Tuesday, January 3, 2012


I'd like to discuss the term gonzo, as it relates to gaming.  There has been a lot of talk on OSR blogs about gonzo gaming styles and gonzo games.  In fact, this post from I'd Rather be Killing Monsters got me thinking about gritty realism vs. gonzo.

We should probably start any intelligent discussion of a word with its literal meaning.  Here is the definition of the word gonzo from the Oxford English Dictionary:

adjective; informal
  • of or associated with journalistic writing of an exaggerated, subjective, and fictionalized style.
  • bizarre or crazy: the woman was either gonzo or stoned
Origin: 1970's: perhaps from Italian gonzo 'foolish' or Spanish ganso 'goose, fool'

I think three of the words that really hit home from the above definitions are Exaggerated, Bizarre, and Crazy.  In fact, most examples of gonzo gaming fit most or all of those descriptive adjectives.  Here are some examples that come to mind when I think of gonzo:

Greyhawk supplement: pp. 61-63.  These pages describe an incredible array of exaggerated, bizarre, and crazy traps and monsters.  How about "A troll with a magic spear riding a Purple Worm!"  Or "A cloud giant riding a tyrannosaurus rex."  Or "Room complexes which are all parts of a monster, the first room being the mouth, the next the stomach, and so forth."  Weird stuff!

Arduin Grimoire - the entire series.  This runs the gamut, including a class called Technos that can use modern weapons and, at the highest levels, create atom bombs.  A gonzo monster example is the Thunderbunny, which is essentially a killer jack rabbit.  Better yet, there is a Special Abilities Chart that all PC's roll on.  This can get you plum results like "Flesh tastes bad to monsters - 75% chance they'll spit you out!"

As for modern products, I consider the Dungeon Alphabet a bit gonzo.  Some of the entries are indeed exaggerated, bizarre and crazy - and I mean that in the nicest way!  How about kobolds who worship the "Trash God," who is actually an ancient Neo-Otyugh.  Or a pack of aristocratic and well-mannered ghouls who invite the party to dinner - "one way or another!"  Great stuff, by the way.  I get a lot of inspiration there.

What are some other great examples of gonzo in old-school gaming products?  What about more modern RPG's?  What does gonzo mean to you?



  1. Thanks for the mention, George.

    Arduin remains my 'go-to' Bible for classic gonzo, but I also love hearing about OTT games from blogs like Planet Algol (http://planetalgol.blogspot.com/) or the recently rereleased Carcosa.

    Even Jeff Rients' Caves of Myrddin campaign (http://jrients.blogspot.com/) is pretty gonzo. It may have started from a pretty 'historical' basis, but from first contact with online players has exploded brilliantly into insane weirdness.

    There's a lot of it about in the OSR these days ;)

  2. I don't know that I can run a straight game. I've tried, but even in the best effort I've put out, gonzo crept in. For me, it's a way to remind myself and my players that we ARE playing a game. I need whimsy, weirdness, silliness, or satire in my games somewhere for me to have fun.

    There's a reason some of my players named me the Mel Brooks of Game Masters.

  3. Tim - that's so true about Arduin; in fact, it's so off the charts that some times it goes to far for me. But it's a lot of fun. Funny that you mention Carcosa; it's on my "Buy List" at the moment, but I'm hesitating because I'm in fear of how much shipping will cost to the US. The other one on my list is LOTFP, which will be another big shipping cost. But I'll bite the bullet and get them some day. :)

    LG - I'm that way too. In the AD&D game I'm currently DM'ing, I try to put in lots of weird things. Some are completely original, some I steal from others. But my players don't know the difference! And you hit it on the head very, very well when you said "a way to remind myself and my players that we ARE playing a game." That is an inspired description.

    Just last night, my players met a weird figure in the dungeon wearing a "green tunic and trousers" and wielding a "rod and wand." Turns it out was a Vietnam-era soldier who had been caught in a time vortex and was trying to figure out how to get home. Of course, my players murdered him! (more on that in a later post about forced alignment change). They eventually figured out how to use the "Wand," which was a Colt pistol. The "Rod" was a rifle which was jammed. Had they not murdered its owner, they might have learned how to unjam the rifle!

  4. Let us not forget Gamma World and its predecessor, Metamorphosis Alpha.

    To me, 'Expedition to the Barrier Peaks' is gonzo. Let's hear it for the vegepygmies!

  5. Thanks for stopping by Perdustin! Gamma World is indeed trippy and gonzo; so is Barrier Peaks.

    One of my gaming regrets, however, is that I've never seen a copy of Metamorphosis Alpha. I assume it's pretty pricy to get a hard copy.

  6. I would agree with most of the games mentioned here (though I might demur from calling Carcosa gonzo, maybe). Rifts would be gonzo in my mind. To me the exaggerated nature of gonzo means that there's a degree of humor in the genre-bending jutxtapositions of the proceedings.

  7. To me, the most important quality of gonzo is a blurring of genre lines. I realize that this is a matter of silly definitions, but gonzo from goofy: kobolds worshipping the trash god is goofy. Finding ray guns in the Barrier Peaks is gonzo.

    I like Trey's use of the term genre-bending.

  8. I too think that genre-bending is a big part of it.