Reflections on Primetime Adventures

Years ago, I used to write game reviews for a now-defunct site called Robot Lasers. This was one of those reviews. The Kickstarter campaign was ongoing at the time.

A BRAND NEW SEASON

So. You may have noticed that my reviews so far have been positive. I will admit that I like sharing things that I think are awesome. This review is going to be another one of those. But my next one will be more critical. Honest! It's in the works. But for now I'm going to sing the praises of Primetime Adventures, because the long awaited new edition is now on kickstarter (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1801630747/primetime-adventures), and you need to know about this. Seriously. Because Primetime Adventures is one of the smartest story games ever made. Well, the second edition is.

I should say that I fully expect the coolest parts of this game to carry over to the new edition. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Primetime Adventures by Matt Wilson is a roleplaying game structured as a television show. By default Primetime Adventures does not adhere to a genre, or even a theme, but rather to a method. So, it doesn't really matter what kind of flavor of game or story you are looking for - Primetime adventures can do it. The tag line is "the best tv show that never was" and ain't it the truth. Let's be clear though. I pretty much never enjoy generic gaming systems. Primetime Adventures is the sole exception. I almost cannot imagine a stronger endorsement.

This brings us to the first reason Primetime Adventures is brilliant. It's based on television. If you are the "average American," then television has been more involved in your life than your own parents. We know what we like to see, who know when a show or episode sucks, and when it sucks, we often know why. In recent years television consumption has been even more customizable with services like Netflix and Hulu. What I'm trying to say, is that for many of us, if you look into our eyes, you see tv reflection off of our shows. Primetime Adventures taps right into your narrative instincts, and even people new to story games will be pros at the game table in no time. Seriously. I've seen it happen.

In my opinion, many story games and roleplaying games bear a stronger resemblance to a tv show than to other forms of fiction, so that genetic similarity makes for a pretty good translation as well.

Alright, how is Primetime Adventures like a television show? At a basic level, you will have one Producer (GM) and however many Protagonists (PCs), and the game takes place in scenes. But the real answer is seasons, screen presence, spotlight episodes, "next time on", budget, and fan mail.

A game of Primetime Adventures consists of a season divided into a number of episodes. An episode is a single session (though sometimes episodes can be two-parters), and there are long and short season arcs. Each protagonist has a screen presence for each episode, which determines how much they can affect the turn of the story, and serve as a cue to the other players as to who is most important right now. Each player has very detailed information about how to pace the game. Even though the script is improvised by all players, nobody is blind.

Additionally, every Protagonist has an issue and a spotlight episode. The issue is what their story arc is about, and the spotlight episode is when they will, for better or worse, confront that issue. Turns out it's super easy to share the spotlight when you know you will get your turn like everybody else. Instead of it being up to the whim of the GM or the social dynamics of the group, the game itself has a metered mechanic for doling out screen time and plot significance.

THE FANS HAVE SPOKEN

Look. I've played a lot of D&D. I've wanted it to deliver on the story front since I first cracked open those books. But it could not do it consistently. With stuff like episodes and screen presence, you would have to be deliberately sabotaging the game in order to lose the narrative structure of the game.

When I played Primetime Adventures I was the Producer. There is so much subtle information in the screen presence chart you make at the beginning of the game. It's abstract, sure, but seeing the lay of each Protagonist's arc against each other gives you a lot of guidance on how to handle each character in game. It sounds weird, but you'll see what I mean.

The next major structure of the game is the budget and fan mail systems. So, Primetime Adventures uses cards instead of dice (side note: closed systems like cards are way cooler and better for storytelling than open systems like dice most of the time in my experience). The Producer gets cards for making adversity when they spend budget, and Protagonists get extra cards when they spend fan mail. Typically these are spent at times when the players care about or are excited about, what is happening in the game.

The Producer's initial budget is based on the total screen presence of the episode. But players are awarded fan mail from the Producer's discarded budget by other players when they do something cool that the awarding player would like to see more of. It's encouragement with mechanical influence, and it signals to all players what you like to see in play. Which they will try and satisfy because it will get them cards. Finally, when fan mail is spent it sometimes gives the Producer extra budget.

Take a moment to appreciate how awesome that is. All players are incentivized to pay attention to each other, to learn what they like, and to deliver on those tastes as often as possible. Just by participating in fan mail, your game will be better because it calibrates the tone and style of the game at the social level. And then it gives the Producer extra budget to make conflicts even more dramatic. It's a positive feedback loop of pure awesome and your game will just get cooler and cooler the more you feed it. The fan mail system in one of the most elegant, beautiful, and effective mechanics I have ever seen in a game.

There is one last thing, and it will seem small compared to fan mail and screen presence. At the end of each episode, all players get to describe a "next time on" vignette that the Producer and the other players are then obliged to incorporate in the next episode. It's small, but it gives each of the Protagonists a chance to directly author fiction outside of their character's actions.

The sum of these parts amounts to something rarely seen in games: consistency. I can't say that on many other games. Grey Ranks had more powerful moments, but Primetime Adventures has a higher batting average. It is all killer no filler, hardly a moment to spare, and leaves you with a sense of nostalgia for your show once the end credits roll. Our play of a short season (a better length than the long season, I think) took almost thirty hours of play, and not one could have been cut.

FIX IT IN POST

All of that said, there are still some things you ought to do if you want to have a great game.

First of all, the second edition is definitely not a one-shot, so I would just hunker down for a full season from the get go.

Second, it is important that all players are invested in the premise of the show (sometimes it's easier to find players for a premise than it is to find a premise for the players). This goes double for the Producer. Also, pick something focused and coherent, in which all Protagonists are actively involved in each other's lives. I tried doing a game with some far-flung Illuminati thing, and it didn't work at all. I mean at all. Later, in a small podunk town facing the inevitable end of human life it was no problem. This is essentially a character drama, so be sure you have that solid before you craft some high concept experimental show. There are other games for that.

Third, focus on what you see, exactly as if you were describing a tv show to somebody. Use every tv technique you've ever seen.

Finally, Producer, have a big conflict early. In the first scene of the episode if at all possible. You want to get some spent budget out there so they can let the fan mail fly as soon as possible.

Earlier I said that this game wasn't thematic, but the truth is that players will have to bring that with them. It is possible to explore a theme here, but the game won't insist that you do.

With all of that said, go check out their Kickstarter and think about it. Even if you only play one season, it will hardly run you a dollar per hour of play for you and your friends. This is one you cannot afford to miss! And oh, yeah, it funded in like twenty-four hours and is sitting at about 400% funded at the time of writing.

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1801630747/primetime-adventures

Happy viewing!