One of the keys to making a weird environment interesting is the 90/10 rule. No, this isn’t Sturgeon’s Revelation, but rather a way to keep your project — whatever it is, from a game campaign to an MMO design to a novel or short story — both accessible and intriguing. I talk about this a lot when I do panels at conventions, but it’s just as relevant here.
The 90/10 rule states that when executing a given concept, 90 percent of that concept should be what your audience expects, and 10 percent should twist that expectation or provide a permutation that throws the situation for a loop.
Now, this isn’t license to bust out all your dick moves and be antagonistic just because you can. Remember, you’re there to play with them, not against them. If you line up something deadly, they need clues beforehand. If you’re just setting tone or highlighting weirdness, you can spring it on them with little forewarning. If one particular piece is a climactic part of your campaign, foreshadow the weirdness with both a bit of the expectation and a bit of the swerve.
A few examples, both original and borrowed from friends:
The premise: The village on the bluff overlooks a massive expanse of verdant forest.
Weird it: The forest is actually a massive, sprawling field of giant mushrooms.
The premise: The characters encounter a group of pilgrims en route to visit a holy shrine.
Weird it: The pilgrims are actually apostates, fleeing from a pogrom against their heresy. They’re not necessarily evil, just those whose faith diverges from an official canon.
The premise: The craggy mountain is the stronghold of an ancient, wicked dragon.
Weird it: The dragon is actually a prisoner of the mountain, having nested in it when he was young, but having grown too big to escape via the aerie. The dragon is either mad with hunger, or magically spreads tantalizing rumors, tricking adventurers and monsters into investigating or lairing so he can devour them.
The premise: The bizarre, ruined castle is a relic of a bygone age.
Weird it: The castle is actually an edifice from the far future, temporally misplaced, and within its walls, time rolls backward from the outside world, leaving the PCs younger than they were when they entered.
The premise: The dungeon chamber has a huge, central fountain spewing noxious water.
Weird it: The dungeon chamber has a huge, central fountain that has been overgrown with beautiful, precious flowers unseen anywhere on the surface world that grow in the dim light of the subterranean environment.
The premise: The megadungeon is a massive structure that looms centrally in its environment, such as a tower, a mountain fastness, or a sunken ruin.
Weird it: The megadungeon consists of several isolated clusters of small environments scattered over a broad surface area, though they’re linked by passages too small for most of the regular denizens to traverse.
The premise: The haunted ruin is a bastion of wicked creatures who lurk beyond the fringes of civilization and occasionally venture forth to terrorize the good people of a nearby settlement.
Weird it: The haunted ruin is a bastion of wicked creatures, alright, but when the sun sets, something… changes… in that ruin that leaves even its monstrous occupants petrified with terror, and they hole up in their rooms to hopefully wait out another night’s horrors.
The premise: In the vaults and cisterns beneath the city streets, an unspeakable cult practices rites venerating hideous cthonic entities.
Weird it: That cult is actually a very beneficent faith, driven into hiding by a more predatory official faith or political movement. (Odd that “the good guys lurking in the shadows beneath the city streets” is the alien concept, isn’t it? If gaming has done nothing else, it’s established some principles of weirdness that have become the rule rather than the exception.)
The premise: The horde of orcs and goblins advances on the beleaguered town, intending to siege it.
Weird it: The horde is actually a group of orcish and goblin celebrants, harmlessly re-enacting a historical raid on the city, but it’s really just an excuse to march and get drunk.
Swerve it again: Only this time, a faction of hobgoblins among them is serious, and turns the revel into a bloody riot and actual raid.
Credit where it’s due, James over at Grognardia recently did a piece on the fantastical feel of giant mushrooms, and it tickled me. Also, I shamelessly stole the orc-raid scenario from John Nephew of Atlas Games.
Ultimately, all of your efforts to weird things are their own stories, mysteries to explore. All you need is that single line of description as to how they’re weird and that’s both a great hook for curious players and a broad stroke that allows you to evoke an “other” feel without tying yourself down to a very specific conclusion. (This last is important because it allows your players room to come up with their own explanations, which you can appropriate if they intrigue you. Thus, you can glean a bit of entertainment from the players it’s your job to entertain as GM.) Whether you intend to make your world idyllic, grotesque, exotic, wondrous, alien, or any other form of novel, the key to doing it is in the details, but not overburdening those details.