Shared narrative control = gonzo?

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.

Cheese is the medium of exchangeWell 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.


Shared narrative control = gonzo? — 7 Comments

  1. I remember our Diaspora game, which didn’t feel gonzo to me even though it was a product of collaborative creation. One difference there is that the Technology-Environment-Resources parameters and the structuration of the Cluster in terms of slipknot connections are determined by 4DF rolls, which the players then need to interpret. It’s an interesting counterexample of the claim that random rolls always produce haphazard or less-than-intelligible results. In Diaspora, the random rolls have a disciplinary function: they produce the Pallete which the players must then interpret in plausible ways.

    • Also, Diaspora starts right off with the expectation that it will be pretty hard SF. That eliminates a lot of the gonzo-ness that might otherwise be created. Games like Microscope or Quiet Year have very hazy genre expectations, if any at all, so much more is on the table, as it were.

      And coming up with the cluster is very much the Palette, yes. I remember the discussions we had when we were coming up with that cluster: we started right off with how hard the SF was going to be, and then we stuck to it pretty well, helped along by what we’d set out. Problems only cropped up when people tried to operate outside what we’d set up (to put it vaguely).

  2. Early GMless games will be silly. Many designers and players of such games pretty much liken it to a law of physics.

    I’ve played these games many dozen times, and yes, it is possible to regulate tone. But like everything else in our hobby, it’s a skill—specifically, facilitating a GMless game and speaking up on what you *don’t* are two separate skills.

    Gonzo is generally a reaction to two things: needing to test the boundaries or creative blanking. Silly answers come from a place of confusion, desperation, haste, or other sort of “I don’t have a good idea, so I’ll just free-associate” blank page syndrome. So if the group collectively begins establishing boundaries (which starts by individuals putting some out there), that starts to solve both of these issues, because it also helps to have less of a blank page.

    • Our group has also played many GMless games, and I don’t see that gonzo element going away any time soon.

      Speaking up on what you don’t want, though — yes, that’s a skill. A skill heavily affected by cultural mores; here in Minnesota, saying “I don’t like that” is a broach of social protocol. So it’s a skill that’s hard to even get practice with, here.

      In your last paragraph, it sounds like we’re operating on two different definitions of gonzo. I don’t see gonzo gaming as necessarily silly. For me, it’s more about being over the top and letting go of (genre) convention.

      Also, I should emphasize, it’s hard to discuss “gonzo” without coming across as disapproving. The term itself seems to imply that it’s a bad thing, but I don’t think it is — not necessarily. In some games, it’s a positive boon. In other games, it’s out of place.

      And tastes differ, multiplied by different games, moods, etc., so one person’s “excessively gonzo” will often be another’s “just the right amount of OTT”.

  3. I think we’re just a gonzo group. A different group with a narrower range of interests would end very differently I think. I’ll have to run it for some more groups to test that idea, though.

    • Really? We have gonzo elements, but a fair amount of our gaming is pretty low-key, too. It seems to me that some of our tastes are gonzo, some of the time. I still feel like part of it is just that many people working together will necessarily create genre divergence.

  4. I think that gonzo shared settimgs come out from the desire of the player to make show of themself.
    It happened at my table several times that some player proposed very strange and innatural ideas and the others player have LOL, but when the GM asked “are you sure you want to play this?” most of the table tqake a step back. The problem would arise in COn or with games like microscope where the setting will be not played in the future. In that case some player change game, playing the “Guinness world record of crazy shit”.

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