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Actual Play, or: Primetime Adventures Playtest Report

December 21st, 2005: Mike Sugarbaker says...
Actual Play, or: Primetime Adventures Playtest Report

Since the podcast is going to come late in the week, and I am tired of waiting to tell all about this in a podcast, here you go: I have played Primetime Adventures and damned if it ain’t just a Fun Machine. Details after the jump, although I don’t really expect this to get that long.

I played with three folks I’d never played with before, only one of whom I’d met before. All of them had years of RPG experience, mostly White Wolf. My contact had been reading the Forge and such, and was looking for something new.

For those unfamiliar, PTA is more of a narrative-oriented game than a traditional roleplaying game. Indeed, I don’t think the words “roleplaying game” really appear in the book. Players create characters, with traits and even a couple of numbers, but conflicts aren’t resolved in your typical one-task-at-a-time wargamey fashion. Instead, each trait you can apply to the situation adds 1 to your Screen Presence for the episode. Take the total and draw that many cards; highest count of red cards wins the conflict. But here’s the kicker: the highest card gets to say how the winner wins. Indeed, the highest card wins narration rights for the entire conflict. This, of course, is where PTA parts company with tradition in a big ol’ way.

Deciding on a show theme is often the hardest part of a PTA session – I’ve gotten stuck there before – so it was shocking how quickly I got buy-in on my basic idea of a show about a restaurant kitchen and its crew. These guys wanted to play Heroes with an H, though – people with some kind of amazing abilities – so the show quickly hewed closer to God of Cookery than Kitchen Confidential, with kung fu action galore. We decided to go with real French chefs, though, because nothing less would do.

All of our traits were action-oriented, so we naturally ended up with conflicts being resolved with lots of action. And let me say this right now: now that I’ve finally played a game whose rules really put it all on roleplaying, I’ve found that I’m not actually that great a roleplayer. That’s fine; that’s just improv skill and it improves with good practice. (I think PTA is good practice.) But, when you’re just searching out an evening’s fun, don’t let the Actual Play reports on the Forge intimidate you with their Aaron Sorkin-esque plot arcs and sensitivities. Silly is Good; Silly is Right; Silly Works.

Without any real plan, except that laid out by the rules (you choose one episode to play in a given session; each character’s Screen Presence is a known quantity for the episode and the character with the highest Presence will be said to have a “spotlight episode”), we made a great kung fu story, replete with bitter old masters, flying vegetables, a Brasserie d’Evil, a turncoat, intrigue, flirtation, an epic urine fight (okay, so maybe silly isn’t all good), and a powerful ending that set up the next episode perfectly. All in three hours!

I mean, despite all the testimonials, I wasn’t sure the thing would work, but it does. My one doubt is that I don’t think I, as the Producer (the GM essentially), would have had enough Budget to deliver good challenges (Budget points are what the Producer has to spend in conflicts, because he has neither Screen Presence nor Traits) if we hadn’t played the game wrong for the first act. I’d forgotten to add Screen Presence to Traits! So the characters were using virtually all of their Traits all the time, which was amusing in a kung-fu show but probably wouldn’t scale, and still took some hits. Had they had higher totals, I would have run out of Budget before the denouement. I could always have fudged, of course, but in a game that promises to return so much control to players, that feels like bad faith. Maybe I’m wrong.

So: yes. Play it, love it. I hope to try Dogs in the Vineyard next.

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