Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Awesomeness Overload

Danger is part of the kitsch and mystique of the adventure game, as I explained previously. So is antiquity. But one thing that's medieval and dangerous but doesn't make people think "WHOA ADVENTURE" is ...dying of disease from a rat bite or plate of bad beans in a pest-hive medieval city.

Not the DMG's finest moment.
That's because disease is low, squalid, and lacks awesomeness. It's not a soul-drinking sword, a city full of dark elves, a beholder or a Tyrannosaurus or a laser gun or a rocket ship. All these awesome elements make the final piece of dungeon kitsch, of fantastic adventure overload.

It's important here to trace the slang term "awesome" back to its literal roots in the feeling of awe. There has been a lot of hand-waving and grasping at straws in psychology to explain this feeling, but its meaning and function are fairly clear. You look up, gape, eyes wide open, taking in all possible information about something that is more vast, more powerful, than you can comprehend. It is the ancient attitude of the mouse beneath the tread of the elephant: rooted to the spot, look up very carefully for the descending, unthinking foot.

Seeking out the awesome - the gigantic, the overpowered - leads in pyramidal fashion to the apex of every design hierarchy. The most powerful monsters? Beholders, dragons, liches, archdevils. The most powerful melee weapons? Vampiric, vorpal. Missile weapon? Death rays. Character class? Paladins, I guess, but they're not dangerous enough. Make them anti-paladins. Race? The drow: mysterious Monster Manual secret turned penultimate boss of the most epic dungeon adventure ever printed, with more special abilities and lost-race tech than they can really use. Animal? Dinosaur. Terrain? Mountain, or abyss, either way. Spell? Prismatic sphere - not wish; to be awesome, power has to show itself off.

Awesomeness can get mined out, though. Look what happened to that poor non-SRD apex creature, the beholder. Already given a bargain-basement undersea knockoff in the Monster Manual, things got worse over the editions as the stock got diluted so mid-level characters could have their own brush with awesomeness. Eventually things got really tragic ... yes, posting this image is hard. I'm not sure why giving the Drow a city makes them more awesome, yet giving beholders a society with all kinds of variants makes them less awesome, but the effect to me is undeniable.

Pac-Man never had this kind of identity crisis.
To avoid this dead end, there's another maneuver. The equivalent of the kitsch corner that maximizes sentimentality by combining sad clowns, big-eyed puppies, noble Natives and velvet Jesuses: the gonzo adventure.

Gonzo mines each of many different genres for its most awesome content and throws it all together. It's sometimes defined plainly as genre clash. But you won't see "gonzo" applied to something that combines Old West land rights issues, Japanese tea ceremony, prehistoric giant ferns, and science fiction moral dilemmas. You will see it applied to something that has ninjas rappelling down the Grand Canyon to fight laser-packing dinosaurs.

All this gives the adventure designer a recipe for awesomeness. Or should I say preposterawesome?

In a ...
1. gigantic mountain 2. plunging chasm 3. lava hellscape 4. humongous iceberg 5. petrified giant creature's body 6. crashed spaceship

With architecture inspired by ...
1. skulls 2. swords 3.serpents 4. spiders 5. demons 6. dragons

You fight a bunch of thematic vermin and goons, and then you come face-to-face with ...
1. a dark elf 2. a storm giant 3. a cyborg 4. a millennia-old undead 5. a dinosaur-riding 6. a death ray shooting

1. anti-paladin 2. super-sorcerer 3. arch-psionicist 4. half-demon 5. immortal leaping kung fu master 6. shadow magic ninja

Whose treasure is ...
1. a cache of ray guns 2. a life-drinking sword 3. a prosthetic hand of doom 4. a world-annihilating spell 5. a skull caked with platinum and gems 6. a cyclops idol with a single ruby eye the size of your head

Whew. To conclude the series I'll answer the questions posed by some readers, about whether the term "kitsch" does justice to this kind of game experience as lived from the inside.

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