Monday, October 12, 2015

Strange vs. Weird

Inspired by the recent discussion of the terms "strange" and "weird" on the excellent Misdirected Mark podcast, I wanted to add how I see the distinction playing out in RPG (particularly adventure) design.  I will link this directly to some of the differences between Numenera and The Strange.

To review briefly, the focus of the discussion on the Misdirected Mark podcast was on how weird stories require a comparison of some state (the adventure) and a status quo.  The difference between the current state experienced by the characters (players?) and the status quo (presumably "normal" status quo) is the "delta."  The discussion makes a number of vital points about writing weird stories.  Two of these points stand out to me.  First, if the "delta" becomes too large, the story tends to break down into farce or satire.  I think they called this "gonzo" gaming.  You may like that -- there is nothing inherently wrong with it.  It is not the same as weird, though.  If there are no expectations and anything goes, nothing is really surprising.

Consider this example.  A locked room mystery is based on a series of assumptions about how the world works.  If the mystery reveals that someone has the power to walk through walls, you have introduced a delta to the story.  The phasing character is defined in contrast to what normal people can (or, in this case, can not) do.  In a world where all people have gonzo powers, a simple locked room mystery is not really a mystery.  The players know to simply identify the set of relevant power and round up the usual suspects.

Keep Portland Weird -- drbutoni (flikr)
Second, it is important to revisit (maybe start with) the status quo because the weird is about comparison.  If you lose sight of the normality of the status quo, it becomes harder to have the weird without the gonzo.  In horror movies, this is often the cold open in some hyper-normal suburban environment.  Even in a game like Numenera (which embraces the weird so throughly), the comparison is to a traditional fantasy world -- implicitly if not explicitly.  One could abandon the reference point in Numenera but I think the result would be a quite different game.  An example of where this comparison is the pivot point for work is Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.

So where does this leave the "strange" -- as opposed to the weird?

In common use, these terms are close to interchangeable.  The podcast more or less (and maybe directly) said that they are simply points on a continuum.  The weird is just "weirder" than the the strange.

However, there is a way to distinguish the two that provides some insight into the underlying nature of storytelling and adventure design.  I am not going to bore you with definitions -- many of which overlap.  A quick search reveals something important.  The weird is often associated with the supernatural whereas the strange is more often associated with the rare or unusual.  Some definitions muddy this distinction but it is quite useful (so I embrace it -- though I wouldn't argue that it is the Truth(tm)).

The strange is easier to understand.  If we think of our world as a having a set of expectations, the strange violates those expectations -- but in a manner consistent with the rules of the world.  I am about to walk across campus to teach class.  If I see someone juggling while on a unicycle, it would be strange.  I have not seen that here before -- but I know it is possible, albeit rare.  Instead of the "delta", this is the "sigma" for the statistics and Six Sigma nerds out there.  The strange is an outcome that comes from the world but is rare or atypical of the world.

The weird draws into question the rules of the world itself.  The juggling unicyclist does not draw into question the rules of my world.  Someone walking up the side of the building as if it was even ground would.  It would draw into question something as fundamental to my understanding of the world as gravity.  That is an extreme example.  The weird is something that is not simply rare or atypical -- it is inconsistent with one's understanding of the world.  The weird is something that should not be.

This is why the weird was so important to Lovecraft.  He was living through a time of dramatic upheaval about the rules of the world around him.  Quantum physics, astrophysics, Darwinian evolution, Freudian psychology -- all of these developments were unsettling the dominant view of the world.  His weird writing expressed this unsettled feeling by amplifying them in fiction.  One way to express the discomfort of the late 19th Century and early 20th Century with evolution was to create a world in which someone learns that humans were abandoned creations of uncaring aliens -- to take just one example.

The best of the weird is not just a function of the delta (reminder:  this is the distance between what is experienced and the presumed normal status quo).  The best weird stories use the delta to draw into question the status quo.  If this weird thing is true, what else about my world do I not understand?  That is the power of the weird.  It forces us to question what we believe to the true and don't want to question.

What does this have to do with The Strange and Numenera as RPGs?  The Strange takes some pains to define the rules of recursions, translation, and travel between worlds.  In this sense, it establishes rules that it tries not to violate.  The world of The Strange may be weird to us, but it is all supposed to be consistent in the world.  To operatives of The Estate, the world is merely strange -- not necessarily weird except in the short term.  To the players, it may be weird if part of the reason for an adventure is to provide players a reason to question the seeming stable rules of their own world.

Numenera is built on the weird -- and the characters experience this.  As I read it (I am not an experienced Numenera GM -- just a few sessions and reading most of the books), most characters do not understand how Numenera work.  To them, every cypher breaks the rules of the universe.  They are mysterious.  To the players, the cyphers are often explained as advanced tech like nanites.  Interestingly, the position of the weird and strange are reversed for Numenera -- to the characters the world is weird but much of the play material makes the setting strange to the players (by providing at least a vague reference to the causal mechanism of the Numenera).  One can make Numenera weird to the players by refusing to explain how the Numenera work, where the world came from, and what the previous eight worlds were.  I am confident this is why Monte Cook has said that he plans to never reveal the nature of the previous worlds.

This has implications for just about any game.  Dungeons and Dragons can be weird if magic is mysterious and seems to draws into question the foundations of the setting (as in some Conan stories, for example).  If magic is a predictable and well understood system (by the characters or many elements in the settings -- say in Eberron), it is more strange than weird.  A lot of people prefer to play games that focus on the strange, rather than the weird, so this is not a problem.  It is useful, though, to consider the difference and choose an approach deliberately -- or calibrate your approach.