Thursday, January 10, 2013

Injecting More Weirdness Into Your Fantasy Games

From the Distant Worlds supplement,
Illustration by Kerem Beyit
While some people might see it as heresy, I have always been a fan of mixing some horror and science fiction elements into my fantasy games. I've always love adding in some weirdness to a campaign setting or to the occasional adventure to throw my players for a loop. It's for this very reason one of the first old school modules I hunted down was Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

Now, I will admit, you can't throw this weirdness into the game haphazardly. If you do, it might end up destroying the verisimilitude of the game world, making it harder for the players to feel like its a real, breathing place. Because of this, I thought I'd give some advice to those who'd like to add a touch of weirdness to their games without upsetting things too much.

1. Make it Ancient and Mysterious: This is probably the easiest way to inject some weirdness into your game. While exploring a remote area far away from civilization, have your players stumble upon a strange ziggurat hidden deep inside a cave or engulfed in jungle foliage. While exploring this ziggurat, they discover it was once a temple to dark and alien gods whose names have no literal translation in any mortal tongue. As they delve further, they might accidentally unleash a servant to these alien entities (like a shoggoth or maybe a flying polp) and focus on the alien anatomy of this creature (or creatures). Rack up the fear of this beast and limit what they can learn about through knowledge checks, making it even more mysterious and strange. Heck, you could even describe the architecture of the ziggurat, describing it like something that just fell out of R'lyeh.

2. Blur the Line Between Magic and Technology: Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." So, how about we take this quote and run with it. We could have it that a small island nation is known in the region for their use of advanced technology they salvaged off a spaceship that crashed into the center of the island. However, to them, these technological devices are just strange artifacts that create powerful, magical results. Because of this, the natives of this island are very protective of them and do whatever they can to stop one of them from leaving the island. This set-up allows you to add some sci-fi technology into your game, but you can describe and treat it like some strange magical artifacts.

3. Change the Core Races/Twisting the Core Races: This is where we start to make major changes to a game and this needs to be done before a campaign begins. One of the easiest ways to add some strangeness to your game is to replace the core rules. Maybe instead of dwarves, we have insect-like beings who live underground and belong to a collective hivemind of some sort, or maybe the elves are replaced by a race of humanoid plants who worship nature and are master druids.

If you don't feel like replacing the core races, you could also twist them to make them a lot more weird. For example, you could make elves fey creatures who have traveled to the material plane for mysterious reasons. They will do things that make perfect sense to a fey's mind, but not to a human's. Or, we could make dwarves be creatures of living stone who were forged by the gods at the dawn of time to help them craft the world.

4. Mutate the Campaign Setting: This, like the advice right above it, is another major change that you will have to do a lot of thinking about before implementing it. One of the easiest ways to make a game weird is to make the setting itself weird. For example, you could have it so the world was destroyed during a war between the good and evil gods. Now, large chunks of the world float around in the Astral Sea, each island chain controlled by a god, and travel between each made possible by astral skimmers.

However, the more you go against traditional fantasy tropes, the more you might end up alienating your players. So, if you choose to mutate a setting and make it weird, really think about the repercussions of your choose and how to make it accessible to your players.

These are just a handful of the things you can do to inject some weirdness into your game. For those who aren't afraid to mix genres, what are some ways you have injected some strangeness into your fantasy games in the past?