I’m an old-schooler. I love the classic Dungeons and Dragons feel and game. But I’ve also learned to love just about everything else out there in RPG-land. Even those games that leave you scratching your head or trying desperately to make your head work the same way the game works. I love having my expectations challenged and even defeated by odd-ball games that seem to come completely out of left field.
I love a good surreal RPG experience every now and then to remind me just how off-the-wall gaming can be.
It’s my imagination, I like to see it getting a real workout every now and then. And here are five of my favourite games that really seem to come out of nowhere.
Lacuna Part 1: The Creation of the Mystery and the Girl from Blue City
If I had bought this game, I wouldn’t have ever run it. However, I sat down for a game with a cool GM who pulled this out of his bag and handed each of us a scantron-style record sheet, a short pencil, and “Control-authorized dice”. We made mystery agents in a scene that felt like it was from the Men In Black movie. We rolled for everything except our ability scores – even our names! We were the men in black, patrolling the Jungian subconscious like Agents from the Matrix. But the longer we stay in the subconscious, the more difficult it gets to communicate with Control, to the point where part way through our first game Control was standing up with his back turned to the gaming table shouting obsceneties at the wall and telling us that we were completely off-course. You can do anything with this game – everything you try is done with a difficulty of 11 – if you can roll an 11 on your attempt to do something, you do it. Want to do the Jump program from the Matrix? Roll an 11. Want to shoot another person’s bullet out of the air? Roll an 11 or better. But every time you fail, things get weirder. It quickly went from Agents in the Matrix to Agents running around in Naked Lunch meets Heavy Metal Magazine. I’ve played this four times now, and no two games were remotely alike.
Not really a traditional “surreal” RPG, Toon was definitely my first surreal gaming experience. Toon is the original cartoons RPG from Steve Jackson Games. And really, there’s nothing like a cartoon RPG to bring out some truly surreal gaming experiences. I have vague and somewhat disturbing recollections of a magic mushroom, a caterpillar with a shoe fetish and a dope-smoking lizard exploring the depths of space, and cookies, in a game that even had the Game Master wondering what the heck was going on. When you make a game with basically no rules, it can be startling to see where the players take it.
Don’t Rest Your Head
Another recent discovery of mine is Fred Hicks’ game of insomniac superheroes in a world where nightmares are real and they want to kill you because now you know they are real. Take the modern world and modern typical people, but then have them stay up for four days until they start to hallucinate… turns out those aren’t hallucinations. The nightmares are real and have a whole world that exists in places you can only get to by looking at the spaces between. And now that they know that you know they are real, they want to kill you. Because if you don’t sleep, you can’t dream. Fortunately, when you haven’t slept for long enough, you gain bizarre powers making you a minor superhero in this messed up world. The mechanics of the game reinforce the feeling of insanity and insomnia, with the ability to use dice representing these things, and hoping you don’t get so tired that you fall asleep (because if you do sleep, you WILL die). Take the intensity of Fight Club, and mix with the world of a Nightmare Before Christmas. Shake and pour.
Over the Edge
I think this was the first game to actually be marketed as surreal. The system is simple, the setting mostly believable. But the edges of the world of Over the Edge are a lot more like the hallucinations of Interzone in Naked Lunch, mixed with a liberal dosage of the Steve Jackson vision of the Illuminati. The fact that we started playing this right after the movie of Naked Lunch came out probably had a lot to do with the surreality of the games we played in the setting. We hunted for the meat of the giant aquatic centipede, we had missions given to us by payphones that grew anuses and then excreted the mission briefings into our hands, and we ate some mighty fine pea soup. All in a day’s work on Al-Amarja. The mechanics went on to become the basis for Risus, an excellent free rules-light RPG.
The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
So tell me, Sir Pumpernickel, how it is that you destroyed the world with a mere game? Ah! Well, it wasn’t the whole world, but we had just picked up the most extraordinary tome that described itself as a “role playing game” but was truly a gateway to a world of tall tales and travels. It was, of course, the only copy of the book that survived the explosion of the printing press where it was being published – but that’s another story that I believe Miss Elliot will tell us about shortly. We sat back and consumed much wine and experimented with this whole concept of “role playing”.
And of course, an honourable mention definitely goes to Discordia! by Wicked Dead / John Wick. The roleplaying game where everything is right, even things that contradict each other.