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Western standoff vs. Tension

Started by higgins, April 23, 2010, 11:54:43 AM

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Another question.

I really like the car chase example in the book and it can be beautifully applied to duels, swordfights and other conflicts to represent the upper hand coming a going until the final showdown. That's really cool! But...


I want to try out PTA soon, and it's going to be a western, or at least a western-themed series. I have very little indie gaming background (mainly TROS) and thus mu experience with stakes is almost nil. I don't think any of my player has come across a gaming systems that used stakes either, so, it's going to be a challenge... Especially since I have no idea how to use stakes to build tension in a standoff. There is no obligation to put one's life in danger when setting the stakes -- and indeed why should you -- there's no benefit whatsoever unless you really want to go out in a bang. Okay, there's also the chance that the narration rights go to someone who sees a loophole in your stake and kills off your character anyway, but especially in the middle of a season, that's just being a dick (unless everybody agrees of course).

So, what stakes would you use? How do you keep the standoff from becoming a safe (and boring) "Do I get the other guy?" affair...

Oh, and what stakes would you use to define the three-way-standoff in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly? I thinking... Good/Bad went for "Can I beat/kill them both?") and Ugly went for "Will I get the money?". Good and Ugly beat the Producer. Good kills Bad and beats Ugly, who gets half the money. Any other thoughts?

Matt Wilson

I made a suggestion in the other thread that might be applicable. If you and the other players are really invested in the game and want to see things that feel like TV, turn the safety off, so to speak. Agree that whoever gets the high card can introduce rough stuff in narration. Xander loses an eye, that sort of thing.

The trouble with the example movie is that those characters are pretty cardboard. Entertaining, but what are their issues? It's not really good PTA fodder. If you give the characters good issues, you'll end up with great stakes in those scenes, because that's what got them into the predicament in the first place.

When you guys all do the series creation, stop back with the character writeups, and it will be much easier to talk about how their issues could get them involved in conflict.


Quote from: Matt Wilson on April 23, 2010, 12:20:17 PM
(...) turn the safety off, so to speak. Agree that whoever gets the high card can introduce rough stuff in narration. Xander loses an eye, that sort of thing.

I was leaning towards something similar myself, but you formulated it much better than I did. Thanks!

Eero Tuovinen

An useful way of thinking about this sort of thing is that when characters in a western shootout scene draw their guns, from the viewpoint of PTA the outcome of the shootout might not be the issue of the scene. The stakes always relate to the Issues of the characters because those Issues are the viewpoint against which the conflicts in the game are perceived. Thus the stakes of a conflict for the alcoholic sheriff might be whether he succeeds in calming the situation down, or whether his drunken ineptitude causes a firefight to break out; the player who narrates gets to actually choose the consequences of the firefight, the conflict itself was about whether the sheriff fails in his job due to his Issue. Similarly the Issue of a bloodthirsty desperado might be his relationship to women, say, and thus you wouldn't even have a conflict about his shoot-outs unless and until women pertain to the situation somehow; perhaps the stakes might be whether the character injures an innocent bystander during the shoot-out, for example.

When and if you have a shoot-out that does not pertain to the Issues of the characters, resolve it by Producer fiat or twist it until there is some relevance. Specifically: in a western TV show all shootouts end in ways that affirm the structure of the show and lead towards conflicts, unless the shootout itself is a proper conflict, in which case it can be resolved with cards. If your bad-ass sheriff hero is just having some random shootout with desperadoes of no particular significance, you do not draw cards about it, and thus do not need to be able to establish stakes. The sheriff wins automatically or loses automatically, whichever is the conventional TV plot outcome of the moment. (Heroes do not always win; for example, if you were doing Prisoner, the protagonist would automatically fail any inconsequential attempts at escape.) Note that it is logically impossible for a situation to not be clear in this regard while not involving good stakes; if you can't decide whether the character should win or lose, your uncertainty over the matter is caused by some hidden stakes that you don't know how to resolve by fiat. Think about it, uncover the actual conflict and resolve it, and you'll find that the secondary stuff in the scene will flow easily and arbitrarily.

Also, Matt has a good point about the lines of dramatic convention: if your series is modern and not too choked by genre convention, you'll find it easier to find good conflicts. Genre-stratified conventional television is often rather conflict-light, and emulating that sort of style means that you will only have a few big conflicts through an episode. Therefore you might benefit from deciding that your western show is not conventional, indians can be in the right, and shootouts can end up crippling good men.
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All good points. Maybe I'm just too stuck in my simulationist background, as this kind of tension would be very important in an immersive play.