Monday, November 26, 2012

Perry Mason's Dungeon Master

In the past, I've posted about my fascination with narrative plots (see the letters B and P from last April's A-Z), and the search for patterns and forms in them.  Although I realize what a dull world it would be if all plots could be broken down into a consistent and logical "grammar," I still feel the need to search for some order in that seeming chaos.

A fun thing about role playing games is that Game Masters usually are on the prowl for this same kind of order, since they're often spurred to come up with plot "hooks" for their adventuresome players with little to no prep time.  A good table of random choices can really save the day.

Burr-ning gaze
Now, you may ask, how does Perry Mason enter into this?  The famous TV detective show was based on a series of popular pulp novels (82 of them -- running from 1933 to 1973) by Erle Stanley Gardner.  Many people suspected for years that Gardner used a formula to construct the plots of the novels.  Recently, it was found that he constructed elaborate "plot wheels" which contained multiple options for various pieces of the story. He pinned them up on a cork board and spun them to provide a total of 36,864 possible combinations.

After seeing original images of the hand-made wheels (see, for example, here and here), I looked around to see if their options had been typed out and tabulated for more easy reading.  No dice (pun unintended)!  Thus, here for your enjoyment are the contents of those four wheels.  Two of them have 16 entries and the other two have 12 entries, so my paper-and-pencil RPG peeps can either use a d20 for the former (and ignore results greater than 16) or get their Zocchi on...

Blind trails by which the hero is misled or confused (d16):
  1. Client misrepresents
  2. Client conceals
  3. Witness "planted"
  4. Document forged
  5. Witness lies
  6. Impossible statements
  7. Planted clues
  8. Witness sells out
  9. Suiciding witness
  10. Kidnapped witness
  11. Flight witness
  12. Genuine mistakes
  13. False confessions
  14. Vital witness refuses [to] talk
  15. Villain's asst pretends betray
  16. Friend pretends betray
Hostile minor characters who function in making complications for hero (d16):
  1. Detective
  2. Newspaper reporter
  3. Attorney
  4. Hick detective
  5. Thickheaded police
  6. Hotel detective
  7. Incidental crook
  8. Spy
  9. Hostile dog [?]
  10. Suspicious servant
  11. Meddlesome friend
  12. Gossip
  13. Blackmailer
  14. Father [of] heroine
  15. Rival in love
  16. Business rival
Complicating circumstances (d12):
  1. Zeal of hick cop upsets plans
  2. Rival in love tries [to] discredit
  3. Some character not as represented
  4. Heroine's mind poisoned against hero
  5. Hero violates law & is sought
  6. Witness mistakes hero for villain
  7. Hero commits incidental crime (speeding battery) & is arrested
  8. Detective believes hero guilty & attempts to arrest at critical time
  9. Father of heroine hostile to hero
  10. Heroine's maid is a spy
  11. Every move of hero gets from frying pan to fire
  12. By spies, hero is betrayed to villains
Solutions (d12):
  1. Hero turns villains against each other
  2. Hero smashes obstacles by sheer courage
  3. Meets trickery with horse sense
  4. Gets villain to overreach self
  5. Gets villain killed while trying to frame other
  6. Villain hoist by own petard
  7. Tricks accomplice into confessing
  8. Frames circumstances so villain thinks discovered
  9. Fakes evidence to confuse villain
  10. Puts additional evidence -- planted -- nullify villain
  11. Gets villain [to] betray self through greed
  12. Traps villain into betraying hiding place [of the] incriminating thing by: (a) Fake fire; (b) Giving something also conceal; (c) Necessity for flight.
FYI, I don't pretend to understand what all of them mean, or to have deciphered Gardner's handwriting with 100% accuracy.  I also tried to do a little clarifying cleanup with a few words in square brackets here and there.

My favorite!


  1. Wow - great work finding these and transcribing them!

    1. Thanks Beedo. There are a few others that I'm on the prowl to find, too...

  2. I was reading a biography of Frank Oppenheimer and, as his more famous brother lay dying of throat cancer in great pain, the one crawled into bed with the other and the two watched an episode of 'Perry Mason.'

    As for constantly shoving characters out of the frying pan and into the fire, I rebel against that. I always have and I always will. I prefer a more nuanced alchemy.

    Excellent topic for a post, Cygman.

    1. I can't say that I've ever watched an episode of Perry Mason from start to finish, but there can be great comfort in the formulaic and familiar. Plus, that theme song is iconic! :-)

      The journey from frying pan to fire can be an over-the-top, Indiana Jones type thrill ride, but I think that same ratcheting up of tension can also be done in a nuanced way.