Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Ben Casey

[This is the 2nd of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

"Man... Woman... Birth... Death... Infinity..."

I'm curious how many readers remember this opening sequence from the old TV series Ben Casey.  (Here it is on youtube.)  A hand draws these symbols on a chalkboard and an off-camera voice slowly intones their one-word meanings. As a kid enthralled by signs and symbols, I've never forgotten it.

The unseen speaker was Sam Jaffe, who played Dr. Zorba on the show.  (I've wondered if Zorba's portrayal of the kindly, but also slightly crotchety, older doctor was the inspiration for Star Trek's early progression of old mentor-doctor figures [in the pilots] that evolved into Leonard McCoy...)

Ben Casey was kind of a spiritual ancestor to shows like St. Elsewhere that tried to go beyond the "doctor soap opera" format that medical shows often rely on.  The symbols may have been a slightly heavy-handed way of saying: "Herein lie the Big Questions of Life."  Still, even ambitious shows like this are often locked into a kind of episodic straightjacket, since the writers are usually constrained to make sure the shows can be viewed in random order and still understood!

My purpose in recalling this old TV drama is to remind RPG game masters about the huge treasure trove of material available on the small screen for creating memorable characters, plots, and settings. A lot of it is formulaic and over-used, but there's just SO MUCH that the small fraction of good stuff still amounts to a lot.  Even the episodic nature of TV shows is often a good fit to the picaresque nature of fantasy RPG adventures.

This is far from new advice, of course... I constantly see references to TV Tropes in the RPG blogosphere, and there's also a game devoted to this very idea, too!

I've always wanted to systematize the process of "pulling out the interesting bits" from TV land.  For just about any TV show or genre, it's possible to create tables that allow one to generate random scenarios in that particular style.  Examples...
  1. The Star Trek inspired game Where No Man Has Gone Before does a particularly nice job of this.
  2. A newspaper reporter tossed off a list of five basic plots that pretty much cover all 400+ episodes of the western show Bonanza.
  3. Drama is never far away with a list of tried-and-true soap opera cliche plots.
There are dozens of generic random plot generators out there, too; this blog post lists some of them.  See also Plotto, or Plots Unlimited, or the Plot Genie, and so on...

I've wanted to delve deeper into the theory of narratives for Glass Bead Game reasons, too.  See my older posts about Tension and other musical analogies for some initial thoughts.  I suppose there's no universal formula that will auto-magically do what human minds have labored over for millennia, but that won't stop us from trying!  :-)


  1. I'd never heard of that show before, but now it should I really should have...

  2. Like Tony above here ^ I have not heard of Ben Casey either...

    Like this post with all the links. Geeky research is the best!

    Violet @ Revolution ~ Evolution