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Time Preservers: Primetime Adventures in Play

We recently completed a five episode (plus pilot) season of our first Primetime Adventures game. Here’s a rundown of how we did it and what was involved.

The group

We founded our group a little under a year ago after playing together at the game store meetup group [1]. Our goals were to enjoy games together and try out more indie games and techniques. Primetime Adventures (PTA) was our second game; the first was a Star Wars Saga game, begun shortly after the game’s release. We meet about twice a month and plan on short run games as our norm. (I also play in a different group with very different goals more frequently.)

The first night

As the Saga game was winding down, we picked our next game from several proposals. We decided to go with PTA. Before the first session I sent out some information about the system and the series creation we’d be doing that first night. I owned the only copy of the book, a first edition. We incorporated the second edition changes listed on the Primetime Adventures website [2]

Series creation was a little rougher than I expected, probably because none of us had played before. In a couple of hours we created characters and a world. Everyone, including the GM, kicks around ideas in a freeform fashion until consensus appears. (It was a little sticky and slow in coming to us.) The setting idea was written down while the players discussed their characters, how they interact and fit the setting. It took us about three hours, but we had created Time Preservers, starring Elliot, Jack, and Alexander.

From there we fumbled into action; I improvised an adventure based on some of the high points that had been mentioned in world building with a lot of “day in the life” and “meet the characters” elements. Key recurring NPCs were introduced and the world was much more solid after play. We had some trouble getting used to the mechanics, but enjoyed playing. Nothing had existed six hours ago, and we’d already played out the first game (a pilot episode) and had the character destinies charted (very loosely) for the next five sessions.

The series begins

After the pilot we made some minor modifications; the characters got tweaked a bit, the setting was fleshed out a bit, and we were ready to go. On the drive home I came up with a strong idea for the opening scene. I jotted an email or two with rules clarifications and the reminders about the series elements we’d brainstormed together so we’d be ready to go.

We met again two weeks later and created the first episode. I found that the cool scene I’d imagined worked out pretty well… but did a poor job of setting the next player up for their scene. We struggled a bit- it takes an unusual mental muscle to quickly create new scenes that build off of everything that has come before. It felt particularly difficult; pauses cropped up when it was time to create a scene.

About three quarters of the way through the session, Brian framed an awesome scene. In a previous scene his character had been captured by some goons. When he was told that there weren’t any death mechanics- that it was impossible for the character to die- he framed a great scene with Alex hanging in shackles and getting a drubbing. It was awesome- something I had heard about people doing, but nothing I’d previously witnessed in my own games.

The first session’s play was uneven; we were all still learning the system, deciding where to focus scenes was still pretty awkward, and setting the scene goal was cumbersome. We described the conflict alternatives in too much detail, so that when we resolved the conflict mechanically there wasn’t much left to do. We’d occasionally have a good conflict narration, but we usually trod along the path we’d discussed before the card draw, which led to a feeling on anti-climax. Despite the flaws, there were glimmers of brilliance and the overall story and characters held our interest.

The second session was a lot like the first with improved transitions. The simple card flip still felt trivial as a resolution mechanic- especially compared to crunchy systems like the Saga game we’d just finished.

Kick it up a notch!

In the third episode we hit a much better stride and sustained it throughout the remaining episodes. A number of things went into the improvements. The first big contributor was familiarity. We were used to the idea that everyone built scenes. That mental muscle had gotten a workout for a couple of weeks and was performing better. Familiarity was probably the least of the contributors though.

Second, I read an article written by Doyce called How Conflicts Work [3]. It compares conflict resolution in several systems and helped me get a handle on some of the problems were were having. It also gave me hope- other people were having the same problems- not just us! I emailed a link to Bryan, who suggested that we use the chase mechanic mentioned in the article. It structured our conflicts a little more and forced us to put some narration in the middle. Conflicts were less anti-climatic.

The most important contributor was something we’d cooked in when we set the series up. The third episode was Jack’s spotlight. [His character arc was 1-2-3-1-2, if you’re familiar with the arc mechanic.] When we setup our “Next Week On” at the end of the second episode (to prepare for the third episode) he threw out a huge curveball that strongly questioned his character’s motivations. Everyone else followed suit with their own big questions. When I went to prep, I had awesome scenes to work with for the next session.

Once we began playing, everyone knew what do with a scene when they were stuck: put Jack in hot water and see how he’d react. Scenes came faster and were a lot of fun. The next two episodes were the other two characters’ spotlights and we used the same formula. We set up interesting scenes in “next week on” and made them happen.

It all comes to an end

The final episode started off strong. Even now there was still hesitation when it came to scene setting, but we chugged along and had a good time. A little over halfway through the episode things took a strange turn; time travel cliches rose up and bit us. The PCs started trying to fix everything, but their methods implied that they were responsible for creating the villains who had tormented themselves in the earlier episodes. We laughed, but worried that the whole season would be like Dallas- someone would use time travel to undo the whole season or the whole premise of the game. The final scene was a little too “everything wrapped up with a bow” for many players tastes, but the session (and season) rolled to a fitting end.

We finished a little late and loggy. We were happy that we’d made it through the season- especially for players, the game’s a lot more demanding than most we’ve played. We debriefed for a bit afterward; the card flip mechanic still seemed a little simple, but we blamed much of the difficulty on picking time travel as the show’s theme.

A few days later I stumbled on another good article by Doyce discussing goal setting. There was a soft click in the back of my head. The character issues that were supposed to be the interesting conundrum that the whole character circles around had been getting lost in the overall plot. If we create a new show, I’ll try to focus everyone on the issues from series creation onward. As it was, they wound up being interesting quirks, but more like disadvantages instead of the core question at the center of the PCs.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Time Preservers: Primetime Adventures in Play"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On July 10, 2008 @ 9:20 am

Do you have questions about the mechanics or anything else? I skimmed over a lot of the game system specifics, but I’d be happy to expand on them if you’re curious.

#2 Comment By BryanB On July 10, 2008 @ 10:04 am

I roleplayed Elliot in Scott’s production.

PTA was quite different from anything we had played before. It wasn’t as brain twisting as Universalis, but it was certainly a mental exercise much of the time. There were also mechanics like spotlight, fan mail, and budget that were really fun from a gamist perspective.

It was tough to separate scene setup from scene resolution because we got so excited in setting up a scene that we would often start to try and resolve the scene before the goals were determined. We had a hard time with setting goals sometimes as well. We seemed to improve on both of these issues as the series progressed.

I must take the responsibility for the whole time travel thing. I’d been watching a lot of sci-fi recently and everyone gleaned onto my enthusiasm for a time travel game idea. In retrospect, we should have avoided something as complicated as time travel for our first time playing the system. Time travel almost seems like a “third rail” for games sometimes.

While PTA was a real challenge for us to grasp, we did have a lot of FUN playing it. That is ultimately my bottom line when it comes to games. I can see us trying it again, perhaps with a different series premise, sometime in the future. Of course that doesn’t mean that you can’t run Spirit of the Century the next time you have the GM chair Scott. 🙂

#3 Comment By Patrick Benson On July 10, 2008 @ 12:20 pm

I have heard nothing but great things about PTA and plan on picking up a copy at Gen Con this year. Glad to hear that you guys had a good time with it!

#4 Comment By davethegame On July 10, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

I’ve been interested in PTA for a while now, and it’s good to hear how a campaign played out. Would you say you put a lot of preptime into planning it, or does it work well to play with more improv and help from the players?

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On July 10, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

It works well without extensive planning. Since the producer [their name for the GM] only builds one scene in 4 [in a group of 3 players + GM], you have to keep your plans flexible. If you come up with a couple of conflicts about each character’s issue and provide an NPC of the week to drive the plot, you’re pretty much ready.

I should have spent some additional time before the first week so that we’d have a larger cast of characters, but it worked out even with light preparation. The players give you lots of good hooks [a contact, a nemesis, and their issue] during character generation, so you have a good place to start your prep. “Next week on”, where each player contributes a five second scene snippet from the upcoming episode, is an excellent mechanic that fuels good GM prep.

#6 Comment By lomythica On February 18, 2011 @ 7:10 am

Hi. I am a bit late to the discussion. I have read through PTA 2nd edition, and am planning on running for my group.. Did you ever play another season or series with PTA? Any new insights?

#7 Comment By BryanB On August 10, 2012 @ 9:40 am

I will respond to the late question with a late reply. 😀

We did not get another chance to play PTA before our group went into hiatus.