Ruminations on PTA, pt. 1


I’ve been gearing up for a possible game: Howard Hughes’ Men of Action. It has been recommended to me that Primetime Adventures would be a good way to go. I know a lot of you reading this love Primetime Adventures, and you’ve run and played in a lot of fun games with it.

But, allow me to steal Rachel Maddow’s bit for a moment:

Talk Me Down

I’ve got to be honest though, I’ve read and re-read both the 1st and 2nd edition rule books over the past couple of weeks, and it leaves me cold. Putting aside the (sadly all too-common) “my fun is better than your fun” indie triumphalism (I’m looking at you, page 26: a poor scene is one in which “a protagonist enters a room and fights some monsters, loots their bodies, and leaves”), it is the really heavy focus on character ‘issues’ that doesn’t work for me. When I read things in PTA like the ‘Moose in the City’ sample campaign (one of the characters is Billy, “a neighborhood who draws a lot and is struggling with learning to communicate better with others”), I want to head for zee hills.

I don’t know… maybe I’m too motivated by plot, back story, and external setting… that’s what appeals to me in gaming; not the exploration of my character’s emotions and mental make-up. I mean, inter- and intra-party role playing is great and all, but its not my raison d’etre for gaming, and I certainly don’t want to GM a game in which that is the predominant theme. It just doesn’t appeal.

Now, I’ve been assured by Chris that when he’s played PTA, it wasn’t all Gilmore Girls and Felicity, and that the rules can simulate an action adventure show. But I think you’d stand a better chance by stripping out the Story Arc stuff– the Issue and Screen Presence rules. Don’t even give the players an opportunity to unpack their emo navel gazing at the table.

So, am I being a grognard simulationist? Am I missing something fundamentally important and profound here? Talk me down.

(Coming up next: Focus Grouping some of the rules changes I have in mind.)

Edit to Add: Oy vey. I left out some very important information here. I blame the fact it was getting to be 5:30 on a Friday afternoon, and I wanted to get the hell out of the office.

Anyways, the conceit of this game is that a decrepit, strung-out, syphilitic Howard Hughes is recounting tales from his life to his biographer, Clifford Irving. So, each game session is a story about how this one time, Hughes had to send his boys in to clean up XYZ. One episode could be set in 1970s Vegas, the next in 1940s Hollywood, the next in 1790s Paris (did you know Hughes’ mother was descended from the House of Valois? Oh, yes. Affair of the Necklace, here we come!), and the fourth in the alternate 1930s of Crimson Skies. It’s very non-linear, counterfactual, and contradictory. In PTA parlance, it is going to be very episodic and not serialized, so character story arcs might be a tad hard.

In fact, considering the game is potentially covering 200+ years of history, I was originally thinking the players shouldn’t even play traditional characters, and maybe they should play some sort of Campbell-esque ‘Heroes with a Thousand Faces’… archetypal characters (soldier, doctor, professor, thief, et. al.) which could have various names and personalities slapped on as needed each session/setting. But then Chris came up with a brilliant hand-wave for all that meta-game BS: “codeine and syphilis.” Basically, the players can play traditional characters, and if the narrative jumps around, so be it. Hughes is insane, and who knows what whopper he’s going to tell Irving next.

And while I am lucky in that the pool of potential players I’d be drawing from to play in this game are role players par excellence, and they’d be able to roll with this conceit, I think it would still make the nuts and bolts of the PTA story arc/issue stuff problematic. If Joe’s issue is dealing with the grief of his son dying, it’d be kind of silly to be playing a session set thirty years before Joe, never mind his son, was even born. It all just seems extraordinarily silly.

But I guess this is where social contract and group char gen comes into the equation… the players have to be on board with the concept, tailor their issues somewhat, and know they need to roll with punches a bit.

Edit 2: And I had totally forgotten Chris had already uncorked the bottle on this genie a couple of weeks ago. In fact, it is where “codeine and syphilis” was frigging coined… The old memory ain’t what it used to be…


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24 Responses to “Ruminations on PTA, pt. 1”

  1. Bryant Says:

    Can you talk about why you think the rules would force you to privilege exploration of character emotions over action?

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      Check out my addendum. I left out an important bit of background. Oops.

      • Bryant Says:

        Oh. Yeah, I probably wouldn’t use PTA. I think everyone’s right in that you could make the issues relevant across decades. I mean, I’d make the Joe-30-years-earlier story be about… how his grandfather lost his son (except he wasn’t really lost, he was kidnapped by Hughes). So there’s relevance. But if you’re not privileging the narrative story-arc, well.

        Or in short: PTA is the wrong system for stories which wouldn’t make sense as a TV series.

        • johnobrien21 Says:

          Or, in short: PTA is the wrong system for stories which wouldn’t make sense as a TV series.

          Or: PTA won’t work well for a pre-Hill Street Blues episodic TV show.

          I’ve just downloaded InSpectres, so we’ll see if that’ll complete this puzzle…

  2. Dave Younce Says:

    (short answer: yes, you are being a grognard. put away the miniatures)

    From what I get of your game concept, you’ve chosen PTA primarily because it’s episodic in nature, and you want encapsulated stories that may or may not have very much to do with each other. This type of story structure is found in many TV shows, and I think PTA can help you get there. However, the best TV shows still draw us in not only by external mystery and backstory, but by what we learn about the protagonists themselves. This is what issues are about. Without issues, there is no anchor for a PTA Producer to frame scenes against; he’s just doing his own plot exposition of something the characters (and players) may or may not care about.

    Example: X-Files. Yes, there are grand arcs, but let’s just talk about all the early ‘filler’ episodes where they’re just off investigating some inbred family or whatever. Mulder and Scully still have their own ‘issues’ – Mulder isn’t taken seriously by his own Bureau and he’s a paranoid nutjob. The plot of the particular episode has to be dealt with, yes, but what makes it interesting over time is not just the meta-arc of his search for what happened to his sister but how his own character issues are addressed when scenes occur that cause the audience to be drawn into those same issues. As producer you’ll need to balance framing scenes directly about plot with scenes about genuine, non-straw-man issues that the players have in order to have an interesting game of PTA.

    Likewise, the series arc stuff and screen presence are what differentiate episodes, and I urge you to keep them in. When everyone at the table knows that this is a particular character’s spotlight episode, it gives everyone the chance to make that character’s story especially interesting that session and it gives you, the producer, the chance to frame scenes that have more than one layer of depth – on the one level, this scene is about whether or not Hughes’ Man Jack can get the Spruce Goose there in time to save the team, but on another level it’s about something we’ve been seeing all along with Jack, that he wants desperately for the team to accept him! Maybe you don’t think you want that, and maybe you genuinely don’t, but I will tell you that with those goals and design elements taken seriously, PTA will absolutely shine, and without them you’ll say to yourselves “Whatever, that game was stupid and I think they’re all fooling themselves when they say it’s fun.”

    My advice is not to change anything until you’re absolutely sure it isn’t working because you’ve given it an honest-to-goodness try the way it was written. Drift later, when you understand the system because you’ve played it, not because you’ve read it.

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      (The funny thing is I am not a fan of miniatures gaming… 4e isn’t my scene.)

      Anyways, check out my addendum… yes, you are entirely right about it being episodic rather than serialized, so I’m just concerned the non-linear narrative will make the character issues problematic at best, downright silly or nonsensical at worst. And that’s what leads me to believe maybe PTA isn’t the right fit for this game.

  3. Foxtown Says:

    Heh, I played in a Inspectors game years ago run by Rob (Tonight on the WB, it was called), and everything I hear about PTA reminds me of that. Still maybe not what you are looking for, but could be used well to do something with a good amount of action, though still character-centric.

    Also some of your comments made me think of a Golden Girls RPG and what that would be like…

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      It’s funny you mention InSpectres… I was just giving that a shout-out the other day as one of my ‘ten desert island rpgs’. That was one of the best games I’ve ever played in. Maybe I should look into using that for HHMoA…

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      I just bought the pdf of InSpectres, so hopefully that’ll solve my little dilemma. 😉

      It was great seeing you today! Hope to catch ya again soon!

  4. Ivan Says:

    Okay. It is later than usual, and Oh how I wish you lived closer, or were on chat or something. As it is, I’m going to pour myself a quick Scotch and start writing on a blog I respect. Wish me luck.

    Here’s the trick: I adore PTA, and yet I see no good reason to talk you down. If something leaves you cold at first glance, then leave it be. If you have a system you’re happy with and familiar with and will work well with HHMoA, then run it instead.

    There was a Dragon Magazine article several, several years back that I carried around for a long time, by Robin Laws or one of that group. Actually … yeah, here it is. Issue #293, March 2002, page 34, titled “TV Structure,” Laws indeed. It covers simulating TV structure for a D&D game, and it brings the fun very well indeed. If you can find a copy of the article, I urge you to read it and apply it to your game using a system you love. It’s a good way to apply the kind of plots and back stories you and I both enjoy while leaving the character development up to the players, rather than as a part of the system. It does create “story arcs,” but the DM is in control of said arcs, determining what happens, when it happens, and why it happens to who it happens to.

    I just reread that paragraph and it pleases me. More scotch.

    With that said, I’ve run a season of a PTA fantasy epic that saw any number of murders, fratricides, sorcery, regicides, living dead infestations, assassin cults … all or most of which grew out of the characters’ issues at hand. The princess makes her issue “Romantically pursued by her brother,” awesome. Said brother is behind any number of plots and strings but only really presses his case when she’s the star of the show, and she gets mechanical bonusses to help her stand against him.

    That’s something missing in Laws’ article. As GM of one of those I could say “Okay, when Ada’s starring adventure comes up, Prince Thomas’ servants will invade her quarters and try to kidnap her …” but the other players can wade in and, quite possibly, “save her” rather than giving her character more power to kick @$$ in her own star episode.

    That’s a subtle but important difference, especially if you have players who do want the emo navel-gazing. If they’re all grognards, hell yes, donate PTA to a children’s charity to get more kids into the hobby and play the game you all enjoy.

    The important question is: What do you want out of this game, and what do your players need to want? Is it tactical combat in which every manuever can alter the outcome? PTA’s a poor choice. Is it a story in which Hughes (and, by extension, you) hold all the cards? PTA’s also a poor choice.

    PTA’s a *good* choice if you want the characters to be made to grow, not just in abilities but in personality. It’s a good choice if you want to give the players an equal share and stake in telling the whole story, rather than just the words their characters utter or the things their characters attempt to do.

    What is it you want in a game? Both are fun. But they’re different flavors of fun.

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      (before I wade in too far, was my addendum up before you wrote this? It’ll show you why I’m concerned about the character’s ability to grow…)

      I was really hoping to hear from you, Ivan, because I know you’ve been having good results and a great time with PTA. Ah, to be sitting at a bar hashing this out over a pint or four… 😉

      I wholeheartedly agree with everything you said– one of the things I love about it (and with Danger Patrol, and (not to toot my own horn) with Caper!) is that the plotting onus isn’t entirely on the GM. I’ve never been a fan of “All aboard! Get on the plot choo-choo!” I love that players can bring their imagination and creativity to the table, frame scenes, offer ideas, and help with some of the heavy lifting of story telling.

      But what I’m not a fan of is this trend I see in a lot of PTA APs on Story-Games and The Forge where some of these games become near therapy sessions. Maybe I’m too much of an emotionally repressed Irishman… hand me that scotch, will ya? 😉

      Anyways, I know it wouldn’t be an issue with my crew of gamers. But big-picture, and especially looking at PTA and Danger Patrol side-by-side, it got me thinking about the tool sets and how to go about getting the results one wants and expects.

      Thanks for the head’s up on the Dragon article… I’ll see if I can track it down somehow.

      • Ivan Says:

        The addendum was not up! I must have just missed it.

        Frankly, the skipping around, codeine and syphllis (which is a phrase I must congratulate Chris on!) *can* make PTA even better. You don’t have to go in order for PTA – think Firefly first season. You lose the build-ups for character changes, but again, if that’s not what you’re looking for as a focus I don’t think that’s a huge problem.

        But allow me a conceit along your Archetype lines …

        In this case the character issues become entirely focused on archetypes. Joe’s issue is not that he’s greiving his dead son, it’s that he’s a Family Man. In 1940s Vegas he’s obsessed with fathering a son. In 1970s Hollywood he’s dealing with his daughter’s involvement in questionable films. In Paris, 1790, he’s the point man to deal with Hughes’ great-great-great grandmother … and possibly becomes Hughes’ great-great-great-great-grandfather by proxy.

        Or, if you want a really insular game – which makes a lot of sense, givne the alienation and paranoia – their issues all deal with one another or with Hughes. Have the players tie themselves together so closely that they can’t help but unravel in every episode – not emotionally, but effectively, to where they’re getting in one another’s way. Heist and double-cross, anyone?

        Just some thoughts. The game won’t turn into a therapy session if you and the players don’t want it to – the two first games I played in did, for me, and I loved it! But the one I ran had very little of that. When it happens, it’s because a player has chosen an issue close to her heart, and she wants to really delve into it. If that happens, give the players what they want! Otherwise stick with the action and double crosses.

  5. Christopher Tatro Says:

    If Joe’s issue is dealing with the grief of his son dying, it’d be kind of silly to be playing a session set thirty years before Joe, never mind his son, was even born.

    How about this: Character issues still progress linearly despite the setting of the individual session. Joe *is* dealing with his son dying thirty years before Joe was even born. Because Hughes knows that was the biggest thing in Joe’s life but as noted Hughes is insane and drops Joe’s trauma into the wrong context.

    As for APs sounding like therapy sessions, I haven’t seen that in the sessions I’ve read or heard, but then most of those were Star Wars Episode L or a sci-fi or action sort of thing. The frame of the campaign determines whether it turns into Gilmour Girls or Firefly.

    Okay, here’s one I listened to that was a decent example – it’s set on a manned station on Mars. The setup takes most of the first session as far as I remember but they get into the meat of it in the second:

    And I haven’t listened to many of them but Mel White was my GM for Agon and SotC last year at Origins, and he has a couple of sessions up. The one about the generation ship Camelot sounds interesting, and I’m going to download that (I listened to the Metrocity one but it never seemed to click for some reason):

    I really think the tendency toward Gilmourism really comes from the group and frankly I can’t see this group going there. The fact that you get that vibe so heavily from the book, I don’t know, I haven’t read the book in some time but I think your stoic New Englander nature is seeing emotional boogeymen.

    • johnobrien21 Says:

      I think your stoic New Englander nature is seeing emotional boogeymen.

      LOL. You’re so right. 😉

      But I do remember some of the earliest APs I read about PTA a couple of years ago, in which the writers were going on about “shedding tears with their fellow gamers” and “how they grew as people” and “they’d all be friends for life after playing this game”… I think that’s always prejudiced my opinion of the game. And when you finally lent me the books, I was seeing those tendencies and proclivities throughout.

      Again, I know it won’t be an issue with our group. But since I can’t help but tinker with everything, it got me thinking about the toolset and how to recast it in order to avoid a situation like Ivan mentioned, where a player picks a really heavy, personal issue and turns the game into group therapy.

      I’ll check out those podcasts… They’re not going to be an affront to my A/V professional sensibilities are they? 😉

      EDIT TO ADD: Those APs were from a few years ago (man, time flies)… I knew that ‘Moose in the City’ sample series in the 2nd ed. rulebook rang a bell!

      Like I said earlier, my reaction to reading that thread is “Feets, don’t fail me now! Head for zee hills!” 😉

      • Christopher Tatro Says:

        Yeah, I don’t get the reactions in that thread. I mean it sounds like a fun story and all but I don’t feel like I’m BFFs with the folks I played it with at Origins. I can’t explain it, especially because from what I know of Ron (only from having read his stuff online here and there, no personal knowledge) it seems very…odd. I find myself wondering if they didn’t orchestrate reporting the AP in those glowing terms.

        Looks like lots more AP reports here:

        And I’ve heard great things about this Actual Play: It’s for a little show called “Dungeon Majesty”.

        • johnobrien21 Says:

          I find myself wondering if they didn’t orchestrate reporting the AP in those glowing terms.

          No! The clique taking care of their own? I’m shocked… shocked to my foundations, says I! In-con-ceivable! 😉

          • Christopher Tatro Says:

            I don’t mean in a “hey let’s promote and sell this game” kind of way, I just mean in a “wouldn’t it be funny if we did this” kind of way.

        • Bryant Says:


          Yeah, so I’m pretty sure I know why PTA produces reactions like that in some cases. It’s because there’s a strong incentive to praise other players built into the rules, so you get this constant positive reinforcement vibe going. In a good PTA game, you are /all the time/ saying “that was awesome, have a cookie for it.” And the cookies are real benefits. So our monkeybrains are all “oooh, we’re close together!” Pretty normal, not too alarming.

          Add that to the “we’re at summer camp, everything is intense” vibe that a lot of late-night con play can generate and yeah, those AP reports never surprised me much. It wasn’t what I got out of PTA, but I get where people were coming from.

          I was always surprised that Ron Edwards didn’t express more of that explicitly given his evolutionary psych field as a professor, but maybe he just never noticed.

    • Brant Says:

      How about this: Character issues still progress linearly despite the setting of the individual session. Joe *is* dealing with his son dying thirty years before Joe was even born. Because Hughes knows that was the biggest thing in Joe’s life but as noted Hughes is insane and drops Joe’s trauma into the wrong context.

      Or just ignore chronology entirely. Joe’s son is ALWAYS dead, which is it to say, he was never alive. As with P.G. Wodehouse: just avoid dates and years. Joe’s son didn’t die in 1964. Joe’s son died “two years ago.” Always two years ago, no matter what year it is.

      I am excited at the prospect of this game and I want John to run it. But I think you’re over-thinking it, John. If these are the insane ramblings of an incoherent drug-addict, it doesn’t matter if any of the internal chronology is consistent and it doesn’t matter if the character concepts shift a bit from session to session provided the foundation of the character stays the same (e.g., Jake is the muscle and is always the muscle, but in 1974 he’s a defected Soviet strongman and in 1958 he’s a former wrestler from Los Angeles and in 1936 he is an ex-hitman for the New York Syndicate).

      • johnobrien21 Says:

        I know, I know. I really need to just embrace the ramifications behind the mantra “codeine and syphilis”… it really does hand wave all this BS away.

        But I’m a Bert, and more so I’m a Bert who likes to tinker with game rules. It is my blessing. It is my curse. 😉

      • Christopher Tatro Says:

        “Listen to your friend Billy Zane. He’s a cool dude!”

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