, 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.