Monday, May 23, 2011

What is the Weird?

The other day I mused about taking all of the Call of Cthulhu "Lovecraft Country" supplements and making a D&D sandbox out of them - man, the Gamer ADD is hitting me bad on this one - I may need to start a notebook on it.  It's one of those ideas I wish I thought of years ago.  More on that in another post.

Trey wondered in the comments if Weird is becoming too commonplace.  I've come across a few recent adventures that I would classify as "Weird" - we just played Hammers of the God, and a recent review was Spire of Iron and Glass.  For me, a Weird adventure needs to put horror, fantasy and science fiction into the blender, and keep the nature of reality and the cosmology very ambiguous.

But what really is the definition of Weird?  Is it one of those, "I can't define it, but I'll know when I see it?"

Does the Weird need Normal to create contrast and context?  If the whole campaign world is a gonzo mix of sci-fi and magic and horror, is it still Weird or is it just Gonzo?  I've been reading through/enjoying my LotFP grind-box and Mr Jim is clearly in the camp that the world should be as normal as possible - low magic and gritty, so that there's a clear demarcation between the Normal and the Weird.  It's a very compelling idea, but where does that leave Xothique, or Hyperborea?  In the realm of Gonzo?

I don't know that I have an answer, but would love to hear from *you*.  The Black City project I've been plugging away on has a blend of sci fi, horror and fantasy that nudges it towards my definition of Weird, but I'm undecided about the nature of the larger campaign world and rules set.  Does context matter?

Here's a good question, like a thought exercise - is an alien ruin in a historical Viking game different, in terms of Weird vs Gonzo, than placing it in a high-magic fantasy campaign loaded with magic items and high level wizards?


  1. Some time ago I wrote a post on this and quoted HPL's definition.

    In summary, I think "weird" is about the incursion or irruption of the unnatural (or something that radically redefines natural)--or maybe even confrontation of the undeniable existence of such. "Weird" is a mood or feel--a lens that can be applied across several different genres (horror, sci-fi, fantasy).

    Raggi uses the contrast of the fantastic with gritty mundanity to evoke the weird. I try to invoke it by imbuing mass produced items with otherworldly presence (old photos, gasmasks, pulp magazines, etc.) in various City posts.

    In the CAS worlds you site the weird is created in the mind of the reader--the confrontation with the exotic world CAS presents is in contrast with the Earth of their own experience. The tension between those two is where the weird exists.

  2. Oh, and I do think the Black City is an the vein of the "the weird."

  3. The definition of Weird is entirely dependent upon what one understands as Normal — and this is in context of the fantasy world itself, not in context of our mundane reality. When we go about imagining the strange worlds we do, it necessitates a suspension of disbelief. This suspension creates a new norm. Thus, if everything in a fantasy world is crawling with cthululhoid nastiness, then a space free of any influence of HPL's dark imagination is weird. So, I am definitely in the camp that sees the need to have some kind of contrast (thus, my heavy use of Christian civilization in contrast to the bleak vision of HPL).

  4. For me the deciding difference in weird/gonzo is how much you think it could happen. Gonzo is a psionicist and a sorcerer blasting apart a skeleton army and becoming heroes for it. Weird is that psionicist and sorcerer having to destroy those skeletons in a way that doesn't draw attention because they would most likely be burnt at the stake (even though they just saved the kingdom).

  5. In a gonzo campaign, you have everyone running around with their own rivalries and agendas. In a weird campaign, you have everyone running around with their own rivalries and agendas set against the backdrop of a cold, uncaring cosmos with inhuman inteligences that have their own alien designs for the populace.

  6. Trey, your link didn't work (bad character in there) but I was able to find the post on your site - Of Weird and Wonder - good reading, definitely, an interesting topic. I need to get to Machen sooner rather than later.

    So most of you guys all agree context and contrast is important - that tells me a lot about the campaign setting for the Black City as I continue to work on it (like making Trade Town mundane, and emphasising the mundane aspects of the rest of the world).

  7. I've never really focused on the weird myself, but your post, and the comments are all great food for thought.

    Also, I've been enjoying the Black City posts. It's interesting to watch it developing.

  8. I don't think you can truly have "weird," unless there is a "normal" or "mundane" to compare it to.

  9. Sign me up for contrast, too. On Freudian/Jungian lines, the weird is what you cannot process - the uncanny, that thing which you can't categorise. Zak has a couple of posts about how it's different both from magic and science, and which paint a David Lynch sort of picture. For that purpose I think having a known location that is "weird" is itself a problem: to be most effective the weird should come upon you where you least expect it, in your bathroom or in your own body. I fear a weird dark city safely hidden away from the world is liable just to be a heterotopia.

  10. An alien ruin in a high-magic fantasy setting is just as out of place as it is in the historical Viking setting, but the place that things are in or out of is different in each of these settings, and so we notice alien-ness more in the historical than in the fantastic.

    Explaining that assertion ran to lengths improper for a comment: full version here.

  11. and I left a long response to Von that I should excerpt here:

    ...both the Weird and gonzo are perpetually on the brink of disappearing/erasing themselves: both assume some normal world of restraint that is being deliberately violated in this particular case. With the Weird, the violation is local, leaving a scar on the reality of the established world. With Gonzo the whole setting is a violation of standards of taste/restraint: it gets its power from the players going "I didn't think of that, but why not after all?" Both depend for effect on surprise and confusion.

    But surprise and confusion disappear when you assimilate the thing that causes them. It's bound to happen, I fear, unless you keep surprising in different ways, violating implicit rules by which your world works, tearing up social contracts. I don't know how you can keep tearing those contracts up long term. You have to invest equal effort in establishing new ones.

    Lost had a good run of it, though. I think it succeeded for most of 5 seasons because it carefully lead the viewer into assumptions, then undercut them. It kept pretending to be a story about x, then telling you it was not x. And most of the time it was Weird, with only occasional forays into Gonzo. It helped that it started with a tight problem/expectation space - the plane crash.

  12. I think that Gonzo lends itself well to drifting into the territory of the absurd, where weird more properly takes measured steps from the known towards the unknown in an internally logical (if highly unusual) manner.