Thursday, April 9, 2009

Plausible Absurdity

The term “Gygaxian Naturalism” has been thrown around the online community serving traditional gaming. “The intention behind Gygaxian Naturalism is to paint a picture of a ‘real’ world, which is to say, a world that exists for reasons other than purely gaming ones,” writes James Maliszewski in his Grognardia blog. This allows players to make logical assumptions about how the fantastic elements in a game would behave based on real-world knowledge, grounding the game and establishing a reality out of something that is otherwise pure whimsy.

I believe that plausible absurdity can go hand-in-hand with this concept. My idea of plausible absurdity is that taking a real world idea, concept, or thing, and introducing it in a slightly inappropriate way brands certain things in the players’ minds. Mostly I use plausible absurdity when naming NPCs and towns. Whether it’s naming retainer retinues “John, Paul, George, and Ringo” or “Keith and Mick” as I have in the past, or using names like “Sweting Snoddy” in an adventure I've written, it’s a way of making sure players remember these characters as more than, “that guy,” or, “the blacksmith.” Sweting is a real old English first name, and Snoddy is a real English last name. So it’s plausible to have it here, grounding the whole thing in some sort of reality, but the absurdity of those names together will not soon leave your players’ minds.

This is not done for cheap yuks or to make a farce of the adventure or these characters (OK, the girlfriend and I had a laugh here when piecing together ‘Ryryd Rhydderch’ from real Welsh names), but to avoid both the anonymity of “John the farmer and Robert the smith” and the banality of goofy fictional names like Eladorion or Syfy for the commoners that inhabit the world around the player characters. A touch of reality, a touch of unreality, and what at first glance seems jarring and inappropriate actually becomes a tool for recognition and immersion as players will remember and use these names.


  1. I used this with on of my primary NPC's. His name is Guy Garrett, but they call him "Lord Guy" more often than not. Definitely caught their attention.

  2. Sometimes a name can be a Freudian slip - I have a small forest in my game world called "Morning Wood."

  3. Somehow, this article puts me in mind of Roger the Shrubber and Tim the Enchanter.

    Giving taverns absurd names can be just as much fun. One that I got a laugh out of was The Leaky Stoat.

  4. I have previously called this 'thematic appropriateness', and consider it a cornerstone of Bob Bledsaw's tradition of game design, as seen in Tegel Manor, City State of the Invincible Overlord, the Wilderlands, etc. Here is what I wrote about the subject in the Referee's Guidelines of Kard és Mágia:
    “It is an important advantage of dungeons that they provide a space for improbable and wondrous things, and they are less bound by the reality of our world than, for example, a small fantasy town. Therefore, it is a mistake to seek a cure for the supposed problems of dungeons in the form of more “realistic” and more thoroughly detailed locales. In fact, if these attempts are successful and the descriptions are dominated by mundane details, it is precisely the fantastic aspect of the dungeon which makes them appealing in the first place that will be lost. This treatment usually becomes fatal, and participants will soon get bored with the endless succession of guard rooms and sleeping quarters, seeking more interesting adventures elsewhere.

    The solution is not necessarily the total rejection of realism (although on some occasions, it is completely all right to take the fully surreal approach – especially when characters are exploring underworld realms, foreign dimensions or dream worlds); rather, instead of conventional reality, we should think from the perspective of thematic appropriateness. The question here is not how a dungeon would really operate; rather, how to fill it with encounters closely or more distantly related to its overall theme.

    For example, if the locale is the abandoned jungle temple of an ape-cult, in addition to more straightforward encounters such as a pack of carnivorous apes, mechanical traps, skull-filled sacrificial vaults and forsaken treasuries, we could think of magical mirrors which send the hostile simulacra of viewers into the world (distorted into the form of man-apes); a colossal ape idol holding a large copper sphere which has a limited ability to control minds (and what lives within? Perhaps a superintelligent slime which craves freedom, and of course world domination!); a tower in both the present and the past, where strange encounters and bargains may occur, and so on.

    All in all, our task is not the detailed reproduction of a “working” ruined temple in the jungles, but where we can get from reality through a few steps of free association. Sometimes, nothing is more intriguing than a few unsolved mysteries – whether the referee knows the solution or not. What matters is to capture the imagination of the players and spur them to action. Obviously, it is also good to spice up these encounters with purely descriptive elements with no specific function (unless the players think of something clever on their own), but these should not be dominant.”