Roleplaying

Primetime Adventures Is Great for Dramatic Roleplaying

What is Primetime Adventures, you ask? It’s a roleplaying system where you model your game after a television show. The GM is called a Producer, a character’s ability to do something is measured in Screen Presence, the ingame resource is Budget, etc. This is a natural comparison that many of us have been doing for years, and PTA codifies it nicely. Like roleplaying games, TV shows have their stories split up into small increments. They’re also much more likely to be about a group or team of characters.

Even though this game has been around for a while, we at Mythcreants just finished our first campaign, and this is what we thought.

Primetime Adventures Is Rules Light

One of the biggest obstacles to enjoying roleplaying games has always been rules complexity. It’s hard to tell a story if you’re still figuring out base attack progression. Don’t worry, because PTA has your back on this one. Instead of long skill or stat lists, each character has three traits, a personal set,* and an issue. That’s it.

The traits have different names depending on the character, but they all have the same mechanical effect. A detective might have the trait “Hard Nosed” while a space captain has “Three Dimensional Thinker,” but both traits give the same bonuses. This means there’s effectively no powergaming, because everyone has the same abilities. There are also no broken ability combinations to exploit. Some may find this limiting, but to most people it’s a relief. No one likes it when one player shoots ahead of everyone else because they figured out which abilities yield the best mathematical return.

The conflict resolution system is also simple. It uses cards instead of dice, with each character involved in a conflict getting between one and three cards, plus a bonus or two from their traits. Whoever has the most red cards wins, and the GM can determine how difficult they want a conflict to be by spending more of their Budget. There’s no worry about initiative, or how many attacks you get per round, or how many five foot squares you can navigate.

This is a huge boon for new players who just want to enjoy a story but are so often driven away by an incomprehensible wall of rules. It’s nice for experienced players as well because they can relax into the narrative without constantly wrestling with the system.

Primetime Adventures Is Collaborative

Everything about PTA is designed to get the whole table involved in storytelling, not just the GM. First, everyone participates in creating the game world. This covers physical stuff – like technology level, how magic works, and so on – but also the world’s metaphysics and tone. You decide as a group if your 1920s gangster story is going to be a comedic farce about the absurdity of prohibition or a gritty tragedy about professional murderers.

This is an incredibly important step that a lot of games miss. How many campaigns have run into trouble because the players had different ideas of what was appropriate in the story’s aesthetic? Getting everyone on the same page here is really valuable. If everyone knows the score from day one, they can focus their creative energy on building a story within the agreed-upon framework.

PTA is just as collaborative once play starts. Players have a far greater degree of control than in traditional games because anyone can suggest a scene, not just the GM. Of course, whenever you spread out authority, there’s the possibility for discord. If Player Tom describes a scene that invalidates something Player Becca wanted to do, that’s a problem. PTA doesn’t have a 100% foolproof way to avoid this, but it encourages the next best thing: communication. So long as everyone is talking and open to each other’s ideas, it’s easy to avoid problems.

Primetime Adventures Is Character Focused

If you’ve ever felt like your character was being ignored in favor of the plot, then this is the game for you. Is your backstory not getting enough attention? Maybe you have a secret crush on that enemy warlord, and the game just isn’t giving you an avenue to express it. PTA provides the tools to take all of that out of your head and put it in the game.

First, PTA stories focus around PC issues. Each character has one issue as a main drive; something that makes them off balance enough to be interesting. It could be general like “I must make peace without bloodshed,” or specific like “Loraleth will never love me.” Every scene should be crafted to reflect the character’s issue. When it’s time for your character’s Spotlight Session, then the game’s entire focus is on their issue.

Second, since every player can create scenes, you’re free to explore your own character as you see fit. That’s not all you should do, of course, but if there’s some aspect that no one else is picking up on, then make a scene about it. Not only will you get to spend time on what’s important to you, but the other players will take note and be more likely to build on that scene later.

Characters are the heart and soul of PTA. Most NPCs are allies or enemies written down on someone’s sheet. The GM must plan their story around the characters because otherwise they have no story. This leads to some very deep roleplaying, as each player dives into the person they’ve created.

Primetime Adventures Highlights What Really Matters

The truth is that in most roleplaying games, we roll for a lot of stuff that doesn’t matter. We’ve been trained to by D&D and other early systems. The designers of those games assumed we’d want to roll for anything our characters did and made their rules accordingly.

PTA takes a different approach. Every time you need to bust out the cards, it’s for something important. You don’t use them to determine if your character can pick a lock, you use them to determine if your character can impress the master thief with their prowess. Smaller scale stuff is left up to narration. The general rule is that your character can be as badass or capable as you like, but that competence may not always get you what you want.

This is great for players who are really into the story. Each card flip becomes a potential branching point in the narrative, rather than a boardgame-style test to see if your character can resolve a specific task. Because the game relies so heavily on narration, the GM is never tempted to make you roll for something pointless. If they ever stick an uninteresting wall in your way, just narrate your character climbing over it.

There’s also the secondary benefit that your character won’t randomly die from an unlucky roll. It’s possible to put character death on the line for a really important conflict, but all parties must agree to it ahead of time. You won’t be sent into the great unknown because of some goblin’s critical hit.

Primetime Adventures Has Few ‘Game’ Aspects

The flipside of focusing so much on the really important stuff is that it makes the whole experience very abstract. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does impose a few limits. For one, it means that PTA isn’t good for games that require an imminent threat, horror being the most obvious example. We know our characters aren’t in any real danger because we can just narrate them out of trouble. The disempowerment needed for the players to get scared is difficult – if not impossible – to achieve.

At the same time, PTA isn’t great for those who are in it for an epic win. It won’t satisfy players who spend hours on the perfect plan to take down the nigh invincible villain. In PTA, if you want your character to have a brilliant plan, you narrate them having a brilliant plan. Characters also don’t have limits like resources or wounds that they might in other games. Or, at least, they only have them if the controlling player wants them to.

Finally, mystery games are difficult in PTA. Not impossible, but difficult. Since mysteries are all about controlling the flow of information, it can really mess up the story if one of the players decides to narrate a scene where they find out what’s really going on. If you’re planning to do a mystery in PTA, it’s even more important than normal that you communicate with your players.

Primetime Adventures Can Be Inflexible

If there’s one unambiguously negative side to PTA, it’s that the system lacks flexibility in some areas. For example, the rules assume you’ll be running your campaign in “seasons” of either five or nine episodes (sessions). While this could be helpful to GMs who might otherwise ramble on forever, it was a major pain for us. We reached the end of our season and wanted another session or two to fill out some elements of the story that had gone underdeveloped. We weren’t prepared to start an entire new season, but the game’s structure made it difficult to simply extend the existing one. In the end, we made do with our prescribed nine episodes, but it hurt the story a little.

It’s especially problematic when players miss sessions. Each character is assigned a given value of Screen Presence per episode. Higher Screen Presence means the character is more important that day. If a player has some kind of emergency* on their Spotlight Episode, it means they’ve missed out on a major milestone for their character. Shuffling around who has what Screen Presence is possible but becomes more difficult the closer you get to season’s end.

That’s about the worst that can be said of PTA, and it’s still a fantastic game. It’s a distillation of pure character drama, the kind that’s difficult to get in other games because of all the other factors competing for attention. It doesn’t try to be all things to all people, instead focusing on one thing and doing it really well. Players who got into roleplaying because they wanted to emulate their favorite TV characters will love this system, as will any group that focuses heavily on storytelling.

Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.

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Comments

  1. Susan Davis

    Have you played Hillfolk (DramaSystem)? PTA is great, but DramaSystem is even better. And it comes with dozens of great campaign settings; we’re in the middle of an Icelandic saga campaign now.

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