Magic Words, Max Barry Style

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Are you a cat person or a dog person?

What is your favorite color?

Pick a number between 1 and 100.

Do you love your family?

Why did you do it?

Those are the five questions that the poets, the (mostly) bad guys in Max Barry’s Lexicon use to test potential initiates and victims. You can take a version of the test that matches you up with a character from the book here. The answers help the poets to classify the person answering into one of 228 segments, which are basically personality types or psychological profiles that reveal what kinds of persuasion the person is most vulnerable to. Knowing a person’s segment is useful for traditional con artistry, marketing, and other forms of manipulation, but since this is a sci-fi novel, the poets of course have additional reasons to find out a person’s segment. If you know someone’s segment, you know what words will get them to do what you want. Not conversational words like “please” or “police,” but “magic” words like “justitract” and “kassonin.” As one character explains it:

“A word is a recipe. A recipe for a particular neurochemical reaction. When I say ball, your brain converts the word into meaning, and that’s a physical action. You can see it happening on an EEG. What we’re doing, or, I should say, what you’re doing, since no one has taught me any good words, is dropping recipes into people’s brains to cause a neurochemical reaction to knock out the filters. Tie them up just long enough to slip an instruction past. And you can do that by speaking a string of words crafted for the person’s psychographic segment. Probably words that were crafted decades ago and have been strengthened ever since. And it’s a string of words because the brain has layers of defenses, and for the instruction to get through, they all have to be disabled at once.”

In other words, if you use the right trigger sounds on the right person, you can hack their brain. One character in the book compares a person’s mental defenses to tumblers in a lock; Each word disables one level of defense, so with enough of them you can unlock a person’s brain and make them do whatever you want them to do.

What does this have to do do with gaming? Well, I think it would be a cool power for a character. A campaign set in the ficton of the book would be fun, but the concept could also easily translate into other settings. Wizards already use magic words to affect reality, the explanations from the book are close enough to scientific-sounding to work as “science magic” in a sci-fi game, and I could easily imagine several different Hobomancer variations that start with the basic premise. A storyteller could use power words to affect emotions, the con-man is obvious, and a preacher or demon hunter could know magic words that exorcise or weaken supernatural opponents.

As far as implementation goes, I would set it up so that learning a person’s segment would give the poet a better chance of persuading the target. In the book, the pro/antagonist, Emily, uses four “power words” when she’s going up against the leader of the poets, so it’s probably safe to assume there are four “tumblers” to a person’s brain. The book touched on the idea that some words are broad and work on more than one segment, so it’s not much of a stretch to set things up so that each word targets a progressively smaller range of segments. In game terms, a poet would make a series of rolls to narrow down a person’s segment. Here’s how I’d gamify the process (using QAGS rules):

  • The first word is easy. The poet can determine the broadest useful area of the segment spectrum on which the target falls with almost no interaction. A poet can narrow the target down to about about 80 possibilities just from his dress, carriage, and other non-verbals by making a simple Job roll. If the target is also a poet or is actively hiding their segment (acting, trying to fool someone, etc.), they can resist using the appropriate word (Nerve is the default).
  • The second word is a bit more difficult. Before he can make a roll, the poet must either have a short casual conversation with the target or observe the target from a distance (with no meaningful personal interaction) for at least half a day. If the poet wins a resisted roll, he narrows down the target’s segment to around 25 possibilities.
  • The third roll determines the person’s exact segment. This requires the poet to have an in-depth conversation with the subject or interact with them casually on a regular basis over the course of at least a week. Winning a resisted roll gives the poet the target’s segment.
  • Since we don’t want PCs to be able to mind control other characters permanently with just four rolls, we’re going to depart from the book slightly and make the final word situational based on the target’s current emotional state. The poet can determine this word by making a Job roll at the beginning of a scene, but must roll again if the target’s emotional state changes significantly during the scene. Poets and people who are attempting to hide their true state of mind can resist the roll.
  • A poet may attempt to find another character’s first two trigger words without observing or meeting them in person by examining paper and electronic trails such as legal documents, newspaper articles, job evaluations, and social media accounts, but suffers a -4 to -8 penalty depending on the quantity, depth, and accuracy of the sources.
  • Poets should also receive bonuses or penalties if they observe the target under conditions that are more or less likely to reveal the subject’s real personality. For example, seeing the target react to an emergency or stressful situation would grant a bonus, while observing the target in a job interview would probably result in a penalty.

Once a poet knows a person’s words, he can attempt to use them against that person. The poet needs at least three words (two in the case of mooks) to simply command a person to do something. Otherwise, he still has to rely on the words supplementing traditional persuasion techniques. Since persuasion falls under the “Poet” Job, the mechanics are the same, but role-playing-wise the player still needs to provide some patter if he doesn’t have enough words to hack the person’s brain. To command/persuade a person (in game terms, commanding the target allows the poet’s player to dictate the target’s next action), the poet makes a Job roll resisted by the target’s Nerve (or “Poet” Job/appropriate Gimmick). For each trigger word the poet uses, the target suffers a -4 penalty. If the penalty reduces the Word the target is resisting with down to zero or less, the poet rolls a Lucky Break, or the target rolls a Bad Break, the poet is in complete control of the target’s actions for the rest of the scene.

Lexicon also introduces the concept of “bare words,” which are basically ancient words from the pre-Tower of Babylon ur-language which have immense power. In the book there’s only one bare word and it’s central to the plot. Bare words don’t have to be (and maybe even can’t be) spoken, working more like magical glyphs; just seeing it puts you under the control of whoever wields it. In a game, I’d give poets (or characters with a Gimmick of “Immune to Trigger Words,” like the book’s protagonist) a chance to resist the brain hacking, but even they would suffer a penalty equal to 20 minus their Job Number. As for the things bare words do to the people who use them, that’s probably best handled through story with perhaps an occasional roll if you’re feeling sporting.

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