In discussing the difference between ‘weird’ and ‘gonzo’, and the internal consistency of a fantasy setting, Beedo asked:
Here’s a good question, like a thought exercise – is an alien ruin in a historical Viking game different, in terms of Weird vs Gonzo, than placing it in a high-magic fantasy campaign loaded with magic items and high level wizards?
An alien ruin in a high-magic fantasy setting is just as out of place as it is in the historical Viking setting, but the place that things are in or out of is different in each of these settings, and so we notice alien-ness more in the historical than in the fantastic.
We Know about Vikings, you see; we’re taught about them in school, their existence is a matter of historical record, and we have some assumptions about how that society, that world, those people work. Consequently, we have expectations and a defined sense of what is usual and acceptable, against which it’s easier for new elements to clash and make themselves noticeable.
We don’t Know about wizards in the same way. Although we might have a very defined and detailed sense of what a wizard is, and a set of expectations concerning wizardry allowing a clash of values and subsequent loud disavowing of X example of wizardry, those expectations are far more personal. Wizardry, of the high magic fantasy kind, is off the historical record; there’s not as strong a shared idea of what’s Right or Wrong to create contrasts with, since you can’t hold up any one work of fiction and claim it’s more Right about wizards than any other. Goodness knows people try, though, and the more people do it with one work, the more authority that work accumulates, so there’s a kind of ‘fantastical record’ out there; it’s personal, though, and still ultimately grounded in fiction, in the suspension of disbelief, and the alien ruins are less out of place in a setting that must be permitted a certain amount of that in order to function.
That said, there’s a finite amount of disbelief that any one person can suspend (I believe that more than I believe almost anything else, and call the principle Von’s Law). The presence of ‘alien’ ruins becomes more or less acceptable depending on the definition of ‘alien’ that we’re working with. For example, some people have trouble accepting that Cthulhu is from space (having ‘seeped down from the distant star-system of Xoth’), because they’ve suspended their disbelief and bought into a historical setting with a certain amount of eldritch, inexplicable weirdness, and the notion of space aliens is either at odds with their understanding of the fantastical record (“he’s not an alien, he’s this“), or at odds with their acceptance of setting and genre (“wait, the Old Ones are all aliens? I didn’t realise this was meant to be science fiction!”).
This, incidentally, is why Doctor Who can’t do pure historical stories any more; because the shared understanding of what’s Right about Doctor Who is that there’s a monster somewhere. Personally, I think Vincent van Gogh’s insanity as addressed through time travel or solving a murder mystery with Agatha Christie are perfectly fascinating narratives in their own right, without the need for naked ostrich monsters or giant space wasps intent on impregnating members of the English upper middle classes (although, to be fair, that last one’s pretty interesting in its own right as well) – but then I don’t care whether Cthulhu’s from space or not, as long as he’s a bloody terrifying force of primal nightmare and not the caricature he’s been reduced to by a nerd culture that’s taxonomised and commodified him, explained where he came from and rendered him neither weird nor gonzo, but part of the norm.
The weird relies on the presence of an assumed normality, and gonzo on the absence of same. Beedo’s ruins are weird in the Viking setting, where there’s something for them to clash with, and part of the overall gonzo-ness of the high magic fantasy, where they’re a different kind of mad, ne’er-before-seen stuff that the players/audience will probably assume is meant to be there, because – well, because there are fewer rules about what is or isn’t meant to be there!
What scares me is the ease with which we create rules; telling people that Cthulhu is an alien, or that there’s always a monster in Doctor Who, or exactly where those ruins came from. The weird relies on the presence of an assumed normality, and gonzo on the absence of same – but it’s human nature to rationalise, info-dump, establish a mythos or canon, and ultimately normalise everything we can.