Thursday, May 20, 2010

The Weird

“The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain--a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space.”
– HP Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

The term "Weird" seems to be used more and more these days to describe a certain feel or atmosphere or setting elements. Attempts to define it in any universal way are pointless. In fact, it's hard to imagine usage of the word "weird" in a fantasy context where it would be completely misused.

But I've got a game I'm calling Weird Fantasy Role-Playing coming soon, so I thought it might be useful to define what I mean by my use of the term. I go into far more detail in the Referee book of the box set, but a short version is probably in order so people have the correct idea of what it is they'll be getting if they decide to invest in the game.

To me, the Weird is a measure of contrast. There is nature and civilization and and it is not Weird. It is mundane. True-to-life, farmers and merchants and rulers and all sorts who never encounter the supernatural, and if the don't live near the borderlands, couldn't be blamed for not even believing in it. And then there is Something Else. All that magic, the monsters, and everything that goes along with it. That's separate. Not part of everyday life.

So the implied setting and advice given for developing your own campaign world (nothing will be spelled out, and of course nothing stops you from ignoring any of these suggestions as the game engine itself, as we all know, is almost infinitely adaptable anyway) will be geared towards making something that works without magic. Indeed, many of the setting-changing spells have been eliminated or severely downgraded to facilitate a more normal-seeming world.

Dungeons will be encouraged to be "ecologically correct," the advice for building monsters encourages assigning hit dice and damage capabilities based solely on the creature's size. This sort of thing creates a norm.

And then there is the Weird which breaks the rules, both in terms of the mundane aspects of the setting and in terms of game mechanics. There's precious little you can do to make the PCs really surprised by the whole thing since encountering the Weird is the focus of the game. Everyone at the table knows that's what they're there to do and it is foolish to expect players to feign ignorance or surprise in this matter. But with the suggestions to build Weird situations by intentionally breaking and rewriting rules, it'll drive home that things just aren't right.

Without such contrasts, I don't think the Weird works nearly as well. In "Sword and Planet" and wild settings where the base assumptions are infused with magic or strangeness, it's difficult to establish things that are different and transgressive. How do you establish "unusual" if there is no real "usual" state in the setting to begin with? That's fine for high adventure, but in building dread or horror, I don't see it working so well.

So don't expect complete mindbending strangeness oozing out of every pore of LotFP: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. The Weird is the spice, set by example by the atmosphere of the included adventures. The framework, the base, will all be quite familiar. Vanilla, even. Ready-made to receive your ideas, rather than presenting you with unusual concepts that you have to deal with before you even get to use your own creativity.


  1. It depends on 'weird for who?' The player or the character. Weird for the character was the basis of Call of Cthulu. Weird for the player, includes both that which is weird for the character, as well that which is different from the player's normal existence and understanding of the world.

  2. @Cheiron --> Excellent point.

    Weird for the player is hard to achieve now, with RPG styled and horror movies, VGs, and other media being mainstream even if they aren't already role-players. It is simply hard to shock 'em.

    Weird for the character, ah, for skilled roleplayers or otherwise, it is best when the atmosphere is potent. Everyone feels the setting and its differences. If it is cold, the GM hands out mittens and forces play in them. Playing by candlelight. The stuff of Chaosium-style games where the cruddy rule set almost does not matter.

    Anyway, it can be done even with seasoned players. That feel of a good handout or adventure feelie...

  3. Its not that hard to make it weird for the character. So much of our life is on what we label the 'non-weird' that anything 'weird' still feels weird. Everytime a new 'weird' movie comes out it feels weird. So can roleplaying. It just requires making the universe that the characters go through as being strange and interesting. As opposed to many adventures, a feeling that you've been there and done that, perhaps engaging, but not in a way that strikes somebody as unusual.

  4. Nice break-down, I totally get it now. I rather like the idea that the adventuring can be largely n"on-fantastic" but punctuated by things that defy the established rules. I'm definitely gonna want to see how well it comes off in the final text.