Thursday, November 1, 2012

Thoughts on the "Freak Show" adventuring party

So over on the GURPS forum the other day, we were talking Dungeon Fantasy party makeup.

It seems the usual situation is a "freak show." Pixie barbarians and half-ogre wizards and infernal scout-ninjas and catgirl swashbucklers with imbuements.
To me, it's doubling down on gonzo. The situation is pretty out there (you're plundering strange treasures from even stranger monsters.)
The characters? Way out there. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles out there.

But for me, that falls flat.

I personally don't think that gonzo + gonzo = double gonzo. Or zowie + zowier = more zowie.

I tend to thing that gonzo + normal = gonzo.

So if the party is a freak show, the situations need to be a bit normal. It's interesting to see what happens when the half-demon has to deal with normal stuff.
It's interesting to see the farm boy with his uncle's old bill from the wars plumb the depths of the dark dungeon and encounter strange critters.
It's less interesting to me to see the half-demon in the dungeon.

I totally understand this isn't normal. It's usually the half-dragon half-infernal ninja-assassin-wizard descending into the depths of the earth to fight the strange critters.Then I was scanning some older (3.0, 3.5 era) Dragon magazines and noticed the same "party of oddities" approach. So this is not new, or uncommon.

I'm fine with that. It's a totally fine way to play, if that's what you want. I don't think this is wrong or unfun. But to me, the clash between "I understand my character totally because he's so normal, but this situation is downright weird" is my favorite way to play.
Weird creature dealing with normal stuff is okay, too, but I'd rather play the human investigating Cthulhu than the Son of the Starspawn investigating Chtulhu.

To each his own, obviously, but I'm curious how common my approach - restricting the player options to "fairly normal" and exposing them to weirdness is, compared to opening up the whole raft of strangeness for PC and encounters alike.


  1. My gaming group shares your outlook...and we play D&D 3.x. I didn't like it in Dragon or Dungeon and don't like it in my campaigns.

    Our groups are "human, elf, dwarf" almost without exception. We have one player who will branch out to half-orc or gnome; he's currently playing a centaur, but that's about as "out there" as our gonzo PC choices get.

    (I should say, in the interest of full disclosure, our player who ALWAYS plays an elf actually played a Drow once. But seeing as how that character lasted not-quite-one session, I don't think that counts.)

    I'm not saying that one way or the other is right or wrong; I'm not that type. As you said, "to each his own." I'm just supporting you and saying that at least one other group shares your approach.

    1. We had a drow too, back in the day - a rebel from his own race, yearning for freedom. I'll just note that there weren't any R.A. Salvatore books yet, so at least Szandor Wraithkin wasn't a copy.

      A later guy made a half-elf who was half or quarter drow, and who probably had some idea who RAS and Drzzzzzzt (whatever) was, but I still didn't. He was the last drow mix I ever allowed, and the last time I used evil underground elves (per se) in one of my games.

  2. I think your approach is much closer to my experience of classic D&D/AD&D - to my perception the monsters-as-PCs thing really got going with AD&D2, by which time I was mostly playing other things.

  3. I agree with you. I think that having realistic PCs makes the gonzo part off dungeons more believable. Plus I love history, myth and legend from the real world. Good post.

    Here is a link to a show about Marco Polo you might like to watch.

  4. For my Prime Directive games, the only way I get to use weird aliens PC's with supers type abilities is if I make them as the pre-gens for a con game. If I encourage the players to get wild psionic powers with their earned points, they just spend them on mundane skills.

    As a GM, I'm so used to having to make what the players want work somehow... I don't know if I would blink anymore if they wanted to go the full freak show. I'd probably just be glad to bust out some new rules and advantages that rarely get play!

  5. To me, the ideal fantasy adventure game is depicted in the artwork by the Davids, Sutherland and Trampier. Specifically, Sutherland's images of fairly historical-looking characters involved in fantastic situations shaped the way that I expect fantasy adventure gaming to go. This newfangled way of playing, with every character a cambion or half-githyanki or whatever, bores the snot out of me.

    1. Also, I note that the freakshow party is parodied in the Glorantha computer game "King of Dragon Pass", where one of the events that can occur is the appearance of a freakshow party of adventurers which you have to deal with.

    2. I've never played KoDP, but I bet one of my players has. I'll ask him about it.

  6. Personally I found GURPS to be mostly self correcting in this regard. Because in GURPS you have to pay to be another race and when you play 75 or 150 pt fantasy like I do most players are not willing to play another race unless they really want too. Which suits me fine as the Majestic Wilderlands is human dominated.

    And if for some reason the party did create a Freak Show party then the campaign would be likely take place among the non-human cultures where this is commonplace. Plus I have a region in the Wilderlands where mixed races parties are very plausible even commonplace. (It is an area where there are lot of small polities very close to each other with a tradition of working together against outside threats.

    1. I think at the 250-point level of DF, it's less self-correcting. You have so many points, and if you allow people to satisfy a template's requirements with racial stats, or just ignore templates, you can make some really out-there things happen.

      I just like the limited, "normal" party approach. But then again, I'm clearly gaming to re-create some of the fun I had playing in a limited race/more early D&Dish type of game. Had I played so early that we'd been running werebears and balrogs and dragons, well, maybe I'd enjoy the freak show more.

  7. Thank God there are others out there that share this opinion. I thought I was an outlier. Yeah, playing a "different" character is good, but freak show parties are really, really hard to envision, especially long-term. My group tends toward less strange characters, though there's always a twist. That's fine, because it's usually the twist that makes them unhappy living a settled life and forces them to adventure, whatever that means.

    But the idea of the freak show party makes me... Gag. Yeah, I could run it, but I couldn't run it without essentially punishing the characters for being such an oddball group. And while I've played in groups like this, I usually played the "normal" guy who could do all the stuff the hyperspecialized freaks just couldn't manage. Which ended up making my characters invaluable, and caused me, as a player, to get more screen time because my character would be involved in most meaningful situations. Especially SOCIAL situations. The hulking Lizardman, the psychotic kobold, and the high elf would all have to content themselves waiting for me to negotiate sales and purchases, get them into towns, etc. The elf could help, but not everyone LIKES elves. Humans? Well, humans may or may not like you, but they don't DISLIKE you on the face of it, generally...

    It really comes down to suspension of disbelief. Freak show groups are harder to believe, at least for me. One freak out of a party is fine. A party of 5 disparate freaks? Why are they together? How do they get along? What's REALLY going on?

    Not that I would claim that this is bad -- it's not. It's just not the style I want to play (generally). Happy to in some circumstances, though usually for short term. But give me a nice, straightforward character who MAKES SENSE. Or, better yet, give me a party of them and I'll send them through hell and (possibly) bring them back with the keys.

    1. That's actually how my PC operated in a friend's Armageddon game. Lots of hyper-specialized weirdos, and my human had to talk for them fairly often because of the odd nature of everyone else.

  8. Personally I'd be satisfied with just elf/dwarf/halfling, so long as the templates were well-built and low on excess baggage (which the DF ones are).

    I *prefer* to have weirder options like cat-men and pixies and centaurs so long as the *mechanics* of playing them don't get too complicated on me and the costs are low enough for me to fit them in with my chosen profession. I prefer it vastly.

    Just so long as I have the option to play something that isn't a human and isn't so alien that I can't adapt a human adventurer role to it (slime monster, gliding monkey, non-anthropomorphic wolf, whatever).


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