Friday, February 22, 2013

Thoughts on "Gonzo" Games

Running the ASE and Gonzo Without it Getting too Stupid.

Gonzo - B. McNally
I run an ongoing game of Anomalous Subsurface Environment on G+ Hangouts using slightly modified Basic D&D.  It's going pretty well some ten sessions in and several people keep returning to delve into the bizarre and confusing depths of Mt. Rendon, or to interact with the cutthroat capitalism, cronyism and debasement that is the city of Denethix.  ASE is notoriously "gonzo" and disliked by some for this reason.  There's definitely a danger in running a silly adventure, but after last night's session I think I figured out a few ways to avoid the worst aspects of silliness.

Last night was an especially good session - a couple of key rooms were discovered on ASE's first level - neat set pieces, and the first "faction" of the dungeon encountered. Secret doors popped open due to extraordinary rolls and traps/trick encounters were intelligently bypassed or smashed.  Yet, the traps were funny, and the faction is roving hunting packs of a pop-culture reference.

Thing is it felt like a normal tense Old School dungeon crawl, much like those of more serious dungeons, except the situations and dangers encountered were completely ridiculous: screaming "Bat-Boy" cannibals, a rusted and defunct re-animator machine and a nasty trick encounter of animated garden gnomes.  It worked though, the players were tense, the situations and monsters apparently felt dangerously mysterious and puzzles mysteriously treacherous.  There were a good number of laughs as well, and some of the techniques below might come off as too grim-dark pretentious without the absurdity of the world and situations. Below I've composed some thoughts about running gonzo without moving to far into the silly or ridiculous, losing the tension that make high lethality style table top games fun.

Lethality - that's the first of it.  Sure the monsters are silly sometimes, and the traps intentionally humorous (and intentionally obvious most the time), but they're both deadly.  The radioactive stirges that have a  chance of making a character "hulk out" (turn green and gain +1 STR) have an equal chance of instantly killing the character.  The gold bar plundered from the statute trap says something ironic and funny on it, but the statutes guarding it can pulp a 1st level character very effectively and that death is pretty irreversible.  Luckily it's a B/X game so a new character is a zany idea and several die rolls away.  The point I take from this is that one can't have silly mechanics and a silly setting without having a very silly game. The high stakes mechanics make the dangers to the characters feel serious (see the below discussion of character vs. player views of situations).

Descriptions:  Descriptions are as important as tough mechanics for me. Good description allows easier visualization of the world - a GM can help the players (and help themselves by having a more seamless logical world) by providing a solid amount of mundane details.  Wall material, temperature, smells, architectural details (especially doors) and ambient sounds are key to making a dungeon environment feel more "real".  This helps players "see" the game situation better, and also helps the GM, because understanding the world's reactions to player action is helped by detail - arrows stick in wooden walls, and shatter on stone blocks for example.  It's a self sustaining loop in fact. Players also become more interested in the world as they have more things to interact with.  

Getting the players to see a fantasy world clearly, and derive fun from interacting and puzzling through fantastical situations, becomes harder as the more ridiculous these situations are, the harder it is to suspend disbelief, visualize the scene from the character's perspective and enjoy them as fiction*. Knowing that one's character is backing away from a pair of giant earwigs down a low bricked corridor, towards a small peaked wood door lets the player fill in the scene more easily. Knowing that the door is wood and not especially sturdy also allows the GM to plan the earwigs response - they might be able to chew through that door - but not the stone one beyond...

*This may also explain some of the popularity of "Gonzo", because it's hard, as an astute consumer of popular culture, to embrace the tropes of high fantasy without sensing the ridiculousness of it all.  Unconscious bathos can be more annoying than absurdity or farce.

Monsters:  The same principle as described in Description above is at work.  Monsters is ASE are the single most ridiculous departure from classic D&D (well maybe not from the Flumph and friends).  Goblins are debased 'grey' aliens, there's an entire race (PC and 2HD humanoid) based on a character from Thudarr the barbarian, and the faction on the 1st level that my players met last session is made up of savage packs of degenerate blind cannibals that resemble the Weekly World News' signature character "Bat Boy".  Obviously the silliness could be overwhelming (without even mentioning the animated statutes of garden gnomes). There's ways of using these monsters though, both to create tension (they're still dangerous) and to get a laugh or two.  There are a couple things worth noting about these monsters, first, they're not really in regular D&D books - they're new (even if mostly just re-skins), and second, they have the potential to be described as monstrous.  These work together to make the monsters of ASE both mysterious and scary if the GM doesn't just drop the pop-reference right off.

I had my players worried about the "Bat Boys" (or Screechmen) for two sessions, and the fight against them was pretty good as monster fights against weak humanoids go. There were a couple factors at play in this success.  Since screechmen are blind and echo-locate, their awful screaming (human and yet mutated) echos about the first level.  It actually makes these orc reskins sort of pitiful mechanically - they really can't sneak up on you, but it's a creepy atmospheric effect.  The party knew something in the dungeon was letting off human sounding screams with astonishing regularity.  The party knew the screams were mostly to the South.  The party didn't go South until they ran out of safe ways to go elsewhere, and then was proceeded very cautiously and resigned on meeting something "horrible" - with ghosts being a popular choice.  Before meeting the monster the players were concerned about it due to signs of its presence.

Second, I emphasized the screechmen's mutant nature, not that they looked liked super market tabloid cover art. Long pallid limbs just out of the light, reflective blind eyes, filthy claws and huge bat like ears - that sort of description dominated the conversation about screechmen until after the first oil bomb had been thrown.  Then once the desperate fight (actually not so bad due to smart tactics - and the pitiful stupidity of the screechmen) started the joke could be revealed and up went a link to Bat Boy's yawning visage in the chat bar.  This works partially because once the fight is going the tension is no longer narrative in nature, it's not about where the story will go, it's about what dice pips are coming up.  Still tension, but tension for the players, not as much within the mental scene they have of the characters creeping through a bone strewn vault.

So, wierd monsters, strange and disturbing, are good because if the joke/cliche/statline is revealed to early it stops the player from thinking about this horrible thing from the perspective of the character.  This works in any game (calling an orc and orc immediately gets the player thinking about stat, to hit chances and HP), but is more important in gonzo games as the monsters are often extremely silly even if they are also disturbing and horrific.  Yet again, because the monsters are ultimately silly, one can really pile on the gross out descriptions, and use the word squamous without too much pretension, because the players are constantly tempted out of character by the joke aspect and the florid prose doubles as a joke wind up.  In a straight high fantasy game, too much monster description can be just another layer of pretense when the players really just want to roll some dice (what people often mock about 'elf games').

Moral Complications/Low Fantasy - There's nothing heroic about the ASE, its a classic dungeon crawl for loot and the attitude of "whatever works" is encouraged as the means to this end.  The level of humor and bizarreness in the setting helps with rather than hinders it.  ASE is a crapsack world setting where the "good guys" are a society of corrupt plutocrats running an exploitative 19th century style city-state where slavery and discrimination are the norm.  The silliness and satirical elements of this empire of human (and even more so demi-human) misery allow some remove and encourages they players not to contemplate too deeply the plight of halflings in Denethix's slums, or the carnivorous and anthrophagic nature of elves.  I think this works well.  Where a player might feel saddened or revolted to discover a bloodsport arena using familiar animals (such as dogs - dog fighting is evil/gross), the same situation involving sewer dwelling lizard-monkey/miniature sleestaks can be viewed without horror or even as humorous.  This morally bankrupt world might be open to reform, but the player doesn't feel compelled to make his character act as a reformer, because the silliness allows the world to exists as farce and satire.  Playing a Hobsbawmian 'social bandit' or even an outsider trying to force her way into the corrupt aristocracy of wealth is as acceptable as seeking reform, because the world and its ills are silly. It's a balancing act, because too much "grimdark" sucks the fun out of  a setting with pretension and creepiness, just as too much "gonzo" makes it unpredictably stupid and not fun.

Player Consciousness vs. Character Consciousness:  The key idea in the above techniques is "player consciousness" vs. "character consciousness".  Character consciousness is the player visualizing and acting in the world as the character they've chosen, the somewhat escapist joy of envisioning a fight or mountain of gold or of deciding to do something against your personal inclinations or knowledge because your character is different from yourself - basically the storytelling/narrative aspect of the game.  Player consciousness is stepping back and enjoying a cool mechanic, lucky roll, or most specifically here, a joke (often really dumb) - this is the 'game' aspect. Dark and terrible settings aren't fun because looking at the situation from a "character consciousness" without the remove of the game is depressing and awful.  One feels like a bad person after making one's character act like the creep that thier world has made them, pondering another Sophie's choice or dooming another pitiful NPC to some horrible thing by inaction.  Conversely it's hard to get into and visualize a really silly story from the character consciousness, and the storytelling aspect of gonzo games is weak because of this.  Example: Giant chickens are hilarious and from a player perspective extremely silly - though an astute power gamer may rightly fear the restated T-Rex.  Yet if one can imagine oneself in the shoes of some guy standing in a wasteland of stubbled fields with no place to hide as a three story feathered monstrosity stalks towards him - it's kind of terrifying.  The goal of a gonzo game is to make the players feel or visualize the plight and situation of the character facing a ridiculous world by understanding that it's not ridiculous to that character and still be able to laugh when the giant chicken pecks someone to death (or when the logistical problem of frying 400lb drumsticks comes up) - because "Giant Chicken!".


  1. I don't even crack a smile when I present the monsters and situations, it's all straight up deadly serious D&D. The contrast between the ridiculous situations and horrible consequences makes it work.

  2. Really interesting thoughts. Thanks.

  3. I used to think the screechmen were Bat Boy, but after seeing Descent I'm not so sure. A lot less silly if you've seen that film.