Monday, January 13, 2014

Resurgence of Gonzo

First I'm not really claiming there is a resurgence of gonzo. Although, in my niche of the RPG world it seems common and I'm personally drawn to it. I'm using a fairly broad definition of gonzo. Anything anachronistic and/or mashups with primary purpose of being "different".

I wonder if the "appeal" of gonzo is because everything "normal" has already been done in RPGs, specifically in D&D's 40 year history.

More than once I've been brainstorming new campaigns only to discover my "gamma world with wizards" is darksun. Or the "fantasy pirate/merchants on steam train" is too close to Eberon Lighting rails.

Smaller scale examples; create some hillbilly dwarves everyone thinks of gully dwarves. Anything drow is dual-wielding scimitars and spiders. Describe two features of creature and two or three players name it and rattle off its attributes.

There are only so many ideas (well infinite but most the normal ones are similar enough to be same, the rest are gonzo). The large published worlds Birthright, Eberron, DL, DS, FR, Greyhawk, Mystara, Planescape, Ravenloft have done a lot of them. Even some gonzo, cough, Spelljammer, cough.

This bothers me as DM / Creator for several reasons. It channels creativity. Have to go gonzo or risk retreading common ground. Just changing things up often doesn't work because "known" elements come with preconceptions that you'll be fighting against. It destroys suspense, tension, surprise, wonder (which are about 4 out of 5 emotions I try to create as a DM (humor is the other). A key method of horror is to keep exactly what the "monster" is hidden for as long as possible. Unknown is scary. Players quickly guessing (correctly or not) the creature and all it's capabilities, is not scary.

This is worse in rules heavy games (such as Pathfinder) where there are clearly delineated abilities, powers, conditions, threat levels and pre-determined countermeasures. You can't even get very gonzo and stay within RAW. In old school games it's easy to gonzo overboard. It becomes silly and in away, also destroys suspense, tension, surprise, wonder. When every day is "sasquatch wizards riding dinosaurs with laser beams" it all becomes mundane.

In the end I'm just bemoaning the fact that I'm in a wasteful arms race of "new" with "seen it all", jaded players.


  1. "Players quickly guessing (correctly or not) the creature and all it's capabilities, is not scary."

    While I know what you're saying, I have to say one of my favorite things as a DM is when one of my players thinks he knows what they're up against and then he's wrong. This is a player who's read every Monster Manual and owns all the old modules so he is hard to "trick" but when it happens it's delicious :)

    It does work to terrify the other players too when he's wrong.

    1. Interesting, I might try that tactic. Specifically fool the "know it all" to put the fear into everyone. Problem is, the know-it-all is pretty darn tootin smart and knows my tricks, body language etc really well...

      As much as I sound annoyed, it was mostly just I was annoyed then. More often I have "fuck it, we're still having fun" attitude.

  2. Thing about Gonzo is that as A GM you need to deadpan those sasquatch wizards. You don't presnt the fools as "Sasquatch wizards on dinosaurs" you discuss "The lizard riding ancient folk and their powerful magic" and then play out the encounter totally straight from the 8D6 fireball that Sasquatch Merlin throws to when you hold up this picture:

    Just play it straight and let the gonzo flow.


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