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Wednesday 29 April 2015

Just What the Fuck is "Gonzo Gaming" Anyways?

This is a question that I think is worth providing an answer to, and someone recently asked it of me.

These days, it seems that Gonzo has come into its own in terms of popularity, to the point that some people are claiming "Gonzo" status for their RPG products when they're not.  Note, just having magic in your fantasy RPG doesn't make it "Gonzo"... it just makes it a fantasy RPG.

So what is Gonzo, then?

First, this is NOT Gonzo:

This is a farce that bowdlerizes Gonzo in the same way that Cthulhu Plushies are not "Lovecraftian Horror".
Gonzo is not meant to be cute, or safe, or "loveable" as such. The Muppet Gonzo was 'gonzo' for about two seconds in his earliest appearances before he (and all the other muppets) completely sold out to become totally sanitized safe sources of amusement and obsession for children and mental-children.

THIS is real Gonzo:

If you've never read this, which is quite possibly the greatest American novel of the 20th Century, you should go fucking read it, and then you won't really have to ask "what is Gonzo"?

(the movie isn't as good as the book, but it is still pretty good; so if you're too much of a lazy semi-illiterate dumbass to bother reading a book that you could get through in an afternoon, you could at least watch the movie)

So Gonzo in RPGs must be understood by its original definition:  as a weird kind of trans-realism (like 'magical realism' on drugs).  It is NOT just "make up whatever"; but rather it is a kind of hyperbole: the mundane exaggerated to a bizzarre extreme.  "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas" is a true story, it really happened; but the presentation of it is in such a way as events are exagerrated until they take on a surreal and magical quality. 
But it is not just mindless random weirdness; here things very explicitly are supposed to make internal sense, even if the end result is something very crazy.

How can I better explain this?

Ok, so "Lost" is 'bad gonzo', because even as it claims that it makes sense it actually had no larger plan, never did, and was smug about how 'surreal' it was for its own sake.  Any media where you just have weird shit happening just because is not Gonzo (if anything, its dadaism).  

On the other hand, "Adventure Time" is GREAT Gonzo, because it's really crazy, but it generally DOES make sense (you gradually find out or can read-into the story that underlines the reason the world in Adventure Time is what it is), while not being in any way smug about how awesome it is.  I know I earlier said Gonzo is not meant to be cute, and you could say parts of Adventure Time are in fact cute, but here cute takes a back seat to "weird" (real 'weird', not some Disney/Henson-media executive committee's idea of what they can tell children and imbeciles is 'weird'); and in spite of appearances "Adventure Time" is not really "safe"; it's a highly subversive show.  For starters, its notable in that basically all of its main characters are pretty much assholes (while clever in that it never just comes out and says that, even indirectly).

In RPG terms, the difference between a good and bad gonzo setting is that the bad one is pretty much a world that makes no sense, and the designer is almost proud for that fact. He may as well have (and indeed, may well have) just rolled totally random tables to get his world and made no effort to tie it together coherently (though sometimes alluding to some kind of Super-Secret Purpose he doesn't care to discuss).  He's often found frantically juggling a bunch of unrelated things in the air and shouting "look! look! it's gonzo!!", as though that is all it takes.

A good gonzo world can be totally weird and crazy and fucked up, but if pressed can actually can say "these fucked up things are the way they are because of a and b and c and d".  Yes, there are stylistic elements like the mixing of genres, strange anachronisms, allusions to drug culture, or the presentation of the mundane in some bizzare fashion, but the main thing that defines Gonzo is that sense of 'magical hyperbole'.   It is encapsulated in many ways by Hunter S. Thompson's famous quote: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro".

So this is gonzo in an RPG setting for sure:

Obviously I would say that my DCC campaign is gonzo.  But Arrows of Indra, which is epic and can be weird and has a lot of high-magic stuff and whatever, is not what I would call Gonzo. Awesome? Totally. But Gonzo? No.
Neither is Lords of Olympus, though with its multiversal quality and the way its magic works it could be pretty easy to make a LoO campaign that was gonzo.

This is probably just trying too hard:

This is probably the most Gonzo thing D&D ever did:

Whereas this is not Gonzo as much as it is slapstick:

It's important to get this: gonzo is funny but it isn't comedy.  The kind of 'nyuk nyuk'/we-realize-we're-in-a-comedy thing shown above does not fit into the conceptual seriousness of gonzo.   Fear and Loathing is a hilarious novel to read, but because you can't believe the insanity of the situations it's describing, not because the characters at any time take themselves or the situation they're in as anything less than Gravely Serious Business.

So, that's today's lesson.  Go read Fear & Loathing; and never will any novel about a reporter covering a Las Vegas motorcycle race do so much to change your perspective on how to run RPGs.


Currently Smoking: Lorenzetti Solitario Rhodesian + Gawith's Balkan Flake


  1. Fear & Loathing isn't a novel, it's a memoir, but if it were it would hardly be a contender for "best of the 20th century." C'mon.

    Gonzo mostly seems be interpreted as self-indulgence from what I see in games.

    1. It is as much a novel as any other novel based on but not just a direct reporting of, true events.

      And it is an astounding novel.

  2. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 is a far better book.

    1. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail is a great book, an incredible analysis of the political scene at the time. But from a literary point of view, Las Vegas is better.

  3. Any thoughts on Anomalous Subsurface Environment? It feels like it set the tone for a lot of the genuine/quality gonzo stuff in the last few years of OSR production. I don't believe Pat sent out many review copies, though.

    1. I never received a review copy, so I couldn't really say. He probably would have been wise to send me one, though.

    2. Yes, I would categorize ASE as gonzo. It's science-fantasy with quite of bit of weirdness and post-apocalyptic fun. If you want more gonzo, ASE would be a wise purchase. Parts one and two!

  4. I perceive ASE as not being innately gonzo, its all about the "driver", but the components are present. If you read Pat's (Henchman Abuse) or Gus L's (Dungeon of Signs) session notes their games are gonzo, weird as a way of life. One could run it "straight" and it would be more like S3 on the gonzo meter. It all comes to to the ether...