Monday, April 4, 2022

The Wages of Naturalism

I think it's fair to say that my post on Gygaxian Naturalism way back in the first year of this blog is one of, if not the, most influential posts I've ever written. I regularly come across people using the terminology, often with no knowledge of its origins, on blogs, forums, and elsewhere. I think that's terrific. I imagine most writers dream of creating something that becomes sufficiently widespread that their own role in creating is forgotten or, perhaps more charitably, subsumed by the creation itself. In any case, I take no small pleasure in having put a name to and explicated a concept that retains some degree of currency in unrelated discussions almost a decade and a half later.

Ironically, my own feelings about the consequences of Gygaxian Naturalism are in flux and with each passing day becoming more negative. To be clear: I'm still very much a proponent of consistent worldbuilding, which is what I think Gygaxian Naturalism is at its root. However, I increasingly feel as if many designers have mistaken consistency, which is generally an unalloyed good, for realism, by which I mean (in this case) operating according to rational – or even scientific – principles. In general, I don't think fantasy is very well served by most expressions of realism, as they will ultimately undermine the fantasy.

Maintaining consistency and coherence without toppling over into monomanical realism is not easy, so I try not to come down too harshly on lapses. Take, for example, this illustration (by Lisa A. Free) that appeared in the 1982 RuneQuest release, Trollpak, which is widely considered a masterclass in how to present a nonhuman species for use in a roleplaying game.
Taken in itself, this anatomical diagram of a troll is a wonderful piece of work that helps ground one of Glorantha's most fearsomely antagonistic species in an almost palpable reality – and that's part of my problem with it. As a setting, Glorantha has a (fairly) consistent tone, one grounded in myth. That's a huge part of its appeal to me. Illustrations like the one above, though, they detract from that mythic feel. Seeing one of the Uz laid out like, dissected and tagged like a cadaver from a Renaissance sketchbook, doesn't, in my opinion, add to the consistent worldbuilding of Glorantha, even if it does shed light on how trolls are able to eat anything. Instead, it actively detracts from any conception of trolls as weird or wondrous inhabitants of the Underworld.

Consider, too, this illustration from issue #72 (April 1983) of Dragon:
Almost anyone who was a reader of Dragon at the time should remember this piece of art, which accompanied "The Ecology of the Piercer" by Chris Elliott and Richard Edwards. At the time it first appeared, I absolutely adored this article and, judging from the fact that it inspired a regular feature in the magazine for many years to come, I suspect I was not alone in my feelings. Like the troll diagram, that of the piercer attempts to present a interpretation of a well-known monster that works pretty well on a rational, scientific level but that, in so doing, also undermines its weirdness and wonder.

Obviously, everyone draws the line of what constitutes "undermining" fantasy in a different place. But I nevertheless can't help but feel that the tendency toward describing fantastical beings by recourse to rationalistic, scientific categories is an error – an error not just in applying the principle of coherent worldbuilding that undergirds Gygaxian Naturalism but also in understanding fantasy itself. Once upon a time, science fiction was considered a species of the wider genre of a fantasy. SF took place in an imaginary world, as all fantasies do, but one whose imaginary elements were theoretically explicable by recourse to scientific axioms. The anatomical drawings above seem to be tentative examples of applying science fictional principles to fantasy.

I'm not yet convinced that the approach pioneered by Trollpak or "The Ecology of the Piercer" is the inevitable endpoint of Gygaxian Naturalism. At the same time, I could cite plenty of other examples down through the years that suggest that, for many people, consistency and coherence can only be understood in terms of rationalism and science, even when discussing a purely fantastical world and its inhabitants. I struggle with this myself, so I appreciate the difficulties, even as I regret the outcome. 


  1. Although the two examples are alike in approach, they contrast in their contexts. Trollpak’s is at odds with the attempt to make Glorantha feel mythic. But OD&D and AD&D 1e always had a science fantasy bent, as you have noted, dating back to Blackmoor and many Appendix N entries, so the piercer ecology to me fits.

  2. I basically concur, however beware of making things needlessly fantastic. A benefit of keeping some elements grounded is that there is less to explain throughout the course of the campaign.

    For example for my Majestic Fantasy Realms unless stated otherwise one can assume that things work as they did in the medieval period of our history particularly medieval Europe.

    1. I absolutely agree. I don't think everything should be fantastical. Conversely, I don't think everything should be easily explicable according to real world scientific principles.

    2. In my opinion a setting with inexplicable elements is as valid as any other setting. But....

      In a myth, or legend, we are passively reading or listening to the story. With RPGs players as their characters have the option to poke it. As the referee one has to come with an answer.

      For example I killed a troll in Glorantha and then sliced open it's body. As gruesome as that sounds, it leave the question open of what does the character sees.

      If one starts a campaign with fantastic inexplicable elements and stick to it over the decades, questions like that tend to get answers.

      When written up years later it can look excessively detailed.

      My solution to the problem which I am trying to put into place with my own work is to have a lot of Rob's Notes to explain why I have the things I do. Also I keep in mind how my campaign started and limited what I write about at first to the things that come up the most often.

  3. I was always under the impression that the Piercer was intended as parody/satire(?), but then inspired the more serious subsequent Ecology series.

    Worlds/Works where this approach was better - the alien diagrams in Star Frontiers; both of S. Petersen's original guides to Cthulhu Mythos and Dreamland creatures.

    1. You could well be correct. I believe the original three "Ecology" articles first appeared in a British fanzine and it would not surprise me in the slightest that they were intended as parodies.

  4. A world in which rationality is useless will be of no use in a roleplaying game. If how things work can't be figured out, then smart play is impossible. That said, things can be rational without being scientific (or even pseudo- or quasi-scientific).
    That said, I think that the distinction between fantasy and science fiction is often ignored by the game's foundational texts (e.g. are Lovecraft's Great Old Ones alien beings or gods? The answer is "yes") so I also ignore it. Ultimately I think Gygaxian naturalism is a fine thing because it makes for better, more immersive games IME.

    1. Perhaps "rationalism" was a poor choice of words on my part. What I meant was something more akin to the idea that the only kind of consistency or coherence is a scientific one, built on materialist principles. I think fantastical things can (and often should be) rational in that they can be understood, but I question whether they need to be intelligible according to real world biology or physics, for example.

    2. That's fair enough. In stories magical beings are tightly bound by rules, but not by the rules that bind natural beings.
      IMO, there's nothing supernatural about a piercer. A demon is a different story.

    3. I'm not sure I understand how there's nothing supernatural about a piercer. In what way does that creature make sense from an evolutionary standpoint?

      I really enjoyed the "ecology of..." articles in Dragon back when I subscribed, but I don't think they played much of a role in any games I participated in. I always took Gygaxian realism to mean that there were things like store rooms, kitchens and toilets in dungeons inhabited by creatures like orcs, goblins and so forth. Not that the wingspan of a pegasus had to be sufficient to lift a horse...

    4. Your take on Gygaxian Naturalism is aligned with mine. Consistency, even if fantastic, is preferable to science-based.

      I really disliked the 'ecology of..' articles. People started treating them as canon. I prefer the idea that monsters spawn from seeds, fungi, spells, summonings, and so on.

  5. An example of consistent but fantastical creatures would be 'orcs' (or whatever) who procreate by defiling or destroying beauty. A bunch of them defiles a temple and then new ones spawn in their midst, fully grown. This raises new questions (What is beauty? Who defines it? What about memories, equipment? etc.) but I think these can be answered in various ways.

  6. "Seeing one of the Uz laid out like, dissected and tagged like a cadaver from a Renaissance sketchbook, doesn't, in my opinion, add to the consistent worldbuilding of Glorantha, even if it does shed light on how trolls are able to eat anything."

    I feel like there's a POV issue here that I'm not experiencing myself. Sure, that's an anatomical diagram in a scientific style. But it's not a diagram of an uz, it's a diagram of a dead uz. The spirit's departed and the magic that is life in Glorantha has left with it. You're looking at something only a God Learner would mistake for the totality of what an uz is.

    If you could somehow look at the insides of a living uz the same organs would be there - but they'd be awash in the element of Darkness, which is a essential part of uz heritage. Darkness permeates them as long as they live, and it isn't the only supernatural component you'd find.

    That prosaically named "rock gizzard" there? The stones an uz chooses to fill it with are picked because they have sparks of elemental Earth spirits in them. Uz trap them within themselves with the strength of their own spirit and use their power to grind down hard foods like bone and stone. And Uz are hardy, but a sick or injured one will have tiny disease spirits gnawing at them inside and out, eventually being consumed themselves if the uz spirit wins out or devouring flesh and spirit if the ailment wins out. That goes on all the time with any living creature. The fight against Malia only ends with death.

    The magics an uz knows will change things too. For ex, a Zorak Zoran worshipper who's learned fire magic ripped from Yelmalio will have motes of the Fire element tucked away in their stomachs and lungs and heart, securely bound by both flesh and spirit till they're called upon.

    All of that vanishes on death, leaving that simplistic diagram you pictured. Doesn't make living uz one bit less mythical to me.

  7. I agree with James that the naturalistic presentation of the Uz in Trollpack did actually detract from the mythic nature of the Gloranthan universe, but mainly because the scientific examination of the Uz presented therein derives from how our universe operates, which Glorantha is not. The obvious example here is Darkness is an actual element in that universe so it is a thing in and of itself, so why shouldn't a troll's darkvision operate using it - rather than calling sonar darkvision.

    However you can perform a scientific investigation in a magical universe (it is after all a philosophical method of enquiry into determining the nature of the universe), so it is quite possible. It's just that the answers might not match what they find in our universe. After all, in most fantasy RPG universes magic operates by certain rules (often found in the Player's Handbook or equivalent) and is repeatable. Therefore you can set up experiments to investigate it.

    For example I prefer to work with a much more Aristotlean basis for my magic. One of the precepts of this is that things have an intrinsic nature. A rock is heavy, a feather is not. A rock has greater "love" for the earth, and thus falls faster. A feather has greater love for the sun, but is still material, so falls slowly. Feathers help a bird fly due to this love. A cloak of feathers could help a human fly. A talisman that grants the same might be in the shape of a feather or wing (and probably made of gold [the solar metal]). An enchanted hunk of granite would not allow you to fly very well (except down). Bats on the other hand, since they fly at night, find feathers useful.

    [In a physics sense fields don't really exist in my D&D game. Which means that certain spells, such as reverse gravity, are impossible in my game unless one is a true wizard (a corruption of "wish-hard"). On the other hand mass levitate is quite possible and readily conceivable, and easily achieved.]

    In my old campaign the players experimented and slowly determined the nature of magic (although much was still unknown). The method was that they would propose an experiment and I would tell them the result (although it wasn't properly mapped out). So the theory of magic evolved cooperatively.

    As a result the use of magic underwent a renaissance amongst this new guard, who were now using the "rule of inch" rather than the old "rule of thumb." Knowing how magic work (albeit in a limited sense) made it easier for them to create new magic. Or destroy their towers in a large manaball as the experiment got out of hand.

    It was a lot of fun. I still use the findings made by the players as the basis of magic for my standard campaign. That said, two of the other campaigns have different systems of magic, because they are integral to the cosmology of those campaigns. And they still don't match the rules by which our universe operates. Naturally.

  8. The Uz anatomical sketch was probably the work of some freaking Godlearner of the Second Age. That said, Glorantha is, as you say, "fairly" consistent. It has room for a lot of variation in scope and tone. And one defining factor of gaming in it is the clash of a paleo-simulationist ruleset such as RuneQuest and a mythical world. Hero Wars/ HeroQuest / Questworld sought to resolve the clash in favor of mythic storytelling , while the current RuneQuest Glorantha embraces the contradiction - which I personally like a lot. (Now I brace for the rants about how nu-Chaosium ruined everything).

  9. Gygaxian naturalism (as in "simulating a fantastic world") often seems to be mixed up with a kind of contemporary materialism. In your original post from 2008 you mentiond ocrs bubbling up from black ooze deep in the dungeon. Actually that can be an example of gygaxian naturalism if such things are possible & natural to your fantasy world. But when they read "naturalism", many gamers automatically assume that means orcs should be just like people, with similar biological needs and reproduction and a proper society and all that. And that's where you get the hum-drum sleeping quarters, food supplies, monster toilet, wives & kids... Gygax himself typically went this way, with his fantasy world being informed either by medieval history or contemporary ideas (the importance of money and the market place for example).

    In my fairytale setting I don't need to know why Trolls can eat anything. At least not in a modern biological sense. Knowing they can because of their voracious nature would be enough. It would tell me something about what trolls are like, and that's more important than having a diagram of their internal plumbing, which wouldn't mean anything to my character most likely.

    1. " In your original post from 2008 you mentiond ocrs bubbling up from black ooze deep in the dungeon. Actually that can be an example of gygaxian naturalism if such things are possible & natural to your fantasy world."

      That's almost literally how orcs come into being in 13th Age (where the entire species is the product of a seriously warped elven fertility rite performed in the distant past) and not real far off from the Warhammer Fantasy/40K setting's orks (who are a geneered warrior race that grows from fungal spores in underground cysts until they pop out, mature and ready to fight).

      Like you said, "naturalism" is setting dependent.

    2. Oops, I meant that deleted comment to be here:

      I agree with this but published OD&D and AD&D 1e settings tended to assume materialism, with an overlay of magic. Greyhawk and Blackmoor were both visited by spaceships (S3 and Temple of the Frog, respectively). I suspect the Prime Material Plane was supposed to follow our laws of physics, chemistry, etc. Glorantha, not so much, which even notes that the bronze in Glorantha is not OUR bronze but just behaves similarly; and good luck encountering a blaster pistol there. So, the Trollpak description of the uz is at odds with the setting, but I would still argue that the piercer ecology fits its setting.

      “It would tell me something about what trolls are like, and that's more important than having a diagram of their internal plumbing, which wouldn't mean anything to my character most likely.”

      Right on. How many Orlanthi are going to split open a troll and then say, “I’ve never opened up one of these before. Let’s figure out how they work!” That reaction would kill the mythic feel for me, even though such conflation of player and character thinking may be characteristic (so to speak) of the old school.

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  11. Slightly tangential, but I’ve been thinking more about what it means to be “mythical” and how that relates to the magic system. When a game has PC MUs it almost by necessity has some quantitative or logical rules defining what they can do. But another view of magic is of a mysterious force whose parameters lie outside mundane ken. I’m curious what approaches have been taken to address that.

    King Arthur Pendragon (core 5.2 edition is all I have) doesn’t allow PC MUs and so only has four pages describing in a qualitative sense what magic should be like, with MUs very rare but the landscape being enchanted (for example, a rock that only one person can move). (This reminds me of Fantasy Wargaming’s mention of a river separating two flocks of sheep, one white, one black, with sheep jumping the river changing color, again for no particular reason.)

    Early systems had escape hatches, like wish spells or divine intervention, where the effects are defined by negotiation with the GM.

    Conjuration can achieve a similar effect. Summoned beings’ abilities can be unknown to the players, besides a rough idea from their place in a celestial or infernal hierarchy and their area(s) of interest.

    What else has been done? Among other things, I’m curious what the Hero Wars, et al, line did and what King Arthur Pendragon magic supplement adds.

    1. More than rules systematization, I feel it's the tendency to treat magic as a form of science & technology and it's commodification that undermines the sense of wonder. Too often, being a wizard is just another job one might do. Highly skilled sure, but something you can learn at an academy that is a bit like a modern university. Like being a doctor, software engineer or scientist today. Muggles don't know exactly how it works, but they know where they can hire the services of someone who does, and this goes for everyone all the way from the local town to the royal court. And if you want a magical sword or some healing potions? No problem, you just buy them in a shop. Just like you drag your dead mates to the priest shop, also known as temple, to get them resurrected :-)

      Magic doesn't have to be rare. In fact in fairy tales & folk belief it often isn't. But at the same time it's not just another skill you can learn like a regular trade, such as farming or blacksmithing or sword fighting, and it's not for sale in the market place.

  12. Thanks for the response and I totally agree. But I posit that some rules might contribute to treating it like technology. I was looking at Ars Magica and in that setting magic is common, not a skill anyone can learn, and not for sale, but the rules for me still rob it of mystery.

  13. Possibly, if it's over systematized. I can see how the Ars Magica might do that, but I do think that's deliberate. Ars Magica player magic is about knowledge, which in itself goes in the direction of science & technology, it's not really meant to be fairy tale stuff.

    For PCs I tend to make each magical ability or spell into a unique game skill. A witch character might have the evil eye, second sight and a spell to influence the weather, but apart from being subject to a skill roll just like anything else with a chance to fail that characters can do, one ability doesn't say anything about the others, or about what else might be out there. The only general rules there are, are some vague principles, such as the use of a part to stand in for the whole in a ritual, or the validity of magical symbolic thinking & correspondences. There's no model to explain the deeper mechanics of magic, no stuff about energies or quasi-quantum materialism or anything like that.

    1. That sounds about right, though I would like to include some subsystems for “natural magic” like various forms of divination (e.g., astrology) or alchemy.

      How do you handle character generation and advancement? Are you using some “ambient” game system in which you can balance effects to some extent?

  14. Divination would be just another skill. Or a range of skills. There's no exhaustive list ;-) To "balance" power levels, I follow the principle that the more impact an ability will have on the game, the more awkward conditions it will require to work and the less frequently it can be used. Or it might come at a cost to the user.

    I use my own home brew version of Apocalypse World with some inspiration from Dungeon World. Not too much, Dungeon World mimics D&D in some ways so it has levels, which I don't use and instead of spells there are magical skills. While the actual classes & magical skills are not the same, characters are created in pretty much the same way (I don't use the bonds though, have tried it but it feels too artificial in play). Advancement means gaining a new skill (complete in itself from the start, "no X per level effects"), or in some cases a better version of something you already have.

    In spirit it's really more like the Prince Valiant Storytelling game than D&D. So advancement in game system terms is more limited, and there's no equivalent of the high level D&D character with tons of special abilities, spells, magic items and enough hit points to jump off the top of a volcano and survive with just some flesh wounds. Since I run an episodic pseudo-campaign, with not everyone present all the time and sometimes new players or players coming back after a hiatus, I don't want there to be a big difference in power between those who have played a lot and the others.

  15. Thanks again for the comments. This sounds similar to what I want, with seasonal troupe-style play. The difficulty would be managing the mysterious nature of magic with multiple GMs. I’m still thinking of Ars Magica as an ambient framework but with the Hermetic magic rules used just to design and balance effects. I’m not familiar with Apocalypse or Dungeon World but will take a look.

    I’m still a little unclear about how you handle generation and advancement: do the players know what magic skills are available? That seems contrary to them being ignorant of what’s out there.

    1. I would recommend Apocalypse World over Dungeon World if you want to have a look at the way it works. Even though the setting is post-apocalyptic rather than fantasy. It's the original "Powered by the Apocalypse" game. Dungeon World is not always clear, and it has some major flaws in my eyes. But it happened to be the first fantasy version of AW I came across, so I started with that. There's also a nice fan made Dungeon World campaign guide that explains the concepts very well ( )

      By now there are quite a few fantasy adaptations of Apocalypse World out there, some free, many very concise.

      In my game, for character creation players choose a type that comes with certain skills or skill options to choose from at the start. Knight, witch, wizard, hermit, thief, that sort of thing.

      If you make a witch character, initially you might choose between things like evil eye, or conjuring up bad weather. Later on, we'll discuss or see what appears in play. It's ok for players to bring up ideas of what they might like their character to do, or I may present them with opportunities to earn new magical abilities. Acquiring those depends more on in-setting accomplishment than on saving up experience and then selecting new game effects from a list in a catalog. A wizard might defeat a demon that then grants him the power of flight. Not: a wizard goes on an adventure, earns XXX experience points and then after some deliberation and and weighing the usefulness of a bunch of spells as defined by the rules, picks flight from the player handbook. Where the only connection between the new skill and the adventure is the experience points gained, like earning money from a job which you can then freely spend.

      Players are not entirely ignorant about the possibilities of magic. They might know some lore about what witches & wizards can do & how they do it. But they don't have the complete overview, and no rules to read up on for abilities they don't have.