Yesterday or the day before, someone either on a blog or on G+ (just spent the better part of an hour looking for it but not finding it, apologies to whoever it was for this indirect reply) was blogging about the term "gonzo" as it applies to RPG settings, and its opposite.
Specifically, the blogger (it's really bugging me that I can't remember who it was) was looking for a word that would mean "not gonzo."
I thought of the right word this morning in the shower (and it's taken me all day to have the time to finally post about it). I'd use the word "congruous" for such settings. To me, a gonzo setting is one full of incongruities, so a gonzo setting is an incongruous setting. One that is not gonzo, therefor, would be congruous.
So, how does one tell if a setting is gonzo or congruous? I think applying Jeff Rients' semi-famous description of what D&D is would work. Once upon a blog post, Jeff said something to the effect that he would describe D&D to a newbie as:
I'm Gandalf, you're Conan, together we fight Dracula.That's a good formula for evaluation. And by my reckoning, the above would be a congruous setting (pretty standard D&D goulash, IMO).
A similar formula for a sci-fi game might be:
I'm Starbuck, you're Ellen Ripley, together we fight Ming the Merciless.
An incongruous or gonzo formula might be something like:
I'm Elric, you're Spongebob, together we fight Magneto.
I'm Marc Antony, you're Dana Scully, together we fight Godzilla.
It's not just about cross-genre, though. It's more like kitchen sink and then some. It's also got a level of absurdity that just manages to stay on the right side of awesome (so obviously tastes will vary about what is gonzo and what is just silly). Cross-genre may be congruous, like Tom Moldvay's Lords of Creation (a game I'm only familiar with second hand, but appears to be "I'm Owen Glendower, you're Wyatt Earp, together we fight Morgan La Fey") appears to be not so gonzo from what I've heard of it. Stephen King's Dark Tower setting also crosses genres without it feeling absurdist.
Congruous settings may be kitchen sink (Gandalf + Conan + Dracula) or may stick to one genre trope (Abraham Van Helsing + Simon Belmont + Dracula), but there's a level of verisimilitude about it that makes it work. Gonzo settings have enough twists and oddities that they probably shouldn't work, but still do.