Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Primetime Adventures

[Now Experiencing] [RPG]

Craig over at Project Perko recently made this post. I made some comments, as it's a topic I'm interested in, and now some events have been set in motion. Basically, what we were discussing was:

a) There's no inherent need in a tabletop RPG for the storyteller/plotmaster to be the same player as the world coordinator/dispute resolver.

b) There's no inherent need to have a predetermined plot for an RPG, or even have creating the plot be the job of a sole player.

c) All players are not created equal; some people are just naturally more outspoken or given to creating narrative and taking leadership roles. That creates problems for including the less vocal players.

Well, Craig took a move that I think I'll be thanking him for for quite some time, and happened to mention that we're not alone in considering these issues. Apparently they've been dealt with very nicely, thank you very much, in a fantastic little RPG called Primetime Adventures.

Well, with cries of "Huzzah!" and "It must be mine!" I instantly wandered over to the publisher's site and shelled out a few bucks for the PDF download (they were all out of hardcopy), and let me tell you, this looks like one hell of a game.

The premise is that players cooperate to create one (or more) episodes of an ongoing TV show. One player takes the role of producer, and controls the atagonists and some elements of the world at large. Everyone else gets one key cast member of the show. The producer doesn't necessarily bring a story to the table; instead, players pitch show concepts to each other until something results in a bunch of nodding heads. Once a concept gets the vote of approval, the specifics are hammered out, including agreeing on a Tone - will it be humourous, violent, dark, realistic, supernatural, romantic? Players are expected to play to the tone.

Character creation is done as a group, rather than as individuals. Everyone needs to end up with someone they're happy playing, but it's also important that there's variety across the cast. Not everyone can be an antisocial loner with a chip on his shoulder.

Then a 5 to 9 episode season is plotted out, and each character is assigned a screen presence for each episode. That's right - from the start of the game, it's agreed how many sessions there'll be, and who'll be the "heroes" of each session. Screen presence is assigned through a bidding-type system, where essentially you only get to the be the "star" of one session, and then have varying levels of importance in the other sessions.

Screen presence translates through into the rules mechanics - the star, or "spotlight character" of each session is simply better and more capable than everyone else for that session. Problems are more likely to require the intercession of that protagonist to solve, and the world as a whole is more malleable to the spotlight character's wishes. The season-plotting system means everyone gets a turn to be the lead character.

The other great thing about the season plotting is that you specify each character's issues for each episode in advance. For example, if you're going to be dealing with your tragic past in episode 4, you know that that's coming up way back in episode 1, and everyone concerned can foreshadow it. At the same time, because you know that the time for that plot point will come, you don't have to try and drag the story around to it to make sure that it gets resolved, and can take the first three episodes as they come.

Every character has "edges" - the things that they can do exceptionally, or that no one else can do. A character is the primary agent in plot points involving their edge. They have "connections", which are essentially supporting cast members that enter the plot through that character's agency. They may also at their discretion have a nemesis or arch-rival, for no game advantage other than the fun of having one.

Plot creation is by consensual brainstorming - the lead character of the scene sets the pace, with suggestions from everyone else, but players can mix things up by spending "fan mail", which essentially works similar to drama dice in 7th Sea or void points in Legend of the Five Rings, with a sort of bidding system going on - one fan mail equals one plot change.

The rules also include special rules for pilot episodes, two part episodes, and a whole host of great examples to get your imagination working. It's very story focused, with practical help for making coherent plots, having meaningful and constructive conflict, and for creating a series that grows and gets better over time - essentially how to move past a killer first session and into a quality ongoing campaign.

If you, like me, have moved from D&D to World of Darkness, and on to L5R and 7th Sea, and are now looking for the next evolution in story-driven tabletop roleplaying, this might just be your thing. I'm armed with the rules, and looking to run at the very first opportunity, so bail me up at Conflux or elsewhere to get in on the ground floor!


Anonymous said...

On your three initial issues
a) the justification that leaps to mind is that its necessitated by the need not to reveal the mechanical details of what is going on with the actions of antagonists. Which is a good point for certain sorts of games, but not universally applicable.

b) a moderate extension of the narrativist idea, which fundamentally is about all players having active input into plot resolution.

c) and this last has been a bit of a fundamental message of good GM technique for donkeys years. Cf works by Aaron Allston, Robin Laws, etc.

The game certainly looks fun, and worth exploring. I'm not a huge fan of self-consciously meta games, though. Hong Kong Action Theatre, for example, has some similar concepts.

GregT said...

Hi, anonymous guy and/or gal! Thanks for stopping by!

a) On the separation of GM and storyteller, I'm not saying this is something that should be universally implemented, just that there's been a depressing assumption that the GM is ALWAYS the storyteller.

b) All players have active input into plot resolution in all RPGs. What I'm talking about is self-generating and auto-weighting plots along the lines of what Craig Perko was discussing in the post I linked to.

c) Good GM technique pre-supposes a good GM, and this has been a major entry barrier to new RPGers for far too long. To have a good experience with an RPG, and thus enter the hobby, you need a reasonably good GM. What we need are systems that remove as much of the burden as possible and support structurally sound storytelling, rather than requiring a GM that can "work the system" to produce the desired result.

I have a vague idea of what you mean by "consciously meta", but I think you're needlessly limiting your horizons. So many RPGs in the D&D tradition have not actually been role-playing games, as in games where you play a role. They've been little more than dressed up combat-simulators or strings of puzzles and challenges. Primetime is the next step (from what I've seen) towards actual storytelling. And the best thing is it's genre and content neutral. How many games, other than the practically system-less ones, have you played that would let you do a Simpsons RPG without making you worry about how many hit points Bart should have or whether Homer is best represented as a fighter or a thief?

Craig Perko said...

If you're gonna do one shots, it's probably best to limit the characters to one edge and one contact, rather than the multitude they specify.

GregT said...

Thanks Craig, I'll bear that in mind. I saw that being used in some of the examples they link to from the site and it seemed sound.

Julia B said...

I don't think an assumption that the GM is always the storyteller is so terribly depressing. There are two opposing forces at work here, the desire of the GM to tell the story the way they see it in their head and the free will of the player characters.

On the former: the GM's story is something that can be lost in the Primetime Adventures style of play. You mention inequality of players in the sense that some are more outgoing than others. In Primetime Adventures, where the most accepted (and probably the best articulated) idea wins, players with verbal skills below your own are at a marked disadvantage. Basically, instead of proclaiming themselves to be the GM, the quickest thinking and most articulate player simply is the de facto GM in terms of story generation. Some people either need time to develop their concepts, or are too worried about being mocked ("worst storyteller ever") to put forward their ideas without some time to encourage themselves and build their ideas. At least the sole GM system gives people that opportunity.

The later issue, the free will of the PCs, is a dynamic which pushes against the creation of the story exactly as the GM had planned it. Characters will always do things you don't expect, go places you hadn't intended, not see a reason to go places you had intended for them to be (such as the underworld, hey Greg?) .

In other words, the sole GM systems allows for the basic plot elements to be shaped by a single person, while the detail is filled in by the player. This is a good system and has a lot of advantages.

On the other hand, I am very much looking forward to taking part in this game if you are running one and there are spots. :-)

GregT said...

I see your point, but Primetime does have a couple of safeguards.

Firstly, the "spotlight character" for any given scene gets priority on plot generation for that scene. If anyone else wants to go in a different direction, they essentially have to "buy in" by spending fan mail. That means that when it's your scene, it really is your scene.

Secondly, each character essentially has responsibility for their own character arc. For instance, if we were playing a game of the B5 television series, Londo and G'Kar could quite happily plot out the Narn/Centauri war between each other without any input from another character, and Delenn can do the Minbari civil war all by herself. It's the job of the producer to structure the plots and ensure each one gets the appropriate amount of time and threads together with the others. Then each character has an inherent incentive to see their plot meld with everyone else, because quite simply if they do, they get more scenes.

I think it's probably a better system than having a GM-driven game where either it's really well written, or some players are reduced to stat-collections supporting the party leader(s).