Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Gygaxian Unnaturalism

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.


  1. Just so, James. My own view of the game has allways been "reality plus". The natural world as we know it with elements of the fantastic blended in. That may be a more AD&D attitutde than an Original D&D one though. My Holmes games are more darkly fantastic, and my AD&D Greyhawk more victorian expeditionary adventure feeling.

  2. It's not that strange when you think about it.

    I would call Gary a "realistic Fantasy" writer, because while he accepted there were efforts where you just have to say "it's magic", you also tried to come up with as plausible an explanation as possible for the world--or at least the core setting (material world and campaign setting).

    Gary studied a lot of history, and when creating the campaign worlds, he kept in mind his knowledge of history and warfare and other things he learned. Too many people today don't know enough about that--which is why people think Castles are just a summer home for a king instead of important fortresses. You have people like Peter Jackson creating an epic film and ignoring that the big human cities need farmland surrounding them, not crappy moorland.

  3. I don't really see a hard split between Gygaxian naturalism and unnaturalism. In the original AD&D DM's Guide (the only decent one to ever come out, IMHO), he even went so far as to give possible explanations for how so many large predators were able to exist without wiping out the herbavores. (A slightly different hue of sun causing rapid growth of certain plants which enable a prolific growth of the herbavore population, IIRC.) He was careful to emphasize the need for having some semblance of a working ecology.

    For the "purely" fantastic, the strong hints in the material are that we are to accept them as the realms of Faerie and archetypical underworlds, which mythology has always provided examples of. Dungeonland makes perfect sense in a world where chaotic and powerful beings like Puck (or Xagyg) exist.


  4. When it comes to dungeon designing I think I am a bit guilty of worrying too much about naturalism or a rationale for every inhabitant. When I think of playing, I usually only cringe at the most ridiculous cases of natural dissidence. This is something I am going to work on lightening up on. Things should follow, but it is fantasy. Nice post.

  5. It's never been a split between naturalism and the fantastic, at least not for me.

    However, I've always stopped myself before plopping down one of my favorite monsters and asking about why it's there, what it's doing, what effects it would have on everything else around it before I let it stay around. It's not a matter of disliking the truly fantastic, but of trying to make the fantastic fit in with the naturalistic (and vice versa really).

    For instance, dragons are great fun, but after a particular Kenzer module a while ago, I will never add another dragon lair to a campaign without making sure there's an extra space in there for . . . ahem . . . essentials.

  6. Gygaxian Naturalism is a definite phenomenon.

    1e AD&D shows it much more clearly than OD&D. OD&D has mythic Underworlds where reality breaks down, AD&D has the Abbot's ruined monastery cellars with calcified bones in the limestone-rich stream.

    I think it's important to recognise this, because it informs setting creation and enables the GM to decide which, if either, approach he will take, or whether to adopt a different approach.

    For example, I'm running a Saltmarsh Trilogy based Greyhawk online campaign with C&C, a perfect candidate for a highly GN approach. I'm also running a Wilderlands online Labyrinth Lord game, which setting IMO shows its gonzo OD&D roots. And I'm running a tabletop 3e game based on CS Lewis, Tolkien, and the implied setting of the pre-Karameikos B-series modules, which really does not feel at all Gygaxian in tone to me.

  7. S'mon is correct in that Gygax kept changing and expanding over time. You'll find his later work is much more "realistic" than earlier works.

    For instance, post TSR, his two other campaign settings assumed that all creatures like "demi-humans" and other races came from alternate dimensions, "Faery" realms. You'll find he also did not create new pantheons, focusing on the existing Earth ones.

  8. 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
    well, not quite, right? The assumptions are Gary's assumptions about the natural world, which might be quite different from the assumptions readers might have.

    ignoring that the big human cities need farmland surrounding them, not crappy moorland
    Crappy moorland can be defensible, or provide reasonable grazing (see Adam Smith for a discussion of whether grazing or arable land is more likely to be close to the city's markets), and plenty of cities were built in unpromising surroundings, even before the modern era and fast communications. I'm curious, though: the onyl city I can think of is Minas Tirith, and it surroundings looked more or less like Yorkshire to me: are you thinking of some other city?
    /pedantry - for reals, this time.

  9. I can’t turn up the quote, but a science fiction writer once said something about allowing himself one indulgence per story. Only one thing that couldn’t be explained by current scientific knowledge.

    I’ve noticed a similar thing among weird fantasy writers. There’s a tendency to have a single supernatural element in a story, which helps to highlight that element.

    For role-playing games, having the game world as similar to the real-world makes the game run smoother so that you can get to the interesting parts—be it action, the supernatural, character development, or whatever—faster and easier and with fewer misunderstandings.

    None of which is meant to disparage other approaches.

    You’re right, James. It seems Gary felt it natural to give his game worlds a foundation in his understanding of the real world. (I seems to me that that wasn’t even all that intentional.) Despite that, it is clear that—when the time came—he’d let loose with the fantastic or even silly.

    Now I understand why I was never quite comfortable with the “Gygaxian naturalism” term. Until now.

  10. I think the important tenet of Gygaxian Naturalism is not any sense of "realism". It is rather based on the ideas that:

    (1) The game world continues to exist even if the PCs turn and look the other way.

    (2) The game world should behave in a coherent fashion so that the PCs can meaningfully interact with it.

    (3) A consistent and coherent game world also makes it easier to deal with PCs who go haring off in an unexpected direction.

  11. @Justin: that is the clearest way of putting it I think. Maybe it's the use of the term realism/realist, and fantasy that causes so much confusion. Just as the word level has different meanings, so does realism, naturalism, and fantasy.