unnatural modifications of real world animals. Indeed, a goodly percentage of the Monster Manual's entries are made up of giant animals of many sorts -- hardly sterling examples of Gary's commitment to naturalism.
But why does it have to be either/or? Part of the appeal of Gygax's vision of Dungeons & Dragons is that he rejected both the whimsy of a completely magical world even as he avoided the banality of "realistic" fantasy. His unique genius was in being able to steer the game between these twin extremes and into the heady waters where the two approaches exist in relative harmony, the one serving the other. It would be a mistake, I think, to deny that naturalism was the foundation on which Gary built his game, but, by the same token, that never stopped him from building glorious edifices of purest fantasy -- the "dark fairyland" of the Drow, the terrifying tomb of the demi-lich, the whimsy of Dungeonland -- upon that foundation. This marvelous coincidence of opposites is perhaps the greatest of many gifts Gary bequeathed to the game he co-created and tirelessly promoted during his life. It is his truest legacy and one I have tried very hard to honor.