Let's talk about Surreal Sci-fi.

edited March 2014 in Story Games
I've been thinking (a dangerous pastime, I know) about science fiction, specifically about that weird sub-genre blend of surrealism and sci-fi. Watching the trailer for the Zero Theorem and a Moebius comic-binge got me thinking about how this can be explored through play.

I'm struggling to think of examples, but maybe Eclipse Phase or Into the Odd would fit? Can anyone add to the list?

What systems or practices make for a good sensation of the surreal in a sci-fi setting? Whether that's entering "weird space" like in old Star Trek episodes or PCs exploring more metaphysical locations as surreal entities themselves, or some other method.

Is random generation of events and generally obscuring the nature of the game-world from the players an essential part of preserving the mystery of the surreal or can we be more open and definite and say things like "So this is how the Howling plains of Nggul-Tur work" with the expectation that players don't meta-game away the challenge the plains present? Does anyone have any experience of playing in either way?

In terms of system or mechanical considerations. Is surrealness something that is added as "fluff" around a more grounded/trad play procedure, or does anyone have experience of rules that invoke or encourage the weird?

Not terribly certain how I want this discussion to progress, but hopefully we can go over the terminology, get some examples and chat about surrealness in gaming generally. :)

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Comments

  • Lacuna!!!
  • Lacuna! Of course! I remember reading about that and being thrilled with (what was it now?) ...static (?) mechanic. Players perpetrate taboos and this drives up the instability of the setting. Sounded good! Can I buy Lacuna still and does anyone have any experience playing? Was it suitably surreal?
  • I've only run it! It's crazy. And surreal.

    There is also the Sandman RPG and Gigacrawler.

  • What's that surreal RPG I played at Nerdly? Northern Euro game with a non-English title. It would handle SF just fine, and it delivers weirdness in spades.
  • Itras By?
  • I've only run it! It's crazy. And surreal.
    Easy to run? I get the impression that trying for surreal can be a lot of creative energy investment from the GM.
  • edited March 2014
    @Potemkin I think all the tools are in place along with enough weirdness in the book. Plus you can hunt around to find what a mission looks like.

    Yes! I found it easy to run.

    Oh!!! Over the Edge! That's another one.
  • Ara's Incomplete List so far

    Lacuna
    Sandman
    Gigacrawler
    Over the Edge
    Stalker
    Itras By

    I swear I am missing some big ones here? Help?
  • edited March 2014
    I'd say Numenera was your best bet if you want surreal Sci-Fi, as it has an extremely rich setting and can be taken in almost any direction. There might also be some mileage in Fading Suns, although that's quite strongly linked to the source material (i.e. Dune).
    trying for surreal can be a lot of creative energy investment from the GM.
    Also very difficult to pull off, likewise comedy/farce. IME if you try to force a game to go in a certain direction, Sod's Law usually ensures that you fail. It's best to throw in ingredients that, while not necessarily surreal in themselves, are capable of generating that feel.
  • Itras By! Yes, that's the one. It's explicitly a surreal rpg.
  • I used Steve Erickson's Rubicon Beach, with its vision of a post-global-warming flooded, Venice-like Los Angeles Basin as the inspiration for a Trinity game. Worked great. Psychic shit is good at introducing weirdness.
  • I'd say the biggest one that's missing at the moment is Apocalypse World. One caveat: It doesn't always go in the direction of the surreal, ... but it can.

    I vividly remember when we broke through to the other side of the Psychic Maelstrom in our game and found ourselves in a virginal and unpopulated forest-world. Pretty profoundly surreal imagery given the desperate grimy shittiness of our besieged settlement. It became clear soon afterwards that the apocalypse had been caused by past incarnations of ourselves fracturing the universe into an infinite number of different possibility-spaces. The rest of the game very naturally saw us revisiting the past and travelling to the edge of possibility-space.


    --- --- ---

    Skew by Ben Lehman is another great example. It's a GM-less game (at least initially) played in multiple rounds and designed to create a short story with strong elements of the surreal in it. In the first few rounds, you collectively define who the main character is and then introduce surreal elements to their everyday life. In later rounds, specific players take ownership of the surreal. The game ends with the main character either mastering the weirdness or being subsumed by it.
  • edited March 2014
    I bet something like Shock: would work, as well, but I've never tried it myself.

  • Don't Rest Your Head? I mean it kind of depends what the 'sci-fi' part of 'surreal sci-fi' means. The madness talents of DRYH are generally quite surreal, and if you ignore the book setting and instead construct the world around the PCs and their abilities, you usually end up with a coherently surreal experience. That said, the system is geared towards horror/action rather than the more contemplative strangeness that I associate with (for example) Moebius' art.

    I do think there are specific challenges for surreality in roleplaying, because the fiction is already largely or wholly invented; part of the impact of surrealism is the sudden, unexpected juxtaposition of ideas and objects in a way that transforms their context, and points to a concealed meaning beyond the immediate, obvious one. The problem is that in order for there to be a meaning beyond the immediate, obvious one, there first has to be an immediate, obvious meaning that has general consensus. You can't have surreality without reality, and RPGs are already working overtime to construct that first baseline level of reality and invest it with enough meaning and coherence to resonate with players. I think almost anyone who has tried to pursue this kind of roleplaying has experienced what happens when you put too much focus on the sur- and not enough on the -real -- players just start stacking more and more ridiculous things on top of each other, without any tether to a baseline that would give them context. (This is often referred to as 'gonzo' gaming, and it happens in lots of other genres of gaming too.)

    This is why surreal sci-fi seems doubly-challenging to me, because the usual solution to this problem is to use a contemporary, familiar setting as a baseline -- Don't Rest Your Head, along with most urban fantasy, works best when you start as close to home as possible. But surrealism in the context of a futuristic society, or an alien planet, becomes more complicated -- unless, again, the PCs are arriving there from somewhere closer to real, so that the sci-fi elements ARE the surreal elements in question.

  • ICE spoke sooth. What's "reality" in this hypothetical universe? Near-future genetic opera? Interstellar anti-totalitarian rebellion? Intrigue in the Galactic Imperial Court? Time travel? Planet-hopping monster-killing? Psionics? Of course, if you just want to take your pants off and go running through the streets, here are some ideas...

    1. Assume some sort of cosmic wormhole, dimensional rift, collision of interplanar sheets, universal warranty void, whatever.
    2. Roll up a random planet using Traveler rules. Depending on civilization level, switch to another set of game rules.
    3. Let your players create characters from any game they wish, and give them deep feels by drawing tarot cards.
    4. Whenever any PC or NPC rolls a critical success or failure, or travels through the wormhole, switch to another set of game rules. If the dice don't line up anymore and this makes crazy shit happen, good.
    5. Whenever you need to create a location, think of a logical one, and then draw 2 cards from an Oblique Strategies deck to tweak it.
    6. Whenever an encounter occurs, roll 3 Story Cubes. The first indicates what the encounter looks like, the second indicates what it does, the third indicates what it means. Write this shit down, because you'll forget it fast.
  • I think you could be interested in Dreamwake. The setting is as weird and syfy as they come.

    In a cyberpunk-ish future humanity did something bad and all reality went batshit crazy. Now civilization survives in cities called "bastions" where a white radiation prevents mind and matter from warping, while everywhere else reality has become fluid and malignant and is called "Deliria". You can find more details on the official website.

    Rule-wise it is a GM-Less game where procedures allow Players to explore and discover this bizarre setting and their own characters. The weird feeling is as much color as it is mechanics, because it is a color summoned through specific "crunchy bits" ... small chunks of rules meant to make this crazy world work as it is supposed to be.

    For example... Deliria works a bit like the dreams in the Inception movie; there is no fixed geography and you have to travel them by "intentions", and the more you stay in Deliria the more your mere presence causes "friction", calling all kinds of disturbing problems and attention to come your way, and if you want to cut the crap and skip the "wandering" part of a journey through Deliria you have to wish it bad enough... you will reach your destination faster, but you'll also have to face one of your worst fears, alone.
  • edited March 2014
    There's also When Worlds Collide, an independently produced Brit RPG about alternative realities and multi-dimensions where you go on a mission and within a short time your understanding of reality is blown apart. If you're into group collaboration, I think you could also use Microscope or Intrepid, which are games where you create the reality.
  • My group tried to simulate Saga by Brian K Vaughn. In that comic, unexpected out-of-lleft-field stuff happens all the time, but while the twists are a surprise for the reader, they are normal for the characters. Our method was to have everyone write a random fact or event on an index card in secret. Then we set a timer and introduced one of the cards every 15 minutes. The players had to interact with the new thing as if it was part of the world they knew.
  • Thanks for the response, Story Gamers! I've certainly got a lot of reading to do. Responding to all of you individually seems like a tall order, so I'll just pick up on the stuff that seems most aligned with my intentions for this discussion.

    When I wrote the OP I struggled for a while between asking about "Surreal Sci-fi" or "Weird Sci-fi." Both have crossovers, genre-wise, but have distinctly separate implications in terms of interacting with a setting. I think the "Sci-fi" element is important here but fairly simple to grasp (at least as I understand it) including but not limited to elements such as futuristic settings, futuristic science and technology, space travel, time travel, parallel universes, extraterrestrial life, etc. You know, sci-fi trope stuff, right?

    The surreal element is a little harder to grasp. I'd taken it to mean that the sci-fi elements in the setting would be unexpected or dreamlike (unlike a common-sensical projection of modern trends into a predicted future time that is the usual appreciation of science fiction) but pretty internally consistent. So, yes, the Archduke of Planet Muboo is a huge housecat but he's always been a huge housecat and won't suddenly morph into a sentient block of tofu during play. Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy would probably be a good example of the kind of tone I'm imagining here. Is that even "surreal" as you understand it, or just whimsical soft sci-fi? In this regard games that involve shifting/mutable setting details like Dreamwake might not be what I'm looking for.

    I'd like to hear more, AMBayard. What system did you use?

    Good advice, Aslf. Although I suspect that multiple systems would soon get merged. What GM could balance 5 different resolution styles? Although it'd be fun to see what kind of organic play/rulings/shorthand emerge from every character having his own rules.
  • I can totally imagine HHGttG using the Itras By rules. The game has cards that totally flip reality on its head. For example, in a session I played, we drew a card that told us to play the scene through another character's point-of-view. I think another card had us play the scene in "reverse time." Totally surreal.

    My character was literally a house, but he had been transformed into a person somehow, and he didn't really remember any of that. He just thought his house was missing, and he set off to find it. (Turns out, it was inside him, all along. Aww)

    Itras By comes with a default (non-SF) setting, but it didn't feel core to the surreal experience, though it certainly helped a lot.
  • edited March 2014
    I'm not certain I enjoy the idea of PCs (as avatars of the players) being surreal entities themselves (although houseman sounds like a rewarding little arc) - how is a location or activity meant to feel surreal if "your" reality/perception is already surreal from the offset. Like, surreality is an other defined only by a grounded understanding of what's "real" to begin with. The people of Wonderland don't find each other strange at all, yet they're all mad to Alice. Ultimately I feel it leads to a strange play-space where weirdness and acting weirdly become the main activity as players try keep up their character's gimmick rather than interact with the setting - a Nobilis campaign was a tough lesson in this approach.

    I could be very wrong, of course, but it's a feeling I can't shake.
  • edited March 2014
    I'm not certain I enjoy the idea of PCs (as avatars of the players) being surreal entities themselves (although houseman sounds like a rewarding little arc) - how is a location or activity meant to feel surreal if "your" reality/perception is already surreal from the offset. Like, surreality is an other defined only by a grounded understanding of what's "real" to begin with. The people of Wonderland don't find each other strange at all, yet they're all mad to Alice.
    I' m with you there @Potemkin- surreality only really works if the characters are in themselves 'real', so they can be discomfited and taken aback when confronted with the surreal, i.e., as you say, the other. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that most successful and rewarding games, even fantasy ones, hinge on the characters' being confronted with otherness, either gradually or suddenly.

  • edited March 2014

    I' m with you there @Potemkin- surreality only really works if the characters are in themselves 'real', so they can be discomfited and taken aback when confronted with the surreal, i.e., as you say, the other. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that most successful and rewarding games, even fantasy ones, hinge on the characters' being confronted with otherness, either gradually or suddenly.

    It's the nature of genre literature at large I think - there is always a reader's avatar (or whatever they're calling it in Lit. classes these days!) to ask questions of the world on behalf of the audience. Bilbo in LotR. Luke in Star Wars. Flash in Flash Gordon. Mr.Generic-Suicidal-Guy in Lovecraft. Film takes this convention and runs with it, but RPGs are weird because the audience are also the creators (to lesser or greater extents - even in the most trad gaming you still decide who your character is) so don't have to explicitly pander to an audience's confusion as the literal everymen.

    A lot is just handwaved:

    A: "But why are you an elephant headed man? Surely the character would have some philosophic feeling about his elephant-head nature?"
    B: "Oh, because it's a surreal world... and I thought it would be cool? You know, the trunk and the tusks. Like Barbar! Badass Barbar! Awesome right?"


    "A" is me here. I'm being a sanctimonious tool, true, but you get my point, yeah? I've also been "B" too! - it's totally cool to get pumped on an idea but not really be interested in exploring all the implications. Sometimes that can just be boring.

    A film would probably discuss the "why" of a surreal character before getting onto the plot (nemesis, threat, explosion, yawn) most likely wrapped up in an origin story. A book would probably spend a lot of time on it if it was a central character, like Kafka's Metamorphosis, where we spend all our time as a reader discussing the whys and wherefores of being a giant insect. A game? Well, roleplaying games aren't really equipped to allow for lots of personal introspection on the parts of characters, mostly because it's not something easy to share enjoyably as a social gaming experience I think, and also because we've been trained to start in media res and not dwell on introductory exposition.

    Anyway, hugely off topic. :/ Here's to the confused, bumbling everyman that gives me my view into (and expression in) the fiction we share! Cheers!
  • A lot of genre-agnostic games would work well for what you're describing as well, like Solar System or Land of Nodd.
  • edited March 2014
    I'm frequently A as a player, forex in a recent game of Changeling: the Lost I was very disappointed that my character didn't have a chance in-game to explore what it meant to be a changeling. Instead that character, and all the others, were created simply as foils for the GM's multitudinous 'funny' NPCs; we might as well have been aliens from Outer Space as far as our characters were concerned. This is a beef I have with the way a lot of trad games are handled, that the PCs are often merely mechanical means to the GM's end, rather than interesting in their own right. Another example: while playing Victoriana recently I was leafing through the rule book during a break, and I found a graphic of a lion beastman (Victoriana is big on beastmen) in a zoo, observing a lion in a cage. I pointed this out to the GM, and asked what he thought was going through the beastman's mind at that point, to which the GM replied 'I dunno' (subtext: 'Who cares?').
  • edited March 2014
    Revisiting my A/B/M notion, but leaving out the total randomness... For any given NPC (and maybe locations as well), I see three levels into which the surrealism can be injected: Appearance, Behaviour and Meaning. Appearance refers to observable physical details, Behaviour refers to mechanical functions (skills, dice rolls, etc), and Meaning refers to narrative purpose. I place them in this order because when I lay them out, I feel like the depth of the interpretation increases as we go from A to B to M. For instance, let's examine blending "policeman" and "dog":

    Appearance is symbolic - It behaves as a policeman (it has policeman skills and says things policemen say) and it means the same thing narratively as a policeman (the eyes of the state are upon you) but it looks like a dog. Straight-up anthropomorphism is trad fare for fantasy fiction, cartoons and childrens' literature - they are full of such analogs. It is simply accepting of the fact that "this dog is a policeman". Notwithstanding the fact that he looks like a dog, you may (and should) respond to him as you would a policeman.

    Behaviour is symbolic - It looks like a policeman (wears a uniform, carries a weapon) and it means the same thing narratively as a policeman (the eyes of the state are upon you) but it behaves like a dog (barks, growls, and sniffs your butt). This is a deeper statement because it seems to be literally likening policemen to dogs. Satirical fiction and surrealistic social commentary are full of such tropes (Pink Floyd's "Animals" or Orwell's "Animal Farm"), which push a casual metaphor into an ontological reality of the fictional world.

    Meaning is symbolic - It looks like a policeman (wears a uniform, carries a weapon) and behaves as a policeman (it has policeman skills and says things policemen say) but it means the same thing narratively as a dog (it's kept as a pet, it begs for treats, it guards your house, etc). This seems to be the most surreal of all three possibilities, because we cannot trust our first impressions (which tend to be based on appearance or behaviour) to give us a reasonable impression of what the actual Meaning is.

    If you displace 2 of these 3 traits, the thing gets much harder to interpret. If you displace only a partial trait (e.g., the policeman's hands are dog paws), the interpretation gets more subtle or refined (and also somehow creepier).

    All of the above is assuming that the "surreal" elements do in fact have some symbolic meaning, rather than being just a totally random stack of mixed-up details. But you didn't actually stipulate that, so I'll stop here for now.
  • Interesting, Alst! Although I can't see this being useful in random tables - you have to be meaningful/creative in drawing symbolic connections. I don't think you'd get effective metaphors by juxtaposing two random things and trying to explain how they're symbolically resonant (this section of the Dadaism lecture would always put me to sleep. Telephones, lobsters, blah blah). This is, I suppose, an appeal to GMcraft rather than a legislation by the system that can "produce" the surreal on command. The A/B/M structure you got here is a pretty good way of directing thinking on the nature of allegory, but I have two queries: is the surreal always allegorical (or, is the allegorical always surreal - to what extent must meaning be found in surreality?), and is "Meaning is Symbolic" the right term here. What you're describing seems to be the meaning found in Reversal, e.g. the policeman appears and behaves like a policeman but is in the position of Dog in the surreal world. I suppose a good example from film might be the Baby in Spirited Away - a huge, physically intimidating man prone to violence that is treated as a helpless infant in the surreal world of the spirit's bathhouse. Besides, "Meaning is symbolic" is a tautological statement, right? Maybe... "Role is symbolic?"
  • A lot of genre-agnostic games would work well for what you're describing as well, like Solar System or Land of Nodd.
    True, true. I'm considering researching what procedures work for generating the weird-I-want then incorporating them into some basic rules structure of my own making. It appeals as a project if no game really stands out to me as doing what I need particularly well.
    I found a graphic of a lion beastman (Victoriana is big on beastmen) in a zoo, observing a lion in a cage. I pointed this out to the GM, and asked what he thought was going through the beastman's mind at that point, to which the GM replied 'I dunno' (subtext: 'Who cares?').
    I see this a lot. Like, obviously the designers are thinking about this stuff but can't find a way to convey it through play. I suppose it's good to let groups "buy in" to high concept ideas like beastmen viewing caged beasts or let them drop if that's too speculative for the scope of general entertainment for all players - but at the same time this is Story Games .org! Shoehorning philosophy through mechanics is what we're good at!
  • edited March 2014
    1. Is the surreal always allegorical? No it isn't, but in the last post I was working from that angle. I examined a more total type of randomness in my earlier post, and it seems like that would get abhorrently nonsensical very fast. But I'll write a mechanic if you insist :-) Some basic ideas...

    A first determination might be which of the three levels will be surrealized. Roll plus (something):
    6- Appearance
    7-9 Behaviour
    10-11 Meaning
    12+ more than one

    A second determination might be how far: Roll plus distance from sanity or whatever:
    6- direct allegory
    7-9 obscure connection (line from a song, antiquated figure of speech, free association by GM)
    10+ totally random, will never be explained.

    2. is "Meaning is Symbolic" the right term here? Maybe not, that's just a bullet label, but you're right about reversal. "Appearance", "Behaviour" and "Meaning" are words that describe things from an observing character's perspective. They correspond to "physical details", "mechanical functions" and "narrative purpose" on the GM's side.

    But hey, I'm just spitting this stuff out. There could easily be better words.


  • A first determination might be which of the three levels will be surrealized. Roll plus (something):
    6- Appearance
    7-9 Behaviour
    10-11 Meaning
    12+ more than one

    A second determination might be how far: Roll plus distance from sanity or whatever:
    6- direct allegory
    7-9 obscure connection (line from a song, antiquated figure of speech, free association by GM)
    10+ totally random, will never be explained.
    .
    Ooh, ah, ouch! I could never see myself being able to use this at table! It'd be less stress just to eyeball it from wholecloth rather than try interpret this oracle. Maybe I'm also suspicious of AW tables - they look neat but that can often be misleading!

    You've got me thinking, that's a fact! I think I like the route of generating the surreality of a setting before play to solidify it as a quasi-comprehensible fictional place over rolling for or inventing major setting details as the narrative progresses (Wonderland, Oz and Ooo for all their insanity have some fairly consistent rules). So a system of players writing setting elements in secret, or playing exquisite corpse with it, seems like a happier approach for me.
  • The AW mechanics are just an allegory :-)
  • The AW mechanics are just an allegory :-)
    Everything's an allegory with you! >:C


    “We're all mad here.”
  • edited March 2014
    Well... yes, of course it is.

    Anyway... You started this off by asking:
    Is random generation of events and generally obscuring the nature of the game-world from the players an essential part of preserving the mystery of the surreal or can we be more open and definite ...
    I think a fundamental question to ask is whether we want the experience to be:
    (a) surreal for both the characters and the players (typically done by juxtaposing or contrasting two realities, as in "Don't Rest Your Head" or "When Worlds Collide")
    (b) surreal for the players but normal for the characters (this is just any fantasy world you're not yet familiar with, isn't it? I mean, characters in the "One Piece" world aren't surprised that snails function as ship-to-shore radios).
    (c) surreal for the characters but not for the players (this is like playing "Call of Cthulhu" when you know the whole mythos but you still pretend your character has no idea what's going on, right?)

    Then it's another question to ask how much of this work should be done ahead of time, and how much on the fly. Different sorts of systems are needed to solve for those. Do we want a sandbox, a master map, an emergent multiverse, or some clever combination of those things?

    Then we can ask whether we want the players to be collaboratively involved in world creation, and to what degree. Some might even say that players have a right to determine just how far into the weird you're gonna go. On this level, I like where you're going with the idea of collaboration, round-robin, or group-determined elements. "Watch the World Die" was my solution to a similar dilemma. I wanted to be able to pregenerate an apocalypse for use in a certain post-apocalyptic game, but I didn't want to disenfranchise the players from their creative right to contribute to world definition in that game. My solution was to turn the entire exercise into a collaborative narrative game in its own right, and play it as a "preface" to the other campaign.

    You could probably do something similar with surreality, although if you chose (a) or (b) above you'll probably want to jumble, blend, or otherwise obscure the players' contributed elements, or they won't be very surprising when the players see them in play. So if the players are co-creators in the pre-game, perhaps it's best to let them define things only in broad generalities... i.e. the type/genre/degree/flavor of the universe they'll be entering (which seems fair enough I suppose), but not specific locations, NPCs, objects or events.

    I think it's a good idea to answer those questions before getting too far along in designing mechanics.
  • Well... yes, of course it is.
    Nabokov would take you to task on this.

    I suppose (a) is best route for promoting surreal material (rather than (b) a gonzo setting, or (c) silly pantomime - though they have qualities that could be lifted in a pinch).

    You could probably do something similar with surreality, although if you chose (a) or (b) above you'll probably want to jumble, blend, or otherwise obscure the players' contributed elements, or they won't be very surprising when the players see them in play. So if the players are co-creators in the pre-game, perhaps it's best to let them define things only in broad generalities... i.e. the type/genre/degree/flavor of the universe they'll be entering (which seems fair enough I suppose), but not specific locations, NPCs, objects or events.
    My gut instinct was to do it the other way around - get players to write specific locations, NPCs, objects and events (Fiasco, anyone?) but keep the broad generalities on the GM side of the table. Effectively, the players do the hard graft of producing me a stable of encounters and setting details that I can draw on easily to give pulsing, strange life to the universe. A player therefore might see his suggestion appear but the context might be so removed from his original conception that it adds to the surreal mood. Maybe a player suggests that alien beastmen are a race of space-cops and writes a little of their attitudes and attributes - when this idea is returned as play, I as the GM might bring out the beastmen as the Victoriana-themed bloodhound police from the above example.

    I really need to work out how to parse this request to the players and how to get the most useful, punchy details out of them in a format that makes it easy to draw and build on as a GM.
  • edited March 2014
    >> Nabokov would take you to task on this.
    Nabokov would dismiss this whole conversation. Fortunately, as a postmodernist I am immune to his reasoning. :-)

    So... players write out a bunch of free associations or poetic similes, to be drawn out of a hat by the GM and combined in devious or mechanical ways? An approach like that will generate encounters and events that your players already have some mental connection to, thereby suggesting a link between the subjective and objective worlds, as well as links between the minds of the player characters themselves. Which is kinda cool...
  • As a postmodernist I would have thought you'd be uncomfortable with allegory in an existentialist calling-a-spade-a-spade kind've way? I'm much more interested in a rigorous deconstruction and mechanisation of surrealism for play than to try realign its outdated aesthetic philosophy with contemporary trends (Yes, I take the point that deconstruction could be realignment in this fashion. No, I don't think that calls my intentions into question).

    Nabokov would love story games: constant reminders that PCs are fictional constructs within the narrative? Great!
    While I'm enjoying our back-an-forth, maybe it's getting a little off gaming? Either we need to be more up front in how our philosophies have demonstrable applications in play or move this banter into whispers.

    So... players write out sci-fi setting details following prompts which then get collated by the GM into itemised lists (which could then be sorted by kind - colour, encounters, fronts, AW-style-GM-moves) for he or she to freely choose from with a view to combining-for-weirdness. But, yeah, essentially the same thing - and that linking is exactly what's important here! Freudian uncanny/unheimlich is a great seam of RPG gold to mine.

    As for what prompts the players in their creative activity? I'm thinking Fiasco's scenario generation would be a great model to start with.
  • edited March 2014
    I hear ya re the philosophic banter, but it is actually helping me think about this, because within that first question (a/b/c) is an implicit question about the "genealogy" of the surreality, and I think the implied answer is that allegories in play should frequently but unpredictably flux between temporarily stable states. Here's why: If the elements of the surreal world are in some sense the "correct" signs for their signifieds (I assume this is what you meant by allegorically calling a spade a spade), then we would have a "stable surreal world" which would eventually fall into territory (b). This is undesirable, because in general we want to stay in territory (a), right?

    We want to avoid stable signifiers in the long run, but, if our signifiers have no stability at all they become useless; communication and applied intention become impossible, and the game could not be played except by accident.

    So. Perhaps there is some kind of dangerous dynamic tension or heuristic "wobble" between symbolic coupling and drift? Perhaps affecting the balance of this relation has something to do with the purpose of the characters, or the enemies they oppose? Perhaps if the PCs begin failing hard enough, the allegories become more and more random until the utility of their own perception approaches uselessness? (And isn't this basically what a full-sensory schizoid hallucination does?)

    We must be talking about a process not a place. We're saying that there is no truly stable signifier for any given signified, that no matter how stable they seem at the time being, the allegories of a single session represent only one possible interpretation, and that even when an allegory "hits the mark" it's still subject to change and not necessarily the best or only, simply the most "powerful" at the moment, from the position and condition of the PCs. (Foucault meets Korzybski.)

    Which brings us back to a need for heavily-randomized and frequently-utilized systems and techniques, both in prep and in play. To paraphrase Vincent: "There is no status quo in surreality." Or never for long, anyway.
  • edited March 2014
    It's kind of, uh, surreal to read someone be like 'man I wish there was some mechanical way to create surreal images or situations' when the mechanical creation of surreal images was... what the Surrealists spent most of their time doing. Automatic writing, question-and-answer games, exquisite corpse, and the like could all be profitably adapted to generate surrealism in roleplaying. (Sleep deprivation and substance abuse might be a bit above the curve, dedication-wise.)

    They key theme of all these exercises was the removal of conscious agency and choice; precisely to avoid someone (say, the GM) deciding which elements 'should' go together, or would be 'most weird' or whatever. The suggestion (or fervent belief, whichever) of the Surrealists being that this bypassing-of-consciousness would allow the subconscious reality of the mind to show through.

    But I mean, I think it's important to consider whether the goal is actual capital-s Surrealism or just the sort of modern 'surrealism as genre' approach, where really weird things happen and whoa they're so weird, clocks are like melting. I think a GM picking from lists can pretty reliably generate the latter, but I don't know if it adds anything particular to a game, other than a different sort of window-dressing.

  • Lest I seem too dismissive, I will add that I am in the habit of -- whenever I think of a particularly gripping-to-me 'surreal' image or situation, that I think would be awesome to use in a game -- writing down said idea on an index card. Which index cards I then carry around with me when at conventions or the like, and use 'when appropriate' in games. So it's not like I don't like surrealism-as-genre, too.

  • We want to avoid stable signifiers in the long run, but, if our signifiers have no stability at all they become useless; communication and applied intention become impossible, and the game could not be played except by accident.
    And bingo was his name-o.

    So. Perhaps there is some kind of dangerous dynamic tension or heuristic "wobble" between symbolic coupling and drift?
    This is Lacuna's Static mechanic.
    Which brings us back to a need for heavily-randomized and frequently-utilized systems and techniques, both in prep and in play. To paraphrase Vincent: "There is no status quo in surreality." Or never for long, anyway.
    It's kind of, uh, surreal to read someone be like 'man I wish there was some mechanical way to create surreal images or situations' when the mechanical creation of surreal images was... what the Surrealists spent most of their time doing. Automatic writing, question-and-answer games, exquisite corpse, and the like could all be profitably adapted to generate surrealism in roleplaying. (Sleep deprivation and substance abuse might be a bit above the curve, dedication-wise.)
    I meant mechanisation in strictly modern game-design terms - I'm an art graduate so trust me when I say I'm familiar with surrealist generation tricks (yawn). At the table however, breaking out an exquisite corpse to resolve a conflict is simply unpractical. That being said, E.C is totally applicable to creating game artefacts - a collaborative "world map" perhaps? With each player having to make a region totally blind (or only sliiiightly informed)as to what surrounds it.
  • edited March 2014
    Certainly, we could make the whole game very random or prone to surreal flux but I don't think this accurately captures a surreal atmosphere, especially in gaming. The problem here is that we don't want the whole game to be in flux; we've established we want stable, everymen PCs which at the very least requires some concrete setting details. The real trouble here is that, unlike writing a cut-up piece of prose or drawing an exquisite corpse, we're trying to construct a method-to-narrative game. The essential nature of comprehensive narrative (which is what we want, after all, as story-gamers) means that it cannot be surrealist in a flux-based sense. The surreal engines at play need to be tightly watched and contained to elements of play to ensure they're effective in generating surreal sensations but not running rampant over stuff we want to be specifically un-surreal.

    But I mean, I think it's important to consider whether the goal is actual capital-s Surrealism or just the sort of modern 'surrealism as genre' approach, where really weird things happen and whoa they're so weird, clocks are like melting. I think a GM picking from lists can pretty reliably generate the latter, but I don't know if it adds anything particular to a game, other than a different sort of window-dressing.
    I think there's a pejorative tone here. Capital-S Surrealism isn't better than 'surrealism as genre,' or rather, more precisely and importantly, it isn't better in terms of making gameplay. Surrealism-as-genre is probably better recognised as Weird Tales, psychedelia or some other sub-genre; Captial-S Surrealism is a historical movement whose legacy has seeped to different degrees into more modern stuff and changed over time. I'm not sure I want to dust off their historical principals without going over what's really applicable to roleplaying, and what's crap (there's a lot of crap. Consider me deeply suspicious about the integrity of historical Surrealism) and what'd produce the sensations/experiences I'd want in play.

    In a nutshell: IMO, Surrealism as an entire creative philosophy is not conducive to making quality RPGs, but I feel no shame in wanting to lift the end-product Weirdness and co-opt it. >:D
  • A lot of genre-agnostic games would work well for what you're describing as well, like Solar System or Land of Nodd.
    Or GURPS!

  • Or GURPS!
    OUT!
  • Capital-S Surrealism isn't better than 'surrealism as genre,' or rather, more precisely and importantly, it isn't better in terms of making gameplay.
    It may not be better, but it could be different. I mean, it's all a matter of taste, but I'd personally be a lot more interested in a game that tries to introduce surrealism through directly-surreal mechanics rather than through a GM picking elements off a table and describing something they consider surreal from the result. It's not that the latter produces bad gameplay or anything, it's just that the latter is something I can already do without mechanical support.

    I alluded to the original principles of Surrealism not as some claim to authority, but just to point out that those principles suggest a different sort of approach than the ones being discussed so far.
  • edited March 2014

    I'd personally be a lot more interested in a game that tries to introduce surrealism through directly-surreal mechanics rather than through a GM picking elements off a table and describing something they consider surreal from the result... it's just that the latter is something I can already do without mechanical support.

    I alluded to the original principles of Surrealism not as some claim to authority, but just to point out that those principles suggest a different sort of approach than the ones being discussed so far.
    I see your point. I think I'd like to arrange the lists and construct the method of their population in such a way that the GM only has to read from them to produce a surreal location or event. The GM's direct choice is circumvented here, he is only referee and vocaliser. Does this sound better? When I say "arrange the lists" I mean in the sense that AW is an arrangement of lists - list-arrangement-technologies are the system. :D

    I don't mean to be combative - I might sound ardent but I'm really a big softy for cool mechanics, collaboration and compromise. Your points are valid to a fault, just I'm keen to test their limits (and for them to test mine)!

  • Interesting discussion!

    I can see some kind of benefit to using random-input style mechanics to generate ideas, perhaps outside of play. Something like the A/B/M distinctions above, which the GM (or perhaps the players, too) use to generate some bizarre confluences. (Like the policeman who has a dog's paws, or whatever.)

    This image becomes a location or an NPC or whatever: something important and/or meaningful for play.

    Then generate a rule from that image. Perhaps in your surreality, all authority figures must have traits belonging to an animal that is symbolically "base" or normally seen a servant/lower form of life.

    Now, the rules can be applied to the game in both directions: if someone is a figure of authority, you'd better give him a mosquito's wings, or rat whiskers. But if someone is described as having features of a certain type of animal, that likes allows you to generate more information about the character: they must be in some position of authority.

    If your rules are generally applicable and/or semantically loose, this can generate a lot of direction for play. (Figures of authority and lower animals is a tad too specific to come up "accidentally", perhaps, unless you're playing a game where human/animal hybrids are very common.)

    I like, for example, an association of a common colour with an emotion or circumstance: the colour yellow means danger, and vice-versa.

    Now, add to each rule some kind of exception: "except when..."

    The exceptions could be generated using some other kind of randomizer, and could include things like, "...except when Mike's character is in the scene", or "except on Fridays", or even, "except when dice are rolled in the scene, and any one comes up with a '1'."

    Or, instead - or even as well - you could have some mechanic for changing which rules apply, so that the characters can move from scene to scene and be affected by different rules at different times or in different places. This could also be generated randomly, I suppose.

    Now you have a basic framework, kind of like AW's Principles. Imagine GMing this kind of game with a list of 6-7 rules in front of you, and some kind of exception or trigger for switching to another set, or reversing one or two, or something similar. As a GM, you just refer to these to colour your contributions or inspire events (some themes, like "danger", will imply certain things happening), giving some coherence to the whole thing; and the inconsistency created by exceptions of rule changes can retain the surprise of surrealist incongruity for a while, if not indefinitely.


    (JD - Funniest comment I've read all day! Thanks, man!)
  • edited March 2014
    [Paul beat me to the post! I like those ideas, Paul.]

    All points valid so far, smarm und snark notwithstanding. We're getting into a professionally/socially weird area now; it seems if we refer to any existing mechanic or structure (like saying "exquisite corpses" or "AW mech is just an allegory") we run the risk of being taken literally as having selected a particular approach, when really all we're doing is brainstorming, surveying potential game-ontological terrain, and listing ideas that may be related. I doubt the actual surreality game will be written in its entirety right here on this thread, so relax, evvybuddy.

    We haven't discussed any specific mechanic or even general game type in a really serious sense yet. We're just doing what Mike suggested in the OP: "go over the terminology, get some examples and chat about surrealness in gaming generally."

    When I distill the datapoints from Daniel's last posts, I get something like this: "If you want big S Surrealism, you should invent a weird, fertile and collaborative approach to generating content elements. If you want small s surrealism, simply let the GM narrate weirdness as desired; there is no need for systematic approaches to this, they may turn out to be more restrictive than helpful." Daniel, if I'm interpreting this as you intended it, then I don't necessarily disagree, but I also don't think we're done scattershotting. I believe there's a middle ground.
  • edited March 2014
    I only meant that I myself had no particular need for systematic approaches to that -- not that they couldn't be helpful or fun, just that they were less interesting to me than a more experimental alternative.

    I do agree that there is a lot of middle ground; I don't feel like there's a really hard line between the two goals I described, and in fact I feel like any 'genuinely' Surrealist technique is probably also going to produce adequate weirdness to fulfill a genre-y-er approach. I just also suspect that the more surreal the technique, the more surreal the result, as there is a very real cap on the amount of spontaneous, actually-genuinely-arresting surrealism one can generate out of one's conscious, deliberate head.

    And of course there is also the possibility that nobody is particularly interested in actually-genuinely-arresting Andre-Breton-lives-on Surrealism -- or that in fact the basic arrangement of roleplaying as a collaborative activity by itself will elevate even deliberate attempts at weirdness into genuinely surreal moments, simply due to the presence of minds other than one's own, projecting their own version of things into or on top of yours. I do feel like wholesale commitment to someone else's vision of causality (eg. playing in a high-authority GMed game) is already fertile ground for surrealism.
  • edited March 2014
    I don't think I'm happy with anyone in this thread being called snark or smarmy, Aslf. That said, I'm gunna cool my jets and slow down on the posting - it's not really gracious to start a discussion and wade in with an opinion before it's even got going properly. New forum for me, new style of talking.
    the possibility that nobody is particularly interested in actually-genuinely-arresting Andre-Breton-lives-on Surrealism
    I think this is me, awkwardly. I don't find Straight and True Surrealism genuinely arresting in terms of RPGs and I'm much more interested in playing with it's cultural spin-offs, spoofs and techniques out of context. That's not to say I don't feel like it's not a great source of inspiration though! Does this make me disrespectful to important creative figures historically? Yeah, maybe. But I don't think anyone's too bothered about what Andre might think, right? I reckon playing with the fallout of Surrealism is genuinely arresting as both a designer and player, filled with plenty of emerging potential devices and ideas! Just keen for the discussion not to dismiss it out of hand in favour of Surrealism-proper, which plenty of games do really well already I'd say.

    [Edit: I keep coming back to the above paragraph. I'm not happy with how I've expressed myself in it, but I'm going to leave it up anyway for discussion. I hope there might be an attempt to help me interpret my confused feelings about Surrealism.]

    I'm gunna go dark, hopefully watch the discussion unfold and maybe offer my two cents once I've given it some long thought.

    Aslf (or anyone interested, of course!), would you lead the way into talking about general game types or even specific mechanics? I'd be very grateful. Thanks. :)

  • edited March 2014
    Thanks, and sorry. And you can call me Tod (if you prefer).

    I should've added a smiley. My bad. We're all grownups here and debating is helpful, but it's probably more helpful after some groundwork has been laid than it is while brainstorming. There was a tone in some earlier post that you identified as feeling pejorative, and I turned up that feeling in an attempt to nudge us into a different emospace. Guess I failed my roll. What I meant was: When I disregard my kneejerks, both yours and Daniel's points are valid and sure to spur more conversation.

    Anyway, as you've probably figured out already, I can't really stop myself from brainstorming on mechanical elements and taxonomical arrangements. It's what I do, and I assure you I will continue to the best of my ability. STOP ME BEFORE I PARSE AGAIN!
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