... now with 35% more arrogance!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Eerie Gaming

I have supposed a Human being to be capable of various psychical states,
with varying degrees of consciousness, as follows:

a. the ordinary state, with no consciousness
of the presence of Fairies;

b. the eerie state, in which, while conscious
of actual surroundings, he is also conscious
of the presence of Fairies;

c. a form of trance, in which, while unconscious
of actual surroundings, and apparently asleep,
he (i.e. his immaterial essence) migrates to
other scenes, in the actual world, or in
Fairyland, and is conscious of the presence
of Fairies.

Lewis Carroll, preface to Sylvie and Bruno Concluded

A post on Society of the Torch, Pole, and Rope reminded me that I wanted to do a couple posts about surreal gaming, as opposed to fantasy, horror or occult gaming, and in particular about the setting and concept of JAGS Wonderland. It's a big topic, because it's one that interests me greatly, so it can't all be done in one post. This post will be an introduction.

I've long been interested not just in surrealism but in what I call "surreal tales", for lack of a better term. That is, fantasy, horror, adventure, or character studies that don't just use surreal elements as a literary or dramatic technique, but are themselves about characters who experience surreal perceptions. The defining feature of a surreal tale for me is that the affected characters doubt their sanity or the reality of their experiences, or have their sanity or veracity called into question. some or even most of the events in the story are left ambiguous as to whether they happened at all. The surreal tale is thus about madness, perception, and the nature of reality.

My favorite example from TV is the old "Twilight Zone". If you watch several episodes of the original series in a row, you'll notice that in practically every episode, there's a question of whether the events are a dream or a sign of insanity. There are a few exceptions that are straight-forward science fiction, but even in some of these, like the famous "It's a Good Life" (where Bill Mumy wishes people into the cornfield,) reality itself is plastic. The canonical examples of the surreal tale in literature, on the other hand, are Lewis Carroll's Alice stories and his less-well-known Sylvie and Bruno stories. In addition, there are a huge number of ghost stories that aren't so much about horror as they are about an impossible glimpse into a lost life; for example, "The Demoiselle d'Ys" by Robert W. Chambers.

RPGs have occasionally touched upon dreams and madness, but early examples were frequently just dreams as super powers/magic. The Call of Cthulhu's Dreamlands supplement is perhaps first game to focus on dual realities with uncertain connections; another would be Mage: The Ascension, with its periods of Unquiet. My own attempts to capture a little of this began in 2002, with my first draft of The Court of 9 Chambers, in which surrealist painters studying numerology develop the ability to enter a dreamworld in a waking trance and begin fighting each other with artistic motifs in order to reach some Ultimate Secret. I tried a couple other games that played with false reality, such as the drug-crazed hippie game Head Spaces and the B-Movie universe game Out of Frame. I've seen some other people design reality-twisting games, like Dev Purkayastha's Colorless Green Ideas Sleep Furiously and Andrew Kenrick's Lost Days of Memories and Madness.

The most intriguing surreal tale RPG I've seen so far is JAGS Wonderland. I'm not at all interested in the JAGS system itself -- it's basically just another point-buy system reminiscent of GURPS or Hero. However, JAGS Wonderland is brilliant, because the game is not about horror or fantasy or adventure with just a touch of post-modernism or dreamlike details; it's about people afflicted with the usually involuntary ability to slip into another reality, but they (or their doubles) continue to act in the real world in a visibly insane manner. It's about the differences between what the characters perceive and what is "actually" happening, and what the characters are going to do about it. Will they learn to control it? Can they? Will they try to avoid it? Will they let it control them? And why is it all happening?

JAGS Wonderland's inspiration, of course, is Lewis Carroll, perhaps even that quote above from Sylvie and Bruno. There's also elements from Neil Gaiman's Mirrormask and Neverwhen, films by the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmeyer, Japanese horror films like Ringu, and probably a lot of other sources. And, I'm finding, the premise can be adapted to cover a number of other settings, which is something I want to touch on in a future article.

For now, I just encourage those of you who have never heard of JAGS Wonderland to download it and check it out.


  1. It's a little known fact that JAGS Wonderland came to us even before JAGS did. We, of course, tried to make an innovative player-empowered system with dice pools, a lack of ugly tables and charts, and beautiful elegant adjectives instead of numbers (or even, ugh, fractions).

    But ... strange things started happening. Our computer files which contained the game rules kept changing to some nightmarish 80's mechanics. Play testers vanished--or were found wandering college campuses playing Paranoia or (even worse) Phoenix Command.

    Some wrote to us saying that after a particularly intense session they had, as a group, resolved to never play anything but original Traveller (with it's 'safe' lack of cover-art).

    Of course we couldn't make heads or tails of this--and persevered on until one morning, while shaving, I looked up to see in the mirror, written in blood on the wall behind me (but in forward script--not reverse script, which would have made sense) the words: 'Produce a GURPS Heartbreaker--or you shall be condemned to live eternally.'

    I froze, chilled with an icy terror ... and a sense of righteous indignation at the author miss-using the gaming-related 'heart-breaker' terminology. I am, of course, a stickler for correct use of jargon when it comes to bleeding-edge role-playing theory. But the terror won.

    When I turned there was nothing on the wall--and when I looked back, my reflection, holding a straight razor instead of the usless Mach-3 I had in my hands, drew it across his lathered neck in a universal gesture of the death threat.

    I made a command decision. It's sad that the world has been denied the quality system we meant to produce--but some things we're just not willing to risk.

    It's a burden we--myself and the design team--are forced to bear. For the good of everyone.


  2. Let that be a lesson to you: in GURPS lies madness!