Last weekend, I was at MethodCon. It was a lot of fun. A highlight for me was getting to do a Let’s Build a World activity again. We devised a world with a square orbit, constant meteor showers, and a single quantum observer who somehow makes it all vaguely hard SF. As always, we ended the activity feeling like this was a world that we somehow knew, one that (in spite of its bizarre mix of elements) somehow all made sense.
Well after the con had passed, I noticed something interesting. When we started with the atmosphere for this world, the group seemed to want something rather dour and gritty. The descriptors included “comedy of manners”, “polite sniping”, “hard SF”, “alternate Minnesota”, “depressing like Eeyore” and “Cohen Brothers”. Yet in the end, we had a world where “everything is self-repairing except the cheese”, “lead naturally degrades into gold”, weather balloons made from spherical cows are the main form of mass transit and cheese in the medium of exchange. Not exactly dour!
It all leads me to wonder: if there’s shared worldbuilding control, is it possible to have a truly gritty setting? That is, how can a shared world be anything but gonzo?
I’ve seen this before. In Microscope, having the Palette goes a long way toward establishing a common understanding for what sort of mood and flavor the group is going for. Even so, though, I don’t think I’ve ever had a game of Microscope where the mood was established solidly enough to require a particular flavor of game — our Microscope histories always end up with some elements that seem (to me) bizarre and wondrous.
Last Thursday, the weekly group played another game of The Quiet Year. It started off with some interesting possibilities and pretty quickly accumulated very wide-ranging genre tropes: big shark statues, a Deep Dark Cave of Mystery, monsoons, a buried giant robot warrior, a continental split, a strange glowing ship that made people sick, huts made from water buffalo hide, a cry of “Calamari Delende Est!” and other elements. It was a lot of fun, but it would be pretty inaccurate to say that there was a single narrative mood. It ended up being pretty gonzo.
That is pretty clearly a feature for Microscope, not a bug. Opening the gates to other people’s ideas allows for some really fresh and fun worldbuilding to go on. And that’s true for The Quiet Year, and other games with shared narrative control, too.
Yet it still has me wondering: Does the inclusion of multiple voices necessarily introduce gonzo elements? I suppose a big chunk of this is definitional. I define “gonzo” as including a wide-ranging inclusion of genre tropes, without necessarily adhering to one consistent worldbuilding visison, so I suppose that shared worldbuilding control will necessarily introduce a gonzo element. But with a stricter (that is to say, more extreme) definition of “gonzo”, perhaps it’s possible to have enough shared vision to maintain mood and consistency. In normal Microscope, for example, the Palette stops building once someone feels no need to contribute to a round. It might be fun to try Microscope where everyone gets to (or must?) declare a set number of items on the Palette (maybe six?), thereby giving more opportunities for a heavily-defined feel, for example. And I could see introducing a Palette or similar mechanic into The Quiet Year, allowing for a more focused worldbuilding vision.
Maybe it’s definitional in another way: perhaps different people’s senses of what constitutes gritty are just so divergent that it’s impossible to reach a consensus on what exactly that means for game play. I know Eric’s Blade & Crown game is just about as gritty as mine, yet it has a definitely different feel. Not gonzo, but certainly a bit more raucous and wild. Is it possible for two people to have the same definition of “gonzo”? Or of “gritty”?
Finally, to be fair, another descriptor for last week’s Let’s Build a World setting was “wacko”. But maybe that just shows that people like wacko settings.