Gygaxian naturalism is one of those phrases you see thrown around the RPG blogs. I myself have used the phrase on several occasions, but have not yet described its purpose.
I’ve discussed briefly that RPGs are complex thought experiments requiring mediating mechanics for their unbiased continuation: stats, skills, saves, and various other minutiae fall into this category. Gygaxian naturalism isn’t so much a mechanic as a theoretical framework by which one characterizes an imagined world. Much like beakers and test tubes are the apparatus of scientific experimentation, Gygaxian naturalism is a schema through which RPGs are interpreted and channeled.
Gygaxian naturalism is meant to imbue a sense of reality into role-playing. It’s meant to develop an ecosystem and make the creatures that spring from that ecosystem appear as naturally occurring phenomenon. A game setting is given purpose when Gygaxian naturalism is at hand. It establishes the idea, true or not, that the game world exists independent of player interaction and lends a certain amount of rationality, plausibility, and dependability to the role-playing environment.
There is an all too obvious binary in the D&D world between the “old school” (the Gygaxians) way of gaming and…well every other way, really. The old school stands firm with Gygaxian naturalism (or some variation) as its template for play, while the “new school,” (the non sequiturists) have a rather nebulous stance, predicated on D&D as pure fantasy without the need for restrictive frameworks (I know that many role-players might not agree with where I draw the distinction). The new school strips away the pretenses of Gygaxian naturalism and much like the popular phrase, “It’s magic. I don’t have to explain shit,” opts to simply ignore logical inconsistencies for the one true dogma: FUN!
I can understand the non sequitur dilemma in relation to Gygaxian naturalism. While my youth precludes me from having reliable insight into the horror of AD&D rule bloat, I have made it a point to give past editions a rather thorough reading… and I must say – it is horrifying. Just looking at the Rules Compendium for 3.5 D&D was enough to give me an aneurism. Runaway rule vomit is linked in the gamer
mind with Gygaxian naturalism as the criminal responsible for taking what the non sequiturists considered a fun role-playing experience and turning it into, of all things, work. However, I believe this view is incorrect in its assumptions. While I agree that rule bloat has arisen with Gygaxian naturalism often cited as its cause, I am of the opinion that over-complication is a symptom of rule mongers trying to develop a system that is devoid of loopholes. So really, it comes down to a baby out with the bathwater problem, with the part of the mother being played by the non sequiturists.
The Rational Inadequacy of Non Sequitur Play
There is a radical change in tone between this section and the last…blame the aneurism.
If having fun is indeed the goal of RPGs (which isn’t really contested) then the non sequitur approach of the new school appears to have a firmer grasp and a more apt tool for play than the Gygaxian naturalists, but is non sequitur play, as I have termed it, in the same category as Gygaxian naturalism, or is it really just another mediating mechanic, like skills or saving throws?
Well, does non sequitur play generate an ecosystem like Gygaxian naturalism? The short answer is no. The long answer is nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! There is no long term generation that comes out of non sequitur play (hence the name). Stuff appears for fuck all reason and player agency might as well be a freshly coiled turd because it certainly doesn’t amount to SHIT when the only expectation a player can have of their DM is that “some time” in the future a level appropriate encounter is coming.
If I sound a little bitter, it’s because I am. The whole reason I play and run RPGs is to immerse myself in a fantasy world. Role-playing is all about escapism and while my suspension of disbelief can extend to magic, gods, demons, devils, and various and sundry mystical creatures, because let’s face it, those things are awesome, it doesn’t extend to logical inconsistencies. That might sound a bit strange when one is talking about fantasy of all things, but let me explain. For me, it all comes down to modus operandi: any particular object, creature, or idea should have a reason for its operation or involvement in a fantasy setting. It should be able to trace a chain of causality backwards and have a reason for Being that makes sense in relation to the world. So with this in mind, I think it’s time to clarify my stance:
1. A creature, place, or thing (that’s right, I just NOUN dropped you) being present without justification is the worst kind of DM fiat.
2. Gygaxian naturalism’s core principle is good; rule bloat is bad, and the two are connected by proximity, not causality.
3. A little non sequitur play can be fun, but a lot ruins player agency.
In relation to 1:
This all ties into a problem I have with D&D as sport. In general, if you’re a DM that enjoys this kind of play then you’ve already broken away from Gygaxian naturalism in order to facilitate an equal playing field. The whole point for you is to build encounters that offer (in general) about a 75% success rate. This almost, but not always, automatically puts you in the non sequitur play group, because the constant appearance of NPCs with just the right amount of power becomes logically ridiculous. This also leads to an even bigger issue; the question of player agency. After all, if you’re deliberately manipulating events to construct a “fair fight” then your players can’t gain an advantage, no matter how skilled they are.
Like I said, it’s all about immersion and having never participated in a campaign that’s completely removed itself from Gygaxian naturalism; I have to guess that extensive non sequitur play is a lot like soft-core porn. Much like late night television doesn’t need much of a reason to
put tits on a screen, non sequitur play just throws something at you and expects you to enjoy it, and understand, I’m not saying it’s not enjoyable. Defeating a creature of considerable strength has cathartic value independent of a campaign, but ask yourself this: if there’s a deep meaningful reason to fight and defeat a creature, if there’s a reason for the creature to be there, or better yet, a reason for the creature to be in conflict with the players, isn’t a resolution to such an event more cathartic…more enjoyable?
In relation to 2:
Once upon a time there were some very good ideas: give D&D creatures an excuse to be where they appear. Treat the campaign world as an environment rather than a setting and let the players discover and adapt to the environment as its inhabitants discover and adapt to the players. These ideas are simple and are meant to do one thing – create an immersive role-playing experience. What they are not meant to do is give people an excuse to treat mythical creatures the way Jane Goodall treated chimpanzees.
For some god awful reason, instead of looking at Gygaxian naturalism as an excuse to take the surroundings of a campaign world for granted (much like people take their various environments for granted in the real world) some genius decided it was the perfect excuse to develop an extended ecological background on FUCKING HILL GIANTS. Sure, you’ll get a few players now and then that will ask inane questions about things in the campaign world, but this is how I suggest you deal with it:
Player: What kind of grass do they eat?
DM: You want to know what kind of grass the deer eat?
Player: Yeah, what kind of grass do they usually eat?
DM: Oh, that particular variety of grass is called ungivicus fukkus. It’s indigenous to my entire campaign world; in fact, it’s the only grass that grows after the drought of Heywood, in the year of Jahblohwmie.
Seriously, are players really asking these questions? And even if they are, this is one of the few places where liberal use of DM fiat is just better for all parties in question. If you need more advice on how not to waste time while playing, –C at Hack & Slash has a great article on how to limit player choice to decisions that move the game forward without limiting player agency.
In relation to 3:
Every now and then a DM has an idea for a truly memorable encounter; you know the kind of encounter that’s too good for the players to pass up. Sometimes it plays into the overarching theme of a campaign, sometimes it doesn’t. The point is, you as DM may have used a little misdirection, a little blatant railroading, maybe even a little gonzoing to get this encounter into your campaign, and you know what…I think that’s okay. The non sequiturists have it right in this regard – the one true dogma of D&D is to have fun. Now, the amount of allowable misdirection, railroading, and gonzoing is different from one gaming group to another. Sometimes you might make a decision as a DM about the world that really should be a discussion.
Non sequitur play can be fun, but like almost all things in the DM toolbox (yes, it is a tool, not a framework) it should be used in moderation because, after a long and meandering discussion, it appears to me that an RPG completely untethered from Gygaxian naturalism isn’t an RPG at all…it’s the D&D miniatures game.