The Game of Life: The Original Character Generator
  • The Game of Life: The Original Character Generator

    These days character creation is something many role-playing games include as a matter of course, but at one time creating a full-fledged background was a novelty. Long before you could die in character generation in Traveller, there was another generator that swept the nation: The Game of Life. And it was all due to Abraham Lincoln's facial hair.

    Is This Really About Lincoln's Whiskers?

    Yes, yes it is. Milton Bradley, father of the board game company, dropped out of college to begin a printing business. Bradley had good reasons for doing so -- as one of the few owners of a lithography machine in Lowell, MA he had a monopoly (that's a game for another time). Life was good until 1860, when a little girl wrote a letter to the President. You see, Bradley's best selling product was a portrait of Abraham Lincoln:

    Massachusetts was almost universally Republican at the time, so Bradley was selling the prints constantly, and with Lincoln headed for the White House, Bradley figured he’d have a cash cow for at least the next four years.

    Then Grace Bedell, an eleven-year-old girl, decided that Lincoln would look better with a beard -- and told him so in a letter. Inspired by her recommendation, Lincoln did exactly that and later met Bedell in-person to deliver the news. What was greeted with wonder by Bedell was greeted with considerably less enthusiasm by those who had captured Lincoln's clean-shaven appearance:

    It was an extraordinary transformation. For the first and only time in American history, a president-elect dramatically changed his personal appearance between his election and inauguration. In the process, he rendered the vital visual paraphernalia of democratic politics—the prints, campaign pamphlets, and cartes de visite that cemented ties between politicians and the electorate—irrelevant.

    Bradley's lithographs were suddenly worthless. Desperate for a new form of income, Bradley came up with a plan that would use the same lithograph boards: The Checkered Game of Life. It wasn't a new idea, but it was new to America. Tim Walsh elaborates in Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them:

    It seems prudish today, but in Puritan New England in the 1860s, games were taboo. They were associated with the wickedness of gambling and the wastefulness of idle-seeking pleasures (a trivial pursuit if there ever was one). Bradley's solution was an instructional game on morals, wherein the goal was to reach 100 points and "Happy Old Age."...Since dice were considered the devil's instruments and cast only in sinful games of chance, Bradely used a teetotum in his game; a numbered top that, after being "twirled," came to rest with a number "remaining uppermost" on the top's hexagonal surface.

    The concept of life being a game has been around as early as 1516 when author Thomas More described life as a battle between God and Satan in "Utopia." The Checkered Game of Life was really just an iteration of an older game, the New Game of Human Life (1790), a derivative of the Royal Game of Goose (~1600), which in turn was descended from a series of ancient Asian games that also inspired Snakes and Ladders (known in the U.S. as Chutes and Ladders). There unfortunately isn't a direct connection between The Checkered Game of Life and its historical antecedents because much of Bradley's papers are missing. In fact, The Game of Life we know today is actually a total revision of the original:

    In 1959, Milton Bradley executives asked freelance toy and game inventor, Reuben Klamer, to come up with an appropriate game for the 100th anniversary of the company. Inspired by a "Checkered Game of Life" game board he saw in the Milton Bradley archives, Klamer and a co-inventor developed The Game of Life® which was introduced in 1960.

    The Game of Life featured several aspects of gaming we take for granted today in tabletop games, like three-dimensional terrain, miniatures representing multiple characters, and play currency. It would take some time before role-playing games embraced these innovations.

    Questioning D&D's Character

    Just as Bradley's nascent lithograph industry transitioned to board games, board games publishers went through a similar evolution from miniature wargames to role-playing games, according to Shannon Appelcline in Designers & Dragons - The 70s:

    Though the creators of Dungeons & Dragons (1974) got their start in wargaming through board games, both Gygax and Arneson soon moved over to the more creative miniatures field. TSR was founded as a company intending to publish miniatures games, while Dungeons & Dragons grew directly from miniatures wargaming play. Then, as the initial roleplaying boom grew, manufacturers of board games jumped on the bandwagon. It made sense, as they already had the professional (or semi-professional) infrastructure needed to publish — something that was largely missing from the smaller, more community-oriented miniatures creators.

    Although role-playing games are often associated with thorough character generation, it took some time before Dungeons & Dragons became the character-oriented system we know today. Jon Peterson points out in Playing at the World that very little of the original boxed set of D&D encouraged fleshing out a character's background:

    ...the decisions of race and class lie with the player, but it is unclear what other creative responsibilities devolve to the player during character generation, other than presumably choosing a name: Xylarthen is the sample Magic-user moniker. But how well does a player have to know Xylarthen in order to play him? Does a player need to know his parentage, how he takes his tea, where he studied magic and what color sash he favors? Ultimately, nothing in the published system of the original Dungeons & Dragons encourages players down a path to deeper identification with their characters.

    Innovation in character generation would happen in another game system entirely.

    Travelling Down the Character Path

    It was the sci-fi role-playing game Traveller that would really embrace gonzo character generation as a sort of meta-game unto itself. Appelcline explains:

    The character creation rules for Traveller were fairly innovative too. After choosing a class, a player “played” his character through years of character generation. Each year he faced danger, including the possibility of death, and then earned specific skills (if he survived).

    Peterson elaborates on how that character creation worked:

    ...Traveller characters have careers, typically in the military, and the randomized achievement of rank and social status drives much of the character generation process. Dice decide the fate of characters who enlist in the armed forces in a rather cruel and capricious manner— a moderate pension or an early grave occur with about equal frequency (in the Marines, an average fellow survives a term of service by rolling a 6 or higher on 2d6, but achieves promotion only with a separate roll of 9 or higher).

    The Game of Life has been evolving as well since it was first introduced. It has many, many variants and is updated every few decades so that the events and professions to reflect, well, life.

    With the board game's admittedly circuitous character development, it begs the question: Can The Game of Life be used as a background generator for modern characters?

    The Game of Character Generation

    Using The Game of Life as a sandbox-style modern generator to create a character's background takes some tweaking, but it's certainly feasible. The board game expects more than one player, so it's best if the generator is used for an entire party -- and it's probably too much of a hassle to use it as a NPC generator.

    In more recent versions of The Game of Life, there are nine professions: accountant, entertainer, computer consultant, police officer, salesperson, artist, athlete, doctor, and teacher. Each professions has two colors associated with it along with an icon. Doctors and accountants require a degree, while athletes and entertainers have a chance of upgrading their salary (nobody gets raises, but their overall salaries can change). The colors determine salary, which are drawn randomly from another deck of salary cards ranging from $30,000 to $100,000. A good rule of thumb is to start the game at 18-years-old with each turn representing a year until the player wants to begin role-playing the character.

    There are over 150 spaces on the board, but players just starting out must make a choice: college or career? College requires the student to borrow $100,000 and then move up to 10 possible squares prior to a career choice, while a career moves faster along the board (along with opportunities to get paid sooner). The spinner ranges from 1 to 10, but a 10-sided die works too for those willing to wield "the devil's instruments."

    Landing on certain spaces gives Life cards, which briefly describe an event ("solution to pollution" or "climb Mt. Everest") and a dollar amount in the thousands. In the board game, these cards are revealed at the end to retroactively describe the character's life, but for the purposes of a role-playing game they probably are more entertaining if they're "cashed in" immediately within the game's context. Some of them are a little too specific for generic creation (winning a Nobel or Pulitzer prize) so they can be removed from the deck.

    There are three other life events that the board game requires all characters reach: marriage, buying a house, and selling a house. These can be ignored as appropriate. There is some bookkeeping involved as well -- in addition to the salary (which is paid infrequently) there are loans, insurance, and stock.

    Here's an example of a character generated in this fashion: Steve Beckham. Steve goes to college and starts out $100,000 in debt and then goes on spring break for another $5,000. His next stop is a career choice: accountant, teacher, or artist? Artist seems like fun (it nets Steve $10,000 every time someone else rolls a 1), so he's now an art student. He makes pretty good money, although it may be awhile before he makes his $50,000 salary. He's now ready to role-play: an art student $105,000 in debt.

    In between sessions Steve gets to move along the board. He "cycles" to work and along the way invents a new sport that nets him $10,000 -- on the Internet anything is possible, so Steve has created a new "hoverboard" sport competition and a web site for participants to enroll. The possibilities for Steve seem endless -- with marriage around the corner he'll have to make some decisions. If this a spy game his background is great cover for traveling the world; if it's a superhero game he's your friendly neighborhood college student; and if it's a horror game the family ties that will inevitably arise will give him plenty of motivation to stop the forces of evil.

    Using The Game of Life as a background generator makes it clear that the game measures success with money, which is not usually as relevant in a modern role-playing game that values experience. The board game is perhaps best used to create the illusion of normalcy -- as a cover in a spy or superhero game where the character has a secret identity, or to be ruined in a horror game. The murder hobos that flourish in fantasy games can sometimes seem out of place in modern games, and using The Game of Life ensures every character actually has a life.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, and communicator. You can follow him at Patreon.
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