Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Leaving Kansas

One day soon I will post something you can actually put in your game rather than merely philosophizing. Not today, though.

One thing which I think is at the heart of of a lot of old-school aesthetics is the clash between weirdness and familiarity. In particular, I find these games tend to have familiar characters from familiar locations visit somewhere strange. 
The thematic heart of the game, then, is this; can our representations of the familiar world survive and prosper from contact with the Strange?

Setting up the familiar is pretty simple. Most players of RPGs are acquainted with the 'default medieval fantasy' setting, with feudal lords, peasants, knights, priests, and so on. Likewise, the modern world, or mundane history can serve as the familiar. So long as it's the sort of place and time that your players can readily understand, make assumptions about, and so on.
This is the background your PCs are drawn from. The options available to a PC come to define the everyday normality of your setting, the baseline from which the weird departs. If you have wizards capable of casting spells as part of your 'normal', magic itself is not 'weird'. It is something the PCs can do and, presumably, might be familiar with. A vampire is never going to be scary when you can roll up a level 1 vampire PC, after all.
I actually think that, here, a certain degree of blandness is good. Exotic and strange details in this part of the game world detract from its normal-ness, and likewise make the strange seem less strange. The more default and obvious this baseline seems OOC, the easier it will be to see it as default in play.

This, then, is contrasted with the Weird. The weird is other. It is external to the players, unfamiliar, separated from them somehow. It might be a dungeon. It might be an unexplored wilderness or a strange foreign land. It might be intrusions from other worlds, even. But it must be different.
The weird can, and should, break the rules that PCs operate by. Enemies can use spells, certainly, but they shouldn't have the same spells in the same spellbooks that the PCs do. Their capabilities should be unfamiliar.
It must likewise be clear when you are stepping out of the familiar and into the weird. When you go down the steps into a dungeon, you enter the Weird. Sometimes, this process is drawn out (such as the mounting strangeness in the overland section of Deep Carbon Observatory, before descending to the observatory itself). Sometimes it's abrupt (such as stepping through the doorway to Ynn). However, for the weird to seem weird, it needs to be clearly marked off.
So now we have our PCs - little avatars of the 'normal' - entering into the weird. This is our 'through the looking glass' moment, our 'I have a feeling we aren't in Kansas anymore' moment. What happens then? Exploration, conflict, and consequences.
In short, the PCs explore and investigate the weird. They see how it is different to the normal, how their assumptions (and likewise the ooc assumptions of the players) do not apply to it. The uncover the true extent, nature and weirdness of the Weird. This establishes the ground for the next stage.
Next up, we have conflict.  We know the familiar, and we are becoming aware of the weird. The two are opposed. They simply co-exist as each is incompatible with the stability of the other. So, the Weird will threaten the PCs, and try to destroy or weird-ify them. Perhaps this is violent conflict with monsters, insidious mental effects, traps, environmental dangers, and so on. The weird strikes out at the PCs, and the PCs strike back at it.
Lastly, we have consequences of this conflict. Perhaps the PCs are weakened, killed, mutated, crippled. Conversely, perhaps they overcome the challenges they face, grow powerful, gain useful things. It's very possible that by overcoming the Weird, they can incorporate it into the Normal (perhaps by seizing magical weapons for themselves - after all, anything the PCs do is the normal default). But, either way, the weird changes them.
Finally, they will return to the familiar world to recover or enjoy the fruits of their efforts, and the normality of the normal world reasserts itself.

Start in the normal world, cross over into the weird, explore the weird, come into conflict with the weird, suffer consequences, return to the normal world. Repeat. It's an easy pattern to spot. Every trip into a dungeon follows this pattern, for example.
Likewise, because the weird needs to remain unusual, it naturally lends itself to picaresque narratives. Journeys through the comparative normal where periodically, the PCs cross over into an area of the weird for an episode, explore it and return. Each episode on the picaresque is a new 'weird' to contrast against the ongoing normality of the campaign.

So far, so much arty wank with little application at the table. How to make this useful?
Firstly, understand that the PCs represent what's normal. If your PCs can cast spells, magic is normal. If your PCs can be elves and dwarves, elves and dwarves are normal. If your PCs have easy access to weapons and armour, violence is normal. Anything the PCs can be or do can not, therefore, be the Weird. Magic, dwarves and fighting are not in and of themselves weird, for most D&D games.
(It doesn't have to be this way. In our normal lives, most of us are not familiar with real violence. In a purely mundane modern-day game, the introduction of warfare, weapons and so on can push things enough away from the 'normal' to be their own sort of weird. Look at the Bates Motel, for example...)

Second, it must be clear when you are no longer dealing with the normal. Clear transitions, marked boundaries, and so on. Make the entrance to your dungeon foreboding. Mark the start of the dangerous wilderness with border fences and sentries. Likewise, when leaving the weird and returning to the normal, put markers in the world for this.
A game that does this very well is Lacuna. By establishing the modern-day corporate world the players operate in, and then the process of plugging into Blue City, the weirdness of Blue City is accentuated and kept defined.

Lastly, the weird needs to stay weird on an out-of-character level. Basically every player by now knows what an orc is. Those that don't soon will if they're encountered more than a few times. So, to keep things weird, you need to vary them. Make them feel new. 

1 comment:

  1. Interesting stuff. I've thought about some similar things in the context of portal fiction, spurred on by some of the stuff that Seanan McGuire and Ursula Vernon have written, but I never really thought about it in the context of RPGs. I actually sort of tried to apply it in one game setting, but because I hadn't made these connections and thought it out explicitly, too much didn't fit with that, and it ended up just being awkward instead of weird.