‘That session was pretty surreal’ is a term that gets thrown around a lot in our games. It’s often shorthand for ‘that went weird’ but are we really talking about surrealism? And does it really have a place in our games?
Well, Surrealism has had a large part to play in the transition of Western artistic and literary movements into the modern artistic world we know today. Given the most RPGs use archetypes and free-form storytelling, you can see a relationship between the two. I’d go further and argue that all tabletop RPGS are in some form, surreal works. Madness, you say? Probably.
In order to get at why I am saying this, we first need to define what we mean by surrealism (as opposed to some other movements) and then examine objectives and outcomes of surreal practice. In other words, this is a big one, expect two parts.
So, set your clocks to melt, and let’s get going.
A History Of Not Making Sense
When we use the word ‘surreal’ to describe something, often we are talking about elements of three separate artistic movements that look a bit like each other and how things in our game have gone a bit beyond what we expected, becoming representational of higher idea conflicts or just plain odd. I think it’s important to separate out these elements in order to understand what we really mean.
Post World War I, an artistic movement surfaced known as Dadaism, or Dada. This reasoned that the highly cultured artistic movements of the early 20th century are what informed the discourse and directly contributed to the social and political situations that gave rise to ‘The War To End All Wars’. Dadaism reasoned that in order to prevent a reoccurrence, it must alter art to be unintelligible. The new art must be aimed to make people hate it. It argued that people didn’t deserve good and gentle art and instead must have art of conflict and disarray thrust upon them. And if they paid for it, more fool them. They created works that refused to explain themselves and were often difficult.
But the human mind is a machine that looks for patterns and people began to see meaning in the madness. Messages, whorls of things that trigger hidden and unconscious thoughts. At the same time psychology is growing as a science and people are beginning to tie the products of the subconscious into art. This leads to the rise of true Surrealism, in which artists begin to challenge their own perceptions and use techniques of Dada and their own ideas to surrender the control of their art over to their subconscious minds. At this point, free writing and drawing become popular amongst the Surrealists, as well as methods for divorcing the artist from thinking about the work they are creating. The Surrealist is creating unintelligible art like the Dadaist but rather than leaving it as purposefully oblique, they are then searching their own work for meaning.
Later, this act of creation through pulling at the subconscious evolves again as artists like Jackson Pollock came to the fore. They were still creating works of art from the subconscious and using techniques that allow them to create works that they couldn’t if they were consciously thinking about the artistic process. However, these ‘Abstract Expressionists’ cared more about the act of creation and less about the analysis. They reasoned that is was up to other people to find meaning in what they had created. They had only created the piece and couldn’t be the judge of its meaning.
The other day, I ran a game in which my D&D players abandoned the plot to instead spend a while just exploring the internal train system of the city they had ended up in. At this point, my brain did an interesting thing. It started creating content on the fly. As it created, it used the unplanned encounters the players had to paint a larger picture of the city. For example, a trip to the artistic commune district became a stand-in for the cost to traditional values suffered in the city by the introduction of industry and the state of magic for the original city natives. I’m sure I’m not the only one this sort of stuff happens to. We start improvising and suddenly, our story deepens. We find meaning in our random acts of creation pulled screaming from our subconscious. Because we have no time to think about what we are doing (due to the players breathing down our necks) our creations in that moment are pure expressions of ideas and themes we are interested in exploring. So true ‘Surrealist’ moments in our RPGs come from our acts of spontaneous creation and DM
improv. Analyse what you create on the fly and you’ll discover stuff about your storytelling you didn’t know including preferences and prejudices. Surrealism isn’t always about being weird.
Although when the same group spent an hour of game trying to get through a fantasy post-office clue, that was pretty weird, so it runs in circles.
Examples In RPGs
There’s a lot of weird stuff lurking in the back of most RPGs one way or another. But there’s a few that are searching for meaning inside their oddness. Here’s a list of the best.
Over The Edge: This is one of the first games to market itself as surreal. By which it meant ‘we really like Naked Lunch’. This is a good game for getting into surreal stuff because the progression of ideas from normal spy stuff to true weirdness is very slow burn and allows players to have time to process the abstraction of concepts as they evolve.
Planescape: Yeah, I can’t really talk about Surrealism without approaching the weirdest and most beautiful D&D setting ever made. Everything in Planescape drips with meaning, often meaning that is not instantly comprehensible. The alignment system actually has an impact, and the game has never been more open.
Lacuna Part 1: The Creation Of Mystery and The Girl From Blue City: This is a mad game in which the GM can end up not talking to you as you go too far into the realms of weird. Sort of like Inception meets Pan’s Labyrinth meets something from the back of your sleeping mind, it’s a riot from the get-go with character creations oppressive test-like conditions setting the mood going forward.
Well, we’ve dali’ed about for far too long. Next time we’re going to look at how you can use some Surrealist (and Dadaist and Abstract Expressionist) techniques to take your DMing to the next level whether you’re interesting in telling surreal stories or not!
Have you any of your tips, tricks or observations when it comes to weird and surreal tabletop RPGs? You can read more Genre Police articles.