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General Forge Forums => Actual Play => Topic started by: Alex F on March 15, 2006, 01:08:43 PM



Title: [PTA-Kin] A promising pilot, but conflicts hard to find.
Post by: Alex F on March 15, 2006, 01:08:43 PM
So I was the producer for a pilot episode of a new PTA series a few weeks ago; it went well enough that we're doing it again this weekend, and I feel I could do with some help.

The social level I spoke about on Story Games (http://www.story-games.com/forums/comments.php?DiscussionID=57&page=1#Item_12) a little while back. Key issues - I'm the only person with any real rpg experience, and it's a troika of couples who met through postgrad studies and meet up to do stuff - a book club for a while, a few board games etc. Crucially, one of the couples couldn't make it due to illness, so the pilot was me (Alex), my girlfriend Di (as in Dee, not Die) and then C and her husband J (or vicey-versey).

The pitch session was wicked fun with divergent ideas on what the series should be about, although everyone was on the same page with a realistic theme that had some fairly dark elements, though humour a la 6 Feet Under was kosher.

The series is titled Kin, and follows a group of people trying to uncover the truth about their hidden childhood in what appears to be some sort of cult. The idea is as the series progresses the protagonists proactively seek out other people who were raised in the cult and try to seek out answers to what really happened all those years ago. The problems I am having as producer are to do with gelling two sets of elements.
        On the one hand,  the character-interactive aspects and pacing demands which seem fairly central to PTA, and more generally act to keep the fun quotient up in a collaborative story.
       On the other hand, the mood of the fiction is quite spare and deals with loneliness, and the players seem keen to let things build slowwwly. In addition - although this is accentuated by the perceived mood, I think it is an independent factor - the players seem to have taken an authorial stance so strongly that the story takes precedence to the characters, to the point where things are tending to be resolved through consensus and players don't seem keen to launch conflicts.

So, the characters.

Rosie, played by Di. Concept: the 'driving force' of the protagonists who needs to know the answers. Issue: Self-worth. Traits: E Impulsive, Aspiring actress, C Best friend Fiona. Personal set: breaking out the cigarettes.

Anna, played by C. Concept: older sister to Rosie, single soccer mum who wants to keep her world together. Issue Control/success. Traits: E Entrepreneur, Parent, C Ex-husband. Personal set: car.

Toren, played by J. Concept: cynical guy who denies the darkness of the past. Issue: Trust. Traits: E IT Teacher, C Foster Father Jim, Unspecified partner. Personal set: the scar his father gave him, the one time he struck him.

We didn't work out story arcs, mainly because if we were to play again it would be with two other players, and it seemed like the kind of thing that you wanted to sort out as a group.

The pilot was short, scene-wise. It was decided that the pilot would be all about the 3 being united by fate, with Anna and Toren's mutual recognition unearthing the past. We deliberately started with the sense that what the cult exactly was should emerge from the play rather than pre-play, and only generated the barest of details before beginning.

  • I opened it with Anna and Rosie racing into an audition late, camera panning with them past a coffee shop where a bespectacled guy (clearly Toren) drinks a cuppa at the counter by the window. In the waiting room, Anna is informed that she needs a male stand-in to read the lines with. After some cajoling up he comes. I thought the audition would be a good conflict and suggested: how about Toren recognises Anna as soon as they lock eyes for the reading, but Anna's mind is initially caught up in the audition, so Anna is trying to score the part, but Toren is trying to get through the audition without being recognised? The players didn't bite, and the kibitzing over the scene made it clear that they wanted Rosie and Toren to recognise each other, but Anna remain in the dark, making that conflict pretty moot. So we skipped over the reading, to a closeup of Anna wheedling the casting agent, and had a moment of realisation pass between the other two in the corner of the shot, with Toren scattering moments after. I asked the players if we could play out a conflict around sisters as to whether Rosie spills that she knew Toren from their (mysterious) childhood, and whether she upsets her sister in the process, which was fine but not exactly burning.
  • The next scene, Di's, worked fine, I think. Character development through her best friend Fiona moving out from under her because of all the bad debt Anna accumulated. Bailiffs (repo men in US English, I guess?) turn up: can she stop them from clearing her out utterly? The cards say no.
  • J had his scene next, and wanted to establish the confining, suppressed nature of his foster-family life. A quiet sunday dinner with ma and pa. It made sense to the story, but it was a bitch to try and conflict-frame, particularly as the foster-father, and the secrets he has hidden from his son, are important enough to J that he didn't want it to blow up out of no-where. This is the biggest example of the pacing issue I am talking about. I basically gave up on conflicts in this scene after I started to seem like a fanatic!
  • C had her scene, and I was eager to pull at least one other character in, and Anna was currently the only choice. There was a sisterly spat when the mountain of debt was revealed (the bailiffs decided to chase up her only registered kin for the outstanding cash) and tempers flared as to what secrets each were keeping.  What followed was to my mind fairly limp: a reinstatement of the conflict from before, but this time, Anna would get the backstory, or at least as much as Rosie could give. What made it (in my opinion) more limp was that the players all decided that Anna shouldn't know hardly anything, just had a photo of kids in camp uniform driking juice at some event. In the end, I honestly can't  remember whether we even went to the conflict to see the photo or just talked it through. It developed the story nicely, but as everyone wanted it out there, and I couldn't latch onto an interesting set of stakes, I couldn't get the players riled up.

Digression: I'm expressing some disappointment here (mainly with myself) but I should make it clear that the obligation to dig out conflicts aside, I  enjoyed every scene, and the others felt the same. We all felt the underlying tension of what was to emerge (whatever it was) colour every pointed and understated moment.

I thought the scene was pretty much done, but no! The most compelling part came when the characters were separated, as Anna sneaks down to check out the photo again. We kibitzed out a massive plot development; a second Polaroid stuck to the back of the first, covered for 20 years, depicting something...wrong. That turned out to be a revelation that the cups the kids are drinking from in the first scene are filled from the veins of a human victim (a willing victim? ambiguous). Big wow moment, that the camera doesn't reveal - just the frozen expression on Anna's face.

  • Final scene (I said it was short!)  A functional scene - I was itching to have the characters connect again, as conflicts felt more tangible when characters can butt heads. Anna steals Rosie's soccermum-mobile to tear down to the coffee shop she met Toren at, and starts to interrogate him. She shows him the photo, and he bolts to the bathroom to vomit. Rosie turns up fuming, and a 3-way conflict with Anna tying to bind them, the only links to their shared past, to a common aim. She wins, Toren is forced to stay, and the photo is shown to Rosie to complete the awareness. Final shot is the photo revealed.

Reflection:
I wonder if the aim for the pilot - to get the characters together and be aware that something is up - was too slight, and lead to things being spread very thinly. I'm thinking of the Anna-Rosie rehashing, the constraints on shared character scenes etc. I can see this changing somewhat next ep - not least with the characters acknowledging some kind of bond, and the introduction of more players - but I can still see a tendency for drifting back to Toren with the family, etc (but see ! below). I guess what I'm looking for is a bunch of ways to tie characters together and build some conflicts without jettisoning the idea and mood: a search for truth when truth may be terrible, and an attempt to rescue/reenter the lives of people who, long ago, were family.

And let me state this: I love the series. Di said when she finished playing 'I wish this really was on TV!' and she has seriously high viewing standards. It was high praise, and clearly we couldn't have done it without the structure PTA offers.

That said, I still feel I'm not doing the system justice, so any advice would be helpful.

Some random things I am considering for the next ep:
  • Anna needs money pronto - is there any work going at the school?
  • Some kind of cross-cutting between the guys watching TV alone, when an advert comes on for services that trace family trees. (I'm not sure how you can do this kind of thing: whose scene is it? Where do you take it?)
  • What kind of suggestions could be made for the new players? I was thinking that at least someone with a different position: a foster parent of one of the 'kin' who committed suicide, or an orphanage official.

! I'm  worried that the character mechanics may be out of whack, especially for Toren.. Several times when I asked J to describe  him, he was emphatic that Toren was ordinary, just an ordinary guy. This is obviously important to him, but it's not on the sheet. Should it have been his edge? In addition, his Foster Father is pretty crucial, but in such a distant and foreboding way that he feels much more like an obstacle than a resource. I'm also thinking of suggesting that his personal set is the family dining table, to make explicit that this is Toren development time. Or maybe I've got it backwards and other characters should come for the family dinner?

As always, thanks for any help.

Alex


Title: Re: [PTA-Kin] A promising pilot, but conflicts hard to find.
Post by: Danny_K on March 15, 2006, 04:32:03 PM
Did everybody have an SP of 2 during the intro episode?  It seems from your writeup that everybody was pussyfooting around, not wanting to pin anything down or reveal anything.  If it's someone's Spotlight Episode next time, they should be a lot more willing to make the story all about them, risking and revealing much more.  It sounds like the players were starting to really get into it at the end with the blood-drinking and stuff, so hopefully there will be a next time. 

On a similar note: how strict were you with relating conflicts to people's Issues?  A seemingly minor conflict can seem a lot more interesting and significant if the stakes are "Toren decides he can trust Rosie, or he decides he can't."  Boom, one door opens, another closes.


Title: Re: [PTA-Kin] A promising pilot, but conflicts hard to find.
Post by: Alex F on March 16, 2006, 04:21:50 AM

Yes, it was the pilot so screen presence was 2 for everyone. I started to write how it wasn't so much pussyfooting, but more  that they were equally happy to contribute to other players' characters as their own - each player more invested in the story per se than their own character. But now I think about it, this is pussyfooting, in a way: the players were not fully prepared to say 'this character is my toy in the game to make stuff happen, and I'm gonna do what I think is best', but preferred to rely on consensus. This could be a group play preference, but it's more than likely that it is fear of breaking the story. Hmm, how to build up the confidence to take an action without the approval of everyone else?

The issue thing is a very good point. When J put Toren together, he said he saw the trust thing becoming a central issue only after a few episodes, when he finds out his family have been keeping things from him. I saw this as a flag to keep my hands off it for now. Belatedly, it's clear to me that even if the trust thing only builds big and explicit later on, when J put it as an Issue he flagged it as something that he wants to be focusing on. Determining his trust in Rosie/Anna at this early stage would shape the backdrop of the big walls-come-crashing-down scene. Essentially, I was looking at trust as something that wasn't an issue for the character yet, therefore not currently interesting... but I already know that trust is interesting for the player, and something that he will be focusing on, therefore it's extremely interesting! Thanks for bringing me to this realisation Dan.

Just for the record, if the stakes are as you say "Toren decides he can trust Rosie, or he decides he can't" should Rosie be involved in the conflict? Same stakes, or different?


Title: Re: [PTA-Kin] A promising pilot, but conflicts hard to find.
Post by: Danny_K on March 16, 2006, 11:32:54 AM
The issue thing is a very good point. When J put Toren together, he said he saw the trust thing becoming a central issue only after a few episodes, when he finds out his family have been keeping things from him. I saw this as a flag to keep my hands off it for now. Belatedly, it's clear to me that even if the trust thing only builds big and explicit later on, when J put it as an Issue he flagged it as something that he wants to be focusing on. Determining his trust in Rosie/Anna at this early stage would shape the backdrop of the big walls-come-crashing-down scene. Essentially, I was looking at trust as something that wasn't an issue for the character yet, therefore not currently interesting... but I already know that trust is interesting for the player, and something that he will be focusing on, therefore it's extremely interesting! Thanks for bringing me to this realisation Dan.

Just for the record, if the stakes are as you say "Toren decides he can trust Rosie, or he decides he can't" should Rosie be involved in the conflict? Same stakes, or different?

I'm not any kind of PTA expert, I've just spent a lot of time banging my head against the wall until a little enlightment trickled in. I think in a game like PTA, saying "I won't address my Issue until a couple sessions from now" is pretty deadly.  It's like playing Sorcerer and saying you won't have anything to do with your Demon for a couple sessions.  It doesn't have to be huge world-changing crises every time, but you have to be willing to address your character's Issue pretty consistently IMO to make the PTA magic work.

In fact, this discussin makes me wonder if "Trust" is maybe not the right choice of Issue for Toren.  Maybe an Issue like "I want to be a normal guy" or "Denial" would work better. 

As for your second question, Rosie's player could spend Fan Mail to improve the odds of Toren trusting her, but that's about it.  If Rosie has a conflict in the same scene, the stakes should be independent of Toren's stakes, since one, both, or neither may succeed.