Another thought on Weird

I discussed this on the NSR discord as well, but bringing this conversation here. I think it’s somewhat of a continuation of my Grilled Squid and Peanut Butter post a while back.

One criticism of Weird is that if everything is weird, then nothing is weird. I’ve always said, that just means you have to raise the bar, and keep it there, but I realized it also means something else. When the weird becomes normal, you can still tell moving and dramatic stories.

I mean, I’d like to think I realized that a decent while ago, but I’d never thought about it explicitly like that. Just like anything else, if you understand the mechanism, you can leverage it to do unexpected things and make it work in your favor. Using Weird in this way just gives you another vehicle to drive or enhance a story, another dimension for subtext and metaphor.

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One commentator on my blog recently said the same thing in response to my idea that excessive weirdness, wildness, or gonzo-ness can undermine player choice: “If everything is weird, nothing is weird.”

I fully agree that when weird (whatever that is) is normal, it works. There is a point, though, at which weird means completely unpredictable. If players have no idea of what might happen if they make choices, then weirdness means that their choices matter little and the players disengage. But that’s different from a consistently weird aesthetic.

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I think my comment on the NSR discord was in a conversation responding to that blog post actually lol. I agree that when done poorly, too much Weird can be over-normalized and bland (“bad normal”) or also could effectively take away player agency by being too random. I also recognize that it can be useful to understand when and how Weird, or anything for that matter, can fail. That being said, to frame the fail case as a knock against Weird altogether seems kind of misguided. That’s not to say that I think that’s what you’re doing, but I think it’s worth saying explicitly. Being over-Normal can also be bland. And the assumptions, explicit or subtle, that come with what’s Normal, can also take away agency in other ways. But many if not most people don’t apply that same level of criticism to Normal because… It’s what’s Normal.

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When I think about the Weird going Wrong, I think about the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. When it started it was such a delightfully odd and strange show. Eventually it started to feel as if the show was trying to outdo itself. That is, instead of being Weird as and when the production called for it, it was being Weird in order to Be Weird. It began to feel like a parody of itself.

What I have taken from that is that the Weird relies on invention, not convention. This does not mean that you have to change the rules constantly, because that is incoherent and un-fun. It means there needs to be moments of genuine Newness, Strangeness, Unforeseenness. Those moments introduce not new rules, but new possibilities to the world. There is a crucial distinction between The Rules of this World Can Be Whatever on the one hand and The Possibilities of this World Can Be Whatever. The Weird succeeds with the latter.


I agree, there’s a certain point where Weridness for Werdiness sake will eventually make things not weird and unfun to work with.

I feel like if it is weridness is kept to an tone/aesthetic, it’ll work since there’s enough present to help set the tone but not override any mechanics or rules.

Has me thinking of the Gamma World 1e handbook I have in the mail currently. The game has a weird look to it, but it’s played straight enough that it that’s doesn’t make it out putting to use.

I think Weridness/Gonzo is a fine art to balance.

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Ha, what’s weird is finding out that anybody is discussing a blog post of mine somewhere!

It does seem like one or two people thought I was saying “Don’t play weird games.” That’s an odd interpretation, if you ask me, because I did give examples of just what I meant. I also thought I even showed some enthusiasm for freaky stuff. All games are weird, in the end. For the record, I like strange surprises and I spring them on my players.

In my view, weird can be bland and normal can be bland. It comes down to the tastes of the participants, as well as the delivery of the Referee. Tastes are formed by prior experience. These are not things that any rule can cover.

I agree with Allsop about “possibilities, weird” working better between “rules of the setting, whatever.” That is another, possibly clearer, way of articulating my original point. I wrote that when weirdness (“gonzo”) means that players can’t guess about the consequences of their actions, it can undermine the meaning in player choice. Players can’t tell when they are taking risks or not, or they feel that everything they do has equally random risk. Weirdness (“gonzo”) does have a capacity to do that in a way that “normal” doesn’t, because it has to do with predictability. But it’s a matter of degree.

I’ll bet that some folks truly enjoy randomly bizarre adventures, in which their characters’ choices are almost irrelevant, and that’s fine, too.

Ya that all makes sense. Like I alluded to before though, I do think Normal can constrain or take away agency in other ways. Maybe that’s to some extent a separate conversation; I only bring it up because I never see people critiquing Normal the way they critique Weird, and so I think it’s important context when critiquing Weird to also recognize how Normal can and often does fail.

To the extent that people critique Normal at all, they critique it either for problematic elements that linger past their expiration date, or because it is by definition derivative, and I agree with both of those things. Even still, often even those people fail to critique Normal in terms of its actual gameplay functionality (explicitly, if not also implicitly)- there’s still this implicit default assumption that Normal is a functional baseline, but I would argue that Normal can fail in terms of gameplay implementation just as much as Weird, in its own way.

Again, I realize that’s kind of its own conversation and going off-topic a bit, at some point I’ll need to sit down and really think this all out and write a coherent critique on Normal, because to the best of my knowledge it has not been done in the way that I’m suggesting, but in any case, I think we’re otherwise broadly in agreement.

Quantum Metaphysics, I look forward to your critique of Normal! It sounds like a great manifesto to write and you’ll have a lot of eager supporters. I’ll be one of them.

To me, though, in a way, almost every game product is a critique of the Normal. We gamers are such fickle fans, who flit from idea to idea in search of novelty. That’s a good thing.

Maybe Normal is just what we’ve been doing (at any given time), and we are always trying to get away from it, but as soon as we land on a novelty, it becomes Normal. It’s like a cursed item we can’t put down. :slight_smile:

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I think that may be true in our circles, but I would argue that we are a tiny sliver within the broader sphere of tabletop gaming, barely a puddle in the D&D 5e ocean of bland derivation. I look at The Alexandrian’s critiques of the various 5e modules, for instance, and even though he doesn’t explicitly frame it in terms of Weird vs. Normal or anything like that, I actually think a lot of his criticisms could be thought of as a reflection of what I’m saying; where the assumptions of Normal, or of what has become Normal, can actually lead to poor game design.

I agree that certain specific tropes or concepts can fall into a cycle of novel-to-normal, but I do think there are maybe some broader, conceptual differences between Weird and Normal, that are definitely related to novelty but are less bound by specific tropes or concepts and more so about an approach, or I think there’s maybe a better way to frame it but I’ll have to think about it more.

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quantum_metaphysics, I have to admit that the fist-shaking at WotC is off my radar, because WotC work mostly bores me to the point that I ignore it, but the sad result is my ignorance about it. My son likes, and runs, 5e but I have steered him clear of WotC books after the basic three. If I gift a game book to him for birthday or holiday, it’s a third-party product. After flipping through WotC 5e books at stores, I find products not useful for beginners in the way that the early modules were useful: concise, practicable, not requiring tons of memorization and orchestration. All the same, the Alexandrian’s critiques (thanks for the link!) are of the kind that can probably be leveled at the best of the Weird OSR stuff, too. The one I just read reads like a movie plot review, not a review of something (including the reviewer) actually played.

A few months ago I was writing about what makes fantasy so darn generic after a while, and how to avoid that. My basic conclusion is that we can’t avoid it. Shared references create what’s generic, so at a certain point we are stuck (unless we find fellow weird-niche lurkers). I suspect that what you’re after is connected with this line of thought (though not the same). Am I too far off?

I don’t disagree that some of his complaints towards the WotC modules could also be applied to Weirder stuff, but I also don’t think it’s an accident that D&D 5e has kind of converged on a linear-style of design that is uncritical in its implementation, and not just failing to teach principles of game design but also failing to leverage them. I also don’t think it’s a coincidence that 5e in general, and the 5e modules in particular, are conceptually muddled in terms of whether they want you to take a more game-like approach vs. a more narrative-like approach (not that the two need to be mutually exclusive). when you are so wholly designing around Normal, you can sort of get away with poor design up to a point, because people can just intuitively get what they’re trying to get out of it, because what they’re trying to get is so thoroughly baked into their own psyche as well as shared cultural understandings, even if it’s all done unconsciously and uncritically.

This all requires a broader examination in the kind of post I was saying I should eventually write, and also I acknowledge that to some extent this is a bit of post-hoc rationalization and not a good scientific examination. I’d prefer to design an empirical study testing these hypotheses in some way, but the last time I tried even the most basic version of that, I took a lot of flack from people who fundamentally don’t understand statistics, and it was very existentially frustrating, and I don’t really want to do that to myself again.

Anyway, despite how negatively I’ve framed all this, in a more objective sense, I don’t think there’s anything necessarily wrong with leveraging Normal. I also realize I’m sounding like a major hater right now on WotC and generic fantasy, but I actually genuinely don’t resent WotC, and don’t resent generic fantasy quite as much as I used to- I generally nowadays feel more like what you’re saying- that I just don’t engage with it because there’s so much other good stuff, but I do think it’s worth maintaining that perspective, that generic fantasy is the vast majority and we are a tiny minority (without taking that mentality to a toxic place, which I unfortunately feel like I have to clarify…).

So I realize I’m getting super rambly, but anyway, what I’m talking about is not exactly the same as that article you linked above; I think these are somewhat separate issues, but obviously also somewhat related. I think my Grilled Squid and Peanut Butter post that I linked at the top is closer to my examination of what you’re also describing in that link. There’s a give and take; certain things that became popular tropes became that for a reason, and when you experiment, sometimes you will fail, or even if you succeed, you’re going to have to work twice as hard because you have fewer pre-existing touchstones from which to work off of- it requires more willingness on the reader/gamer to buy into it. But ya, that’s all kind of a separate issue, I think, from the point I’m making about how it actually affects play per se.

quantum_metaphysics, I appreciate what you’re saying and I don’t think you’re rambling. It’s interesting to me and I’d like to hear more. Certainly don’t put yourself through trouble over presenting these ideas. You don’t sound like a hater; after all, we are all entitled to have opinions. I’m not surprised you took flak on the internet–people do attack, sadly–but I can imagine that the effort to make people understand statistics is pretty thankless.

Above all I suspect you are right that we are a tiny minority. That should give “OSR” gamers and those within shouting range of OSR reason not to be mean to each other over varying opinions. Maybe it’s just that we are defined partly a set of people with varying opinions, bound together by our shared disagreements, a quest for something besides Normal.

In this case, though, I probably agree with you rather than disagree–if I understand you rightly. I appreciate the exchange with you and look forward to reading more on the conceptual difference between Weird and Normal.

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Ya, I’m glad, this was like one of those good, old-school G+ conversations lol. I definitely feel inspired to try to write that post at some point.

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I’ve actually been thinking about a tangential topic to this recently, which may or may not add to this discussion (you guys can be the judge :P).

I agree with both quantum_metaphysics’ and lichvanwinkle’s points, but I figure that the continuum of consistency vs inconsistency could be brought into the equation as well. I think it’s probably useful to consider that there is a variety of fiction that can be classified within the weird vs normal and consistent and inconsistent 2d plane.

First, there’s fiction that’s weird, but consistent in it’s weirdness. For instance, in changing the laws of physics in the fiction so that they don’t reflect anything close to the real world, but in such a way that the player characters can always depend on those laws as being there and acting in a specific way. If, at the beginning of a campaign, you tell the players that coins always have a 50% chance of turning into snakes, then that’s clearly weird, but something the players can depend on. This is the kind of fiction that I’ve been most interested in recently.

There’s also normal and consistent, which I see as being the stuff WoTC produces. The fiction is obvious, not because it has been cemented into history, but because it relies on rationality the players carry in their everyday lives.

On the other side of the 2d plane, there’s weird and inconsistent, which (as you both touched on) can be frustrating for players who may feel like their choices stop having meaning.

And finally, there’s normal and inconsistent, which is probably the oddest bird of all. I’m not entirely sure what this would look like, except that maybe games that fall into this realm would promote a competition between DM and player (ie, “rocks fall and everyone dies the end”).


I generally appreciate trying to think about things multivariately, but in this case, I think these dimensions are a bit too colinear, as demonstrated by your difficulty in coming up with a normal + inconsistent example case. I might also argue that the extent to which these dimensions make sense depends on how we define the terms in the first place. For instance, to me, what you’re describing as weird + consistent isn’t necessarily Weird to me as I’d define it. It might be fantastical, but if it has an overly-defined internal logic to it, it will stop being weird pretty quickly, which speaks to lichvanwinkle’s argument. For something to actually be weird, as part of how I might very loosely define it, it can’t be overly codified. Obviously there still needs to be some degree of internal logic, or you run into the problems we’ve talked about, so I think it’s maybe more about continuing to defy expectations and create novelty, but generally not in ways that undermine what has already been established (although I could argue there may be exceptions even there).

This is all quite interesting.

To make it even more complicated, there is a different way to talk about it which reflects the normal terms of discussion back in the '70s among RPG players. They said that they wanted their fantasy realistic, by which they meant consistent within the fantasy. Gygax and others were quite harsh about those who wanted “realistic fantasy,” as if that were a contradiction in terms. By “realism” these people meant that it should be true to the conventions of fantasy that they had come to expect from myth, legend, fiction, etc., as well as “not random.”

Anyway, I think that quantum_metaphysics’ distinction between weird and normal overlaps somewhat with this early concept of degrees of “realism,” but they are, yet again, not the same thing.