Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Gonzo Questing Journey

In debating which of many projects to develop in the near future I find myself drawn back to The Infinite Cathedral, a system-neutral, medieval fantasy setting consisting of a separate plane of existence with a vast landscape of endless cathedral naves and transepts, with cloisters nestled between them. Some unknown force dumps heroes from their own worlds onto this one with no apparent means of return. Much of it is ruined, though some portions still remain intact, with many far-off locations renovated and re-purposed by the region’s unwilling inhabitants.
When I first look at it I envisioned it as a traditional medieval fantasy roleplaying setting with a basic thematic foundation and plenty of room for characters to explore, set out on epic quests, or find grand causes to support with sword and spell. But my recent nighttime fiction reading has helped me look at it from another angle and provided enthusiasm for embarking on a more dynamic course with it. (I read as often as my harried lifestyle allows; I’m lucky if I get half an hour of non-fiction reading at lunchtime and half an hour of fiction right before bed.)
I’m almost finished reading Michael Moorcock’s The History of the Runestaff omnibus edition published by White Wolf as Hawkmoon in the 1990s. It includes the four early novels of Dorian Hawkmoon (an aspect of Moorcock’s Eternal Champion): The Jewel In The Skull, The Mad God's Amulet, The Sword Of The Dawn, and The Runestaff. I’ve enjoyed reading Moorcock’s fiction over the years, starting with the Elric stories way back in high school followed by others as acquired over the years (including two great omnibus editions published by White Wolf). Now and then I pick up some Elric tales to re-read. On the surface I’m intrigued by the non-traditional elements of fantasy he creates, the underlying conflict between order and chaos, and the overall concept of an Eternal Champion. Such fare seems wonderfully episodic. In one chapter the hero encounters one adversary/location/ally and resolves that interaction; the next chapter brings new and quite different challenges related to the hero’s overall quest, though sometimes seemingly diverting him from it. One never knows what they’ll encounter next…something within the realm of their experience or something entirely outside of it and quite possibly not even grounded in the setting, including occasional appearances by inter-planar demonic beings and lost futuristic-science artifacts.

Like Moorcock’s other work, the tales of Hawkmoon include what many might call “gonzo” elements: watch towers filled with powerful weapons powered by lost technology; knights with “flame lances” riding flying giant flamingos; magic-tech enabling mind analysis and control; entire kingdoms removed to different dimensions. The folks over at the online Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary define gonzo as “freewheeling or unconventional especially to the point of outrageousness” as well as “bizarre.” Both describe a particular style of fantasy roleplaying campaign where disparate yet fantastic elements dominate the setting from one session to the next. I’m not terribly well-versed in the “gonzo” game genre, though I’ve heard of games and campaigns that might fall into that category (Lamentations of the Flame Princess comes to mind, as well as material on the fascinating Dungeon of Signs blog, but I’m sure there are others). On closer examination, however, this style of seemingly “gonzo” storytelling has its roots in classical and contemporary fiction in an approach that might serve to fuel my enthusiasm and inspiration for The Infinite Cathedral.

This style of storytelling hearkens back to that earliest piece of adventure fiction, Homer’s Odyssey, in which the hero and his faithful companions undertake an arduous ocean voyage filled with bizarre encounters, all while addressing an overarching story (Ulysses’ quest to return home). Each episode presents a new encounter intended as a challenge from some fantastic adversary or bizarre situation. A more modern example comes from the classic Star Trek television series. On its five-year exploration mission the U.S.S. Enterprise wanders across the galaxy encountering one challenge after the next. Each episode brings new worlds to explore, mysteries to solve, hazards to negotiate, and enemies to confront. Moorcock’s work embraces this potentially “gonzo” tradition: a setting where the heroes encounter disparate and often quite bizarre elements within their genre setting each episode.

The Infinite Cathedral offers a similar potential for a “gonzo” game campaign. It’s a place where anything can happen within the minimal medieval fantasy setting foundations. Several givens exist -- the medieval nature of society and technology, the mostly ruined cathedral/cloister architecture of the terrain, the absence of gods, and the struggle between seeking a means of escape or resigning oneself to their captive fate on this dimension. Everyone deposited on this godless plane of existence makes a choice: seek a means of returning home even though none seem to exist (despite many promising rumors; or relinquish the quest, settle down in an enclave, and make a name for oneself here. One adventure might focus on defending a small village against an overwhelming enemy while the next might send them on a quest for a pseudo-science magical device with hideously devastating powers.

I’ll freely admit elements of this style of campaigning make me uneasy. The “gonzo” aspects lend themselves to unpredictability and a seeming lack of setting continuity, although many might argue a world dominated by disparate gonzo elements constitutes setting continuity unto itself. I’m also a little intimidated by the exploration quest theme, what many call a “sandbox” campaign in which the overall direction depends on the players’ interest in wandering through the setting rather than the gamemaster’s emphasis on their involvement in a focused meta-plot. Like my historical game setting work in Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga, much of The Infinite Cathedral setting initially looks fairly normal on the surface -- ruined cathedral, enclaves of survivors eking out a living, standard medieval fantasy monsters lurking in the subterranean crypts -- but as heroes explore they uncover subtle sinister elements: fellow travelers from other dimensions with disturbing objectives and unfathomable powers; enclaves with secret agendas; monsters that look familiar but function quite differently.

I don’t fancy myself a fan of either “sandbox” game campaigns or gonzo-style settings. I’m more a traditional medievalist when it comes to fantasy roleplaying games. But approaching The Infinite Cathedral with an eye toward a “gonzo sandbox” campaign -- within the defined parameters of the basic setting I’ve already devised -- might help fuel my enthusiasm and provide more diversified inspiration for the project. I think I need to step out of my stodgy old comfort zone and explore this….

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