The Success and Failure of Gygaxian Naturalism

One of the fun things about D&D that was integral to the whole concept of the game from day one was the idea that ‘things’ in the D&D world more or less worked like they did in the real world but with magic and the fantastic and mytholgy just rolled in. So rats ate dead adventurers, kobolds ate the rats, goblins ate kobolds, etc., and a big gelatinous cube came through and cleaned it all up in order to prevent the dungeon passages from getting impassibly clogged with bones, torch stubs and orc dung. I think some people call this “Gygaxian Naturalism” (although I don’t know who coined the term or how it was originally intended; this is the meaning I have gathered through the context in which I have seen it used).

“Gygaxian Naturalism” is probably not good enough for science, but a vague outline of the circle of life exists in the fantasy world, allowing us to sit down and enter the fantasy world with enough ‘real world’ knowledge to help us along. It’s one of the things that helps a new player easily immerse themselves in the game. So one might know, without having been told, that in the fantasy world water is wet and our newly rolled up dwarf characted will drown if held underwater. The fact that one had to employ knowledge of the real world to navigate the fantasy one made immediate intuitive sense to me when I first sat down to play. How far my character could move in my turn was deduced by how fast I wanted him to move (did I want him to stroll or run?) and whether or not he was heavily burdened with armor, weapons, treasure, etc. It is difficult for me to convey how ‘different’ this was in my circle of friends in 1978 when we first started playing.

One of the places where ‘Gygaxian Naturalism’ breaks down for me is in the intersection between monsters of myth/legends and those same/similar monsters presented in D&D. Initially, learning that in D&D, ‘Medusa’ was not the proper name of one of the gorgon sisters killed by Perseus but rather the species name of a woman with snakes for hair and a parlyzing gaze was somewhat confusing. Discovering that “gorgons” were not the daughters of a sea god but were, instead, a bull covered in iron scales was, similarly, disconcerting. This made my meager knowledge of mythology less useful in the gaming context but delivered the advantage that in the Greek myths, Perseus could defeat Medusa only once since once she was dead she was gone, whereas in our D&D games we could kill (or, more likely, be petrified by) medusas every session. I think the trade off is well worth it.


5 Comments on “The Success and Failure of Gygaxian Naturalism”

  1. Von says:

    I'm not so sure. I kind of like the idea of unique monsters as, for me, there's a threat to immersion in the presence of too many sentient species. Gygaxian Naturalism, taken to the level where nothing is unique, ends up with a somewhat overcrowded world… and I sometimes wonder whether we really need bugbears and hobgoblins and all the other human-sized 'monster' species. Especially if we're all about the Monster of the Week effect…

  2. JDJarvis says:

    Someone in blog-land posted an article of mythic beasts that was in some weekly news-magazine back pre-D&D and curiously enough it had gorgons presented as a species of metal skinned bovines.
    I had a book as a child that described the gorgons as Medusa and her sisters and they has bronze-scaled skin and horns growing from their cheeks.
    All our mythic roots are not identical the fun part is discovering which ones are supported in a campaign.

  3. Limpey says:

    Yeah; I have a book of a collection of old illustrations of mythological creatures and there is some sort of cow with scales and what looks like a 'mop top' hairdo labeled a 'gorgon' in it. It gives no details. I think in the past they were much more careless with their classification of imaginary creatures.
    I'm also surprised and disappointed that the 'bonnacon,' a staple creature of medieval bestiaries, did not make Gary's cut. According to the medievals, the bonnacon (sp?) was a helpless cow-like beast with ineffectual horns on it's head but if anything would attack it, it would turn to run and emit a fart so noxious that it would set the grass on fire. A cow that shoots fireballs out of it's ass? How could that NOT make it into the monster manual?

  4. postgygaxian says:

    '”Gygaxian Naturalism” is probably not good enough for science, but a vague outline of the circle of life exists in the fantasy world, allowing us to sit down and enter the fantasy world with enough 'real world' knowledge to help us along.'

    I suppose Gygaxian Naturalism is about as close to a science of the fictional D&D world as a layman's understanding of read-world technology is to real-world engineering.

  5. Limpey says:

    I suppose Gygaxian Naturalism is about as close to a science of the fictional D&D world as a layman's understanding of read-world technology is to real-world engineering.

    I once sat down with a physics student to drink a beer and allow him to explain to me why 'Faster than Light' drives were impossible and this ruined 90% of science fiction for him. After just a few minutes I could no longer follow what he was saying and I began to concentrate more on my drinking than on science. I was glad that I was ignorant enough of science that I could tolerate a certain amount of scientific sounding nonsense on the part of the story teller.

    I don't think 'Gygaxian Naturalism' requires real world plausibility — it just requires internal coherence. I don't know what the Romans made their lamp oil out of (plants? fish?) or whether it was really flammable enough to use as a weapon, but since there are all of those monster movies where someone drops an old style lamp and it catches the monster on fire, that provides enough internal coherence for me to say, “OK, it works,” when we sit down to play and the player announced that they want to set the gloop monster on fire with lamp oil.


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