Confronting my Clone Daddy -- Interface granularity in PTA
Time to get back into roleplaying, after not doing it for several months!
There is a Star Wars PTA (Prime-Time Adventures) game that I'm playing. I'm a wookie jedi fighting for independence for Kashykk! My father, a representative to the galactic congress, has been kidnapped and replaced with a clone who is loyal to a rival political faction, in order to keep Kashykk under the Republic's thumb. (We're playing the Clone Wars, except that we're pretending the prequel trilogy was never made. We're treating only the original trilogy as canon, so we get to decide for ourselves what "Clone Wars" meant. In our game, it's not a war fought by clone troopers: It's a war started because of the discovery that key political figures were really clones.)
Chris has been doing a great job of GMing this (he talks about it on his blog), throwing out really stellar Bangs and then freestyling the rest. I really like roleplaying with him because he has a knack for figuring out the PERFECT situation to hit a character with; things that put the character on the horns of a dilemma while advancing the plot AND resonating thematically. Like Sushu's character's superior officer ordering her on an ethically dubious mission for the greater good. And my fake clone daddy guilt-tripping me about the death toll that Kashykk's rebellion is causing. Later, getting ambushed in a dark alley by my own clone, armed with my own stolen lightsaber-claws. These are the kind of things that make us yell "you BASTARD!" at the GM, but the whole time we're grinning and loving it.
Some observations about playing PTA:
In general I like it but I feel like it moves a little fast for me - it's great that you can get a whole lot of satisfying plot progression done in 3 hours but I always feel like I'm a little rushed, like we skimmed over some stuff that would have been interesting to explore in more detail.
There's a lot of story brainstorming openly going on at the table during the game (this is the same as my previous experiences with PTA). It's common for the producer(GM) to literally ask you "What do you think should happen next? If you don't have any ideas, I've got one..." A couple of possibilities for a scene are thrown out and round-tabled before one is chosen.
It's a constant reminder that we are all making up a story together, which also serves as a reminder that I'm not really my character and that the GM doesn't know The Secrets Of The Universe any more than I do. It makes character immersion hard (in stance terms, you're almost always in Director Stance, seldom in Actor Stance). I like character immersion, but I also like collaborative storytelling. So it's an acceptable trade-off; some games are good for immersion, others aren't.
Giving and receiving fanmail feels really good! What feels bad is when you want to give fanmail but you technically can't because there's no spent budget yet this session. Another bad feeling is realizing that even though there was some amazing scene that deserved it, everyone forgot to give fanmail for it and now it's too late. (I sometimes find myself thinking "Oh no, the producer only has 2 budget left, this episode is going to end too soon unless we burn more fanmail..." Is that bad?)
The card flip resolves the main conflict of the scene, so there's always a lot of discussion about what's really the main conflict of the scene (or if there is one at all). Getting this right is important, but it's also tricky. E.g. I'm in a burning, rapidly collapsing starport and I'm trying to lift some spaceship wreckage so some engineers can escape. The conflict is not "can I lift the wreckage" (of course I can, wookies are strong) or even "do I get out of the starport", but rather "Do I rescue anybody" - because my character's issue (right there on his sheet) is "Morality of war?" and the way that's being expressed in this episode is that I'm trying to find out whether I can be a warrior who saves lives instead of a warrior who kills people. And if I can't rescue anybody, that's going to be a big blow to my idealism. Mis-identifying the conflict can really ruin a scene in this game, by breaking the connection between the scene and your character issues.
The card flip resolves the main conflict of the scene, AND it tells you who narrates (most red cards wins conflict, but highest individual card narrates). That means that you know the outcome first and then, while narrating, you decide the specific events of the conflict that led to that conclusion. This retroactive narration can feel a little bit anti-climactic because when you say e.g. "I shoot one of the police aircars with my grappling hook gun and whip it around a lamppost so it goes off course and crashes into the other one" you already know it's going to work because you see that king of hearts on the table. You're really just showing off with a cool description at that point, it doesn't actually matter what you say.
There's very little in the way of rules about what you can and can't narrate. Generally anything other than the resolution of the main conflict is considered incidental details up to the imagination of the narrator. Technically that means you can have a planet explode as a side-effect of two people having a conflict over who's going to make breakfast; only your sense of story logic and fair play prevents it. Generally people don't go that far, but there's a lot of grey area where it feels like you're cheating a little by getting free stuff as incidental narration details.
When we're playing PTA, we're constantly saying things like "And then there's a close-up on my face so you can see the burning starport reflected in my eyes, and one little tear rolls down my face". It's totally visual description, using the visual language of TV. We describe close-ups, slow-motion, flashbacks, what the background music sounds like, and whether a scene transition uses a wipe (Star Wars is so in love with wipes! It's crazy.) Sometimes we even talk about how cheap our props look, or that you can tell an effect is done with blue-screen because you can see a fuzzy border around the spaceship! All this stuff is, again, kind of the opposite of immersion -- but it's really fun, and it gives you "permission" to be silly and self-aware and abuse TV tropes.
Sushu describes this as "a cheat" - an easy way to get all the players on the same page and give them a common vocabulary for describing things, to keep things flowing smoothly with fewer mismatches of imagination. Even when you're playing a genre that some are not real familiar with, like playing a space opera with non-science-fiction-fans, everybody knows what a TV show looks like and how characters talk on TV so you can sort of fall back on that. Some RPGs, especially ones with weird settings, have trouble getting that level of shared understanding; it's why I've never been able to get into Exalted - I just can't grasp what it's supposed to feel like. I've had a similar problem with Sushu's Jiang Hu game, so of course she's looking for possible solutions.
The scene where I fought my clone was so great. (Speaketh my fake clone daddy: "You'll serve us one way... or another." SO GOOD.) He didn't have my years of Jedi training, so he was fighting with brute force - I knew the weaknesses of my own fighting technique from the beginning of my training and used that knowledge to defeat him. He was at my mercy; after a minute of indecisiveness I decided to kill him rather than leave him alive to cause trouble later. It was a pretty major character development moment: I had played my guy as having some anger management issues and a hatred of clones, but this was my first ever murder-in-cold-blood. Could it foreshadow a turn to the Dark Side? (BUM BUM BUUUUM!)
But right after that scene, this weird thing happened that I want to talk about. I think it illustrates some deeper role-playing issues.
So I was on Corsucant and I had just killed my clone. The obvious next move, in terms of story progression, was pretty obvious -- it was time to track down Fake Clone Daddy in the Senate chambers and confront him, maybe see if I could unmask him publically somehow, maybe issue him an ultimatum.
But I didn't do that. Instead, I stopped to think logically about my situation.
Alone, outnumbered, in the heart of the enemy capitol, with no idea how to locate my fake clone daddy, let alone a plan for getting past the defenses that he would obviously have, or how to prove to the rest of the Senate that he was an impostor? Meanwhile my enemies know where I am? Dude, that's a terrible situation. I started worrying about having a plan that made logistical sense and getting everything done in the right order, A to B to C - I have to find a ship to get offworld and round up some contacts from the separatist movement who can help me create a distraction while I look up my mother who is a deep undercover spy and get information from her about where I can ambush Clone Daddy...
Of course the game ground to a screeching halt while I ran through all this stuff in my head. I kind of killed the great momentum we had built up.
I'm still not sure why I got into this strange mood where I was all worrying about the logistics. Part of it was that feeling I described earlier, that we were speeding through things that would be interesting to play out in more detail; so I wanted to play a little slower and more thoroughly. But part of it was also that stopped thinking about "what would be cool to see on a TV show" and started thinking "What would I really do if I was in a realistic version of this situation."
I ended up doing a couple scenes where I went off-planet to round up support and then had to sneak back in. And then I ended up confronting my clone daddy in the Senate chambers anyway, and it was an awesome scene! But the thing is, it's exactly the same awesome scene as if I had just gone straight there immediately.
PTA is, to put it mildly, not a game that rewards logistical thinking. It's not like you get bonus cards for sound tactics in this game. I think Ben Lehman sa id something about it working well when you "take seriously the idea that it is about good TV, and don't try to play it like GURPS Lite".
In GURPS, if you said "I want to confront my father's impostor" would be a request for a year-long character-specific sub-quest that would get addressed with occasional scraps of a clue whenever the GM remembered to include one. If you ever did find and confront him, it would be as a result of executing thousands of individual actions involving skill checks and attack rolls and movement. Because the interface of GURPS (along with D&D, etc.) requires that you execute your desires at that level of granularity.
In PTA, "I want to confront my father's impostor" is a scene request. You get a turn to request a scene, and the Producer generally gives you what you request. Something that would take many, many sessions in a crunchy, GM-driven traditional RPG like GURPS is effectively a single turn in PTA.
Because that's the level that PTA's interface works at. You name a place for the scene; you don't have to justify exactly how you got there, or how you knew where it was, or how long it took you, or that you had the right items in your inventory, or that you had enough spaceship fuel, or anything like that. It's TV: you're just like "External shot of the Senate building in Coruscant, night time; then cut to inside, and I'm descending from the ceiling on my grappling hook gun..." and everybody's like "Cool".
PTA and GURPS are more or less on opposite ends of a scale, here. I don't know any games more granular than GURPS or less granular than PTA (with its single-resolution-per-scene). There's a lot of room in between.
It might be a useful thing to think about, in game design: What kind of interface does your game have? What level does that interface operate at? What are the "basic moves" in your game? Is it like a text adventure, where basic moves are very concrete and physical - "Go west; light torch; poke statue with stick" ? Or is it like a TV show, where the basic "moves" are scenes and character confrontations and dramatic choices? Or something else?
And when you know what the interface of your game should be, how do you communicate that to your players? I don't think most games do a good job of explaining their interfaces. I'm remembering the time my mom tried to play D&D and she was confused -- like "I don't understand what are the things I can do in the game; is there like a list?" When I was getting logistical in PTA, I think that was an example of me playing to the wrong interface.