What Does “Gonzo” Mean To You?

A few days ago I was catching up on podcasts. Jason Hobbs (who hosts Hobbs ‘n’ Friends of the OSR, Hextalk, and Random Screed) was discussing his latest games. In this monologue, he discussed adding halflings to his game setting, having them play the role of nomadic savannah dwellers. He was bandying about having their beasts of burden be ostrich-like creatures, but stopped shy of committing to the idea as he considered it a bit “too gonzo” for him. There’ve been a lot of discussions on the internet attempting to define “gonzo D&D” for newcomers and veteran players alike; often these point to things as universal answers, which is difficult because I think that there’s a lot of variability to what is gonzo at one table versus another table altogether. This gave rise to a question within me: what does “gonzo” mean to you?

For the uninitiated: Gonzo is a term that gets tossed around fairly frequently in OSR discussion. Usually, it indicates content which is zany or bizarre, reveling in unpredictability and curiosity. We borrow this term originally from gonzo journalism, named and popularized by the inimitable Hunter S. Thompson. It was a style of writing noted for eschewing the objectivity of traditional journalism in favor of its distinctive authorial voice and focus on the bizarre and bewildering elements of the underbelly of politics. Some have also used it retroactively to refer to some of the stranger “kitchen sink” pulps, a genre of book which undoubtedly influenced the imaginations of many creators in our hobby, new and old alike. Those gonzo pulps eventually evolved into the bizarro fiction movement of new absurdism in literature, where authors combined elements of shock humor, horror, satire, surrealism, and pop culture to create some seriously bizarre and often funny works.

In D&D, we can broadly say that the gonzo and the bizarro are those things which are incongruous with the setting and tone or theme we are trying to evoke. But because of the variability of expectations between groups of D&D players, I think it is very hard to pin down what is and isn’t gonzo in tabletop gaming with any objectivity. It falls into a Potter Stewart situation where I know it when I see it, and I think all of us have different standards based on our tastes and our settings/games.

For example, Jeff Rients wrote Broodmother Skyfortress, an adventure in which a tremendous, mobile, mechanical castle in the sky (built by your choice of angels, gods, Galactus, titans, or “other”) terrorizes the populace below by flying to and fro, deploying massive cables, and allowing rampaging giants to swing on down and raid villages of their wealth and food. The giants are, canonically, sort of like centaurs – except the base is an elephant and the top half is a shark-man. The advanced cloud-piercing structure they call home is also peopled by devolved servitor wretches in the underbelly tunnels of the place. I’d call this gonzo. That’s just my opinion, though – and my opinion is stemming from the fact that I am playing Dungeons & Dragons instead of Gamma World, where I think Broodmother Skyfortress would go from “campaign-derailing gonzo hilarity” to “just another Tuesday.”

Another example is something like S3 – Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. In this, the player characters will venture to a downed spaceship and recover science-fiction weaponry and computerized RFID access cards and things of this nature while fighting space aliens and robots. This is gonzo, to me, because of the tenets of the D&D games I play. If you’d told me the adventure takes place at a mad wizard’s menagerie full of weird experimental aberrations and it had scrolls of access or glowing crystals for certain doors and was guarded by wind-up automata, I probably wouldn’t. The premise is the same, but the trappings are more relatable to a game of dwarven louts and heroic swordsmen and archers, so I would not even blink.

So, circling back: Jason Hobbs thought halflings riding ostriches might be a little too gonzo for his world. In many of the games I play, in settings I’ve Frankensteined into being, it is not unlikely for the party to meet a caravan pulled by six-legged lizards, or to find a city on the back of a turtle-like creature slowly swimming around the sea, or to meet a knight on a gryphon. It may not be constant, but it is not outlandish. To me, these are just the trappings of fantasy, where there is a world of wonders all around. In Jason’s game, halflings on ostriches are an alien concept in his world, so he is understandably hesitant to jump right into that idea with both feet. Gonzo can be an evasive, subjective concept to us in the OSR.

Both he and I would probably not want to take our settings and have a hex where the players could stumble upon a lair complex that turned out to be an ancient nuclear missile silo run by a marauding computer named C.Le.R.I.C; while that’s an awesome idea, it would be completely out to fucking lunch, equally, to both of us. The difference between Jason’s “gonzo” and my “gonzo” are very different, but somewhere along the line, they would probably meet up. Just where that point of convergence would require a survey of some kind. Which leads me to asking everyone for a little help.

Question for the Reader:

I’d like post an important question to you folks. It would mean a lot if you could drop me a line somewhere and let me know your thoughts. Comment below, ideally, if you can!

What does gonzo mean to you? Please let me know. Give me an example of a product or idea that you consider “gonzo.” Give me an example of an idea that would be gonzo in your campaign.

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11 comments on “What Does “Gonzo” Mean To You?

  1. muphry23

    S3 was the extreme end back when I played 1e and it was cool because at the time my group only used published modules and it was out there. With home brew you have to know your group.

  2. Red Dice Diaries

    Gonzo for me has always meant elements that would normally be out-of-place or extreme exaggerations when compared to the default contents of a game.

  3. Josh Burnett

    I think you hit it right on the head when you said it's hard to define, but you know it when you see it.

    For me, "gonzo" means using setting elements that are cool for the sake of being cool without worrying about any kind of internal logic or rationale. (And that's awesome!)

    Halflings riding ostriches aren't gonzo, because ostriches are animals that logically exist and could theoretically be tamed. A demonically possessed Coke machine is gonzo, because it doesn't really fit into the medieval fantasy paradigm.

    I'm certain this definition will immediately break down under close scrutiny.

    The gonzo book that comes to mind for me is an old D&D book whose name I forget–black cover and a lot of Holloway art. It was full of wacky inventions cobbled together from various magical items. It included, among other things, a golem-powered submarine, an XP machine, and the aforementioned evil Coke machine.

  4. JON

    To me, genre mixing isn't the most Gonzo, as plenty of the fantasy/pulp works that inspired D&D are chock-full of genre mixing. For me, Gonzo might be more about purpose/intent. Is the goal of the product to be weird for the sake of being weird? Does it lack internal consistency?

  5. Dan

    I have three main divisions of gonzo.

    1) DCC Gonzo – Normal world contrasts with the weird beyond it.
    2) Transmetropolitan Gonzo – The weirdness of the normal world is amped up to 13.
    3) Buffet Gonzo – We're just throwing everything in there.

  6. Jorge Jaramillo Villarruel

    For me, gonzo is something bizarre and outlansidh, but also funny. It's something that can't be run seriously… yes, the characters can take it seriously, but on the table, we are laughing and rolling our eyes not because there are jokes, but because it's bizarre and ountlandish ina funny way. Or, to put it in another word, something you cannot take seriously, with solemnity or gravity.

    DCC is pure gonzo because, come on, you can't take DCC seriously. In general, LotFP is not gonzo because you can play it in a solemn way if you want, you can make the game serious and dark and bleak and depressive. But ypu can also play it with levity, drinking beer and eating pizza and mocking the one player who likes the Super Bowl. But that level of seriousness is not possible with DCC.

  7. The Merciless Merchants

    I agree with Red Dice Diaries. I also think there can be a fine line between gonzo and…weird? For example, a normal orc dungeon…at the end is a laser pistol in the treasure pile. I wouldn't necessarily call that gonzo in my campaign, but weird or gives that WTF moment for players. Orcs wielding laser pistols–I would consider gonzo for my campaign.

  8. CJGeringer

    To Me Gonzo is things that are inserted without consideration to the rest of the setting, regardless of how werid they are.

    For example, if the haflings wander the savannas riding ostrichs just because the creator feels it is a cool idea it would be Gonzo.

    If he decides that the Halflings small stature would be e´perfect for a savanna environment with th elss availiable food and where they can easily hide in tall gress, and lookign at teh animals in that biome he feel that they would end up domesticating Ostritchs since they ar efats cna be used as food source and can arry small humanoids. Than it would be Gonzo for me.

    On th eothe rend of the spectrum, if the GM decides to put a castle soemwhere simply to have a dungeon near the player without considering anything else, that would be Gonzo, even if the superficial aesthetic is very genereric.

  9. Em

    Gonzo is not something that happens in an otherwise normal campaign.

    It is the defining feature of the campaign world: a campaign which sets aside concerns about aesthetic consistency to better embrace an 'anything goes' approach to storytelling.

    Mystara and Hollow Earth comprise a gonzo setting because of all the different elements the setting brings together and because of how outlandish it allows its stories to become. An SCA battlefield – where Renaissance knights may do battle alongside Vikings to defeat a Roman phalanx – is a gonzo experience.

    Does a setting EMBRACE unpredictability and an eclectic aesthetic of inconsistency? It is a gonzo setting.

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