In a world that often makes less and less sense with every passing day, the ability to deal with the surreal is not just useful, but almost a survival skill by this point. We deal with the strange, the odd, the nonsensical almost every day in our real lives, and we do our best to process and deal with it. It’s easy to identify the surreal in the world around us, it just feels…Â off.
But when it comes to our games, it’s often difficult to truly hit the right notes of surreality, without going too far into pure nonsensical territory, or overcorrecting and reducing what was supposed to be a truly memorable moment of high weirdness into just a shrug and a ‘huh, that was oddâ€™ kind of event. Thankfully, I’m here today to help you find that balance.
Now, if I may steal a line from my high school graduation speech: Merriam-Webster defines surrealism as ‘the principle, ideals, or practice of producing fantastic or incongruous imagery or effects in art, literature, film, or theater by means of unnatural or irrational juxtapositions and combinationsâ€™. This definition is less than useful for our purposes, however. Just throwing â€˜unnatural or irrational juxtapositionsâ€™ at your players is likely to leave them confused and wondering what you’re on about. And there’s a place for that, definitely, if your story is at a moment where you need to hammer home that nothing makes sense and your player characters are completely adrift in a world of utter chaos and nonsense. But when you want to give your campaign, or just a specific session, a sense of surrealism that doesn’t entirely negate player agency, then it’s time to step beyond simple surrealism, and take a page from my personal favorite literary style: magical realism.
Magical realism is a genre or style (associated especially with Latin America and Latin American writers) thatÂ incorporates fantastic or mythical elements into otherwise realistic fiction. And it’s where things get fun. By taking a magical realism approach, you can still inspire that feeling of otherworldliness for your players, without leaving them entirely adrift and flailing for anything that might make sense. It brings a subtlety to high weirdness that, perhaps paradoxically, makes the weirdness have a greater impact without removing the player agency that is critical to keep them interested in the game, and the story.
Let’s look at some examples: your players step through a strange, glowing doorway. On the other side of it, nothing makes sense: giant fish with pug-dog faces float lazily through the air. Beings made of fire and smoke stroll about, quietly consuming the thoughts of those nearby. Every time you blink, a gong sounds. Everyone’s legs are suddenly backwards, and for some reason everyone suddenly just knowsÂ that Ragnar the Barbarian’s real name is ‘Bobâ€™. This is fine and dandy if this is just a one-off effect to show how strange the space between realities is as the players cross a dimensional portal (as you do), but good luck running an entire game constantly having to bump up the weirdness in this way- it’d be exhausting, not to mention that it would likely have the opposite effect than the one you intended: if your players feel like nothing makes sense and no actions they take will have meaningful, or predictable, results, then they’ll lose interest quickly.
Contrast that with this example: the party arrives at a small town or village. It’s, for the most part, exactly what they expect. There’s market stalls and a rickety inn and stables, fields beyond for crops and well-worn roads for travelers such as themselves. But when they step into town, they notice a few things: people regularly reach into the air and pull what look like various small fruits from nothingness. Every day at noon all water in the town turns blood-red for 15 minutes. And the mayor is a phoenix. Now, at first glance, this isn’t so different, it’s still weird, but your players still have their agency. They can still act upon this world and have measurable and predictable effects. They can talk to a villager and give them a copper for their magic fruit to examine. They can try and drink the blood-red water (don’t drink the blood-red water, said the person who pulled a pomegranate out of the air an hour ago). They might have an audience with Mayor Phoenix Firetail the Third, Esq. The strangeness of the surreal aspects around them is not a bludgeon taking away their ability to make rational decisions, it instead works as a way of highlighting the weird aspects of the world around them, without casting them out into a turbulent ocean of irrationality without a life vest. It can be just local color, or it could be tied into the ongoing plot: where are the magical fruits coming from, and is it related to the Tree of Deliverance that a mage mentioned a few sessions ago? What are the things that can be glimpsed, swimming slowly, in the depths of the local well when the water turns blood-red? Is Mayor Phoenix about to burn up and rise from his own ashes, and why should anyone vote for the reborn Mayor Phoenix Firetail the Fourth, Esq.?
Certain games, such as Numenera, The Strange, and Invisible Sun, do a great job of creating this sense of magical realism (and they owe a lot to precursors such as Planescape), but you can integrate them into nearly any other game. Chronicles of Darkness games, especially those that implement God-Machine aspects, are also very good for this kind of approach. But even in something like D&D, which has a certain amount of surreality already baked into the setting, you can slip in a little more strangeness to spice things up. The important part is this: make it strange enough to be notable, but not so strange that the players are completely flabbergasted and at a loss as to what to do next. Don’t set the surreal strangeness apart, bring it into the world around the players as a simple fact of their current reality, and then let them act accordingly. Embrace magical realism, and give your players the kind of weird they’ll love.
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1 comment on “Surreality and You: A Guide To Making Your Players Go WTF”
Nice article! It certainly gives me something to think about, having a Numenera campaign just around the corner for me. It’s been a concern of mine how difficult it might be to maintain the sort of familiar strangeness that the Ninth World is meant to evoke, and that I either might let it slip too far towards “weird all the time” or let the world linger too long in “effectively fantasy/fantasy-tech.”
What I’m learning is that if you’re shooting for surreal in your game, it needs to be planned for, thought up and developed before game time, at least for me. It’s such a delicate balance keeping “that’s odd” from turning into some kind of bonkers psychedelic trip. Unless you just really have a mastery of weaving worlds in this manner, it’s a huge task to improv it.