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Author Topic: DexCon PTA Game  (Read 9467 times)
Lisa Padol
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Posts: 365


« on: July 27, 2005, 06:10:19 PM »

This is appearing in Alarums & Excursions #360, the 30th AEnniversay issue. My apologies for any inaccuracies or misspellings -- if folks who were there tell me what I got wrong, I can send in corrections next month.

Prime Time Adventures: Overtime

At midnight, I showed up for Ben Lehman's run of Prime Time Adventures. I had signed up as first alternate, and all of the players were there. Ben explained that the game wouldn't really work with 6 PCs, but reminded me that I could play as the audience, helping come up with the concept, making suggestions, giving out fan mail, and doing everything except having a PC. This was reasonable, and it gave me the options of leaving if I got bored, dozing if I got sleepy, or just watching and learning, as I hope to run PTA in September.

Prime Time Adventures is a game where the players make up a television show. This stage is called The Pitch. Next, they create characters for it. Then, they plan out the season in brief, figuring out which PCs will be most important for which episodes. Then, they run the game. At a convention, groups pick one episode to run.

Ben had us spend over half an hour on The Pitch, saying that it was the most important part of the game. If there is only a limited amount of time, it's far better to cut the rest of the game short and leave folks wanting more than to rush through The Pitch.

I was a bit restive after a while, as one idea after another was rejected, though I was just as glad the wu xia tv show didn't fly. It just wasn't clicking with me. Ben stuck to his guns until we came up with a show everyone liked, not just something we could tolerate. And, he was absolutely right. We're doing this for fun; if we aren't enthusiastic about it, we shouldn't be doing it.

So, wu xia was rejected. We thought about something with the feel of Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet, with a suburban setting where something was just wrong or off somehow. Perhaps everyone in town was dead, even though they were walking around? Or perhaps only some folks were dead? This didn't quite fly.

Then, we decided that the show would be set in a world where time travel existed. The PCs were not the time travelers. They worked in the lab where the actual scientists and time travelers got to do the cutting edge work. So, the PCs would be characters like the philosophical janitor, the pointy headed supervisor...

Me: The secretary.

Ben: Yes, the secretary!

Bob: The intern who never seems to leave.

General agreement.

And the world was basically the same as our world, despite the time travel, except that, once in a while, something would change because of the time travel. This would usually be something small. We agreed that the first episode should be where the new secretary started, and the camera followed her around, and she wondered why no one else found what was going on strange.

Folks decided which characters they would play, and when everyone had one, Ben noted that no one had taken the secretary. He wanted the secretary to be a PC, so I got to play after all. Very cool.

We decided that the name of the show would be Overtime. The theme music would start as a hand beating a drum, and change to styles in progressively more modern eras, ending with elevator muzak, as the characters rode up the elevator to work.

We decided that the season would be 9 episodes long. This allowed all of us to fit in a spotlight episode centered around our PCs. Each PC gets one per season, and only one PC should have the spotlight in any given episode, where his or her Issue would be explored. This is why Ben wasn't keen on fitting 6 PCs into the usual season of 5 episodes.

The players and their PCs were:

Dave Petroski: Mr. Clarke, the supervisor. His issue was stress.

Judd Karlman: Dr. Kyle Trellane, aka Kyle Trellane, aka Doc, a file clerk. He was actually the man who invented time travel. He went on the first trip back in time, but something had gone horribly wrong, and now he was a file clerk. He knew that he'd invented time travel, but no one believed him except for Lenny. His issue was that he knew he shouldn't be where and what he was, and his spotlight episode was the season closer.

Bob Bowell: Zeke, the slacker intern. His issue was motivation.

Andrew Morris: Ronnie Sherman, the philosophical janitor. He was an interesting counterpart to Zeke. Zeke could have been so much more, but chose not to be, whereas Ronnie got dealt a bad hand. His issue was that he could give good advice to anyone, but was lousy at taking his own advice and improving his own life.

Shawn DeArment: Lenny, another janitor, based on Lenny from Of Mice and Men and on the protagonist of Flowers for Algernon. He was pretty dumb, except that, at some point in the show, he would be smart. That would be his spotlight episode. He issue (my suggestion) was identity: When one's intelligence flips back and forth, what is one's core identity?

Lisa Padol: Sheila Karstein, Mr. Clarke's secretary. Her issue was fitting in.

We thought about playing Kyle's spotlight episode, but decided to play Lenny's instead. I think this was the right call, as Kyle's was the final episode, and that's tricky to do right as the first episode, even if appropriate for a time travel game, as I once suggested. Also, Lenny's spotlight episode was episode 5, the midpoint of the season, and came right before Mr. Clarke's spotlight episode.

The original rules call for rolling a variable number of dice. IIRC, odds are successes, evens are failures, and the high card narrates the scene. Someone decided to use cards, and the author is making this an official variation. This was the variation we used. Reds are successes, aces are high, and the high card narrates. While I am a fan of dice, cards work better here. Gamers, including myself, have a hard time not adding the dice, so it can take longer than it should to count successes. This doesn't seem to be a problem with the cards, for some reason.

Ben had two decks, one of which was for fan mail, kind of like bonus dice. The GM, aka the Director, has a certain number of tokens which represent the budget for the episode. Whenever he calls for a conflict, he puts in as many tokens as he likes, and he gets one card for each token. The tokens he spends stay in the pot.

Any player except the GM can take one of these tokens and give it to any player except for herself or the GM. This is called "giving fan mail" and it is done when the player thinks the fan mail recipient has done something very cool. Fan mail can then be used to get an extra card (or die) during a conflict. If this card is a success, the fan mail goes back into the budget. Otherwise, it is removed from the game.

Ben says that the more the fan mail flows, the better the game, though he's not sure which is cause and which is effect. This makes sense to me. I remember a voudoun practitioner explaining to me that the energy has to flow, not remain stagnant. This is a good general principle.

The actual session lasted at most 2 hours, but was more jam packed than many games twice its length. I hope the following gives some idea of how cool it all was.

We opened with a scene between Lenny and Sherman cleaning floors, a trope that repeats in most episodes. Sherman told Lenny that when someone chewed Lenny out, as happened in the previous episode, it wasn't personal, and Lenny didn't have to believe the person yelling at him.

Lenny: Good. Then, I don't have to do what Mr. Clarke says any more.

Sherman: Ah, Lenny...

Ben: I want Mr. Clarke to enter the scene now.

We decided that Lenny had caused a problem last episode by accidentally unplugging something.

Ben decided to push, and told Dave to have Clarke threaten Lenny's job. I'm not sure I would have done that. Ben then set up a conflict to see whether Lenny would yell. He won.

Lenny: I do good work! I come in early. I stay late.

Dave: Clarke's jaw drops in stunned amazement.

Ben asked for one smart statement out of Lenny.

Lenny: You're only here early because you want to get away from your wife!

Dave: Clarke sighs, turns, and walks away.

This odd reaction was nicely explained in the next scene. Clarke was on the phone with his perpetually unseen boss. Ben did an excellent job of conveying emotion in a wordless fashion, with the sound of a wookie and the style of the adult voices on the Peanuts cartoons.

Clarke: No, everything is fine. No, disciplinary action is -not- called for. No -- I -- Yes, I understand.

That little moment, where Clarke covered for Lenny, making it clear that the pointed headed supervisor cared about his people, nailed the character, showing that glint of humanity, especially important given his upcoming spotlight episode, although I don't think any of us were thinking about that at the time. It was performance flow.

Clarke talked to his secretary, and it was established that Important People were coming. Clarke asked Sheila for Lenny's file. Sheila said she'd left it on his desk, but it wasn't there. He went to Kyle, who opened a file draw and lifted out the file without looking up from what he was doing. Clarke took the file, and noticed in surprise that it was a lot thicker than it had been yesterday.

The Important Visitors, various scientists argued about some technical problem while Lenny vacuumed, carefully unplugged something, vacuumed around it, and replugged it. Judd played Dr. Philips, one of the scientists.

Lenny: Try recursion.

Philips looked at Lenny, while the scientists snickered.

Philips (to the scientists): Try a recursive loop.

Scientists: You're listening to the janitor?

Philips: Do it!

After they left, he talked to Lenny.

Judd: Dr. Philips addresses him as "Leonard", for the first time on the show.

And fan mail flew in Judd's direction.

Philips asked how Lenny knew to try a recursive loop. Lenny had no idea what the word meant. Philips asked him to write down any more ideas he had on the door of a stall in the men's bathroom, and not to tell anyone else. Cut to Philips leaving a pen in the stall.

Zeke talked to Sherman about a woman he was interested in. She'd just broken up with her boyfriend, but he wasn't sure he should make a move.

Sherman: What do you think about most?

Zeke: Books. The office.

Sherman: In fifty years, you'll be sitting on the porch in your rocker. Books, the office -- is this what you want to remember fifty years from now? In a hundred years, we'll all be dead.

As Zeke waffled, the woman came up behind him, hearing him tell Sherman that, not only was she physically attractive to him, she also had a great mind, and that was a turn on. Sherman suggested Zeke turn around.

The woman: Friday, 8 pm.

Bob said that she shouldn't show up again that episode, and we agreed that the date would be in the next episode.

Mr. Clarke was in his office when the phone, currently an old rotary phone, rang. Reluctantly, he answered it. I forget the conversation. There was a brief power blackout, and when it ended, things were subtly different. Clarke now had a computer on his desk, and the phone was a different kind of phone.

Sheila was sitting at her desk outside Clarke's office at some point after Clarke left. Dr. Henderson came out of the office, carrying Lenny's file. Sheila asked what it was, and he put it behind his back, telling her it was too technical for her to understand. Sheila nodded, and asked him to fix her computer so she could play solitaire, peeking at the name of the file while he did so. I didn't think it made sense for her to take the file.

Kyle watched Lenny write on the door of one of the stalls. Losing his characteristic stammer, Lenny explained his theory to Kyle, with Ben supplying technobabble terms at intervals. Alas, Lenny was unable to convince Kyle that the theory would work.

Kyle: Do you know why they call me "Doc"?

Lenny: Yes, you invented time travel --

Kyle: No --

Lenny: You told me. And I believe you.

Kyle: Lenny, time travel ruined my life!

Lenny: Doc --

Kyle: But what it did to me was nothing to what it did to you.

And the fan mail flew. This was the line that made the episode come together for Ben, and for the rest of us as well. It was also a line midway through the midseason episode that marked the change in tone from something lighthearted to something the audience now realized had an overall plot, and a rather dark one at that. Again, we were not planning this. It just flowed.

Kyle called his ex-wife. Judd and Ben agreed that she had woken up dissatisfied with her marriage to the file clerk, somehow feeling she should be married to someone more important, even though she didn't consciously remember that Kyle was the genius who had invented time travel. She was surprised to hear from Kyle. She noted that he hadn't come to her second wedding, although he'd been invited, and that he could have called to tell her he wouldn't be there. She suggested he go back to school and finish his degree.

Kyle: I couldn't. It would feel like doing all the work twice. Look, do you remember an old friend of mine?

That friend was Lenny. Kyle's ex-wife said that she didn't remember him, but a cut shot showed her looking at a picture of both Lenny and Kyle. Something was clearly Going On.

Meanwhile, Henderson asked Clarke whether any of Clarke's employees had been acting oddly lately. Clarke denied this and asked after the missing file. We didn't think we needed to play out Sheila telling him about it. Outside, Sherman and Lenny cleaned the windows, Lenny writing equations with his fingers on the glass, Sherman cleaning over them, and Clarke trying and failing to keep Henderson from noticing. Henderson claimed that he'd gotten authorization from Clarke's boss to take the file.

Clarke: Ah, no. See, if you had gotten authorization from my boss, there would have been an authorization form submitted.

Henderson slammed the file down and stalked out, calling Clarke a pencil pusher.

Clarke: Sheila, put Dr. Henderson on the list.

Sheila: Yes, Mr. Clarke.

There was another power outage. When it ended, the contents of the file were scattered all over the room, and there were subtle changes, including a change in Sheila's hairstyle. Clarke's phone started to ring.

Sheila: Do you want me to hold the call, or do you want me to get the papers while you take the call?

Clarke: No. No. Let it ring.

And the fan mail flew. Clarke had gone from being on the phone to being reluctant to answer the phone to letting the phone ring. Lovely.

There was another scene between Zeke and Sherman, where Zeke tried to chew Sherman out for not telling him the woman he was interested in was standing behind him. He was handicapped in this by really liking the results of Sherman's interference.

Sherman: In a hundred years, we'll all be dead.

Later on, Sherman and Lenny were cleaning again.

Lenny: Sherman, what do you want to be when you grow up?

And the fan mail flew. This just nailed so many of the characters' issues. Lenny's identity. Sherman's inability to take his own advice and move on. Zeke's refusal to do anything with his life. Kyle's dissatisfaction with his life. Clarke's difficult decisions as someone who had grown up.

Sherman looked at Lenny. Then, he went back to cleaning.

Once more in the men's room, Lenny tried to explain his theory to Dr. Philips, played first by Ben, but then by Judd again. Lenny absolutely knew his theory was correct, but Philips did not see it. Dr. Henderson entered.

Dr. Henderson (to Dr. Philips): We have to do it now, or it will be too late. (to Lenny): Goodbye, Leonard. It was nice knowing you.

And, as the credits rolled:

-- Clarke shredded Lenny's file, something Dave had been planning as an end scene from the moment the file first entered the show

-- Zeke looked at a different file, staring in amazement at Lenny's theory, in Lenny's handwriting, before closing the file and saying, "Nah, that would never work".

-- Two men in maintenance outfits entered the men's room, unscrewed the door Lenny had written on, replaced it with a new door, and carried the door with the formula out to a dark maintenance van, one that we agreed had probably been seen briefly in other episodes, and that now took on a sinister cast

Shawn: Wow. I'd planned to have Lenny paint over the door at the end, but this is so much better.

We neglected to go around the table, each giving a quick "Tune in next time" scene, but we were all jazzed. If there were a DVD out of Overtime, I'd be buying it and watching it.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #1 on: July 27, 2005, 07:37:59 PM »

The two lessons I learned in this game session were that I should never game past midnight and that Judd is a fucking role-playing god.

I was seriously burnt and completely out of creative "oomph" the whole time. I have the feeling my lack of creativity and energy left Sherman a bit stale as a character, and certainly not at all what he could have been.

Did I mention Judd is one of the best players to have at your gaming table? I've played with him in a variety of games at Dreamation and DexCon, and he nails it every time, no matter what type of character he's playing. I'm sure that if you were at the worst gaming session in the world, and Judd was playing, that fact alone would make the game enjoyable. While my memory is a bit fuzzy, I'm pretty sure he got as much fan mail as the rest of the players combined. Hell, there were times we would have given him more, but had already awarded him our stacks.

In conclusion, I should never role-play (or even talk) after midnight, and Judd is awesome.
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Robert Bohl
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« Reply #2 on: July 28, 2005, 04:40:31 AM »

Andrew, you were very good too, even at half-mast.  Maybe it helped that your character was world-weary, but those physicist-mentored-by-a-janitor scenes were a hell of a lot of fun for me.

But yes, Judd is amazing.  On the rare occasions I get to run something for him I'm reminded of that.  And he's not just really good at role playing, he's also really good at helping move things along and motivate people.

I enjoyed this a lot.  My only complaint was that there was too much technobabble and on-screen science, which is the kind of thing I would've preferred to have happen between cuts, but given the nature of this episode's plot, I can't really complain.

I think someone should come up with a version of this called something like Movie Adventures, for one shots, where you can come up with a film in the same way you do TV shows.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #3 on: July 28, 2005, 05:32:05 AM »

Thanks, Rob. I hadn't considered that my lack of energy might have worked for the character.

My only complaint was that there was too much technobabble and on-screen science, which is the kind of thing I would've preferred to have happen between cuts, but given the nature of this episode's plot, I can't really complain.

Interesting. I thought there was a real lack of technobabble, and that what was there was repetitive. The closest thing to technobabble, IMHO, was the "recursive loop," which was repeated about half a dozen times. I would have liked to have seen some real-world time travel terminology thrown in, like "Einstein-Rosen bridges" or "curvatures in spacetime."
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Robert Bohl
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« Reply #4 on: July 28, 2005, 05:38:06 AM »

Interesting. I thought there was a real lack of technobabble, and that what was there was repetitive. The closest thing to technobabble, IMHO, was the "recursive loop," which was repeated about half a dozen times. I would have liked to have seen some real-world time travel terminology thrown in, like "Einstein-Rosen bridges" or "curvatures in spacetime."
For me, I was looking forward to this as not being a science fiction story, and rather being a story that happened around science fiction.  I thought what Lenny's player did (was that Shawn? I'm sorry, I'm pretty bad with names) in terms of actually coming up with a cogent pseudoscience explanation for what was happening (with inspiration from Primer, I think?) was pretty cool.  But I was hoping/expecting/imagining a scienceless "show", where the time travel was as interesting as paper clips.
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Andrew Morris
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« Reply #5 on: July 28, 2005, 06:24:39 AM »

Good point, Rob. I guess that goes to show how vitally important communication, understanding, and communication are at the start of the game. Elements like "no technobabble or pseudoscience" need to be hammered out at early on, and everyone needs to be on board. Of course, there's always some changing of the starting conditions, brought on by actual play (e.g. we started out with a character-focused comedy, and ended up with an off-beat human drama with a slightly sinister aspect).
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Shawn De Arment
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« Reply #6 on: July 28, 2005, 10:59:33 AM »

My biggest regret of Dexcon was that we could only play one session of [PTA] Overtime. Midnight games are tough (speaking as someone who gets up at 4 AM in real life), but I thought everyone was absolutely brilliant.

Much of the credit goes to Ben’s Producer skills. He made sure we had a pitch for a show everyone was INVESTED in. He handled all 6 of us in such a way that everyone had screen time.

There were great lines and poignant characterization in every scene. More than once, I wanted to hand out fanmail, but there were no chips left in the middle of the table. My personal high point was the “Sherman, what do you want to be when you grow up?” line

Rob, you are right about Primer being my inspiration. I half expected one of the door thieves to be a different version of Dr. Kyle Trellane.
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Judd
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« Reply #7 on: July 28, 2005, 08:10:15 PM »

Shawn, I've gotta tell ya, I didn't like your concept at first and what's more, I hated that he was named Lenny.

Then you started to play him.  Wow.

Then:

“Sherman, what do you want to be when you grow up?”

Ben's handling of the not only the brainstorming and the table, from joy to firm leadership was splendid.

I feel like this game teaches us how to be a good group and teaches GM's how to be good GM's.

P.T.A. teaches the players to:

Listen to your one another.

There should be a firm leader with a vision but allow others to alter that vision and not stop until everyone is invested in what is about to happen at the table.

Applaud one another.

Take joy in one another.


When the right idea came to the table, there was an audible CLICK.  It was something everyone could feel and suddenly everyone at the table had something to say about the concept, everyone had some input, everyone was being brilliant all at once.

Holy shit.

The players, during the brainstorming pitch phase, have to be encouraged to throw forth bad ideas, lame ideas, trite ideas ALL ideas and show that everyone will fail and that is alright.  When the right idea comes, it is like a comet hitting the table.

Ben did a wonderful job, everyone did a wonderful job.  I would have loved to have played that game again.

Shit, I want to see that show.  [slick producer's pitch]It was like X-Files meets Ally McBeal meets The Office meets Sliders.[/slick]

I went home and re-read my copy of P.T.A. and marvelled that my first playing of this game didn't go as well.  I think we made some mistakes at the table and we only had 3 players.  I cannot wait to play this with my home groups.

Thanks, Ben, for running a rockin' game.  And thanks for the applause and kind words, folks.
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Lisa Padol
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« Reply #8 on: September 22, 2005, 08:58:13 AM »

At least three of the A&E crew said they'd watch the show.

One asked if he can put it in his campaign. There's a company that licenses the images of the superhero PCs in that campaign, and he wants the company to do other things as well. And, he thinks that when the players hear that the company makes a tv show about time travel, they're likely to freak and jump to the wrong conclusions.

I have no objections and a big grin.

-Lisa
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Judd
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« Reply #9 on: September 22, 2005, 09:25:10 AM »

Ya lost me.
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Lisa Padol
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« Reply #10 on: September 22, 2005, 02:42:38 PM »

Ya lost me.

Okay, a friend of mine, Brian, is running a game. Running and playing in several games, actually, but in this particular game, the PCs, IIRC, are superheroes. And there's some company that has licensing rights to their images or something like that -- I guess the company gets to sell the action figures, the Saturday morning cartoon, and so on.

So, Brian would like this company to do other stuff, as local color, because the company has existed for some time, and clearly has other things that bring in money. So, he's decided that in his game world, one of the things this company does is make tv shows. Overtime -- our Overtime -- is one of those shows. It's cool local color and nicely intertextual. He wishes it existed so that he could watch it, and this is the closest he can come (although I don't think he plans to detail episodes). And, it has the added bennie of being a red herring if the PCs' conspiracy radars go off -- e.g., "They do a show about time travel and how stuff changes in small ways? This is part of a Conspiracy!"

Is this clearer?

-Lisa

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Judd
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« Reply #11 on: September 22, 2005, 03:16:23 PM »

Crystal clear, Lisa, thanks.

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