So what the heck is Gygaxian Naturalism? I believe the term was originally coined by James Maliszewski, and to be honest I feel a bit pretentious using it, but it really does describe exactly what it is I’m trying to talk about. To describe it though, I think we have to look at what came before it, and what came after it. I’m not implying that it was some kind of step in the evolution of game design, but certainly adventures existed before it, it had a period of popularity (not including the current OSR adoption), and then the practice declined. I still might argue that the entire ebb and flow if it reside with when Gygax was writing stuff as he was the only real practitioner, but that’s an argument for another day.
Tim Kask likes to tell a story about a common early adventure design that he calls “massacre at the zoo”. Essentially when D&D first came out there were no modules, so DMs invented their own stuff, and a large percentage of them invented something that went like this: There’s a long hall with lots of doors. The party opens the first door and behind it is a room containing a monster. The party kills the monster, takes what treasure it may have had, and then proceeds to the next door. Repeat ad-nauseum.
Besides the banality of such a linear design with no features other than monsters to kill, one of the things that really makes us roll our eyes at this is it’s total lack of any sense of reality. Why on earth would a hill giant live in a room next to a basalisk? Don’t they ever come out of their rooms and encounter each other? Even once you move away from this literal design, a lot of people might argue that early modules had a fair share of this lack of logic. Heck, in my recent reading of S4 I couldn’t help but notice the large number of strange creatures all living in close proximity to each other, and how unusual that felt.
Gygaxian Naturalism takes the step to try and explain this, at least a little. The basilisk is the hill giant’s pet. The trolls spread the fungus around to attract more cave crickets to eat. There’s a reason things exist, some explanation as to how things got the way they currently are. It also gives us some interesting flavor to add at the time of play. What’s more interesting for a party, walking into a cave with three trolls standing around waiting to fight, or walking into a cave where three trolls are spreading fungus around on the floor?
Of course, it’s not surprising that this problem would also lead to the other kind of adventure design, the one that really came into it’s prime in later editions: story based adventures. It’s much easier to come up with why things are where they are when you have some pre-defined story in your mind that the adventure is trying to tell. The trolls are spreading the fungus to attract cave crickets not to eat, but to sacrifice to their dark god. The party must reach the room with the altar and stop the trolls from sacrificing any more crickets or the god will rise up and destroy everything!
So here I think is the key difference: Gygaxian Naturalism gives us a reason for the existence of everything in the dungeon, which more often than not is of little actual importance to the players.
Why include it at all then? Well, as my old creative writing professor said, it’s the scaffolding. It’s how you get to the good stuff, but ultimately doesn’t really matter. Gary chucked in some fungus, then asking himself “what eats the fungus” he added some giant insects. What eats those? Trolls. The content comes via the explanation, but it’s not important to the game that the players understand that explanation. It makes the setting feel more tangible, it arms the DM with the tools he needs to figure out where the bad guys are and what they are doing when the players try whatever crazy plan it is they’re going to try. But if the players don’t use it or even see it, who cares? It’s just the scaffolding.
So why do I prefer this to the story style? It’s that concept of arming the DM. The DM needs all the tools he can get his hands on so he can invent stuff at the table. The story model, well, that’s doing the invention for him. And then we start to wonder what the DM is really for. Is he really there just to roll the dice, reveal the secrets, and do the math? Who is that fun for?