Leaving Gygaxian Naturalism

So I went down to the local game store and bought my reprint of the AD&D (1e) Player’s Handbook. I was fortunate enough to find really, really nice copies of the other books in the original version of the series on eBay, and so I really only needed this one. I wanted to support the OSR, to show TSR they needed to start reprinting other things like this, and to have a copy that was better than the one I had been able to find.


The more I go through these AD&D books, the more I start to see so much of it as a useless burden. The rules, the rules, all the rules. It’s too much. Once you’ve kicked away that load, you can’t see adding it back again. I think consigning myself to play with this system again – conscientiously – would be an ordeal. I can’t have it. I’m too used, now, to fewer rules.

This is the easy part. The harder part, I admit, is looking at a rejection of the guiding rationale that gave rise to all the rules and needless complexity in AD&D in the first place. “Gygaxian Naturalism” is the term used to describe what Gyagax was seeking to do with AD&D. He wanted people playing D&D to aspire to an experience that would be as “realistic” as possible. The wilder elements from earlier versions of D&D were toned down, or jettisoned all together, and DMs were expected to try to imitate the real world as much as they could – given the monsters and the fireballs and everything.

These expectations were what I had unconsciously absorbed when playing AD&D in Junior High and High School. This is what I thought a “good” DM was able to do – to replicate a “real” feeling world in their own campaign. Now, after having studied where D&D could have gone, I’ve changed my mind. I don’t care about this goal any longer. If I try to make a “fantasy” realistic – instead of exciting, vivid, or unutterably strange and unexpected, then I’m not only working at cross purposes, but failing in some significant sense.

It’s harder, I suspect, for some of us to break out of an ingrained predilection towards “Gygaxian Naturalism” than it can appear. It was with some trepidation, mixed with excitement, that I started to introduce some “Arduin” like elements into my game. Artificial intelligences inhabiting ancient towers? That worked okay – as they were presented in a sort of “retro manner.” Not exactly IBM models, but something much earlier. The really defining moment came when one of my players found some ornate and expensive handgun replicas, cast in a kind of resin material, on sale at a booth in the city’s market. How could these pistols, and the seller showed him a precious working model, be able to co-exist with the more medieval, even primitive elements that had been de rigueur in the campaign right up to that fateful moment?

“I don’t quite see how you’re going to reconcile the technology in this place with the rest of the campaign,” the player said. “But I guess that’s really your problem.” The scolding finger of Gary had appeared above us.

I shrugged. I had a plan and wasn’t sweating it.

“I really, really want one of those guns,” he confided mere moments later.

Somewhere, the ghost of Dave Hargrave was laughing.

Later, the same player described the city as something out of a “Jan Švankmajer film.” I was aiming, obviously, for the Brothers Quay, but I’ll take the Jan comparison. As I thought about it later that day, I realized it was – without doubt – the highest complement my DMing had ever received. My Warren comics meets the Wilderlands meets Heavy Metal meets Arduin mash-up was all starting to come together.


3 responses to “Leaving Gygaxian Naturalism”

  1. Paul Gorman says :

    Yes, having been reared on AD&D, it look me a long time to embrace my gonzo side. I’ll never run a full-on Gygaxian Naturalist game again or run a ruleset as elaborate as AD&D, but the AD&D books are still a great resource to dip into for inspiration–a buffet from which to snack, rather than a seven course meal.

    • citycrawl says :

      Agreed. The first edition books are masterpieces in their own way. But we need to see their weak points & be able to shrug off their expectations.

  2. Jack Colby says :

    I don’t strive for gonzo, nor do I shun it. If the players go in some fantastic or weird directions, so be it. The world and reality will be shaped by the adventures had within it. Likewise, if I, as DM, want to include something that “doesn’t fit” with the world, so be it. We will figure out why it is there and make sense of it, or simply learn to accept it without an explanation. Such things happen in real life, too, after all.

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