Last week, I applied Timothy Leary’s definition of a “game” to role-playing and ended with a promise to discuss other passages in his presentation “How To Change Behavior” that, despite having nothing to do with role-playing, are strangely applicable to our hobby. Here’s the first passage I was talking about:
“All behavior involves games. But only that rare Westerner we call ‘mystic’ or who has had a visionary experience of some sort sees clearly the game structure of behavior. Most of the rest of us spend our time struggling with roles and rules and goals and concepts of games which are implicit and confusedly not seen as games, trying to apply the roles and rules and rituals of one game to the other games."
This article, which reprints Timothy Leary’s International Congress of Applied Psychology presentation, “How To Change Behavior,” recently showed up in my newsfeed. What does Timothy Leary have to do with gaming? Well, in the case of “How To Change Behavior,” the whole presentation starts with the idea of looking at behavioral sequences as games:
“The use of the word ‘game’ in this sweeping context is likely to misunderstood. The listener may think I refer to play as opposed to the stern, real-life, serious activities of man. But as you shall see I consider the latter as a ‘game.’”
I feel like I need to start with some disclosures here. I first played Dungeons & Dragons in something like fourth grade and have been a gamer ever since. I’ve also been fascinated by Jack Chick for at least 20 years. I have a binder full of Chick comics I’ve collected over the years; I would like the whole collection, but I can’t bring myself to just order them because giving Chick Publications money (much less my address) seems…icky. I’ve read all the biographical information I’ve been able to find about Mr. Chick (which mostly consists of Daniel Raeburn’s excellent IMP issue about him). I’ve written articles about Jack Chick. I wrote an adventure that used the afterlife as imagined by Jack Chick as a starting point (Waxman’s Warriors). And have you ever thought that “The Death Cookie” was a weird name for a gaming website? That’s because we got it form a Chick tract. Long story, but if you ever catch Leighton and I together and have a Chick tract handy, we might treat you to/punish you with one of our dramatic readings. We’ve even got special voices for recurring characters like Giant Faceless Jesus and the snotty “His name’s not in the book, Lord!” Angel and everything.
As most of you reading this probably already know, QAGS has a Word called “Who Would Play Him/Her In The Movie?” While I really doubt we’re the first game to use that kind of descriptor, it surprises me that it’s not suggested in more RPGs. Personally, I define it for nearly every character I play regardless of what system I’m using, and in a lot of cases once I know who I’d cast as the character, everything else falls into place.
If I’m not really sure what kind of character I want to play, sometimes I’ll come up with the WWPHITM? and then build the character around it. This is especially helpful when I want to avoid falling back on one of my “default” character types. Unless the game aims for almost campy adherence to genre conventions or I want to play an archetypal character, I usually try to avoid the most obvious choices. So, for example, if I’m making up a character for M-Force, I’ll skip right past Bruce Campbell and Sarah Michelle Gellar (we’ve all seen plenty of Ash and Buffy clones already) and pick somebody like Owen Wilson, who I immediately picture as the loose cannon type. Following that thread, I come up with an easy-going beach bum type--maybe even a surfer dude--who’s a little impulsive and reckless when it comes to monster hunting, possibly because he really doesn’t have much to lose. If I’m not afraid of a little cliche, I can even throw in a brutally monster-eaten family or love interest to add a layer of angst behind the carefree exterior. From there, the character pretty much writes itself.
Part of the usefulness of WWPHITM? lies in the fact that, unlike most game stats, it’s not about the character’s abilities, it’s about personality. You’re not going to get any points or bonuses out of it, so the worst min/maxer doesn’t have any incentive beyond describing the character. Sometimes having this kind of personality template even encourages combat munchkins to jump in on parts of the game that don’t involve hitting things with a pointy stick.
One of the things I like most about WWPHITM?, and what makes it a useful tool for GMs as well as players, is that it’s a good way of avoiding one-note characters. Since--at least if you don’t pick someone who’s seriously typecast--you’ve probably seen a particular actor playing a bunch of different types of characters, you’ve got a larger frame of reference for how the character might act than if you’ve just got some stats and a little background. This goes double for NPCs, who the GM often has to make interesting on the fly. Most gruff blacksmiths and mysterious wizards are interchangeable; unless one of them’s got an interesting name, players might be hard pressed to remember which is which later on in the campaign. If the GM plays one gruff blacksmith as John Goodman and the other as Ian McShane (or for that matter, uses these two actors as templates for the mysterious wizards), the players are going to be much more likely to remember them as something other than Stock Character #37.
Even if you’re not playing QAGS, try thinking of WWPHITM? next time you make a character or NPC. If you’re like me, you’ll find it so useful you’ll play casting director for your whole game.
I'm busy with a few other projects this week, but since I don't want to break my recent streak of regular Monday posts, I'm going to re-post something from the old Death Cookie archives. A lot of our newer fans may not know this, but early on Hex went with a brilliant marketing strategy of "let's be dicks and alienate our potential customers" and this article (which we also did as a panel at a couple of conventions) is an example of that. We've mellowed since then, but the article makes some points that will always be true of some gamers (not you, of course).
Working for a game company has its advantages. True, there aren't a lot of half-naked coeds running around and we don't get much sun, but we do get paid for sitting around playing games all day. Cons pay for us to attend and then give us free shit. People ask us for our autographs while we're there and we have access to all the behind-the-scenes crap. There are a lot of great things about this job, but all of them can't overcome the one thing that makes our lives miserable. Of course, we're talking about the gamers.