Optimal strangeness

I remember reading somewhere that good speculative fiction (including horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc) takes a widely understood backdrop, whether that is modern day, Tolkien-style fantasy, or something else, and tweaks one, or at most a handful, of key factors, and then works out the consequences of the tweaks. I have forgotten the source, but the idea stuck with me.

Various traditions of vanilla fantasy serve as examples of potentially well-understood backdrops, depending on particular audience. The Tolkien-derivative or swords and sorcery in the Leiber/Howard style are two examples. There is something to the formula of a known baseline modified just enough to add interest without becoming overwhelming. Maybe unworthy of being considered an iron rule, but something.

This seems similar to the figure/ground distinction in Gestalt psychology. If everything is ground, nothing stands out, leading to boredom. If everything is figure, all is confusion and nothing makes sense. Also: to the neophyte, even vanilla fantasy can seem strange enough while the seasoned player may require excessive marginal weirdness to get a successful hit of strange. Of the people that play fantasy games at least partly for the pleasure of exploring an imaginary world, most seem to be between these extremes, wanting a bit more uniqueness than Tolkien sans serial numbers but a bit less than a setting which avoids all pop culture or mythological landmarks.

One thought on “Optimal strangeness

  1. Mark Siford

    A lot of science fiction seems to use this “rule.” Take the Forever War where the soldiers literally fight across centuries of time or The Left Hand of Darkness a world that is almost perpetually in Winter due to its older sun and axis tilt. Some historical settings that are twisted can also provide the same useful backdrop to explore in. I find those settings particular easy for the players to grasp when it comes to technology level or what/who they might expect to find in a town.

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