(note: I originally wrote this as a comment on g+ about the differences between DCC and LOTFP. After thinking upon it more I’ve decided to expand it into a more general blog post)
In RPG gaming there are two conflicting ideas that have started to bother me in how they seem to be used interchangeably. Usually they are referenced directly by what I believe is their most common labels: gonzo and the weird. Sometimes they aren’t referenced directly but instead referenced in terms of what would make good material for a Lamentations of the Flame Princess game or some other specific RPG. Like that’s so Lamentations, or that’s so DCC!
This bothers me somewhat as I think The Gonzo and the Weird come from two very different styles of literary sources and each will evoke a very different role-playing game. I really don’t have a preference for one over the other, but I do think that it’s better to try to evoke one over the other as trying to evoke both tends to fail and I do think they are incompatible in some sense.
I will begin by trying to define both, hopefully without getting to literary or boring.
The term ‘gonzo’ was first popularized by ‘gonzo journalism’ a style of writing popularized by Hunter S. Thompson. I’m not going to go into depth about this. As I find how the word is used today, especially in the rpg community, has really started to mean something else.
Within the rpg community I find people tend to use it to refer to a style of game that in my view tend to involve two key things:
- To a lesser or greater degree, gonzo games tend to have a 'pulp' feel to them. Where they tend to be focused on action or adventure and extremes, both in character and the world, rather than trying to evoke a sense of concrete or meticulous world building and realism.
- They tend to involve a mashup of genre's and are unpredictable in terms of the tropes, imagery, and cliches that they use. Where a player in a gonzo game is equally likely to encounter a dinosaur, a space alien, and a troupe of knights in the same game.
Gonzo games tend to be popular because they are both unpredictable and unlikely to get stale, and tend to greatly empower the characters where the focus is on the character and how they change the world through their actions.
I would say Gonzo games are most closely related to Swords and Sorcery type stories. As I find those stories tend to also be pulpy and focus on character action and advancement in the world, with the characters very often starting off destitute nobodies. The main difference between the two I would say would be that Gonzo games tend to throw in non-fantasy elements, and unlike a lot of Swords and Sorcery type fiction, there is slightly less of an emphasis on world building. I would even categorize some genres of swords and sorcery fiction, like the John Carter of Mars series, to be more Gonzo then swords and sorcery and very often these stories get their own sub genre anyways like Swords and planet to try and capture the differences between them and traditional swords and sorcery stories.
At it’s extreme Gonzo games tend to involve the players end up traveling to new places that are so different that the world becomes a bit of a patchwork of exotic locations more than anything else. That is even if it takes place all in the same world where inter-dimensional travel might be a thing. This said, I think Gonzo games are very much different from other high-powered dimensional hopping type games or stories as due to it’s Swords and Sorcery roots, the players are very often not that powerful, and very much at the mercy of whatever new environment they have found themselves in.
The Weird tale and weird literature has become popularized the most by the writings of H.P Lovecraft. I’m not going to delve into this to much either, as entire books have been written trying to define exactly what a The Weird is. But instead I’ll use the general definition.
- Weird tales tend to be inherently investigative. That is main character finds out about something they didn’t know before and whether the investigation is formal or not, is pursuing knowledge about it.
- The ‘thing’ they are investigating is beyond human comprehension in some manner. It may be supernatural, it may be an alien entity, it may evoke feelings of horror or awe, but regardless, it is outside the main characters normal realm of experience.
- In this manner, the main character tends to go from a space of normality to a space of abnormality as they pursue the object of their investigation, before returning once again to the space of normality, very often after having been driven insane or overall having had an unpleasant experience with the object of their investigation.
To be honest I think trying to evoke The Weird in a D&D based RPG is much, much, harder than having a gonzo style of play. I think this is partially because the activities that players do in an OSR style game are fundamentally on swords and sorcery type activities, (ie. Combat, traps, or tricks). There aren’t a lot of mechanics in OSR games to have more investigative type activities.
Furthermore, I find most OSR games are based around gold as XP as the main means of advancement. This I find tends to make the inherent goal of the game to be to gather wealth and thus power in the exotic world through adventuring. However, most weird tales involve investigating something abnormal where there’s not a high degree of finding anything of monetary value. It’s also generally impossible to gain control over the abnormality; the more you investigate it the more insane you go, or the less sense things make. Generally defeating it means somehow stopping its intrusion upon your life or the world which is often a zero-sum thing; you simply want an equilibrium of normality to be re-established.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t think a style of Weird play shouldn’t involve any classic dungeon crawling. I love classic dungeon crawling. Just that the motivations for the dungeon crawling are going to be a bit different in a Weird style game due to the inherent investigative nature of Weird tales and to some degree I think there should be some mechanics and rewards focused on this to reflect that. Otherwise the inherent narrative rewards are out of wack with the system’s mechanical rewards and there is a conflict in your carrots and sticks.
One thing I do think the OSR style of paly tends to get right is the sense of fragility about the characters. Where things are generally pretty lethal in OSR games and they very often have a survival, horror feel which can lend itself well to the weird.
However, I think OSR play tends to gravitate more towards The Gonzo over The Weird over time. I think this is partially done to avoid metagaming. A character in a weird tale doesn’t know they are in a weird tale and typically are only in one such tale, that is they don’t have multiple encounters with the weird.
A player who is playing a character in a weird style rpg game knows they are in a weird style rpg game and furthermore, if it’s gone on for several sessions, is in multiple such weird tales and begins to pickup on the tropes and know what is coming, or if they don’t, aren’t as scared or engaged by it as it just simply becomes another weird thing in the same style of the weird things they’ve encountered before.
Thus, new things are introduced, all of which begin to clash somewhat, and over time the game shifts more towards a gonzo one to stay fresh.
Why the two are incompatible
Overall, I find the two styles of games are incompatible. The Weird tends to be more investigative and less focused on dramatic action. Gonzo games are less about atmosphere than weird tales and tend to be less emotional or story based.
However, I think the biggest difference between the two is simply how each handles the sense of the normal, or normality.
In Gonzo stories, very often the characters are fish out of water; they are strangers in a strange land. The only reference they have for normality is themselves, and thus, us as the players, the only reference we have for them is them. This doesn’t mean the setting is incomprehensible, very often it’s not and much, much, less weird then the things in weird tales, but that part of the challenge in Gonzo games is ‘figuring out’ the setting and gaining power in it. Where if takes place on an alien planet ruled over by purple aliens, figuring out who their ruler is, how to curry favour and power, what the aliens fear, tend to be very valid goals and the inherent objectives of a campaign. And it is very often that once this is accomplished, in true gonzo fashion, the characters find themselves whisked away or forced to flee to a new exotic location to begin the process again.
Thus, in this manner in a Gonzo type game the PC characters tend to be ‘agents of normality’ who are intruding upon an abnormal world and slowly, through learning about it and gathering power in it, making what was considered abnormal to them, normal.
In contrast, Weird tales or games tend to follow the almost opposite arc. The characters tend to begin in a normal world. It may take place in the past, may have a few things about it like demihumans, that our normal world doesn’t. But by on large the world tends to follow a Gygaxian Naturalism scheme where it’s mostly full of non-adventuring people just trying to make their way in life as they would in our world. Normality is everywhere, it surrounds the players. What separates them as adventures from other peoples in the world is simply that in some way the abnormal has intruded into their lives. Where for some reason or another they have gotten wrapped up in something that they have decided to investigate. The more the approach the abnormal singularity, the stranger things become, until they are generally forced to withdraw, regardless of whether or not they have actually figured out the abnormal singularity; as often times there really is nothing to figure out. The abnormality simply is.
In this manner, the goals of a Weird campaign are fundamentally different from a Gonzo one. In a true Weird campaign, you would never be able to ‘normalize’ the abnormality in the same way you could in the Gonzo one. You can’t gain knowledge of it and power over it in the same way you could a very strange alien kingdom in a Gonzo campaign. You can gain power and knowledge from the normal aspects of a Weird campaign. Like the kingdom the intruding weird thing is found. And such power is generally used to try and destroy or reject the intrusion of the abnormal. This rejection of the intrusion tends to form the underlying goal of the campaign.
In conclusion, I find the biggest difference between the two is that in Gonzo style play the characters are the objects of normality which are the intruding fore upon the abnormal setting. Their goals tend to inherently be to normalize the setting through gathering knowledge and power over it.
In contrast in Weird style play, the characters and the setting itself are the objects of normality and it is the abnormality which is intruding upon them. Where if there was no intrusion by the abnormality, there would be no game in a way. Furthermore, the players ability to ‘normalize’ the abnormality is generally very limited where very often they won’t be able to gain much knowledge or control over it. Instead they tend to seek to try and block, defeat, or reject the intrusion of the abnormal thing through gaining power in the normal forces of the world.