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[PTA] Three Questions

Started by Ignotus, April 05, 2006, 08:31:56 AM

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Tomorrow I run episode 2 (session 3 counting the pilot) of my first-ever PTA campaign. 

The name of the show is Vice President Werewolf.  It's Buffy meets the West Wing with a healthy dose of absurdist humor.  The premise is as follows: the year is 2008.  Democratic presidential candidate Admiral Samuel "Captain" Morgan is strong on all the issues - but weak on the paranormal.  To take the presidency, he needs a vice president who's more than a man - he needs Vice President Werewolf!  The characters are members of VP Werewolf (actual name: Wolfgang Mahler)'s staff after President Morgan takes office.  The pilot was one of the best gaming experiences I've had in a while.  It was fast-paced, dramatic and funny..  The season premiere, by contrast, felt forced, awkward and poorly structured.  I have a few questions for PTA vets that will hopefully let me recapture what made the pilot so good.

1) What's the conflict?  In some scenes, especially in the premiere, I had trouble articulating the conflict.  Here's one scene where I really felt like I dropped the ball:

Plot focus scene.  Secret service agent Rex Bannister (and his nemesis, fellow agent Dmitri Zipsky) visit the libertarian think-tank called the Cataline Institute in search of information on a murdered kid who interned there.  The director of the institute is uncooperative.  What should the conflict be here?  Is it as simple as "does Rex get the info he wants"?  That seems pretty uninteresting.  I guess I could have tried to frame it as "does Rex get the director to give up the info, or does he have to sneak in/use force/get a court order," but that seems like it's just pushing the binary success/fail question back a step.  Am I being too afraid of traditional win/lose conflicts here?  Or is there a better way to approach this?

2) How much of a plot should I have prepared?

The pilot, which I basically played by ear, was a lot of fun.  The content of the episode, though, was mostly office politics/hijinks.  The "serious" plot (which consisted of the following note to myself: "there's a dead republican zombie in the walls of a renovated office stinking up the place.  If he's awakened he'll try to KILL VP WEREWOLF!) was basically a diversion, and most of the resolution occurred in the last few minutes.  For the season premiere I had a much more detailed plot (involving a frankenstein's-monster-style yale law professor as an attorney general candidate - he's stitched together out of corpses, and he just came out publically in favor of gay marriage!).  This basically flopped.  I'm interested in hearing how much other PTA GMs prep their episode plots, and how (if at all) one can/should "structure" a pta ep.

3) Keeping secrets from the players.

Is providing surprising (or anti-climactic) revelations part of the GM's mandate in PTA, or should the players be in on the joke from the beginning?  Does this change depending on the magnitude of the secret?  Should I discuss who the traitor is with the players?  Should I tell player 1 that all the stuff that makes it seem like his pc's wife is cheating on him is just conversations out of context, and she's really taking up gardening?  How much dramatic irony is healthy to keep out of the players' knowledge?  Or should I simply have no secrets, because we're all making everything up as we go along?

I know that these questions may have no one right answer, but I'd love to hear what's worked (or not worked) for other people.


Georgios Panagiotidis

All this applies only to my own games of PTA. Others may have had different experiences.

1) Not every scene needs to have a conflict. But every scene needs to have a purpose in the overall framework of your episode's narrative. This is what Agenda is for. Once I know what a scene is supposed to achieve, I can usually see what kind of conflict might be appropriate. It's often something that challenges the Agenda, but doesn't cancel it. If losing a conflict means that the scene cannot fulfill its Agenda, we run the risk of playing an entire scene, that doesn't advance the game at all. Effectively wasting our time.

I always try to include or at least reference the character's Issues in every scene. The best scenes always incorporate Issues in some way. There's no guideline how to include an issue into a scene. Whatever we think is fun, is the right thing to do.

2) No plot. What I do is come up with an interesting opening scene, as the Producer's scene kicks off every episode. Sitting down and coming up with some ideas how to challenge or involve issues into scene is also very helpful. I also like to sketch out the character's connections and possibly think of some fun character traits and appropriate names, should a scene call for additional speaking parts. But that's really just a safety net for me, so that I don't stall the game as a scene plays out.

3) Surprise revelations in PTA enter the game at exactly the moment they hit the scene.  I've never build towards a plot twist. The plot only twists when a conflict has been resolved and the narrating player introduces a plot twist in that very scene. I might want the PC's wife not to actually cheat on him, but this isn't true until I get to a scene where the truth is revealed. A scene with the Agenda: We find out what's really up with the Wife. The producer has no special input into the over-arching plot, NPCs or what's really going on, unless the cards in a scene say so.
Five tons of flax!
I started a theory blog in German. Whatever will I think of next?

Jon Hastings

Hi Sam,

Georgios already gave some very good advice, but here is my take...

Quote from: Ignotus on April 05, 2006, 08:31:56 AM
1) What's the conflict?

Trying to tie stakes into a character's issue is always a good idea (especially when you first start playing), but it isn't always necessary.

If the focus is plot, "Does Rex get the info?" is a fine way to frame the stakes.  The important thing is that you want to have lots of story potential, no matter which way the conflict turns out.  The other important thing is that you don't have to use stakes-setting to carry the entire burden of "what happens": narration can help do this, too.

So, let's say Rex gets the info: narrate that outcome in such a way that can make how he gets the info relevant down the road - maybe he has to do a favor for the director in a later episode.

If he doesn't get the info, then use the opportunity to add more complications, details, etc.: maybe it means he has to look up his old flame, who just happens to be a hacker, or something, and convice her to help him out?  (Or whatever...)  The cool thing is that the entire group can be on the look-out for story potential like this, so it isn't all on one person's shoulders.

Quote2) How much of a plot should I have prepared?

I think you've already answered this question, but...

In the series I produced, I came to the table with (a) a general idea of what the episode was going to be about (very easy to figure out based on whose spotlight episode it was) and (b) one or two specific "bangs".  The other thing I did, though, was make sure I had a good idea of the goals/motivations for all the major NPCs, so that I had a handle on how they'd react to the player characters' actions.

Quote3) Keeping secrets from the players.

This depends: I don't think you can make a hard-and-fast ruling on it.

For example, in the series I produced, there was a murder during the pilot episode and the investigation became a subplot throughout the series.  I told the players up front that I had no idea who the murderer was and we'd have to work it out together.  But in another instance, I had decided one of the NPCs was going to be a traitor and the players didn't know about it until I sprung it on them.

However, I'd point out that players in PTA have this power as well: one of the best moments in our pilot came when a player revealed that his character and his character's nemesis were having a secret affair, even though they were bitter political enemies.  The player had planned this out and set it up without telling anyone and didn't reveal it until he asked for his final scene to be a character-focused one where the agenda was "My character and his nemesis continue their illicit affair".  This was a very cool surprise for everyone involved.

Also, there were a couple of instances where someone suggested a possible narration, but one of the other players (politely) asked to veto it, because he had a twist in mind.  We didn't over-do this, though.

Hope this helps some.