Jun 23

June ‘17 Carnival: Chasing Gonzo


The travelling RPG Blog Carnival continues to jump from one blog to another. While I devoted a lot of time to the February topic, the monthly host continues to change. I try to contribute to the monthly carnival as best I can.


In June, the latest host is Mark Craddock at the Cross Planes blog. Mark’s chosen topic for the month is Gonzo and Cross-genre. The Cross Planes site outlined the topic like this:


Let’s look at gonzo for a moment, we’re talking about crazy, madcap, anachronistic adventures. Games like Gamma World, Rifts, Feng Shui, Over the Edge, Exalted, World of Synnabar, and Paranoia.

Cross-Genre games are like chocolate and peanut butter (you hope, at least), mixing two or more inspirations for something new. Games like Rifts, Deadlands, TORG, and settings such as CthulhuPunk for GURPS, Pulp Cthulhu, ADnD’s Spelljammer and Planescape, Nocturnals for Mutants and Masterminds (truthfully, most super hero games are cross-genre).


Mark has picked an interesting topic for his round of the Blog Carnival. Just like last month, the chosen topic made me think hard about my Tales of the Hero Wars campaign, and how it is run. This month is a discussion of tone, rather than specific setting details.




Fantasy Gonzo

Gonzo gaming, as described by Mark, strikes me as a tone issue. My campaign includes some of the elements from the definition above, but not all of them. As with so much of my homebrew setting, I weave together the elements I like, without absorbing everything from the source material.


To explore my interpretation of fantasy gonzo gaming, I break down those elements I want from our game:

  • Wonder
  • Pacing
  • Anachronisms
  • Campaign Background
  • Gonzo Narratives





I want a sense of wonder from my fantasy game. The best way to achieve this is to turn the fantasy dial up high, to present a larger-than-life setting with imaginative locations and plots. This is a matter of taste, but pushes towards the gonzo sensibility to really impact the Players and make for a memorable game.


Examples from our campaign:

  • Apocalyptic destruction caused by rogue mages
  • Towers flying through the Plane of Air
  • Ghost creatures inhabiting a clockwork robot
  • Hero transmuting into a composite leech monster




One aspect of the madcap label applied by Mark can be expressed in the pacing of a campaign. Aided by the narrative nature of HeroQuest, I push the game along as fast as I can. Mundane scenes, such as travel, shopping and camping, are often dull and repetitive. These are prime candidates to be skipped, thereby moving the plot forward to the more exciting parts of the story.


I think the Dungeon World mechanics fought against this tendency, and created one of my problems with the recent interlude. The excitement of an RPG lies in action and Player agency, so I want to skip forward to those scenes. A fast-paced game is another element of the fantasy gonzo style I seek.




This area is where my campaign moves further away from Mark’s definition. I am happy to weave in steampunk elements via clockwork artificers, but I am not aiming for a full-blown science fantasy setting. To paraphrase, any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology. Thus, some of the high-magic wonders of the setting may resemble technology, and thus feel anachronistic.


However, I am aware of the perils of this approach, and strive to push the magical aspect, and not the pseudo-technological. Aside from the one time a Messerschmitt flew through a portal, I generally keep away from major anachronisms.



Campaign Background

The choice of source material helps build my fantasy gonzo setting. The primary source is Glorantha, which has plenty of weird to bring to the table: durulz, anyone? My cosmology is based around the classic Planescape setting, which definitely builds on the sense of wonder.


The gap between these two primary sources allows me scope to add an eclectic mix of sentient species into the game. I love the cavalcade of strange cultures, further building a sense of wonder. However, even my limited Cosmos is large enough to permit further weirdness, such as the incredible Day after Ragnarok setting. This is a firm favourite with the Players, and the source of that wandering Messerschmitt.


Read more about these sources in My Big Four RPG Settings



Gonzo Narratives

Setting and tone refer to the campaign as a whole. I also try to scale fantasy gonzo for regular events at the table, making it evident to Players as often as I can. I view our campaign as collaborative storytelling, with space in the narrative for wild stories. I see two ways of enabling a gonzo narrative.


Firstly, gonzo is inherent in our improvisational style. I do not have each session planned out in advance, and thus I can run with whatever idea captures the Players’ imaginations. I have prompts and story elements prepared, but I am willing to discard them if the focus of the group shifts elsewhere. I appreciate that improvisational gaming is not for everyone, but it brings a sense of freedom and recklessness which sits well with a gonzo narrative.


Secondly, and building on the improvisational approach, I am prepared to follow an unexpected plot thread. The fantasy setting nurtures a sense of wonder, and thus wondrous plots are acceptable. The Heroes are totally free to hunt a miniature tricerotops with musical horns through the twisting tunnels of the rock. They can recruit parrot messengers or charm the dwarven ladies tea circle. If a plot is fun, and engaging the Players, then we can run with it and see where it takes the story.



Weaving Wuxia

Finally, there is another way to emphasize fantasy gonzo at the table: contests. This is primarily through combat, but I adopt this approach for all types of contest. The gonzo approach to contests is epitomised by the Wuxia style of combat. Here, the emphasis is on being cool, rather than a strict adherence to gritty reality. In Wuxia films the combatants walk on water, leap huge distances and generally defy gravity. Wuxia is most often seen in martial arts films, but applies to any fight scene involving wire work, or even the bullet-time of the Matrix films.


Adopting the Wuxia approach is a great way of adding wonder to contests. Thankfully, the HeroQuest rules help me achieve this goal. Firstly, the contest system is narrativist, not simulationist. Thus, we are all free to describe a contest in terms of skipping over the surface of water, or tumbling backwards in super-slow motion. The rules are not trying to simulate a gritty combat, and thus allow for plenty of cool descriptions.


Indeed, the sheer flexibility of HeroQuest enables the Wuxia style to apply in any contest. As there is only a single contest resolution engine at the heart of HeroQuest, then it is the narrative which determines what abilities a Hero can use in a contest. If a Player is convincing, and the outcome sounds cool, then almost any combination of opposed abilities is possible.


Typically, the more gonzo the combination, then the more entertaining it is for the table. Why simply chop the troll to pieces with a sword, when you can inflict the death of a thousand paper cuts with an origami crane? Or charm it with a comedic mime? Or shame it with a powerful poem deriding its ancestors? The mechanical freedom of HeroQuest brings fantasy gonzo to any contest.


Read further about how much I love HeroQuest




These are the ways I chase fantasy gonzo in the campaign. Weaving a sense of wonder with mechanical freedoms has created a fun setting where the story has an equal chance of surprising me. Aided by my creative Players, I have created the best campaign I have ever played.


How do you embrace fantasy gonzo in your game? Do your rules help you achieve this goal? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.



Happy Gaming



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