The Success and Failure of Gygaxian NaturalismPosted: July 13, 2011
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.