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[June Retreat 2007 – PTA] Redemption - Coolness, with weirdness in the mix

Started by JMendes, June 23, 2007, 09:51:15 PM

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Hello, all, :)

As you probably have no way of knowing, last week, a bunch of us picked up and left for an eleven-day RPG retreat. Being the one among us who is most active in the internet gaming community (which isn't saying all that much, but I am the one with the gaming blog and all), I was naturally charged with posting Actual Play accounts of the games we played.

This is one such account. (And in case you care, a full list of accounts, with links, will surface here.)

A couple of interesting points I want to raise in this post: a) believe it or not, even though it sounds like a perfect match, although good, a retreat is not the ideal place to run a PTA season, even if you like PTA (which we do); b) my wife had no reason to be nervous about producing; c) producing PTA is still substantially different from playing it, which was a surprise; and d) you're going to get a laugh out of this, but sometimes, session immersion leads to all kinds of weirdness.

The Show

Redemption is a tale of a spaceship crew with a dubious past that travels from planet to planet in The Federation, whatever that may be (and whatever it is, it was, to us, the exact opposite of the UFP), helping those who can't help themselves. The concept in a nutshell: The A-Team in Space! With one exception: it's ok if someone dies once in a while.

Curiously enough, although we tried to keep faithful to the A-Team's episode structure, the show's contents ended up feeling a lot more like Firefly/Serenity than A-Team, which was sort of a surprise, but not that much.

We did the show definition and character generation session at my house, on the night before we left. The episodes themselves were played at the retreat, on six consecutive afternoons.

We decided that Ana, my wife, would produce. (And by the way, when I say "we decided", I mean, "I said it and no one objected and it was so decided before Ana really had a chance to object and she eventually came to terms with it and decided to do it".)

Diogo "RPL" Curado played (Kurt Russel as) John Smith, the easy living mercenary, successful with the ladies, driven by a dark passion for money, a greed bordering on obsession. John was a Negotiator and a Soldier Of Fortune. His co-crewmember was (Max von Sydow as) Father Paul Mason, an ex-priest in so much debt he is wanted around the galaxy, and with a deep resentment of John's greedy attitude towards the rest of the team. John's nemesis was (Michael Wyncott as) Gary McHugh, a wealthy entrepreneur whose wife had slept with John, and whose safe John unscrupulously emptied. John's personal set was the Symphony's mess. Story Arc: 2-3-1-1-2.

I played (Michael Madsen as) Mortimer Jones, captain of the Symphony, an ex-military, deserter, in fact, prone to self-doubt, in that he thinks maybe a deserter is not the best person to be leading this motley crew. Mortimer was Authoritarian and a Man With The Plan. His co-crewmember was (Blair Underwood as) Luc Goddard, also an ex-military, honorably discharged, however, and outranking Jones, no less. We never got to learn why Luc's past was problematic, but it was, enough so that he accepted Jones's leadership, although some bitterness developed (again and again and again). Jones's nemesis was (Taylor Cole as) Lisa Tompkins, captain of the Blackstar, a mercenary ship and somewhat of a rival to the Symphony, who just happens to be Jones's ex-lover. Jones's personal set was the Symphony's cargo bay. Story Arc: 1-2-3-2-1.

António "B0rg" Aveiro played (River Phoenix as) Bud String, the hot-headed pilot, addicted to adrenaline and video games, who is reckless to the point of being self-destructive, and who spends way too much time hacking into Federation infoservers. Bud was a Crazy Pilot and he Takes Machines Where They Were Not Meant To Go. His co-crewmember was (Melinda Clarke as) Kate Woods, ship's doctor, whom he has a juvenile and rather immature crush on, and who he would do anything to impress. Bud's nemesis was (Glenn Morshower as) Blake Edwards, Federation Police captain on a personal mission to catch the impudent hacker. Bud's personal set was the Symphony's bridge. Story Arc: 2-1-1-2-3.

Besides a bridge, mess and cargo bay, the Symphony also included an engine room, an infirmary, a couple of manned gun turrets and an attached one-man fighter.

After his spotlight episode, during which Father Paul met his death, John replaced his co-crewmember with (Jewel Staite as) Maggie Simms, brilliant ship's mechanic, stolen from Lisa's Blackstar crew. His new issue became one of romantic troubles, as he found himself in love with both Kate Woods and Lisa Tompkins, while Maggie joined the ship because she was in unrequited love with him.

After my spotlight episode, the crew was unchanged, but Jones's issue became an almost self-destructive altruism as he systematically refused payment for the crew's mercenary services. (This seems weak as written, but it worked well in practice.)

António's spotlight episode was the season finale, so Bud didn't change as a character, but if we had continued, Bud would most likely develop romantic troubles of his own.

One final note about the show: the soundtrack was culled exclusively from Didier Marouani's band Space, and specifically their album, Just Blue.

Episode Plot Summary

If you've never seen the A-Team, you should take the time to find and watch at least one episode. The good news is, much like a Shakespearean comedy, once you've seen one episode, you've seen them all. It goes like this: a) the bad guys are seen kicking the victims around and the plot excuse for the current episode is introduced; b) the victims hire the good guys; c) the good guys' arrival is noted by the bad guys, who provoke confrontation in order to intimidate the bad guys, and, lo and behold, it backfires and they get their asses handed to them; d) the good guys take the fight to the bad guys, with a cease and desist warning, and, lo and behold, even though the bad guys get their asses handed to them, the warning doesn't take; e) the good guys have to improvise fortifications and jury-rig defenses, almost always involving steel plates, chains and a blowtorch of some sort; f) the bad guys come in en masse for a final showdown and, you guessed it, get their asses handed to them; g) the good guys, having solved the victims' problems, leave in good standing.

Having such a solid episode structure to fall back on was pretty much golden for all of us when it came time to call the next scene. There were a lot of times where we had character issues we wanted to bring forth, certain details we wanted to emphasize, or Next Week On bits we wanted to put on the table, but mostly, when we were stuck, we looked at the a-through-g of the episode summary, found out what the next step would be and called a plot scene for it. It worked beautifully, so much more so because everyone at the table was deeply familiar with the above structure.

Session Structure

Our PTA sessions were probably classic as far as PTA play goes. Before each Session, Ana would take about five minutes to herself to review the previous episode and come up with a suitable plot excuse for the next one. Then, we always started the session proper with reviewing the previous session's Next Week Ons, and from there, the normal scene sequence flowed.

One thing I noticed was that it always took a while for the session to get really under way, emotionally. It took us more than a couple of scenes to really become engaged with play. Now, I can attribute this to fatigue, but a more likely explanation is that we were suffering from "calendar pressure". You see, PTA has a time frame and a set number of episodes. This means that we had hardly any slack if we wanted to skip a day, and even though eleven days sounds like more than enough for six episodes, it really isn't. Diogo showed up two days late, Ana was indisposed on the third day, and we always need the last day for general cleanup (since we were on a borrowed house), so that leaves a grand total of one day of slack. That meant we had to play every day, and even though we actually wanted to play every day, that being the point of the retreat and all, the fact that we had to made it just a little bit harder to sit down at the table and a little bit harder to get started. This is something I didn't feel for any of the other games we played at the retreat or for any other time I played PTA.

On the plus side, however, Ana did an excellent job of producing, aggressively cutting the scenes with surgical precision, expertly managing conflicts and the stakes negotiation process, and just generally keeping the episode plot moving forward. She was nervous going in, seeing as this was her first time at the head of the table, but PTA is so smooth it quickly became a non-issue.

For the sake of future PTA players, I do have one note of caution, however. The producer is responsible for the first scene is each episode, and this is actually a lot more significant than it might seem. As can be seen in the Episode Structure above, the first scene sets the tone, the "plot excuse" for the whole show, or at least, it did for us, so it needs to be pondered a bit. Ana decided to make each first scene about the inter-personal relationships and the issues that were going to surface during the episode, according to each character's screen presence, which is a good way to do it, I guess, but at times, it did leave us floundering when it finally came time to call the first plot scenes. In fact, that may also have been part of the reason it was so hard for us to get started each session.

But as I said, once we got going, she played her part quite well, and the sessions really did develop beautifully, with just the right mix of action, adventure, drama, humor and romance, with an occasional death, of course. It really was a primetime adventure. In her own words, for Ana, being the producer was a chance to finally understand part of what a "GM's job" is, and it made her appreciate it all the more, so that too was a success.

For me as a player, however, PTA was a bit flat. I love producing PTA, keeping the plot flowing, all the while shoving each character's issue in the respective player's nose, and I love watching each player cooperating with me regarding other characters' issues, as well as tackling their own issues. But playing PTA is a different matter. At more than one time, I felt like hitting against the Czege principle, whereby I was responsible for both highlighting my own issue and providing stakes to support that highlight. Don't get me wrong, I liked having other players rubbing my nose in my issue and I loved screwing with their characters regarding their own issues, but when I had to bring out my own issue, I felt like I was playing against myself, and I left each of those scenes with a taste of flatness in my mouth.

Now, not only did this not happen to me back when I produced, it also didn't happen to any of the other players at the table, at any time, so it seems to be an obvious matter of taste. Still, it was there, and I wanted to bring it out. If you don't like playing PTA because it feels flat, maybe you should try producing instead. And in case it wasn't clear to anyone, the above was really just a minor note. For the whole, I found the experience very positive and extremely fun.

Weirdness At The Table

This is the part where you might laugh a bit.

On one particular Next Week On, I had Kate, whom Bud was in love with, in a hot make-out scene with John, who was falling for Kate, secretly watched by teary-eyed Maggie, who was in love with John. So, eventually, Ana called a character scene to establish this Next Week On, and as she was describing the action, Kate drops something to the floor and she and John both stoop down to pick it up, then John says "Kate, there is something I have to do", and then he kisses her, and she responds... or does she?

Now, you have to understand that, at this point, Ana is describing the scene and acting for Kate, and Diogo is completely in character playing John, and even though the language at the table was nothing more than what I typed in the previous paragraph, the moment had an intensity all its own. So when Ana said "she responds" and I said "yeah, let's see that", both Ana and Diogo looked at me with a look of utter surprise in their faces and, almost in sync, they go "are you serious", "what exactly do you want us to do", and it was like, dude, what kind of depravation are you advocating, and then they saw that I was pointing at the card deck, and suddenly they realized I meant "let's see if Kate responds" and not "let's see Kate responding", which would have been, you know, all kinds of weird.

For a moment, there, there was bewilderment around the table as everyone fell silent and no one really understood exactly what was going on. António was sitting right there thinking I meant I wanted to pay fanmail to have my character show up was well, which was still wrong, but was at least normal and mundane. Ana and Diogo were staring at me in disbelief. I was staring back in confusion at their disbelief. And then, almost at the same time, all four of us understood what had just happened, and we all cracked up laughing, so much so that we had to call a commercial break right there and then.

That was weird, and yet, illustrative, I think, of the kind of intenseness we had at the table.

Well, that's all I have. I'm sure there is much more to say regarding the six sessions we played at the retreat, and if you have any questions, I'm more than willing to answer, but as far as discourse goes, I've made my point. Hope you've enjoyed reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

João Mendes
Lisbon, Portugal
Lisbon Gamer


PTA can be an intense game, that's for sure!   :)
In a more typical RPG, a combat can last at least an hour.  In PTA, it's done in a scene and fast!  But a story arc can go really far in one session!

I was wondering why you didn't scale back your season to 5 games?  That'd have made a lot more sense!

QuoteFor me as a player, however, PTA was a bit flat.
I have only Produced, but I don't think I'd find it flat.  It's more that you have to remember your character is a TV show character, and as such your main issue is really your ONLY ISSUE, your MAIN DRIVING ISSUE.  Instead of feeling weird addressing it, your every action in the game should have a relation to it.  I'm not sure if this is flat per se, but more ... it can be dull if your issue is dull.

What did your group do when a player died?  I was wondering how you'd go past that?