Friday, August 26, 2016

An Easy Method to Up the Surreal

The challenge of the surreal

When I first saw the kickstarter for Numenera, I was intimidated.  Though the launch event at Gencon and my first read-through of the core book, I continually told myself "you can't write adventures that live up to this premise."  I doubted my ability to offer the Gene Wolfe experience of slowly revealing the forgotten purpose of ancient technology while still telling a traditional adventure story (and still do, really).  I enjoyed reading the material but it was not a setting for which I was comfortable designing material (even for my home game).

I hear similar concerns about Invisible Sun.  It so happens that I am much more comfortable with the notion of surreal fantasy so I wanted to provide some tips to overcome the hesitation of working with surreal storytelling.

While it is antithetical to the spirit of some of the founders of the surrealist art movement (particularly Breton and his calls for automatism), I would like to propose a simple process for getting you started in developing material for a surreal fantasy game.  For now, I will focus on encounter elements and small pieces of games.  I need to think more about how surreal fantasy affects the development of adventure structure, pacing, and related issues.  If I think of anything, I will definitely post on that subject.

For now, here is a simple process to jumpstart your thinking about surreal fantasy.

The Process

The process I propose is simple.  Start with a metaphor.  Think how you would describe the encounter you want to design and commit to expressing the encounter in metaphorical terms.  Yes, similes are fine as well.

Second, turn that metaphor into a physical representation.  Instead of having a person who floats like a butterfly, have a person who IS a butterfly (at least to the characters).  Take the metaphor in the first step seriously and consider what physical characteristics would be needed to render the metaphor into reality.

Finally, consider whether the physical representation conjures connections to other metaphorical elements.  This is simply the follow-through for taking the metaphor seriously.  Don't necessarily stop with one physical manifestation of the metaphor.  Consider all of the potential manifestations and how they may be connected into this particular element of your adventure.  Maybe consider related (or even contradictory) metaphors to mix into the element.

An Example

While I think this process is simple, it is vague.  I want to illustrate the process quickly with an example.  If there is enough interest, I will provide more detailed examples down the line.  Consider this line from a Police song that is not Invisible Sun.

>I chased his thoughts like birds

-- *Secret Journey* by **The Police**

Open Your Mind by Lucas (flickr)

Here we start with step one complete: the metaphor.  We need to break the metaphor down for step two.  Consider all of the pieces of even this simple line from a song.  Well, it is simple in terms of language.  It may be complex in terms of metaphor.

The metaphor includes several elements.  Someone is "chasing."  That is a great term for us because it indicates an action.  This will give us a sense of how to incorporate the metaphor into the game in an action scene.

The subject is chasing thoughts.  What does that mean, exactly?  In a non-metaphorical sense, it may mean an attempt at comprehension.  If we are to turn the metaphor into a literal experience for our players, we need to embrace the metaphorical sense.  The thoughts become an element in the scene that can be chased.  You can go in different directions with this process but I will take the sense of physically chasing a manifest thought.

Finally, the manifest thoughts are "like birds."  Taking the metaphor seriously, I can present the manifestation as actual birds.  Now we have a good central hook for a surreal fantasy scene.  The players have to chase down thoughts that have escaped from a wise person (that part comes from the rest of the song - its great, you should listen to it) and are flying away in the form of birds.

The final step in the process is to consider what related images and metaphors may fill out the scene.  This can be close to a free association process - so maybe Breton won't haunt me.  My first reaction to the notion of "thoughts like birds" was Odin's ravens representing memory and thought.  You can do a little research on this related image to see how the process can spiral out to create more-and-more developed scenes.

This is just a simple example from a single line from a song.  I hope this provides a way to bootstrap your development of ideas for surreal fantasy scenes.  If nothing else, it is a fun way to distract yourself.   Listen for metaphorical language and consider what it would look like if literally true -- then game-ify it.

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