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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Eero Tuovinen on March 02, 2005, 01:53:45 PM

Title: [PTA] Johnny Depp is... Jesus Christ
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on March 02, 2005, 01:53:45 PM
So, it was again the day for our weekly HQ. That game's done well, but I'll tell about that after we finish the Well of Souls scenario, probably next session. Here's the link. (

Now, one of the players tends to appear at the office (where we play) a couple of hours before the others, due to buss schedules. (These are all high-school kids.) We've hit it off pretty well, talking about all kinds of things. This time it was about the spring break in school, what're the students going to be doing. It appears that this guy's going to a confirmation camp as an elder for the week, starting next friday. (Confirmation camps are one of those lutheran traditions nearly all youngsters participate in for social reasons, while they ostensibly should be learning about Christian values.)

So one thing leads to another, we talk about why I left the church and stuff, and then I ask if he's already planned any gaming for the camp. There'll be plenty of time, and he's just a couple of years older than the children he's lording over, after all. Then we're off planning suitable roleplaying games for first-timers at a Christian concentration camp... I swear that his first suggestion was "kill pupp..." before it got cut off by my voice of reason.

Then I suggested PTA, told something about it's virtues, and we sketched out a quick series for kicks, something suitable for a Christ-camp: Early Church Awakens, the story of the apostles during the first years after Christ's passing. Protagonists all personal disciples of Christ, but freely defined by the players, replacing the standard set from the Bible.

The strangeness began when the other players came and we somehow decided to prepare that PTA scenario a little further, to make it easier to actually play at the camp. So effectively, we booted HQ for the session and played PTA instead! The plan was to play a one-session game to illustrate GMing the game for the camp-elder guy, so that he'd have an easier time pulling it off. We've never playd PTA, although I've told about it some at some point.

So, some players went off to get food, while I and the camp-guy scrounged for a deck of cards and a Bible. I also printed some character sheets from the web, all improvisational-like. I decided to use Lumpley's card method for randomization to make the game more concrete. After some cooking and rules-shuffling we were ready to play.


One session: PTA is really easy to play as a one-shot, even when you have to do the series and characters at the same time. Great fun. At the end we'd half agreed to come back and do the rest of the series after the HQ finishes.

The TV simile: This is really the big strength of the game, more important than any of the actual mechanics. The fact that you're conceivably doing a TV show gives the players regardless of rpg experience, enormous ready-made tools for description, plot theory, theme analysis and everything you need in the game. After the first scene we were routinely naming one player as the "cameraman" for the scene, controlling the (literal) framing of the shots. Very concrete, very powerful.

Series preparation

The series is Early Church Awakens, and it depicts the story of the apostles after the crucifixion. We planned all the details in a very democratic fashion, with even less GM control than in HQ, if that's possible. We decided that the pilot episode would depict the events from the last supper to the crucifixion, while the rest of the episodes would go roughly like this:
1: Doubt, Jesus comes back at the end
2: Jesus amongst us, missionary orders (or whatever that "go forth and make all people my disciples" thing is in English)
3: Violent struggle
4: Internal schism
5: Forgiveness and reparation
The last session would include the historical moment when the church elders realize that Christianity is something more than Judaism, and that it is meant for all the peoples.

Obviously, the above was pretty much defined by the characters. Here they are:
Edge: Circus performer
Edge: The head of the Corinthian congregation
Relationship: The criminals of Jerusalem
Relationship: Centurion Cornelius
Relationship: Prostitute Maaka
Issue: Forgiveness (he has a pitch dark secret)
Personal set: a brothel in Jerusalem
Story Arc: 1-2-1-2-3
Simel of Philistea:
Edge: Leader of the Rebellion
Edge: A Jewish legionary
Edge: Worker of miracles
Relationship: Pontius Pilatus
Relationship: Saphira (the lovely sister of Philippos)
Issue: Violence (he's convinced that Jesus is a secular king)
Personal set: the roofs of the Jerusalem houses
Story Arc: 2-1-3-1-2
Edge: Painter
Edge: Prophet
Relationship: Saphira (his sister)
Relationship: A rabbi of the Temple
Relationship: [Indecipherable, and I forgot]
Issue: Homosexuality (he's one)
Personal set: A gay tavern in Jerusalem
Story Arc: 2-1-2-3-1

It should be noted that all of the above fitted together without effort and in real Technicolor. Details like the personal set of Simel there were expressed with massive and elaborate color, explaining the camera technique of the series, use of light and how the set would be used in the story. Although we only played that one session, almost all the facts defined for the characters were applied somehow, which is a rare feat: usually a chargen will force unnecessary detail, or too little of it. Here much of the stuff was of very high level of abstraction (like the Issue of the character, say), but delivered in an unproblematic way.

The start of play was quite painless: we started with the first scene of the pilot, then segued into the intro and took the first actual scene after that. The series planning continued into the intro sequence, but actual play started very naturally after that.


I framed the intro scene: It'd be Jesus' arrival in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. One of the players started the intro with the camera doing a drive through the streets of Jerusalem, giving the audience hints of the era, but without giving away the date. Then I added a statist calling out to another one about it being the celebration of freedom from Egypt. Then we were driving the camera through the gates, out into the hills. Somebody noted a group of men, one on a donkey... very effortless, and the television frame of reference gave it immense detail.

At this point we made some decisions about character appearance by the old method of assigning actors. We'd already decided that this is a Pan-European production, with a Polish director, French production crews and English (more or less) actors. Here's some actors:
Orlando Bloom as Simel the terrorist rebel
Hugh Grant as Philippos the tragic gay
Johhny Depp as Jesus Christ, our savior
And if you think that Depp doesn't fit the role, let me disagree: Perfect for our intentions.

After getting the roles out of the way, we closed off the first scene with some wicked camera and sound work. Intro rolled (with great visual detail, again) and we got to work. Intro music was surprisingly like some western, conflicting the expectation that this'd be some pussyass American fundy production.

I framed the first scene by reading some choice excerpt from the Bible about the Last Supper. It was a plot scene with all protagonists, Jesus and other crew. We didn't really have the time to dwell in anything in detail, so I just declared that the scene'd have the disciple Thomas (whoever) confronting Gamaliel about breaking fast already with prostitutes last night, and demanding that he leave the supper. We did the conflict, and ended the scene with breaking the bread.

The conflict rules worked great, and the cards are good. I used cards for the Budget, Audience and Fan Mail pools (just dealt them face down), with red cards winning and the high card narrating. Simple as sex. Next time I'm going to use two different decks, to have the Budget-Audience-Fan Mail cards separate from the others. Gamaliel won the conflict, thanks to Saphira, who interfered with Simel (who also would've liked to drive Gamaliel out). The players are primed by HQ to throw themselves into conflicts to whatever side they choose, so all the players participated in this frankly less than important conflict. Somewhat problematic in the long run, when the PTA rules have characters weakening from conflicts (through draining the traits). They aren't forced to use any resources, though, so all is good.

I played multiple character conflict somewhat like 9W, because I couldn't remember right away how it's supposed to go, and didn't care to check the book. This means that each participant had their own separate cards and goals, and all goals not conflicting with a stronger hand succeeded. Fan Mail use normally, so players could help each other that way. Also, I required each Budget expenditure to be justified by use of expensive camera, sound, or SFX tricks. Especially interestingly, I used a Budget card to illustrate a short flashback, depicting Gamaliel in his state of disgrace last night.

The player of Gamaliel framed the next scene. He's somewhat passive and doesn't contribute as much as the others, but with some suggestions we got a scene: character scene, Gamaliel and the prostitute Maaka, in her backyard. Gamaliel savagely harassed the woman with words, accusing her of seducing him into breaking fast (and drinking, and womanizing...) the night before. She answered by being affronted by the holier than thou attitude, and the two broke up for now. It was clear to us all that one of the issue in this episode would be how the two'd patch their relationship. The player of Simel did camera work for the scene, while the player of Philippus played Maaka. I just suggested stuff. Easy.

The player of Philippus framed the next scene. It was a plot scene on the Golgata hill, with all disciples in attendance and asleep. Except one: Philippus was still praying, as Jesus asked them to do. Some description about his state of mind, a short cut to the Romans (and Judas Iscariot, making a deal), and Simel wakes: he comes to Philippus and the two talk about how the future king of the Jews should really take it easier... Simel reveals to the audience that he's firmly in the militant camp, despite being one of the disciples. Then, the two segue into another discussion... Simel asks Philippus if he has anything against Simel taking the hand of Saphira in marriage.

The player of Philippus got a Fan mail by especially elaborate camera work, after I suggested it. Strange thing is, the player of Simel almost didn't get any for his skillful depiction of both militant Judaism and his love for Philippus' sister. For some reason the players didn't really want to give Fan Mail. Could it be that they thought that they'd get it themselves or something...

Anyway, the scene was continued into the appearance of the Romans and a violent conflict with the disciples against the Roman guard. Philippus surprisingly made his goal to be "prevent fighting"; the players were nicely on the ball about the plot reality of the series: Jesus would give himself away anyway, so the conflict was just about whether the disciples could give him the opportunity. Regardless, the two others took it as their goal to allow Jesus to escape.

The results were interesting:
Romans: 1 (after humongous thunder and SFX)
Gamaliel: 2
Philippus: 3
Simel: 4 (after a tiebreak with Philippus)
Gamaliel held the high card.

I interpreted this as follows: Philippus succeeded in dissuading the Romans, but Simel led the other disciples in attacking anyway. Gamaliel's player told the scene, which had Gamaliel going to warn and save Jesus while the others fought. I doubt if Philippus would assent to marriage between Simel and his sister after getting trampled by the violent disciple!

The scene was ended with the Christ refusing to escape, walking calmly towards the fight. At this point we ended for now. We all know how the pilot episode is going to end, anyway ;) I loaned the PTA book to the camp guy (who played Simel here), so hopefully he will get to play it at the camp. I also hope that we can play the series to conclusion at some point; I'm rather taken by the relationships we got going in only a short session.

Title: [PTA] Johnny Depp is... Jesus Christ
Post by: lumpley on March 02, 2005, 02:27:28 PM
This may just be the best thing I've ever heard of.


Title: [PTA] Johnny Depp is... Jesus Christ
Post by: Danny_K on March 02, 2005, 08:12:15 PM
Very cool, I agree.  I think the idea of using PTA (or other Narr. engines) to retell a well-known story is brilliant.  This seems like a new thing in RPG's, like My Life with Master or Scarlet Wake, games where the plot is known in advance, and the interest comes from who and how why.  

The take on the Biblical events is very interesting too.  It makes me want to do some Bible-based gaming myself -- I was thinking of an Exodus-based game for Passover.  

One OT nitpick: the Temple in Jerusalem was tended by priests; the rabbis came later, after the destruction of the Second Temple.

Title: [PTA] Johnny Depp is... Jesus Christ
Post by: Ron Edwards on March 03, 2005, 07:41:17 AM

Johhny Depp as Jesus Christ, our savior
And if you think that Depp doesn't fit the role ...

Whoa. Hey, it works for me.

I'm thoroughly convinced that Primetime Adventures provides a powerful and important framework for producing any sort of story (in the sense that I employ the term), and that all issues of what kind of story or what kind of TV show it "could" do (very common in the forum) are so much meaningless talk.

I also think that a few solid sessions of Extreme Vengeance, and then a few solid sessions of PTA, would generate amazing things in the human brain and quite possibly catapult our so-far halting efforts toward Narrativist play into another art form entirely. No gamer would understand it. But it would work.


Title: Re: [PTA] Johnny Depp is... Jesus Christ
Post by: Jason Newquist on March 03, 2005, 12:34:34 PM
Like Danny says, chosing to retell a story reasonably well-known to the participants is a great application of some of our newer RPGs which do conflict resolution right.

Loved the European production crew details to help define the tone of the show.

Some PTA groups seem to go in for casting their Protagonists and recurring characters.  Sounds interesting.

The "cameraman" thing is really cool.

Using different kinds of deckback designs for the different pools of dice is a smart idea, if you're using cards.

I'm really interested to hear more, if the game continues.


Title: what no satanism ?
Post by: b_bankhead on March 03, 2005, 12:46:22 PM
I wish the rpg=devil worship crowd could read this post.
I can't help but wonder what this group would do with Dogs in the Vineyard...

Title: [PTA] Johnny Depp is... Jesus Christ
Post by: Frank T on March 03, 2005, 02:57:58 PM
This is really cool. You guys seem to have arrived at what our chat games lacked a little: Real intense atmosphere. The details (cameraman, production stuff) seem to have worked very well. Casting the important characters with known actors is something we did as well.

The conflict resolution with multiple participants works a little different than you applied it. You set stakes for every protagonist, and then all players compare their results with the producer seperately. So the stakes should be set in a way that any possible combination of success and failure works out.

I'm not sure how conflicts between two protagonists are handled by the rules, if at all.

Title: [PTA] Johnny Depp is... Jesus Christ
Post by: Eero Tuovinen on March 03, 2005, 04:00:38 PM
Quote from: Ron Edwards

I'm thoroughly convinced that Primetime Adventures provides a powerful and important framework for producing any sort of story (in the sense that I employ the term), and that all issues of what kind of story or what kind of TV show it "could" do (very common in the forum) are so much meaningless talk.

Certainly, as far as story goes. If PTA allows about the same stories television does, and television allows about everything, then it's a truism.

However, I'm more interested in the limitations the game sets. PTA is just a massive metaphor for television after all, so it has to break down at some point. Or if not break exactly, then at least strain. Should this not be so, roleplaying would actually and factually be just bad television ;) The limits PTA imposes just are not within the traditional gamer issues of "universality" and such, so they aren't a problem for us in that regard.

It's obvious to look for these "limitations" in the CA department, being that television doesn't cater to the rpg CAs, except by accident... this is of course not a problem when the game's played in a strict nar environment.

If I may wax pretentious then, I'd say that a game like PTA that utilizes player proficiency in another art form is ultimately a crutch, assuming that roleplaying actually has unique content. In theory we might at some point see people for whom rpgs are the primary form, and are used as interpretative tools to understand television.

But anyway, that's not very relevant. The important thing is that for the great majority PTA hits the spot quite nicely, what with us having an enormous amount of understanding about television art and only a little about rpgs. I suggest that PTA works best when the players take the television metaphor seriously and constantly use it to their advantage. From reading transcripts I'm seeing that the game is much more lukewarm if gamers take it for a spin and fail to emphasize the televized nature of the events. That's to be expected, because the rules otherwise have very little color content, streamlined and workable as they are.

What I find interesting is that if I were to write a game like this, it'd have the point about the television in there in friggin' huge letters. Now I didn't realize the implicit structure and rules supplied by the metaphor before we actually started making the show, at which point all the camera angles, sets, off-shore shoots and such became instantly important and meshed with the actual rpg rules. What I mean is, you could well read and execute the rules with only sporadic and formal mentions of the tv show, and actually do all the playing in a traditional manner. There's nothing in the rules to get an experienced player to actually describe the intro sequence of the tv show, for example. The player has to come to the game with the idea that it's a game about making a tv show, not a game of playing an adventure like a tv show. The latter, I feel, is a wastly inferior interpretation.

Quote from: b_bankhead

I wish the rpg=devil worship crowd could read this post.
I can't help but wonder what this group would do with Dogs in the Vineyard...

We might get to see it yet. I started playing with these teenagers as a pastime while staying in my writing hermitage here in Sonkajärvi, and being that we click much better than my play groups in Helsinki... we'll probably continue the weekly sessions until I leave again. I'm definitely considering the boys friends (or protegees, perhaps) just after a month and a half of play.

Hmm... I should get somebody to bring DiV in book form from Helsinki, would definitely give it higher chances when we choose the next game. Being that Dust Devils is here in book form and DiV is just a pdf, I fear that the former may win in the western department...

Quote from: Frank

This is really cool. You guys seem to have arrived at what our chat games lacked a little: Real intense atmosphere. The details (cameraman, production stuff) seem to have worked very well. Casting the important characters with known actors is something we did as well.

Yeah, the intensity is a little strange, actually. Partly it's definitely because we're already familiar with each other from playing HQ. But the television metaphor is important, too. For me this was an especially positive experience, because PTA has much in common with Universalis, about which I have something of a chip on my shoulder. While Uni was an ice-cold experience for me, PTA immediately burst into fire and color, even without any in-built setting or anything.


The conflict resolution with multiple participants works a little different than you applied it. You set stakes for every protagonist, and then all players compare their results with the producer seperately. So the stakes should be set in a way that any possible combination of success and failure works out.

Well, it's almost the same. In case of conflicting stakes I let the higher result rule over the lesser, which seems eminently sensible. Just like Nine Worlds without clear choice of opponents ;) Anyway, thanks for the clarification. My copy of PTA is going to a camp to become Christian, so I can't check the rules myself.

About the perceived strangeness of the subject matter...

Finland is a secular society, much more so than USA. I'm not speaking about individuals here (I'm sure you're all just as worldly and sensible as I am), but about the social level. Thus it's not such a strange thing or a taboo to use Christian material in rpgs or suggest playing a game with a Christian theme. There's some Christian rpgs in Finland, too, explicitly written for use in teaching biblical history. (Sadly, they're just as attrociously '80s as all the other Finnish games...)

As a point of curiousity, here's a more or less verbatim dialogue from the preparation phase:
player: "OK, I'm gonna play Christ's dealer!"
me: "Huh?"
player: "Yeah, marijuana, which he uses in miracles."
me: "Is that within the style? Or actually, let's priorize here: does anybody have a problem with that kind of postmodern sacrilege?"
everyone: "Nope, that's fine. Is the character still black, too? If so, you should make her a woman as well while you're at it."
The character in question didn't see use (yet; if we continue, we'll likely get a fourth player who didn't have time for actual play), but that was the only point at which I actually gauged the players for lines/veils concerning religion. The homosexual character came up a little later, and overall I'm really happy with how maturely the players handle the game style-wise. I simply can't understand why these teenagers are so much more involved and versatile than the typical run of player I get. Must be something in the water.

The only other point at which we actually discussed biblical exegetics was when Jesus was first shown in the show:
player: "Is Christ gonna be dark and hairy, all historical-like, or..."
me: "No no, we have to think of the viewers, man! We want to show somebody they'll know is Jesus right away, and there's only one way for that: white, hippy and clean-shaven."
all: <murmurs of agreement>
another player: "So should I perhaps let Orlando Bloom be Jesus and take somebody else for Simel?"
me: "Well, that's a possibility. I'm going to vote for Johnny Depp, though, as I told you at the start. He's perfect for the role."
After that we had the style nailed quite perfectly: respectful, modern and intelligent. By the by, that above dialogue illustrates perfectly the strength of the television metaphor in making Color; this is something I've been trying to mechanize myself for some time, and the PTA solution is wonderfully elegant: everyone can have a stake and tools for manipulating color by discussing it in terms of the television technology you need to produce it, whether they are actors, SFXs, sets, background music or whatever. Strong, implicit tools to handle color in a very concrete manner. I can name many games that could use some of that (although the specific method of PTA of course wears thin quickly if repeated).

I'm especially waiting for a chance to dwelve deeper into the miracle working and prophecying aspects of the series; it's an absolutely crucial question for the early church after Jesus is gone, after all. The role and limits of miracles and prophets will have massive implications for whether the series manages to stay true to Lutheran dogma ;)