Thursday, December 14, 2017

Wonder vs Weird - Further Thoughts

This is a response to Wonder vs Weird by David Rollins. I recommend reading his post before continuing with mine as his is the basis for this this post.

Point 1 - The Zeitgeist of Weird

I agree with David in so far as wonder is far more inspiring than weird. But which isn't to say that weird doesn't have it's place. It does. But that place is no less important than wonder in a literary or game world. I think both are important. In fact I feel they can offset one another in the same world. Sometimes you have wonder, sometimes you have weird.

But first I should state what I think the difference is, and where on this I diverge a bit from David's point of view.

Wonder, to my mind, is something that invokes awe, and also inspiration. Wonder has something magical and heavenly about it. It isn't the same thing as Awe, which can be either wondrous or frightful. Wonder connotes the idea of something beyond human ken, something higher and more beautiful than we believed possible. Galadriel inspires wonder. Sauron inspires awe and dread, but not wonder. Wonder is about inspiration.

Wierd, on the other hand, is where I somewhat part from David. Regarding the weird, he says "...[they] built their world into the shadows of the one we have here. That's the foundation of the weird. It disrupts expectations instead of creating new ones. It changes and tears at the rules and assumptions. It also tends to be terrible in some way. The weird revels in the tension it creates but it needs the mundane as a contrast. Tension needs the norm to pull against."

To my mind, that is not usually what I mean, exactly, by weird. The word originally comes from before the 900's AD, and is a Middle English noun whose northern form was "wird", and in Old English "wyrd". It's original meaning was "Fate or Destiny", and eventually became associated to witchcraft in Scottish parlance, and wound it's way to become the inspiration for Macbeth's three weird sisters. The modern sense it's meaning has evolved to suggest something strange or uncanny. But for me weird connotes something otherworldly, and from the more unpleasant side of the Other World. Something foreboding, dark, and at it's core frightfully wrong or harmful. (For those wondering why I use wyrde in my vbwyrde appellation on social media, it's origin relates to my criticism of Visual Basic as a programming language. Nuff said on that.)

And so in some sense I agree with David in that focusing RPG worlds towards the weird is akin to focusing them towards the unpleasant. Yes, that I agree with. Many Worlds these days really present very unpleasant visions, and ones in which Wonder is actually being actively suppressed. I don't think this is a coincidence or simply out of laziness because weird is easier, however. I think this is a reaction to the times we live in and represents the psychological framework in which authors are now conceiving their visions, which then get transcribed into their Worlds. This is generally true across all art mediums. We are looking at a world that is rapidly changing, and that change is happening at an ever accelerating, or one might say exponential rate. Many of these changes are heading in directions that are profoundly disturbing, and even frightening. And when we look to those we have entrusted with the levers of power, those who are, one would hope, dedicated to producing good outcomes rather than horrific ones, ... well, it seems those in charge are either disappointing, or downright disastrous. And so the potential for horrific outcomes appears to be very high. I won't go into the reasons why I think this is happening in this post, but let's just take it that we're all operating in an atmosphere of extreme uncertainty and anxiety.

Because of that, people are gravitating towards the weird. Somehow perhaps we take some comfort in looking at horror in all it's dreadful splendor in fantasy worlds so that when we compare it to the current state of our own things don't look quite so bad. That may be what is underlying our fascination with weird worlds at this point. And conversely, when we encounter wonder, it may be that our gut reaction is to scoff and say "but this kind of thing never happens! We don't get to experience wonder anymore because look at the real world - it's a nightmare and wonder is just an illusion and useless, and worse than useless... it is keeping us from focusing on The Horror, which is where reality is heading!" And so for this reason, we may look at things of Wonder and dismiss them as "stupid fantasy", and look at things of the weird and feel that "this is real somehow". And so the downward spiral seems to go.

When archaeologists of the future look at the output of the creative arts in our age and contrast it to former ages, they may be intrigued by how very dark and frightful a very large proportion of our artwork turns out to be at this point. And this is of course also reflected in our RPG worlds, and what happens to be popular these days, and unpopular. Naturally, creators are also going to want to follow the herd, as well as lead it (it's a self-perpetuating cycle, and usually continues until the tides of emotion shift again). So I feel that this focus on the weird in RPG worlds is not a product of lazy design. It's much deeper, and more foreboding than that. It is a direct reflection of our social zeitgeist. We have become weird, and we've made that both an ever descending spiral and a cultural self-fulfilling prophesy.

So I'm not saying that we're wrong for reflecting our anxiety in our art. I think it is logical, germane, cathartic, necessary, and probably beneficial for us to do so to some degree. I'm just regretting that we're in the position to have such anxiety to begin with.

Although the weird has gained a prominent position in the world today, and for the reasons I am suggesting, that is far from the whole picture ... wonder is something that can and does exist in the hearts of those who have maintained their integrity and not fallen into the miasma of nihilism. My expectation is that while future historians of art will marvel at the quantity of decidedly dark and dismal art from this era, they will also find that there were Michaelangelo's among us as well.

Point 2 - RPG Worlds / Setting Design

David comments, "The little products that snag ENnies and get talked about with such passion online are the ones that present worlds with new rules that create a whole new set of expectations through play. A few examples that spring to mind are A Red and Pleasant Land, Yoon Suin, and Veins of the Earth. All three of these present new worlds."

I think this is an important point. As you may know I'm working on a World Building utility to help Gamesmasters create their own Worlds. It comes with a core framework of rules that remain consistent from World to World, but allows individual Worlds to have their own "internal rules" as well. The Internal Rules are a result of how the GMs define their World's skills, and mystic powers, and to some degree weapons, armors, and equipment. So the underlying core rules include mechanics like The General Resolution Matrix which pits Skill Level vs Difficulty Level in all cases, but the individual Internal Rules allow for great variation in terms of how the individual worlds work at the details level. A common set of core rules, and potentially infinite variation on individual rules for Skills, and such.

The reason I think this is useful is because it gives World Creators a common framework for building the thing that they really wish to express ... the vision of their World's Settings. I think this is a fulfillment of the original goal of RPGs when D&D first came out. There was a single rules system which was designed with the idea that GMs would go ahead and create a myriad of settings based on the basic rules framework. But of course, the TSR Business Model actually prohibited that laudable goal by forcing the publication of new rules books every few years, rather than solidifying the common central rules into a simpler more flexible and generic system on which any kind of worlds could be suspended. Instead of heading in the direction of simplicity and generality, in other words, it headed in the opposite direction of minutia, details and complexity. This was a result of the Business Model that said "we sell rules books". It was inevitable, and from my point of view regrettable.

So instead, I wanted to create a rules system, and a computer application, that would help GMs to create their own worlds, but do so on the foundation of a common framework of simplified generic rules. On top of that GMs can add their own "Internal Rules" so that no worlds would be exactly the same, and players can always be surprised, but characters from every world could easily transport between them. It would also save everyone from having to learn a new mechanics system for every World they want to visit.

The reason for this is to take the burden of having to reinvent new rules for every World off of the World Creator's shoulders. It's a lot to ask to have a creative vision, but then also have to reinvent the rules mechanics wheel every single game... it can be overwhelming. The play testing that has to go into it, the mechanics innovations, the layouts and designs, and all of that... it's a huge amount of additional effort for someone who really just wants to express a World Vision that inspires wonder, or weirdly terrifies us. For me, that's really want I want to focus on as a World Creator. I assume I'm not the only one.

So there is the Mythos Machine to hopefully help with that, in case my hunch is right and there are other GMs out there who would like to simply focus on World Creation most, and rules and mechanics design to a much lesser degree. Those who also would like to participate in the creation of a galaxy of RPG Worlds by which they can share materials and inspire one another. So, if you happen to think this is may be good idea, then please trot on over to and take a poke around. If you have questions, you can find me on discord at the Elthos RPG Server. The Mythos Machine is currently in Free Open Beta at so please feel free to help with the last round of Beta Testing before we go live. I think it's a fun and useful system and you might think so too.

Lastly, I should like to say, my goal with The Mythos Machine is to provide a canvas for all artists. I don't intend to forbid the weird, though I very much look forward to discovering the worlds of wonder that will also be produced. Though, also, I should add, my perception is that at this time, the weird in the world does substantially outweigh the wonder so far as creative works of art are concerned. While that may be inevitiable given the state of affairs, it is still a pity. So I would like to encourage the Michaelangelo's out there to please create as many worlds of wonder as you can. We can use them, to be sure.

Ok that's probably enough for one post. It's already too long as it is. I do have more to say on different topics related to David's post, but I think I should save those for a Part II if I can get time to swing back around on this. I really enjoyed his commentary and found it very thought provoking. I'll try to get back to it again and finish my ruminations next time.

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