Friday, 27 July 2018

Gygaxian Scientasy

I have a lot of affection for a phenomenon which I am here going to call "Gygaxian Scientasy", or "scientasy" for short. (Terms which I would have preferred - "scientism", "scientificism", "scienciness" and so on - are all taken as words used to describe the application of scientific language and dogma in non-scientific domains like the humanities or social sciences to bestow a veneer of  false truthiness. "Scientasy", which is something slightly different, will have to do for my purposes.)

Scientasy is the mixing of the scientific and the fantastical - or, perhaps put more accurately, the handling of fantastical things in a non-expressionistic, quasi-positivist way. In Gygax's D&D, while there are magic, different planes and other worlds, monsters, alignments and so on, there is also a sense in which those fantastical elements are the subject of academic and pseudoscientific inquiry within the fiction itself. (Making Gygaxian Scientasy something a little different from the problem of banalifying systematization I have written about before, which is very much a case of nerds imposing order on the supernatural in order to make it into something usable in a game.) There are sages who study the world. And, moreover, there is a world for them to discover: there is an objective reality to all of this fantastical stuff - it is empirically verifiable that there are inner planes, that there is something called alignment and there are 9 varieties of it and it actually affects things, that there are deities and they have different "spheres", that there are different categories of magic, and so on. Despite its weirdness and wonder, Gygax's D&D is ultimately a positivist's universe. If you tried hard enough, thought hard enough, studied hard enough, investigated hard enough - you could actually understand how it all works.

Scientasy reached its apogee in 2nd edition, with the Spelljammer and Planescape campaign settings and the publication of the Complete Psionicist's Handbook. There is no more scientastical approach to D&D than that presented in Planescape, with its rigorous in-universe classification and taxonomization of infinity; it's not that the multiverse is carefully and circumspectly divided into different planes for different alignments or elements, and the deities and demigods categorised into different levels of power, and philosophies put into neat little boxes, and so on, just for the purposes of DMs and players - it's that all those different clades exist within the fictional world itself, where everybody knows about them and acts upon their absolute veracity. The very stuff of the multiverse comes pre-categorised.

I enjoy the scientastical approach because it seems so redolent of a late renaissance/early enlightenment understanding of the universe as something that could be got at by inductive reasoning but which, by the way, included angels, philosophers' stones, birds that go and live under the sea in winter, Blemmyes, sea dragons, and so on. Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton would have been entirely at home in your average D&D campaign setting: they would have loved trying to figure it all out. (And, of course, since our universe must surely be just another part of the Prime Material Plane, it's entirely possible that they are living somewhere on the Outlands as petitioners doing precisely that. Now there's an adventure module for you: a journey through the D&D multiverse in search of Issac Newton.)


  1. I feel like you have hit upon the very reason I don't like D&D style Fantasy.

    Combined with the Banalifying Systemtization you mention and link, the presumption that the people of any given D&D world know unequivocally that there are gods, monsters, magic, other dimensions says [to me personally], "This is not Fantasy. This is alternate reality. This is Sword and Planet, Superheroes, or some other genre".

    I started with D&D in 1977, but by that point had no frame of reference for the type of Fantasy the game describes. I had seen Errol Flynn movies with no magic, read fairy tales where the magic was at once assumed, believed in, yet startling when anyone actually saw it, and I'd see Wizard of OZ and read a few of the books. The latter was the closest thing to D&D yet clearly nothing like it. Again, while Ozians knew magic to be common place, visits from our world were amazed and stunned by what they saw.

    I prefer my magic magical. I like there to be a certain sense of surprise and even disbelief when someone sees a Unicorn or a witch casts a spell. I enjoy Ars Magica, with it's society of Hermetic mages and their academic study of the arcane, but I often tweak the world of Mythic Europe such that theirs is a secret society, it's true nature known only to a few. I also play up the angle that although know far more than the common folk about the mystical, they don't really know as much as they think they do.

    I prefer my Fantasy mysterious and based on myth, folklore, and legend. I save science for my Science Fiction games.

    Great post.

  2. This seems closely related to Maliszewski's Gygaxian Naturalism, with the 30-300 Orcs having females, young, etc - very unlike mythic monsters.

    I think I really dislike Gygaxian Scientasy as an objective in-world reality, though I certainly like having sages who *think* the multiverse is like that.

  3. Something I also love, especially in Greenwood's ecology articles for DRAGON magazine.

  4. It's a good point - and I too seem to lean that way. I will point out a small caveat about Planescape though - the core of it was *belief*. The universe was that way *because people believed it was that way*.

    In Gygaxian Scientasy, there is a plane of fire because... there is one. But in the Planescape mythos, if you somehow convinced everyone that there wasn't a plane of fire... it would cease to exist. I think it may be an important distinction.


  5. I've always had a fondness for settings that bring about a degree of the "academic". I think that's what made TES a compelling setting (or at least for a video game world), with all of the in-world books from Daggerfall and Morrowind giving conflicting versions of history, metaphysics, and basically anything that couldn't be outright proven.

    I like seeing the "scientasy" aspects, but for my part find that it's at its best when there's some form of conflict. Having an answer to "this is how it it works" is better than just hand-waving it without an answer, giving three in-universe texts which are all arguing with each other is what I find sells something as both "realistic" and "fantastic". Its the idea of "We have evidence the world works like this, and even if we can't prove it yet, we're trying." Bonus points for "Mages=Scholars" as part of the setting.

    1. I definitely find my Wilderlands setting a lot more compelling since I took the approach you describe - and I love TES. I remember playing Oblivion and getting a genuine chill as Mankar Camoran (played by the great Terence Stamp) explained that everything I was fighting for was a lie... ...And I'm still not sure if he was right.