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[PTA] Company of Strangers

Started by Georgios Panagiotidis, July 25, 2006, 09:11:54 AM

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Georgios Panagiotidis

We played this game on Sunday after Ron had talked about Spione, the Forge and RPGs in general at "Die Burg" (the castle), which is where the local gaming club meets up to twice a month. Since we didn't have the actual rulebook with us, we had to play it mostly by ear. I think we got about 90% of the rules right, except maybe for how much Fan Mail one can give or spend per scene.

The Show
Eero suggested a Black Adder-like show: a scheming and plotting bastard at a King's Court and his constant, slightly amusing failure to take over the throne. We bounced this back and forth for a while, until we decided to focus on the servants of the scheming bastard, who had by the time we were finished become "The Nephew" attempting to take over the huge company the characters worked at.

We put down a few basic background facts about the show.
-   The audience is never told out what this company actually does.
-   Nor do we ever see where the characters life outside the company.
-   Having played Spione the day before, I suggested making this more of a feel-good show. We went for a light sitcom instead of yet another take on "The Office".
-   It was a half-hour show.

This all took about 15-20 minutes to set up, and by the time we had the show the players had some ideas about their characters as well.

The Characters

The Outside World (played by Jasper) – this was probably the most ambitious character we came up with. I felt that we were really pushing the limits of what we were used to playing. We succeeded in some respects and stumbled in others. I hope Jasper or one of the players can post how they felt about this. The Outside World would usually appear as incomprehensible e-mails and other messages.

Issue: Morality
Edges: Incomprehensibility and Pushy
Connections: IT-Support
The Story Arc: 2-1-3-1-2

Jenny at the water cooler (played by Ron) – Jenny on the other hand was a pretty classic PtA-character. The sweet and likable gossip that is the heart of the company; not because she does any work, but because she's (intentionally or not) responsible for the social atmosphere in the company.

Issue: harming vs. helping (gossip)
Edges: sweet-natured and other people's weddings
Nemesis: Head Secretary
The Story Arc: 2-2-3-1-1

Martinez, the cranky old guy
(played by Eero) - The episode we played featured Martinez in a minor role, so we didn't get to delve too much into his character. He was essentially a Jerry Stiller-type guy, who could as easily be a nagging know-it-all as well as an experienced oddball.

Issue: ethics at the work place
Edge: Experience
Connection: role-playing son and the Janitor
The Story Arc: 2-1-1-2-3

Ricardo "Ricky" Gonzalez, the well-meaning but incompetent intern (played by Tim) - Ricky became my favourite character, as he played a pivotal part in the two big scenes of the episode.

Issue: Authority (although in hindsight I think social position might have been more accurate)
Edges: "eager to please" and "doing three things at once"
Connection: phone pal, the unseen female voice that he always talks to on the phone
The Story Arc: 2-1-2-3-1

Episode 3 – The One with the Algerian Director

The show opens with huge, action-movie like explosions with the title superimposed with big, flashy letters "COMPANY OF STRANGERS". Just as the music swells to a heroic crescendo...

We cut to the dull quiet of a cafeteria in some random company. People are having lunch and our main cast are all sitting at the same table as Emma, the ditzy blonde from accounting, comes in and hands them a memo "Did y'all hear about this?!" The memo (extension of the Outside World) is read and handed around the table, where each character's face lights up in surprise and shock until they reach the end where something utterly nonsensical turns their faces into masks of WTF?-ness. I cannot trace how we got from this to the eventual conflict of the scene, which involved both Ricky and Jenny running to find some memo they were supposed to forward, but had unfortunately misplaced in their "secret spot". That turned out to be behind the condom machine. ("Because nobody would ever look for it there!")
We were slowly getting into the groove, and really started to through some wild ideas around for the next scene.

I'm not sure I got it all, as there was a lot going on. I think when the dust settled the scene came out something like this: an Algerian film crew was shooting some movie in the building. Jenny and the Director were standing near the water cooler chatting on the phone and with collegues, respectively. Jenny – once more nearly obsessed about other people's weddings – while the director was talking about in Algerian with only the occasional bit of English thrown in. Meanwhile, Ricky was getting chewed out by the Head Secretary for the mix-up with the files earlier. Jenny would distribute the bits and pieces of information she would pick up from the Director and spread them around the office, indirectly influencing the way the Head Secretary would deal with the "file-situation" with Ricky. We went for the step-by-step reveal of the cards which was great fun, as the scene ebbed and flowed towards its conclusion. Which happened to be that it mostly went slightly pear-shaped. Ricky got chewed out something fierce, Jenny was confronted with the fact that her gossiping was actively hurting the company and the Outside World failed to break into the bubble of the company.

Next came my favourite scene of the entire episode. Ricky, now humbled, and trying to make up for his mistake by working twice as hard is talking to the Unseen Female Voice on the phone. Martinez, sensing an opportunity to let somebody else do his job, arrives at Ricky's desk with a huge pile of files. Martinez blathers on and on about his pension and Aruba and respect for one's elders, while Ricky is on the phone talking to the UFV. The support and sympathy coming from her effectively drowns out Martinez's rantings. As the cards come down, Ricky finds the strength to ask out the UFV for a date (setting up his spotlight next episode), while absent-mindedly handing Martinez back his files and topping it all off by sticking one file between his teeth. And the fan-mail did floweth...

We decided that it was time to end the episode with a confrontation between Jenny and the Outside World (this being their spotlight episodes), by having Jenny venture into the other "heart" of the company and meeting with the infamous and widely feared IT Support guy (and his trademark RTFM T-shirt). As a sign of good-will and as part of her sweet nature, she brings him a healthy low-fat yoghurt, before asking him about this weird memo they had received and what it all meant. This being the final scene everybody spent as much fan-mail as they had (because, why the hell not?) and the cards were dealt.

The IT guy was touched by this nice gesture and his otherwise snobby and gruff exterior was replaced with a big smile. He looked at the memo, mumbled something about using such an archaic and simplistic code before breaking it by pulling out a D&D Players' Handbook (this idea should have earned Jasper the Supreme Geekhood Title, I think). The incomprehensible message turned out to be about the hostile takeover being unavoidable anyway. And despite this being rather bad news, Jenny returned to her floor with a big radiant smile, lighting up the faces around her and just generally making people feel better about themselves.

I'm quite sure I've missed a scene or two in this write-up. Martinez especially was featured more heavily than I make it sound here. If any of the other players want to fill in some blanks, feel free.

I very much enjoyed the back-and-forth going in the game. I kept going for maximum budget in each conflict as everybody was throwing fan mail around left and right. Towards the end we had to start new conflicts, just so I could put some more tokens into the audience pool.

If we had had a little more time to flesh things out before we actually started the show, we would probably had gotten a better grasp on everybody's issues. As it was I didn't actually understood some of the issues until we were at the end of the episode. Although that might have had something to do with the fact, that "Character: Outside World, Issue: Morality" was a little bit too high-brow for such a hot Sunday afternoon. I'm also starting to think, that the way the group comes up with the show should serve as a model for how to handle narration: free-flowing, open dialogue with one player serving as a moderator, or a "first among equals". I think this full-blown co-operative aspect is something that many gamers are prone to push aside for a more traditional "Now I'm the GM"-attitude in narration. Which works just as well for PtA, but I feel that to get to that Primetime Adventures "sweet spot", where the game really kicks into high gear, you should discourage any overt use of single-voice narration.

Ron, this is something that also happened and hampered the Spione presentation. I don't think this is a pure "gamer's attitude"-problem. I feel that neither PTA nor Spione are explicit enough in their texts in how to push this game away from "separate narrators vying for control" to "one multi-faceted narrative voice". This "gelling together" happens on a purely social level, but I feel that if the text were to draw attention to this, it would help the players to "make the magic happen".
Five tons of flax!
I started a theory blog in German. Whatever will I think of next?


Hey Georgios,

cool writeup, thanks! I think you missed the short scene in which Martinez and Ricardo got pulled onto the set by the director and debated whether to invest their savings "against" their own company. The finding of the memo, by the way, was kicked off via a flashback scene, during which Jenny remembered how she witnessed the post guy losing a letter from his bag, picking it up, reading about the threat to the company, but not passing it on, so that in fact everybody could have known about what´s now in the memo quite some time ago already.

Anyway, since I´m the guy who got to play The Outside World, let me just add some thoughts on that. During franchise/char creation I came up with the idea that there should be some slightly whacky element in this show, just as in "Ally McBeal" or "Six Feet Under". Most of the time it´s just a friendly comedy, but ever so often there´s a moment where something...surreal crops up.  So I asked the group if everybody was okay with me playing a semi - intelligent computer system, pretty much like a friendlier version of HAL from "2001". We eventually turned the idea down, fiddled with the thought of an office pet of some sort, until Ron came up with the "outside world" idea.

It was a lot of fun to play, especially since we played my spotlight episode, so that I got to have a big impact on how the narrative went by introducing all kinds of outside influences. The problem we as a group ran into, I think, was more the exact nature of the issue than the postmodern whackyness of the character as such.

In retrospect, I guess it would have been easier just to clearly define what "the outside world" wants to do to the company and somehow turn that into in issue. On the other hand, though, the ambiguity of the combination of "morality" and "incomprehensible" turned out to be a lot of fun. It added greatly, I think, to the overall undefined - ness of the setting, where the exact nature of the company, its goals, its personnel and, well, its surroundings were sort of left open. Plus, this character made for some great discussions during scene framing, which helped us players to come with ideas. You, Georgios, contributed to that wonderfully by keeping us focused and pushing the question of what the outside world was up to right now, and how that related to the issue of morality.

I guess with a less ambiguos defintion of the outside world we never could have arrived at the beautiful stakes for the last scene "Is the outside world a good or a bad place?". Looking at it from that angle, we pretty much did what PTA is about: we resolved the issue through play.

It wasn´t always easy (and admittedly a little artsy and high - brow), but we never lost track of the fun aspects.

Oh, and let me just highlight here how much fun this game was and what a great time we had. Everyone at the table was coming up with incredible ideas constantly, fan mail flew left and right, and the interaction between us players, though lively, never got out of hand - it was all friendly, creative, hilarious.

Quote(this idea should have earned Jasper the Supreme Geekhood Title, I think)

Naw, I got that one for my constant LotR puns already. In several scenes I made the head secretay look like Sauron, with all the flailing through her enemies and burning red eye stuff and the intern´s world looking like the "Frodo just put on the ring" optics of the movie when being lectured by her. Damit, why didn´t you guys let me have the intern look like Gollum while leaving her office! Squares!

Frank T

Postmodern whackyness! An artsy bitch you are indeed! *grumble* Ah well, "is the outside world a good or a bad place" is beautiful.

Georgios, that's some very interesting points about mutual contributions and shared authorship of the story with one person "wearing the hat". Words like "pull" and "bricolage" come to mind, but for the sake of my own sanity, let's not pursue those.

This sort of shared story and character ownership can be highly rewarding, as I have experienced in PtA games myself. As I also experienced (correlating with your "hot Sunday afternoon"), it is quite demanding of all participants. Remember that little story Ron told at brunch about your classic illusionist GM telling you about how great his plot is, but, asked, confessing that running the game is exhausting and he dreads the next session? PtA demands the same sort of effort, only form everyone.

- Frank


Well, at least they kept me from dragging everyone into the film set and end up with a "story within a story" kind of thing ;). And rightly so, I´d say, that would have been overdone artsy-fartsy crap indeed. Instead, we ended up with an episode of a series which I'd actually like to watch. In fact, we arrived at - through a collaborative effort ! - exactly what I had in mind at the beginning, tone - wise. All those questions of incoherence, ambiguity, what - is - truth yaddayadda were somehow in there, but  beautifully counterbalanced by, say, the heart - warming love story of the well - meaning intern and the unknown telephone voice, Ero´s hilarious grumpy old guy, or the sheer genius of the scene with the director, the company gossip and the intern spreading rumors and rumors-about-rumors.
If this would actually be aired, I bet that hordes of overeager cultural studies undergrads would unload looooong papers about it on their poor professors, while the rest of the world - perhaps more wisely - would just lean back and enjoy the ride. I mean, we laughed a lot. It was fun . So the Ally McBeal/Six Feet Under comparison works well, I think.

Georgios Panagiotidis

Quote from: Frank T on July 26, 2006, 06:02:38 AM
PtA demands the same sort of effort, only form everyone.

I'm not sure about this. I do think that a PtA game that really *hums* can be demanding to the players. You really need and want to put your best creative effort into the whole thing; PtA makes you want to bring your A-game to the table. But afterwards you're left with an emotional high that makes you want to get back to the game as soon as possible. At least that's been my experience.

The only times I've felt like that illusionist GM you mentioned, was when I had to actively work against the other players. When I was pitting my vision of the story against theirs and when the cards weren't falling the way I wanted them to. Not only is that frustrating, but you're also taxing your brain trying to come up with an explanation on how to turn it all around to fit your vision. I hate that. And I hated it, when it happened during Spione.

This is why I'm advocating this (other?) approach, where there is no single narrator; no single vision but rather a blend of various viewpoints. It's something that I don't think can be reified into rules. It's something that happens entirely on a social level, and depends entirely on the attitutes of the players involved. The cynic in me would call it emotional maturity. I don't know if this approach is for everybody. I think some people will always want to push their own ideas regardless of what the rest of the group wants.
Five tons of flax!
I started a theory blog in German. Whatever will I think of next?

Ron Edwards


Wow, I have one totally concrete point to make and one totally conceptual one ...

1. Personalities at the table are always interesting. Georgios was the very model of the enthusiastic but basically calm GM, especially because Eero is known to interrupt or override others on occasion. Eero was dead-on target in clarifying that the Outside World was a character, and as such should relate to conflicts and issues just as any other PTA character should. Playing with Jasper was like watching a blues guitarist play with an unfamiliar group - trying out small things, being mainly supportive, and then when he feels the right, harmonious way they interact, really turning on the amazing performance (or in this case, interaction). Tim and I had the easy roles, the sympathetic basic protagonists, and one thing that might be missed if I don't point it out, is that we never had our characters interact ... the "islands" of decency they represented rightly remained islands. So he and I tended to toss "here, you go" opportunities at one another, knowing that toss went over a significant distance.

2. I completely agree with Georgios, and sadly, completely disagree with you, Frank, about the effort issue. The important thing about PTA is that the GM or anyone else does not have to take responsibility both for setting up conflicts and resolving them. That is the exhausting thing in the illusionist play I was talking about. It's absent in PTA, because both the cards and the other people are involved in components of the conflict, and one is only responsible for a bit of it.

What I have discovered over some years is that, at first, this "other" way to play may seem exhausting at first - but only because one is tensing and trying to utilize mental muscles that are not necessary for the tasks. It's a lot like martial arts training, much of which is aimed at getting the person to stop utilizing body parts and movements which play no role in the activity, but which the person is initially convinced absolutely must be involved somehow.

Small points ...

1. Martinez's issue was work ethics, not "ethics at the work-place," which is to say, his character represented the question of whether a life spent loyally working for the company is really worth it. What pays off better - laziness or industry? Is work merely a price to pay in order to get retirement? That sort of thing.

2. I think we did the fanmail just right, most of the time. Maybe we allowed a little extra donation here and there, but not very often.

3. This was the first time I'd played PTA using the cards. I liked it. I also liked the fact that we only used the extended-play conflict mechanics once.

Best, Ron

Frank T

Quote from: Ron Edwards on July 27, 2006, 08:43:13 AM
The important thing about PTA is that the GM or anyone else does not have to take responsibility both for setting up conflicts and resolving them. That is the exhausting thing in the illusionist play I was talking about. It's absent in PTA, because both the cards and the other people are involved in components of the conflict, and one is only responsible for a bit of it.

Ah okay, I see your point. I do maintain, however, that PtA is quite demanding of every participant, as compared to the players in a classic d20 session. It requires more attention and effort. Ok, maybe that's a no-brainer. But I quit our teamspeak PtA game just because of that: because I was too exhausted after 11 hours of work for such intellectual chin-ups.

- Frank


Hi, Im Tim, the player of Ricardo "Ricky" Gonzales. It was my second time playing PTA and I enjoyed it tremendously. When we started, I didnt't have the slightest idea for a show, let alone a character. I was really surprised that creating a show was really easy this time:   Everthing fell in place, and I hade the feeling of taking part in a really great show.

I must say thanks to Georgious for being really focussed: He really went out of his way and helped us to define our conflicts. Moreover, this really sped up play, as we could really concentrate on specific scenes and didn't lose ourselves in too much detail.

Perhaps that was the only element, which lacked a bit: I really would have had a bit more story details at times: What was the exact nature of the Nephew's plans? What was written in the memo? What was the whole movie about? We really focussed on structure and strong scenes, played for maximum effect. This also put flesh on the bones of the characters, but some strong story details could have also helped with that.

And what I liked the most, that halfway in the show we really could see how the whle remaining story arc would develop: How the company would get into more trouble, how mine character would find a place for himself in work and love, while everything would crumble, and how Eero's character would finally go into retirement in the last show, the doors of the elevator closing, and the camera focussing on him, holding his stuff, and you now that life goes on and there's more in life than work, as life is not about corporations, but about having good company...

All in all, I really liked the play - and it strengtened my resolve to bring PTA to Germany.
even if it's sunday may i be wrong

Matt Wilson

Hey! Actual play. I missed this first time around. Thanks for playing, you cool cats.

It's funny how people will react to Primetime Adventures. I think a lot of my design choices were born out of a desire not to have to work so hard in play (i.e laziness). I'm like, I don't want to deal with all that hard-work shit, but then some people find that, for them, the stuff I chose is the hard-work shit. Different strokes, I guess.

Hi Tim! Glad you got a chance to play again. I haven't forgotten. Just get easily distracted is all.