Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Weirdcrawl: Introduction


In my RPG games, both as a player and a GM I have always been drawn to adventure hooks and campaigns that tend to be focused on exploration and discovery, generally exploration and discovery of the weird. I find this the most enjoyable and engaging part of interacting with the setting. Where you hear some rumor or get hint of some far off weird thing, a place with stone altars that drip blood, a great blue gorilla in the heart of the jungle, a lost tomb of a forgotten scion, and head off to investigate. Why? Well, cause it's there and it's weird.

This is in contrast to interacting with the setting in other ways like building relationships with NPCs, intrigue and dealing with different factions, or more realistic domain level play where you're building a base of power and having a large impact on the setting as a player as you grow in level.

This is one hallmark of the general OSR scene (or whatever you want to call it, apparently it's dead), that I think it's what also separates OSR stuff from it's roots. In more oldschool D&D there was much more of an emphasis on simulating a world. On Gygaxian naturalism. The whole 'domain' level play where the characters begin to build strongholds and the like I think reflects this. Where as you grow in level you're expected to gain further social/political power in the world and become part of it. To essentially move from exploring it and it's weirdness to managing or running it, to helping normalize it in a way.

It's a personal preference of mine, but I have never enjoyed that style of play as much as the lower level exploration style. Something that seems to be much more prominent in OSR stuff than oldschool D&D.

I have come to term this exploratory style of play a 'weirdcrawl' mostly because I can't think of any better name, where basically there is a focus on meandering exploration, hence the crawl part, and you're exploring weird things, hence the weird part. The exact method or place, hexcrawl, pointcrawl, dungeon crawl, wilderness exploration, I don't think really matters.

What matters is the Weird. Not the 'weird' but the 'Weird'!

What is the Weird?

So what is the Weird?  I find this a very hard question to answer. Yes, it's rooted in Weird Fiction and weird fiction authors. Some people tend to think it's all about atmosphere and that Weird Fiction is more of an aesthetic then a genre ; others think it's a genre in itself, or a blending of the horror, sci-fi, and fantasy genres; some definitions tend to claim it to be anti-realist, often surreal or dreamlike in nature, while others talk about it's realistic tone and muted characters. The one commonality that most definitions and people agree upon is that H.P Lovecraft was the first to really try to define the genre and the cornerstone of it.
It is H.PLovecrafts own notes on weird fiction that I always tend to turn back to in order to figure out how to evoke it in my own adventures. In it he offers what I think it is is probably the best and most concise definition of the weird and how to achieve it:
In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan–fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional “build-up”—else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel.
It is from this one block of text that I like to derive my following rules of the weird:

1. If everything is weird, nothing is weird.

If you are running a game where the setting or adventure has lots of odd, outlandish, strange, or wacky things, or as Lovecraft puts it -- impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena--then you usually don't get the weird. What you have what I feel is more commonly termed Gonzo, I've blogged about the differences between the weird and the gonzo a bit before.
A world in which dual suns circle in the sky overhead and the players explore a desert of green sand ruled by feathered bird aliens with ray guns; or a dying world with mysterious space technology that is one giant decrepit swampy graveyard with shades of spacemen; these worlds while being weird, I would not really label as being part of The Weird.

I would say these examples lean more towards Gonzo because there tends to be not be a lot of separation between what is weird and fantastic and what is normal. There are varying genre elements  and tone side by side. With the Gonzo the world tends to be a mosaic of craziness. Don't get me wrong. I love the Gonzo. Gonzo adventures tend to be pulpy and be full of action and adventure and have an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach which tends to make they very exciting as there is always something new happening. But because they tend to form such mosaics, they aren't the weird to me.

2. The Players should venture from the normal into the weird

For my second rule of the weird, I think to create an atmosphere of the weird you need to have the players adventure from a world of normality into the weird. I find a lot of weird adventures or settings are good at evoking an atmosphere of the weird, but if the adventure or setting tries to maintain the atmosphere of the weird for too long, it all begins to get less weird, especially so if there is a strong undercurrent of weirdness to the entire world.

No matter how random or alien it seems, I find there slowly builds up an underlying system of rules, intuitions, and relationships between the weird things. I tend to call these types of adventures or settings Kafkaesque. Like city of magic doors or mirrors ruled over by a Tyrant of the Glass, or a land of red capped gnomes who are obsessed with the linage of things, most of all gems which they think contain secrets of the earth.
Things are a little less like a chaotic genre mosaic as in Gonzo games. There tends to be more of a low level mix the normal and the weird. Kafkaesque adventures and settings can be very strange and evoke an atmosphere of the weird in a labyrinthine manner but there is a certain sense of underlying order. The players may not understand that underlying order in the beginning, and a fun part of the game is trying to figure out that underlying order, but eventually the players will figure it out.

They'll work through the inner circles of the Tyrant of Glass, exploring his mirror realms, and learning the machinations of his court until they are able to more adeptly navigate to the Tyrant himself and choose to defeat him or not. This would be a very fun campaign, but at it's heart you're slowly understanding a hidden system and once you do the weird is no longer as weird.

The best example of a "Kafkesque" OSR thing that I can think of is Emmy Allen's The Gardens of Ynn and Patrick Stuarts thoughts on it:

"Ynn is a Tea-box, a name I just made up. A sandbox or procedurally generated setting in which you are equally likely to be offered tea as to be attacked. I was also going to call it a Civil-box or Mannerbox.

So instead of it being Points of Light where civilisation is encroaching on, or receding from, the wilderness, its a world where the products and structures of high civilisation exist in a degraded, twisted or transformed state. You might have a fight, you might have a polite conversation."
Where the setting is weird but there's a sense of underlying civilization and order, of protocol and civility that can be learned over time.

To achieve a true sense of weirdness, I think there should be a very clear separation between the world of the normal and the world of the weird and the players venture from the normal into the weird, be exposed to it for a short while, before venturing out (usually to avoid some kind of nasty death). Otherwise, normality begins to creep into the weird and the weird into normality until they reach an equilibrium and you end up with the Kafkaesque.

3. The Weird should evoke a sense of awe

If you ask people what Lovecraft's most famous for they'd probably say his horror stories. I find it very interesting that in the above quote he refers to the supernatural event as not a horror but a marvel. I think to Lovecraft, the Weird wasn't always necessarily horrifying. Instead it would evoke a sense of awe (def. a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder).
I think the weird should be truly irrational at heart. I don't mean irrational in the sense that it's not rational or without reason. I mean it in the sense that the weird should not provide a rationale for its existence. Like the wind or the rain or the mountains, it simply is. You can climb it, you can venture into it, explore what it is, but the why, the from whence it came and where it is going, should always seem beyond reach. Something you kind of impose after the fact to try and make sense of and aren't sure if you're actually right or wrong.


  1. I really like the distinctions you make (gonzo vs. Kafkaesque vs. Weird). Looking forward to seeing more posts about the Weird!

    1. Thank you! I've got a couple more posts about it that I hope to get out sometime soon.

  2. There's a lot to think about here. I like the idea of adventuring being exploring weird places, and of contrasting the normality of the outside world against the weirdness of the adventure sites.

    I also think you draw an interesting distinction between "Kafkaesque" and Gonzo. I think most people would agree that Gonzo includes a strong current of humor, whereas what you're calling "Kafkaesque" also features an absence of normality, but is maybe meant to be more serious?

    Like I said, its interesting to think about. Also, thank you for linking to your earlier gonzo vs weird essay!

    1. Yeah, after I wrote the article I think I'd also kind of classify the "Kafkaesque" as the Tea-box or Mannerbox as in this review of The Gardens of Ynn by Patrick Stewart: "its a world where the products and structures of high civilisation exist in a degraded, twisted or transformed state. You might have a fight, you might have a polite conversation."

      Where as you describe things are a bit more serious or the humour is dry, but there's still a weirdness to things.

      Actually I think I'll add this to the post.

  3. Hey, Veins of the Earth's author is not called Stewart, it's Stuart. You must have been thinking about this guy, instead.

  4. Out of curiosity, did you enjoy Annihilation? I feel like that perfectly embodies the Weird and the way it breaks down any sense of logic.

    1. I enjoyed the movie. It's not my all time favourite or anything but I think what it did it did well. I'd probably have to watch it another time to really understand the ending. I've been meaning to read the books for a while now.

  5. Read 'The Weird and the Eerie' by Mark Fisher