Discuss: Primetime Chat

I’d really like to recover the nearly-unique power and fun of playing Primetime Adventures. This video is intended to help people join me. It’s about scenes and real-play as opposed to workshopped-play.

I have a long history of discussing this issue, as I recognized it as a problem all the way back in 2005, and so did Vincent, as he puts so well here:

The third prob: destructive preplaying. Ben says that he’s seen this now in every PTA game he’s seen. One person suggests a scene, and the group starts hashing out implications before we even frame it. Somehow “it’s a flashback with only Helen and Cyrus’ father in it” becomes “Cyrus made Helen into a demon?!? That ruins the whole game for me!” Also, “let’s have a scene…” becomes “what’s the conflict going to be?” and I’m like arrrrgh, let me do my producerly job and start the damn scene, we’ll find the conflict once there is one! We struggled like that with every single scene up to the father’s death one, like “whew, that last scene worked out great after all, once we stopped hashing it out and played it, but let’s hash this next one out just in case…” —– from [PTA] a very good episode, a very hard session.

I’d rather that you watch the video and stay with its topic, but history does matter, so …

… briefly: Polaris, Primetime Adventures, and Capes were released and played almost simultaneously, and many people active at the Forge mixed them up uncritically to produce a kind of awful patchwork play that Paul Czege described as workshopping and Jesse Burneko accurately described as player-side railroading. This became confounded with the term “Stakes” in the next round of design, and the written examples in the games carry, The Shab al-Hiri Roach, and a few others reinforced this way to play (or not-play) even though the games’ actual rules were much better than that. The final factor involved came in 2006 and 2007, when so many new published games were frankly at beta development stage, like the first version of shock:, Mortal Coil, and many others.

I am convinced that the drastic swerve toward playing (specifically) PTA as a conference/workshop arose from “telephone” at the tables, with people teaching through doing (badly). It came to be associated with some presumed functional “story-ish” way to play that everybody just knew, which as it turned out was found in no actual published game, nor was it functional at all. The Italian play community seems to have been hit especially severely by this phenomenon, during the period of aggressively promoting the PTA about ten years ago.

The tragic consequence is that “story gaming” as a term and subculture is infused/infected with it, with the exception of good designs by people who’d be producing them regardless of whether that term existed or not.

Here are some old threads illustrating the phenomenon from the Forge, for the bold: [PTA] Players wanting their PCs to fail? (a better title would be “players not wanting to play PTA”), [PtA] How are the narrative authorities working in this scene? (answer: they’re not), and [Primetime Adventures] Pilot episode – Cakewalk. Again, however, my goal here isn’t to pick through the problem. I want to live the solution.

21 responses to “Discuss: Primetime Chat”

  1. Historic context

    Great video!  I really appreciate the historic context that you put this in, because it makes sense of what I've been seeing as reactions to something, but it wasn't clear to me what designers were reacting to.  

    I have read reference to a kerfuffle over stakes around 2006, but it wasn't clear to me what the kerfuffle was about.  Stakes seemed like such a harmless thing for there to be drama over.  That it was tied to this workshopping phenomenon is interesting.

    Loving the videos on your site, Ron!

    • Hi Jason! If you want some

      Hi Jason! If you want some historical info about the Stakes Kerfuffle, I did list the time and places here: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forge/index.php?topic=32999.0

      But read it only for historical reasons, the debate is way past that at this point, "stakes" went from "the best thing ever" to "stakes? What are they?" following the usual procedure in indie-rpg-land. Here's the short version

      Stage 1:  Ron use a procedure in one of his games (in this case, win-or-lose roll about a explicit and clear objective of the player character, in Trollbabe) and use a word (stakes, meaning another thing in the game)

      Stage 2: Everybody start putting that thing in their games, calling it with that word even if they were totally different things in that game, and people say that that procedure is the best ever.

      Stage 3: Some of the new games using that procedure totally misuse or misread it, or people misread the procedure even if it's well written, and play it wrong. Problems appear.

      Stage 4: Ron talk publicly about the problem, in his own usual diplomatic way…

      Stage 5: Total internet freak-out, with people grabbing the flag of liberty defending the "wrong" procedure to the death, or making jokes about "badwrongfun" and missing the point. Everybody swear that there was absolutely no problem and they have so much fun that they can't even begin to describe it (and they don't)

      Stage 6: after a while, a new procedure arrives, and people welcome it as if had liberated them from a terrible curse. Post after post, everybody talk about how the new procedure is better that the old dysfunctional one…  that is the same one, played wrong, that Ron had warned them about. But nobody will admit of having played it wrong (most people probably will not even realize that), so they will drop and avoid even the functional versions of the procedure.

      Stage 7: rinse and repeat.

      I have seen it happen with stakes, with Lines and Veils, with Bangs and these are only the first ones that I remember now…

    • Sadly the story games link in

      Sadly the story games link in the Forge post is now a dead link.  I can make do all the same.  Thanks again, Moreno!

    • Quotes from a Sorcerer game

      Quotes from a Sorcerer game some time around 2007:

      • Me as GM: He's unloading on you with the SMG. What do you do?
      • Player (gathering dice): What are my Stakes?
      • Me (baffled): A hail of lethal bullets is upon you, or about to be! What do you do, mother-fucker?
  2. Focusing on the good

    Insofar as this discussion reaches wider internet-land, I suspect it will be all about the bad, or the claimed bad, or the indignation about something being called bad. Whereas my goal is to talk about the rules and how they play, if-and-when they're played, and also to do some of that.

    Ideally I would have liked to address this and only this in the video and presentation, but the phenomenon has turned out to be more than a momentary historical curiosity, and I couldn't see a way.

    • Sorry if my comments

      Sorry if my comments sidetrack discussion (I know how crucial first comments can be in directing the conversation that follows).  

      I think you make your point rather clearly in the video that you were just covering the phenomenon in order to get at how the game is written and how successful the game is as it's written.  Your invitation to play is clearly an invitation to see how the game works, not to discuss workshopping.

      Hoping in the long run, you get the exact experienc and discussion you're looking for.

    • It’s OK! Knowing the history

      It's OK! Knowing the history is good too, and it's not like I didn't put in all those old links. The reason I want to shave it back to the rules-as-written is real. The quote from Vincent is too perfect to ignore.

      Speaking of which, I was moved to browse a bit in the old threads, and was struck hard by the contrast in these two PTA experiences of mine:

      Conceptually, they were both triumphs. But you can see right there in The Heel, how our group-shout-out, suggest-this-and-that, finish-one-another's-sentences mode of play ultimately proved exhausting. It totally robbed Maura of her right to play the titular character, and it turned our overall plot from an emergent crest into a limping, over-shaped, unsatisfying thing. In a later post, I wonder why I never got around to posting about the end of the season, and the reason is obvious: it wasn't very much fun.

      Reading the part 3 post is very painful. Ben calls me out quite politely about what our problem is, i.e., exactly what I'm criticizing here in this latter day and age, then John backs him up equally politely, and I get extremely pissy and whiny for the obvious reason that they're right and I'm wrong.

      Looking back at the iconic Moose episode, however, I see in the post, and remember from play, the total lack of discussing what was about to happen. It's not that we were playing to find out whether the kid got hit by the basketball … no one had any idea, going into that scene, that this would be happening let alone be worthy of a mechanics-based conflict. Nor that the other kid's mom was facing a divorce; that content had not been established or agreed-upon or anything of the sort. We went into everything completely blind and trusted to the responsibilities of framing and narration, individually parsed, to establish things and ultimately to contribute to rising action.

    • Talking about Moose in the

      Talking about Moose in the City, it's a tragedy that the picture of the drawing that Ron gave to Vincent isn't there anymore,  and without that picture it's not clear what happened (I remember reading that thread when the picture was still there, but I did not think of saving it at the time so I don't have it).

    • It’s included in the very

      It's included in the very wonderful illustration for the show in the second edition. If someone could scan it and post it here, that would be greatly appreciated.

    • Duh! I have read that book I

      Duh! I have read that book I don't know how many times, and I never noticed that Jimmy has that drawing in his hands!

      Let's see if I can post it here….

  3. my 2c on PTA

    I want to add that Primetime Adventures has been a huge inspiration for completely different reasons for me: the writing.
    Until today, for me it is one of the best written RPG books. It is very easy & entertaining to read, it doesn't assume anything, doesn't use any abbreviations and walks you through everything in a pleasant way.
    This has inspired me a lot for my own writing & design efforts.

    Surprisingly, the system itself hasn't been that influential for me. Given that it's kind of using my favorite TV series as examples, it should get me hooked – but it didn't that much.

    I think, for a totally open setting, it required structured negotiation for my taste. Personally, I either like very tight, one-shot games with a very specific setting and intended gaming experience – or I want a very light & flexible story game framework.
    The second approach needs less tedious rules but rather empowering rituals (like i.e. Achipelago's "try a different way" or Ten Candles' "These things are true…").

    The "character scenes" made me think a lot. Do I need them? When watching TV series, they were clearly a thing. Yet, for my own game design, I never saw sufficient benefit in planning scenes centered around one character. Usually, this evolved naturally and one character ended up being in the spotlight for a scene.

    • .. is there a way to edit

      .. is there a way to edit your own posts?

      This is really dangerous! 😉

    • That’s a good point about the

      That's a good point about the structured negotiation. I am beginning to think the Pitch is overrated, and given some very good comments by Moreno at the Patreon, it may be a primary contributor to the way people have so often tended to overrun the rules as they play and end up playing, or not-very-well-playing, something else. Would the game be harmed if I simply showed up with a brief description or idea for the show, especially if it avoided all talk of what was going to happen?

      If so, what are the boundaries for how much and how little? What are the principles to guide making characters, in terms of adding new details or important content?

      I think I'll be running a seminar on that exact topic, with references to games like The Pool, Primetime Adventures, and Annalise.

      (no editing posts for anyone but me – see the Etiquette at the bottom of the sidebar for the rules about fixing posts you're not 100% happy with)

    • Ron wrote: “Would the game be

      Ron wrote: "Would the game be harmed if I simply showed up with a brief description or idea for the show, especially if it avoided all talk of what was going to happen?"

      What I have seen, and have heard other people confirm this about their own games, is that the pitch is the moment where PTA begin to fly or start to crash down. If the players are unable to come up with a series that they are realy interested into (with a grabby premise, interesting characters – at least for the people who will play them – etc.) the game will always fail. So the usual advice I hear (and the one I usually give) is to not gloss over the pitch and to avoid accepting any series "just to begin playing".

      But why this happen? Usually there is no need for this kind of group preparation in other games where you start with almost nothing, like Annalise or A taste for Murders. What they have instead, thought, is a lot of color.

      PTA is a set of very generic procedures. And it's almost colorless. OK, these procedures works, but they don't tell anything about the color of the series you will play. And people usually are "grabbed" into playing a game by its color.

      In the case of PTA, FIRST the people decide to meet to play, trusting the game or the other players enough to believe that they will be able to come up with something they would like to play ABOUT, and then, during the pitch, they have to come up with all the color they need to play. If they fail, one or more players are in the situation of being stuck in a game that doesn't interest them (apart from a bland "I want to try these rules" or "I want to play something with these people") and the game fails them.

      With Annalise, for example, enough of the color is front-loaded that you probably are already "grabbed" before starting to play, and (usually) avoid that problem. But maybe a better comparition would be with other games that have a sort of "pitch" before, but much less freeform, and with much of the color front-loaded:  My Life with Master and Sorcerer.

      Both need that kind of "pre-game pitch" to really works. In MLWM, you NEED a Master that is really hated by the players (you can create that hate if you have more sessions and more time, but I have seen that for one-shot games of MLWM that hate has to be already there). And in Sorcerer the players have still a lot to decide at the beginning of the game (from the demons to the kicker). Sorcerer in particular seems to me to require even more decisions at the start than PTA, and I recall having at least a game of Sorcerer fail for me because (among other reasons) I had not understood at the time how important was that part and I accepted an half-assed "pitch" "just to start playing".

      In the Annotated Edition of Sorcerer it's described a way to get people on the same page (on the same color) at the beginning.  Maybe that's what is needed for PTA too (and a more structured pitch maybe could avoid the problems i talked about on patreon).

    • …by the other hand, after

      …by the other hand, after thinking a little more about it, in Sorcerer I don't recall at the moment group-level decisions before playing, so there is no "group discussion". MLWM probably is a better comparison…

    • Personally, I find “the Pitch

      Personally, I find "the Pitch" quite useful, mostly for social reasons. I find some "social sniffing" in the beginning helpful to get a feeling for the different players, what they are up to and bring to the table. Simply getting to know each other and what we want.

      For PTA, I can understand – as Moreno has commented on Patreon – that this can lead to a problem: First you invite everyone to brainstorm freely, then you tell them "OK, now stop doing this because we have  a GM and tight rules". Probably, PTA would benefit from a more structured Pitch that already establishes player involvement within tighter structures.
      But the Pitch was imo the central selling point for the game: "hey, let's play any TV series you like".
      Here are also some good hints for the PTA pitch: https://wiki.rpg.net/index.php/How_to_Run:Primetime_Adventures

      With my personal design focus on collaborative GMless play, this is less an issue. The natural instinct of players to get excited, spin ideas and contribute  is exactly what I want to encourage (within a certain framework).

      But this is a delicate game design task: evoking the right player expectations and establishing the desired type and level of empowerment.
      I find Microscope a good example that handles this very well by design.

    • The whole pitch issue is so,

      The whole pitch issue is so, so super-important that I realized it needed real work. We ran the seminar yesterday (April 9)! Look for it next Monday.

  4. my post at Patreon

    Hi! i was reading again this page and reading Ron's comment about a comment i posted at his patreon, I think it's better to have it here, where it's easier to find:


    I blame the pitch.

    Meaning: during the pitch, the creation of the series, all the players debate and suggest all kind of thing about the character, the setting, even the opposition ("we fight against alien invaders!" "yes, shark-faced invaders" "with laser guns"). Then after having created (together) the cast of characters, we start to play… and it's difficult to make them STOP doing that, and simply "play their character". After noticing this happen time after time, I have started to make the shift much more explicit, telling the players that "if you want to add something you have to do it right now, because after this moment I start playing the NPC and you start playing only your protagonist", marking the shift with a pause for snacks or smokes – or even with a dramatic countdown.

    The pitch has its own set of problems too. The very first time we played PTA we ended up deciding everything before playing (even the future course of the series) leaving us nothing to play… after a rather boring session we did start over with a totally different series.

    The new Italian edition (still based on PTA 2nd edition) has an appendix (which I co-wrote) that try to warn against all these problems and others (counter-stakes, saying yes instead of playing conflicts, etc.) so I hope that people reading it (or one of my numerous rants about these issues) will know how to avoid them.

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