[Wonderland] Such an exciting game and an appealing genre

edited September 2012 in Story Games
JAGS Wonderland, it's a small press game available for free download from the author's site. I'd heard about it in passing, but hadn't checked it out before. Happened to have a spare moment that quickly turned into an entire day as I read the compelling setting manual. (The rules text of JAGS the system-text is some sort of post-'90s universal point-buy exercise, I haven't looked at that - I just read the setting/campaign book for now.) The book was such a positive surprise that I wanted to say a few things about it, and recommend it to anybody interested in buzzwords like conspiracy genre, modern horror, urban fantasy, Delta Green, etc. Absolutely delightful to discover such a labor of love.

Wonderland is incidentally a type of game where I would personally find it significant whether players are familiar with the premise or not. If you're planning to be an under-informed player in a Wonderland game, this thread is obviously full of secret information about the setting. More on this later, I would find it quite interesting to play a mystery campaign like this myself.

A few words about the premise of the game, so as to inspire you to go and read the whole thing yourself: Wonderland is a conspiracy horror fantasy game set in a basically Lovecraftian world where the internal structure of reality is ruled and made of the beings and concepts from Lewis Carrol's Alice novels. Basically, the Queen of Hearts and other characters lurk in supradimensions, plotting various ill deeds against humanity as we know it. The really clever bit is the campaign framework where players do not necessarily have a clue as to what's going on: you're just this average guy who starts having seemingly skitsophrenic episodes, which then prove to be contagious, and so on. This is a traditional rpg, so no real direction or focus on what to do with the setting, but I'm delighted by how well the setting solely arms the GM to throw interesting curve-balls no matter which direction the campaign veers.

I know that the above reads mediocre when put into a nutshell like that, but this sort of thing is all in the execution: the authors are in no hurry to delve into the fantastic, and the Wonderland multiversal structure is quite clever and ripe for various sorts of roleplaying game interactions. The genre of conspiracy fantasy horror lives on the interface between the mundane and extraordinary (and on the contrast between the two - your X-Files should have some real humdingers in there to make it worthwhile for the audience), and this also where Wonderland excels: the psychiatric viewpoint is convincing with the half-truths and more or less useful methods for dealing with the supposed and actual illness, for example. The lightweight run-down on government conspiracies (of course you need a few of those in this sort of thing) is solid and appealing, and there's even a completely logical ritual magic system that explains how traditional occult magic "works" in the cosmology of Wonderland. As is often the case when this sort of stuff is well done, the details about the real world interface are much more interesting than the pure fantasy stuff that hides behind these veils.

Some discussion points that occurred to me after reading the book:

I've seen this before in Delta Green

Urban horror roleplaying games and fiction come in basically two varieties: either you have an elaborate mystery and compelling mythology backing up your general weirdness and mutilations, or you don't. I actually like both varieties now that I think of it, but let's focus on the mythologies, because that's where the thing is at: the reason for why I'd ever want to play say Wonderland or Delta Green would be because I wanted to play with the revelations and implications of the background mythology.

OK, so Delta Green is another game that similarly revolves around an arbitrary fantasy mythology. Wonderland is a bit different in that it has one big truth within multiple onion layers (that truth being that Alice books accurately depict the lowest levels of reality), while Delta Green has many small truths (subaquatic global civilization and fungus-men from beyond the stars being two of the most prominent, perhaps) that don't really line up neatly for anything except arm-chair theory. Still, this is ultimately arbitrary internal detail of the mythology, as far as I can see both sorts of structures and any other variants can be written in a compelling way as long as the interface towards the mundane that I wrote about above is convincing. For Delta Green it's all about convincing security and intelligence agency reactions to the supernatural, while for Wonderland it's about the human-scale reactions of everybody around you as you start to exhibit signs of skitsophrenic breakdown.

However, there are also urban horror fantasy games that don't go for the interface like this, but rather delve fully in the fantastic. They're relevant in comparison here because they often include very similar material when it comes to the fantasy mythology involved in the game. World of Darkness is an obvious example: WoD games sort of kinda have this same genre going, they've got hidden monsters and all, but the tone and focus is different because the game's not really convincingly interested in the interface between the mundane and the supernatural. Of course you can twist any of these games back and forth: I could see how playing Delta Green with the WoD as the background mythology instead of the Cthulhu Mythos could be a really funky thing; you'd look at the vampire clans or whatever from the outside as alien and inhuman things instead of the comfortable character classes they usually get represented as.

Other games that do modern horror with mythology and that have therefore been in my thoughts are Urchin (massively underappreciated, by the way), Don't Rest Your Head, Little Fears and Kingdom of Nothing, to pinpoint a few indie titles. A notable difference with these is that these guys don't write to be literary authors: I admire the heck out of Delta Green, but it's not rpg design, it's setting writing (and one of the few rpgs that I would consider literarily significant, incidentally). In comparison these indie rpgs are all about the rules of how to actually set up a roleplaying game that somehow delves in, creates or otherwise utilizes horror fantasy mythology. Consequently most of the games of this type have relatively sparse mythologies of their own, although most definitely do have a few ideas worth stealing.

All this comparative reading makes me think that these games are pretty modular: it's not systematically important for the game you play as to which particular cosmology you're playing. It's more of a creative literary choice to pick a setting after you've figured out how to play a game in this genre in the first place.

Also, by the way of recommendation, alongside Delta Green and Wonderland a third thing in the genre that I'd like to recommend is also free: The Long Stair is this funky shared-setting project they did at RPGnet a few years back involving a conspiracy horror interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons. It's a long read, but so compelling that I absolutely seriously might make that instead of Delta Green the background mythos of a campaign if I ever get around to playing something like this.

Comments


  • I have no clue how to play this sort of thing effectively

    The closest I've ever come is playing Call of Cthulhu, and we never got too far with that - certainly not far enough to actually sink our teeth into the cosmology in any meaningful way. Random occasional one-shot horror stories do not quite capture the things that appeal me in e.g. Delta Green and Wonderland; they seem like games that require long campaigns structured in some fruitful way that enables players to experience strong moments of revelation alongside gritty, contrasting realism. (This is me speculating about why I like to read this stuff, you understand - maybe it's not possible to get the same appeal out of a game experience, and these texts are actually doomed to remain reading material.)

    I have a sort of a framework in mind for how I'd like to go about running this sort of game, but there really doesn't seem to be a ready-made system that quite hits the spot here unless we count OSR D&D, which is in a completely different genre. In my ideal game players would be completely in the dark about the underlying cosmology to begin with, building starting characters only with the promise that the game is some sort of freaky horror fantasy shit over the long term. After that the pacing and direction of revelation would be entirely in the hands of the players in a sort of a horror sandbox: you choose which X-File you're checking out on, and you decide how much to risk for the sake of revelation. The GM's close-guarded secrets would be wrested by force and daring, and characters would die horribly in the process. Over time the tone of play would shift from semi-mundane conspiracy investigation to lurid horror and then perhaps towards a sort of grim urban fantasy if and when players get a handle on the fantastical cosmos their characters inhabit.

    Usually games that do this genre (and horror in general, come to that) seem to be more on the emotionally immersive side of things, but it seems that I'm not personally quite into that approach - it seems dull if the GM has a preplotted script for how things go, and the larger campaign is devoid of any complex structure, merely consisting of a string of scenarios the GM invents one after another. Could be I've had too much OSR D&D lately, it's pretty much the antithesis of all this with its massive amounts of player-direction and -pacing.

    Perhaps I'll run something like this in the future. If I do, Wonderland is alongside Delta Green in my prime line-up of sources. It's perhaps even better despite the more modest scope, due to being much less America-centric.

    The American focus in most of this genre of games is really crimping my style

    I love reading Delta Green books, but even if we put the CoC system aside I'd have great difficulty running the game straight out of the books due to the cultural barrier. It's not that I'm somehow incapable of understanding how the US federal government agencies operate, but rather that practically nobody around here, myself included, feels any great motivation towards role-playing American federal government agents. It's just not that appealing when it's not your own country, feels arbitrary. And the genre, it starts from the roots: you need to first convince your players that they want to play FBI agents before you can wow them with visions of ghoulish secret societies.

    But then on the other hand just hogging all the genre elements and plopping them down in an e.g. Finnish context hardly works, either. Finland is a boring place conspiratorily speaking, and we're culturally inclined to think that nothing exciting ever happens here, so black helicopters and secret orders involving atomic bombers are out. We can just about do isolated hillbilly serial murder in a Finnish milieu, but even adding cannibalism and incest is pushing the credibility (nobody just seems to think that badly about their country cousins around here). Apparently my country is that much nicer than the often borderline-postapocalyptic American environment, so much so that I have difficulty entertaining any truly entertaining conspiracy horror happening around here.

    (For the record, I myself do not consider the above to be caused by any sort of essential national natures or anything like that. The difference in expectations and perceptions is, I suspect, because of memetic change that tropes undergo in genre churn. An American milieu for conspiracy horror works because the tropes involved have some slight relation to the real world, yes, but even more so because they have been repeated sufficiently long for the genre to have shaped up around those specific tropes. No doubt I could whip up something involving hidden weapon stashes from WWII if I wanted to do a Finnish take on Delta Green, but it'd be a massive reimagining, much more so than when they did that UK sourcebook with the Lloigors.)

    Wonderland is awesome in that it has a decidedly less military and governmental take on the topic, so it's also easier to transplant wholesale into an European milieu. Mental health is a real topic and the "scene" for it exists in Finland, too, so support group meetings, fear of psychiatry, over-medicalization and the other things the game plays with in passing translate directly and continue feeling real. Of course Wonderland has a hefty slice of "what the federal government knows and does about this thing" in it, but it's ancillary in a way that doesn't make it difficult at all to just ignore it. Not that I'd like to, it's well-done even if sparse.

    Are there other literary works that I would appreciate?

    Anyway, whether I get around to playing Wonderland in some form or not, one thing I do know, and it's that I rather like reading cosmological conspiracy horror fantasy rpg sourcebooks like Wonderland and Delta Green. If anybody happens to have any suggestions for further reading in or around the genre, feel free to let me know. I have this notion that if my horror investigation sandbox ever surfaces, I might just plop all of the games mentioned here into the one sandbox, and to heck with the consequences. If there's one thing I actually know as a GM, it's working around contradictory sources.

    Notably I'm less of a fan of the genre in novel form. I mean, Atrocity Archives or your average Warren Ellis comic book is a fine read, but the novel form doesn't give you the sweeping scope of a well-crafted rpg setting. I guess I'd be up to reading stuff along these lines in novel form as well, but only if either the fantasy stuff or the mundane interfacing were really inventive. Ideas are ideas after all, wherever they may appear.
  • That looks like an interesting game. Not that I ever had problems with running Delta Green style games, even if I am not American but German. I always liked the one degree of distance a different country you know things about but haven't lived in provides. There is such a powerful image of the USA from media that players can play there comfortably. But still you do not have to argue about what laws apply and where exactly two streets are crossing and with the players knowing the USA from movies and television it gives the whole thing a movie or at least story feel from the get go. Can work with historic settings that have a strong mental image too.
    For the regional perspective I would say conspiracies in Germany would work well. But it is a little harder to imagine german government agents as heroes. There is not much of the isolation the vast land of the USA can provide. I think I would rather run a game set in the US.
    On a side note of Finland as a setting. It always seemed like an interesting place during the period between the world wars. With a civil war, prohibition and fascists kidnapping people.

    I will check Wonderland out for sure. There should be some inspiration in it I am sure. Not too much an expert on Carrol but as a fan of Changeling: the Lost as well as Delta Green there should be something to be scavenged from it. I was thinking about looking at Night's Black Agents too, which is about conspiracies and vampires behind them.
  • http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1227949612/tremulus-a-storytelling-game-of-lovecraftian-horro?ref=live

    Thing is, you couldn't play this with under-informed players... I think. I didn't playtest or anything, I'm just going by the description.

    Wonderland sounds really cool, thanks for the info on it!
  • I won't make any jokes about falling in, but I clicked on the PDF link and started reading, and an hour went by. Now I'm vaguely uneasy. I haven't gotten to any of the RPG mechanics at all, but just the setting description and flavor text is compelling and creepy as hell.

    (In addition to the obvious influences, I'm getting a very strong Tim Powers feeling -- his novels deal with fantasy intruding into and corrupting the real world in very plausible-seeming ways. I'm thinking particularly of "Last Call" and "Declare", both of which I highly recommend if you like this sort of genre.)

    Thanks very much for pointing this out! Am I correct in thinking that this is an extremely obscure game? It's been around for four years and I'd never heard the slightest mention of it before. (In fact the last time I heard anything at all related to JAGS was probably five years ago or more...)
  • edited September 2012
    I am absolutely going to take another look at this. Thanks for the recommendation and thoughtful description.

    If you want a little more archetypical and less specific version of evil magical interdimensional beings with highly stylized personalities/desires infiltrating our mundane existence, this is basically the premise of the very remarkable Chanegling: The Lost.

    Edit: I'm thinking about the cultural stuff you're describing with Delta Green. There's a lot there. I think maybe I'll do another thread about being "The Authorities" in RPGs. It's a big topic.
  • Cool to hear more about it. JAGS Wonderland was 1st runner-up for Best Supplement of the Year in the 2005 Indie RPG Awards. cf http://www.rpg-awards.com/2005/
  • I think that a big barrier to playing US government agents in a roleplaying game in Finland is that it's going to take some doing to get a full complement of players who actually all desire to sympathize with the FBI. I can read subtexts, so I do get how e.g. Delta Green wants us to view the player characters as essentially desperate, competent but out of their depth heroes. Good luck convincing players of this human angle when the odds are that the very act of pretending to be a mansuit for the American machine is going to be a politically repellent idea for at least one of the guys at your table. It's like having the player characters be a bunch of priests, there's going to be at least one player who naturally interprets this as a duty to dust out some medieval torture implements or something.

    (To be absolutely clear, the above is in half due to various currents of America-negativity in Finnish philosophical and political thinking, and half because many left- or right-leaning folks are intensely sceptical of any governments and the force they exert.)

    As Biest indicates, it probably makes the most sense to bite the bullet and do the legwork to set this up; so much of the game content is America-specific, and you don't really get convincing patriotic blindness (the sort that assumes that everything important of course and obviously happens somewhere within your own country) anywhere else, pop culture has just done that much ground work on our sensibilities. I've seen how Delta Green sets up when you try it with Finnish players (I participated as a player in a very truncated campaign in about 2001 or so), and my theory is that it would probably go better if players were specifically instructed about creating their characters as human beings first without worrying about service branches or such. Perhaps the GM could simply talk directly about cultural preconceptions and how the game assumes that the Man is at least partially capable of being heroic, so the players better take some extra effort in dropping their comfortable preconceptions. The GM on his part would probably do well to absolutely not do any "ha ha ha, your superiors in the Secret Service are actually alien fascists" plots until the players genuinely accept for the purposes of the campaign that their characters actually hired on the federal train because they want to help people.

    I don't mean to make this culture gap sound insurmountable, we are after all talking about reasonable and mentally healthy people who are capable of imagining that they're orcs, and for the purposes of this game orcs are merely misunderstood. This political viewpoint challenge is just something I'm intensely aware of because of my own politics, and I've seen how this sort of thing can creep up on you if you're unaware of it. Some game concepts encourage players to take character viewpoints more seriously, while others encourage keeping a distance, and Delta Green definitely counts as the latter for many reasons around here.
    Thanks very much for pointing this out! Am I correct in thinking that this is an extremely obscure game? It's been around for four years and I'd never heard the slightest mention of it before. (In fact the last time I heard anything at all related to JAGS was probably five years ago or more...)
    I guess it is! The indie rpg field as a bit of a tendency towards favouring progressive design created by Forge-affiliated people. This is mostly because the Forgista scene is so immensely organized and tightly networked in comparison to the rest of the small press field. This means that even if JAGS has had the usual tragically small amount of attention a small press game gets in the Internet, it still seems abnormally obscure in comparison with games that tap in some way on the Forge social network. Or the OSR for that matter, it's a very similar small press social scene that works to share knowledge about games. Without these sorts of wide grassroots networks that share artistic sensibilities all small press games would be equally obscure, I imagine.

    And yes, I think that this is not an ideal situation, but it seems that we don't simply have enough of an organized media ecosystem for remarkable works to get sifted out of the massive piles of content that form the Internet. It'd take more work from the authors (to submit their works actively to the right places - I know how this is, I don't care to do it myself, either) and from the media, such as it is, to help us properly sit up and pay attention. By no means a trivial task, as usually more intense media seems to merely increase the amount of noise; you'd need to be very principled about genuinely committing to the task of publicizing the obscure that deserves it instead of just running reviews of everything that comes out.
  • Ah, I ran a search and found a thread from five years back about Wonderland. An important point I ignored in my musings up there was mentioned: Unknown Armies is apparently a similar sort of freaky shit, too, although it's apparently more on the WoD end of the "how close to the supernatural my viewpoint point is" line. I'll need to check that out one of these days, still haven't despite its perennial stature.
  • It sure has the different layers of reality thing.
  • edited September 2012
    I totally love the cosmology of Unknown Armies, but I wouldn't really call it Lovecraftian, and only barely would call it horror. The hidden point of it is that humans and the strongest human tropes ultimately will control the next iteration of the universe. There is no dark dwelling cyclopean or anything like that. Much more Illuminatus! Trilogy than Lovecraft. System is mostly pretty bland, with some highlights (their insanity mechanics seem pretty good for their time, and the "paradox" premise of the magic system is awesome).
    Finland is a boring place conspiratorily speaking…
    Which is exactly why the conspiracy would set up shop there. It's not like Innsmouth was a hotbed of action and glamour. Plus, Finland held a unique position during the Cold War. Seems like, rather than players being part of the government machine, agencies like the CIA and KGB are better suited to be the surface layer of a horror conspiracy instead, which would play into the whole "distrust of government" predisposition you mention.
  • I ran Wonderland a few years back, using Unknown Armies for the ruleset (for better handling of unsanity (not a typo) and the ability to conceal the setting). It was a lot of fun. I'm now running a Delta Green style game. It's tough for me to run these kinds of things, but somehow that makes them come out better because of the extra effort I put in.

    I'd love to see Wonderland get a full treatment, with some better art and layout and especially editing. Hell, I would gladly pitch in some time to make that happen.
  • I have re-read this...it's pretty amazing. And if you like it, you really do owe it to yourself to get a bike helmet on to protect yourself from Brain Damage and go read Changeling: The Lost, which I now believe to be the kissing cousin of this game.
  • Hey, a product that occupies more the standard dark fantasy realm but still straddles this source material, Nevermore from Expeditious Retreat Press is half-off today and tomorrow at Drivethrurpg. It uses the True20 system. Pretty great.
  • I'm surprised Kult hasn't been mentioned yet.

    Also, for medicalized horror weirdness, The Kingdom (Lars von Triers' show, not the more recent English one) is a wonderful source.

    And yeah, if someone could talk in a little more detail about how to run this, I'd sure love to hear it. I ran some stuff along these lines many years ago, but the players weren't wholly in the dark as Eero is suggesting here.
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