We are two episodes and a pilot into a season of Primetime Adventures (PTA for short). PTA is a nostalgic (if you ever got to play it) or mythical (if you didn’t) roleplay system from 2004. The system is streamlined to let you play tv drama with all the juicy tropes that entails. Does it stand the test of time?
I was always in the mythical camp. I heard about PTA long, long before I ever had a chance to play it. People were so lyrical about it that it became somewhat of a Holy Grail game for me. It seemed to push forward everything I loved about roleplay games. It was supposed to be story-first, very narrative and perfectly suited to on-screen drama.
Of course those expectations were way too high, but there’s still a lot to like in PTA. Let me tell you about it! I’ll use our current game as an example of why cool stuff is cool. I’ll also tell you why some uncool stuff is pretty uncool. Laying it all out there, you guys!
Our PTA game is a hospital drama with supernatural elements. There’s spooky stuff going on, but no one talks about it because it can be a dangerous thing if the powers that be find out that you know. Think General Hospital meets Welcome to Night Vale. Fun, right?
Primetime Adventures works with seasons, and each episode in a season is dedicated to one particular player character’s story. Their character’s story will come to a climax and lead to some significant change in this episode. A system that builds in character development? Hell yeah!
The other characters will play supporting parts to bring out the themes in this story and support the main character. I love that players are primed to support each other and bring out each other’s issues! It’s 100% I’m going to make you awesome.
Our latest spotlight episode was about sexy male nurse Vishal and his issue of perfectionism. Different characters brought the issue home in different ways. My mysterious coma patient Jade Doe tempted him into a sexual situation challenging his professionalism as a nurse. Evil Dr. Nazarov tempted him into standing up to him – which lead him to miss out on this year’s chance to make head nurse.
Before starting the season, you plan out these episodes to see who has their spotlight episodes when. Placing those episodes forces you to think about the overarching story of your season and puts people firmly into story mode, together!
It makes sense for my mysterious coma patient to get her spotlight in the first episode so the audience can be introduced to this world along with her (The Audience Surrogate), just as it makes sense for the evil Dr. Nazarov to get the last episode so we can see if he is redeemable or if we have to finish him off ourselves for the great finale!
It’s also just kind of relaxing to know where you stand this episode. Feeling kind of tired? I’m only a 1 in this episode, so I can kick back and relax. Is it my spotlight episode? Better kick back those Red Bulls!
It also allows you to really zoom in on one character without messing up the group dynamic. The game is by definition asymmetrical – I know that I’m only in one or two scenes this session and that this has nothing to do with how interesting my character is or how loud I am as a player. It’s what we agreed on! I think that also makes it a friendly game for introverted players. I’m totally stealing this for other games.
Next time on
We end every session with a round of “Next time on”s. This is where everyone gets to frame a snippet of a scene that will appear in next week’s episode. It can be hugely misleading (“It looks like we’re about to make out!”) or really shocking and story changing (“I punch dr. Nazarov in the face”, “You see my character standing over his late wife’s grave… with a shovel”).
When you start the next episode, you recap the “next time on” snippets and try to incorporate them into the episode. These snippets are really nice and subtle ways to drive the story forward to the places the players want to go. They’re just insanely useful!
- The GM can use them as scene hooks. (“Okay, so we open with you punching Dr Nazarov in the face, and only after do we find out why you just did that”).
- You can use them to guide how you’ll support the next character to have a spotlight episode (“Okay, so my character grips our non-believing apologist doctor and her eyes go white. It’s clear supernatural shit is going to go down.”).
- And you can use them to show where you would like to see your character go!
GM Rich points out that this is working so well for us because we are an established group that know each other’s play styles fairly well. Apparently it can also turn out a little gonzo – still, I think it’s a great mechanic that I’m totally stealing for other games.
With the above features I keep wondering how they never found their way into other RPG’s – why don’t all games have spotlight episodes and Next Time On‘s? But Fanmail is the mechanic that (I think?) originated in PTA and really caught on. A lot of games these days have way for GM’s and also other players to reward cool roleplay behavior. Tenra Bansho Zero and Savage Worlds are the first two I can think of.
You can trade in your fanmail bennies to enter someone else’s scene or play a part in their conflict resolution check. As I understand it, this can give the game a competitive air with people fighting over screentime and trying to screw each other over.
Not us, man, it’s, like, all about the story, man. Plus, we are sweethearts. Mostly (just keep an eye on Andrea at all times).
We used a few fanmail bennies to add a cute twist on a scene or to boost someone’s chance to win a conflict when we are rooting for them. The effects are not too major, and we would feel fine coming into a scene without spending a token… but it’s still nice to have and promotes a positive group dynamic. Like!
The rattling fanmail & conflict economy
But fanmail is not just there for the taking. The amount of fanmail you get is dependent on how hard the GM pushes his role as opposition in conflicts. So to make the fanmail economy thrive:
- Every scene needs to end in a conflict, and
- Every conflict needs to be against the GM (no PvP)
This in itself does not ring true to TV to me. A typical TV episode only has two or three deciding moments while there is a ton of scenes with just buildup, foreshadowing or exposition. My favorite TV show scenes are often the ones where two people just talk and one of them says something that the other will remember and take with them to the final conflict of the episode.
In addition to that, the conflict resolution scene is almost a game in itself. You and the GM draw cards from a deck blind. Like in Fate, you can bring in a few traits to get an additional card. You have the option of buying more cards with fanmail bennies, either your own or ones that other players give you.
Then you reveal and check who has the most red cards (= the winner of the conflict) and check who has the highest card (= the winner of the twist of the conflict). These two combine to make results such as “Yes, and”, or “No, but”. Those results are fairly familiar to us and framing them is fine.
But the conflict resolution minigame is a bit long-winded and takes us out of the fiction every time. Not only that, but pushing a conflict in every scene feels forced and leads us to conflicts that don’t have a punch – and that makes it a lot harder for us to find meaningful “yes, and” resolutions.
GM Rich will say he did a bad job of framing the initial conflicts, but that’s not true. It seems to me that the GM role in this game is a very laborious one, where you have to manually step in an wrestle the scenes into the PTA mold.
So there you have it. A lot of thoughts about the whirring clockwork parts that make up Primetime Adventures. I love it. I hate it. I can’t wait to see what will happen next.