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PTA Bridgewater

Started by John Harper, October 20, 2003, 11:13:29 PM

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John Harper

Primetime Adventures: Bridgewater

My friend Matt Wilson has written a wonderful roleplaying game called Primetime Adventures. Perhaps you've heard of it around the Forge. It's in the late playtesting stages now and I expect it will be available before the end of the year. I've been itching to run this game ever since Matt told me about it and now I finally get my chance. I'm also playing in the PTA: Imperium Confidential game which is detailed here in Actual Play. So it's wall-to-wall PTA for me these days. This post will probably be equal parts play report and game review.

PTA Overview
Primetime Adventures is a game meant to emulate action/melodrama television shows. To dip into GNS jargon for a moment, it primarily facilitates author-stance narativist play, with an emphasis on the exploration of character. Several other modes and stances of play can also be enjoyed with the system.

PTA play lies somewhere in the gray area between Universalis, Trollbabe, and Soap while providing an original framework to tie everything together. The purpose of play is to create a short-run television series (5 or 9 episodes) driven by the melodramatic Issues of the show's stars. Players in PTA are both the Actors of their protagonists as well as Authors of the TV series. The GM (called the Producer in this game) acts to facilitate player story-creation and to keep up the pace. Being the Producer does not mean greater authority, only different responsibilities.

The First Session
The first session of a PTA series is spent on show creation. The group comes up with the premise, setting, and themes of the show. Each player also creates a protagonist that will be their main character during the series.

As suggested by the PTA rules, I showed up to the first session with my "elevator pitch" for our show. In short: superpowered kids in college. The rest of the players liked this idea (though they were free to suggest their own alternate premises) so we spent about 2 hours hammering out the details of our show as if we were the writing team tasked with producing it for the network. Once we were done, the idea had a little bit of everyone's contribution in it, and it was much better as a result. This is what we came up with:


TITLE: Bridgewater

FORMAT: One hour action/sci-fi/melodrama (think Buffy meets Smallville meets Felicity)

SETTING: Bridgewater College, New Hampshire

CONCEPT: Each week we follow the lives of four students at Bridgewater as they try to come to terms with their lives after being given a strange gift: the power of The Blur. Dark forces are at work at Bridgewater, and the cast must decide how they will face what has happened to them, and what is continuing to happen to others around them. Will they choose the path of the hero, or will they simply try to hold on to the life they know for as long as they can?

TYPICAL EPISODE: A student manifests a blur power in an unexpected/dangerous way, and the main characters must deal with the threat to the campus. This is similar to the "monster of the week" on Buffy, or the kids affected by the meteor rocks on Smallville. In dealing with the external threat, the main characters find they must also deal with their Issues.

CURRENT STORY ARC: This 5 episode series begins just after a student has been killed. All of the main characters were there, but the exact events of the killing are, well.. "blurry." Each character must come to terms with what happened, in his or her own way. The first episode will give each character a chance to relate the events of the killing as they remember them. Meanwhile, the day-to-day danger of new Blur experiments running amok doesn't stop.

ABOUT THE BLUR: "Something in the water" at Bridgewater College has given some students strange powers. These superhuman abilities manifest in different ways, depending on the physiology and psychology of the affected person. On screen, a person seems to blur and shift focus when they use their powers, thus the name. The origin of these powers is a secret chemical compound released into the water supply by a chemistry professor at the school. He's conducting an experiment for an unknown patron and is using the students as guinea pigs.


We also decided that our show was on the WB, which sets certain expectations for content. Here's the WB promo-image I made for the show.

I'll detail the cast in the next post.
Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!

John Harper

Also during the first session, we created the cast for our show. Each player in PTA creates a protagonist to play during the series. Each protagonist also has a number of connections ("co-stars") that the players create, filling out the peripheral cast of the show. Producer characters (NPCs, extras, villains) sometimes arise from this process, too, but since they don't have game stats, there's no need to write anything down for them other than names and descriptions.

A PTA character is made up of two main kinds of stats: An Issue and Traits. A character's Issue is the thing that they are going to deal with during the series. It defines them as a character, and also helps shape what their scenes will be about. In Season 6 of Buffy, Willow's Issue is her addiction to magic.

Traits are either Edges (things the character is good at) or Connections (relationships that are important to the character). You get 3 of one and 2 of the other, along with your one Issue. Each character took their superpower as an Edge, and I gave them each an additional Edge to represent their major in school.

The group decided that all of the stars lived in the same house off campus. 3 of the 4 characters had been aware of their powers for at least a year or so, and had used them to varying degrees during that time. The group decided that we would avoid the typical "Season One is Freshman year" format, and go for something different. The stars would be at different points in their education, brought together mainly because of their (secret) powers.

The Cast:

Lauren James (Player: Meredith)
Issue: Responsibility / Leadership
Power: Mind Control
Major: Economics
Edges: Very Smart, Leader
Connections: Ex-boyfriend (Kevin Miller), Faculty Advisor
Actor: Sanaa Lathan

Preston Powell (Player: Matt)
Issue: Self-Destruction
Power: Sonic Force
Major: Pre-Law (was pre-med)
Edges: Delinquent, Schmooze
Connections: Sycophant friend (Archie)
Actor: Gabriel Mann

Alice Merryweather (Player: Scott)
Issue: Can't connect with people/shy
Power: Force Field / Telekinesis
Major: Arts/Art History
Edges: Rage, Intuitive
Connections: Byron Merryweather (father), Boy with crush on her (Kevin Miller), she is clueless.
Actor: Chloe Sevigny

Nicola Lee (Player: Cara)
Issue: Dark Secret / Grief
Power: Time/Speed Control
Major: Molecular Biology
Edges: Classical Musician, Driven/Overachiever
Connections: Hunky townie who works in lab (Frank), Older sister, business major (Pam)
Actor: Zhou Xun

PTA Thoughts
I love, love, *love* collaborative setting creation in RPGs. By the end of the first session, we had 4 great protagonists with Issues, a backstory for the show, 10 co-stars and peripheral characters, and a kicker for the pilot. And since the players created this stuff, they're naturally invested in it and interested before we even start playing. There is no doubt that the players will care about the content of the series, since they created it just the way they wanted to. I've dabbled with this kind of thing in the past, but PTA (like Sorcerer) puts it right up-front in the game text and makes it practical.

Next, the Pilot Episode...
Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!


I think I'm probably part of the "mainstream" and I'm finding the game really great.  Here's why:

1) We're creating a television show.  I love great television.  A lot.
2) It's a mix of storytelling and roleplaying, so I get invested in both my girl and her world (and have cooperative control over both).
3) The role of the Producer seems inherently to be incredibly supportive - there to help you tell the story or help your character develop her issue, rather than to set up obstacles for you to combat.
4) The rules are simple, can be explained in ten minutes tops, and inspire rather than impede.

Yay, Matt!
* learn! * share! * act! *

John Harper

Pilot Episode

The pilot episode in PTA gives everyone a chance to try out the concept of the show and see how the characters interact. Our pilot ended up being a 2-parter since we started late and ran out of time to finish it in one session. But first, a dip into the PTA game system:


PTA System: Playing Scenes
A Primetime Adventures game is played out as a series of scenes. There are a variety of ways to handle this in the rules, but we chose to use the round-robin method. Starting with the player to the left of the Producer, then going around the group. As the Producer, I ask the player if they want to frame a scene for their protagonist. If they do, then we're off. If they don't have an idea, I frame a scene for the character.

When you frame a scene, you get to establish certain things like location, time, cast, and agenda (what the purpose of the scene is). Then you describe what the audience sees as the scene starts. After that, play begins and everyone with a character in the scene starts playing it out. We use a mix of Actor-stance and Author-stance in this group, often switching between the two within a scene. The idea that we're making a TV show is always on our minds, so we usually describe what the audience sees and talk about the conclusions that the audience is making, as opposed to what we are sometimes setting up as Authors.

All of the action in a PTA game happens inside scenes. And all scenes have an agenda. So we never play mundane little 'connectors' like going to and from class, or shopping, or doing homework, unless that scene is important enough to be filmed for the TV show. There is no trace of "where does your guy go now?" and I for one and glad to be rid of that. You can also do cool things like frame a scene that is a fight scene, but have an agenda of "character development." So while the fight rages around the characters, they're dealing with their issues.


Anyway, back to the Bridgewater pilot.

Location: North Bridge, night, on the college campus.
Agenda: Plot development
Cast: Main protags, unknown male in football letter jacket.

I framed the first scene for the episode, which was the teaser before the credits. This is suggested by the PTA rules. The Producer throws out the first pitch, so to speak, to give the players something to react to. The group decided during setup that the kicker for our series would be the death of a student, possibly at the hands of the protagonists. It was supposed to be confusing and uncertain, so we could have a Rashomon-style re-telling and everyone didn't have to agree on what exactly happened.

So, the teaser was a shaky-cam, blurry, confusing jumble of action. People were yelling in that weird, deep, slow-motion voice. Bodies were moving around erratically. The camera managed to capture the faces of the main cast, facing another figure on the bridge. The other figure was wearing a football letter jacket. Suddenly, the football player yelled and grabbed a lamp post from the bridge. He tore it off with one hand, like snapping a toothpick. He raised it over his head like a club, as if he was going to swing it at the group of PCs. Then there was a massive blurring of the air around him. He dropped the lamp post and clutched his head. He was bleeding from his ears and nose. He pitched backwards off the bridge, and disappeared into the black water.

Roll credits.

Location: Main protag's house off campus, the following night
Agenda: Plot development
Cast: Main protags

I framed this scene as well. This was our first chance to meet the cast and get a feel for their issues and personalities. The idea was to address the plot (the mysterious death) and show the characters at the same time as they talked about what happened.

Lauren takes the lead, as usual, and tries to get everyone to talk. Preston acts like it was no big deal. It certainly wasn't his fault that someone died. Nicola tries to understand the scientific reason for why it happened. Alice wants to be anywhere but there. The incident at the bridge was the first time she had really dealt with the Blur. The other protags had been using their powers for over a year.

Alice confesses that she killed the football player. She is sure of it. Her powers just lashed out, she says. It must have been her. Everyone else used their powers, too, but they don't contradict what Alice said. It just hangs in the air.

Lauren decides that the group should go to the bridge on campus and look around. Try to get to the bottom of things. Nicola is excited to look for clues. The others agree reluctantly.

Location: North Bridge. Same night as Scene One.
Agenda: Plot development
Cast: Main protags

Bridgewater college campus is on an island in the middle of a lake. There are two bridges that connect the campus to the rest of the world, South Bridge (for cars) and North Bridge, which is a pedestrian bridge. North Bridge is deserted at night. The lamp posts on the bridge are blown out as a result of what happened the night before. There is yellow caution tape on both ends of the bridge, and signs that maintenance had started fixing the lamps earlier that day. Nicola and Lauren poke around, scanning for clues. Preston wanders aimlessly, not seeming to care. Alice sticks close to Lauren, but is afraid of what they might find.

On the bridge, Nicola finds traces of an industrial cleaner (she has the Edge: Molecular Biology Major). Someone has cleaned up the blood. But there isn't any crime scene tape on the bridge, so it wasn't the police. The place where the lamp post was torn away shows signs of the Blur being used. The Blur changes matter at a molecular level, which leaves a trace. In this case, the metal of the lamp post has turned to glass at the spot where it was broken.

On the shore of the lake, Lauren finds a class ring that has washed ashore. The jewel in the class ring has been affected by the Blur, and crumbles into a powder. Lauren is sure that the ring belonged to the victim. There are also initials inside the ring: FRN. Meredith rolled an instant conflict to search the shore for clues. She won the conflict and got to narrate what was found. I lost, so I got a concession to include in Meredith's narration which was: You don't find a body.

Nicola takes the class ring and plans to study it in the lab the next day.

CUT TO: Night vision camera, focusing on the PCs on the bridge. The shutter clicks away.

More scenes coming next.
Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!


Based on the artwork, cast photos and this write-up, I want to see this series. Looking forward to the rest.


Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs


Aside from Plot Development, what other agendas can a scene have?


Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

John Harper

Thanks for the kind words, Steve. I wish the show was on TV, too.

The other main kind of agenda is Character Development. Players earn Fan Mail for being involved in character development scenes. Fan Mail is the resource in the game system for buying Director-stance stuff and for swaying conflict results your way.

A scene agenda can also be fairly specific, such as "I want to have a scene where Kevin and Lauren get in an argument." This is probably character development, but with a specific direction the player wants to explore.

I'm really behind on the write-ups. We played the third session (Episode 2) tonight. I'll try to get them typed up ASAP.
Agon: An ancient Greek RPG. Prove the glory of your name!

Matt Wilson

Last night's ep - which I won't spoil yet - involved a new take on the conflict rules. John kinda broke the old ones, but he's worked with me tocome up with something that has worked out really well in play so far.

Anyway, the new idea is super simple. What it boils down to is: who won, and let's figure out together what's the coolest way to make that happen, using the info on the dice as a guideline. Say you won, but you also rolled a "setback" on one of your dice. That might mean in a fight scene that you drop your bullwhip and have to beat up the nazi with a dustpan.


Another scene structure question: say you want to flick over to see what the antagonists are up to (cf. any 'Big Bad' episode of Buffy) - does that count as as a Plot Development Agenda? I guess I'm asking how the system handles scenes that don't include any main characters at all.


Gametime: a New Zealand blog about RPGs

Matt Wilson


Good questions. Theoretically, any player can request a scene about anything. It wouldn't have to include your protagonist.

HEre's how it might work. Let's say it's the game John's talking about, and it's my turn as a player to create a scene.

My protagonist is a minor character this episode, so I choose to set up a scene that relates more to the spotlight character. Let's say it's Alice for this episode. I frame a scene that has an as yet unnamed villain of the week talking to his minions about Alice. It's primarily plot based.

Now as it stands, I haven't introduced any characters into this scene that I have any rights over. That means that John pretty much has free reign to narrate what happens. But I created the scene, so I can pitch him ideas for free.

If I wanted a little more participatory power, I might cast one of my connections in the scene to make it really interesting, like maybe the unnamed villain is talking to Archie, Preston's toadie, and is trying to get Archie to betray Preston. Then I get to act on Archie's behalf and decide what he does.

Hope that helps.