[Primetime Adventures] Dark Fragrance

Started by Chris_Chinn, February 27, 2011, 01:26:23 AM

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We just wrapped up our second campaign of Primetime Adventures (the first was based on Star Wars).  The group consists of myself, Sushu, and Jono, all of us are in our late 20's to early 30's, and Jono & Sushu are married.   We've been playing once-a-month games for over a year now, and it's been working out well.  Jono & I were the players, Sushu was GM'ing for the first time.

Our series is based on Hong Kong action-dramas, based in the 1920's in Shanghai, following the situations around the "Night Fragrance" nightclub.    The protagonists were:

- Ling Bai, middle aged martial artist from the sticks who has moved to Shanghai to help his sister, Ling Mei, run Night Fragrance.
- Han Zhen, a young rich boy going to college who has gotten swept up in faux Communist revolutionary crowd, who frequents the club.

Everything involved a lot of triads, dirty fights in alleys, rivalries, unsavory deals and compromises, and struggles between family and ideals.

We had a great time, and Sushu found GMing it to be pretty easy to work with.  She's a teacher and noted that prepping to play was like preparing a teaching plan.  She had this really excellent quote, "It's not focusing on outcome, but the experience that matters."

PTA is a deceptively simple game- it has a lot of emergent qualities that only show up with longer term play and people developing skillfulness with the system.

TV Mindset

Ben Lehman once pointed out that PTA works great when everyone is trying to play a game that is a TV show, and works like shit when everyone tries to use it as GURPS Light. 

This is absolutely true, and part of it is that the former keeps everyone focused on relevant fiction with quick pacing with the system supporting, while the latter only highlights how little "meat" there often is when people attempt to do a casual "And then, and then, and then" series of events without editing or emotional weight applied to some.

The dangerous part of this is that sometimes it's easy to fall into "storyboarding" or attempting to negotiate the future story without actually playing it out.  We found this mostly came up when it came to conflicts, and trying to figure out stakes.

I personally found it was best to just go with a gut decision about what stakes made sense, rather than over-think it, and it helped for us to step back and call out storyboarding when we found ourselves slipping into it:

"Hey, stop.  This is what you're trying to do, let's pull the cards and play it out after we see the results."

This happened in the last game with a conversation between characters, but it was easy enough to simply start putting out cards as a visual signal that it was time to just hit the mechanics.

Partial Scenes

We found at several points in play, it was useful to briefly describe a "partial scene" - that is, a montage, a quick shot of foreshadowing, etc.  No real dialogue, no real conflict.  We didn't count these as full scenes in the PTA sense, and we negotiated them all on the fly, but they were often a useful and necessary step at times to bridging the gap between the usual high intensity conflict scenes and sometimes, just fitting with the expectations of what you'd see on TV.

I'm not sure if there's a good way to fully structure these or if that's just how they need to work.

The Issue isn't the Issue, the Spotlight isn't everything

It's really neat to notice that whatever Issue you write down, probably isn't the real issue for the character, but you'll figure it out in hindsight.   It's rather, a direction that in the pursuit of, that you'll find out what's really going on.

Likewise, the Spotlight episode might be the time when everyone focuses on your character and your character's Issue, but often it's the period AFTER the Spotlight when we really see who and what your character is made of.  Because the Spotlight episode gives your character a lot of power to win conflicts, your character puts forward a lot of thematic statements... but afterwards is where we really see whether they can live up to them, compromise them, or drop them altogether.

I imagine if you wanted to play a tragedy, putting your Spotlight episode early in a Season would probably mirror that a lot.

(My own character, Ling Bai, started off as a stand up guy who was just trying to make an honest living while getting sucked deeper and deeper into triad gangster drama, during the Spotlight, he broke all ties... but it was the two episodes afterwards where he then found the only way to really protect everything was to be just as violent as the people he was opposing...)

Also- it's good to apply TV Mindset to when you want your Spotlight episode.  My character started with "Feels like a loser" as an Issue, and I put his Spotlight Episode at the 3rd session, because self pity gets old quick, whereas another Issue might be more interesting to tackle later in a Season.

Player Investment over time

An interesting and overlooked quality to PTA is that being able to save Fan Mail between sessions means you can rack up a lot of Fan Mail as the Season continues- at the same time, you're becoming more and more invested in the fiction and events, and thus, have more incentive to spend Fan Mail.

In a certain way, as well, because the Producer can get more Budget when you spend Fan Mail, it's a loose reward system to the Producer to encourage them to find conflicts that make you want to spend Fan Mail.  It ties itself back into the basic conflict mechanics by serving as a flag to the Producer when they are hitting conflict material the players are invested in.

Positive Swinginess

Typically "Swinginess", or the tendency to shoot to extreme results is seen as a bad thing.  Though, this is usually in the context of rpgs where the mechanics are about character survival AKA continued player participation.

Since PTA has you do stakes setting, in which the results aren't whether the protagonists live or die, but rather outcomes and complications, the swinginess is both important and exciting, but not game-killing in any fashion. 

We've had a lot of times where 6 cards have lost to 3 cards and similar upsets which makes it always tense, even if you have the advantage.

Screen Presence 1 - Losing to Win

Screen Presence 1 means you're probably going to get hammered in any Conflict you get into.  So, I found it works really well to pick conflicts you want to lose and/or spend your character's efforts and scene setting on a character with a higher Spotlight.  For the latter, it means you usually end up in less conflicts while at the same time making a better session for another player by playing the support role.

Between getting tragically slammed AND supporting other players, it's pretty interesting that Screen Presence 1 episodes seemed ideal for me to get more Fan Mail.  In a lot of ways, because you're so limited on what you can do, it's easy to focus on just playing the best you can and getting Fan Mail as you go.



Super interesting, Chris -- thanks for this.

One question:  Can you give us some idea of just how much fan mail was being issued per session, as a rough average?



Hi Roger,

Sure thing.  With two players, less Fan Mail goes around, especially since the GM isn't allowed to give Fan Mail in PTA by the rules.  I know in our previous game we skipped that rule, and I can't recall if we did the same for this campaign. 

I remember myself and Jono each getting somewhere between 2-5 Fan Mail a session, primarily depending on the issues and how "on" we happened to be that night.  Interestingly enough, Spotlight 1 episodes are a great time to earn Fan Mail, between being a good support for other characters AND running yourself through the wringer by choosing conflicts to lose.

By the end of our 5 session Season, I had accumulated 6 Fan Mail going into that last session.   I think Jono had saved 5 Fan Mail going into the previous session, which was his Spotlight episode.



I was one of the players in this game.  My character was Han Zhen, the wanna-be Communist revolutionary.  My Issue was "naivete / privilege" - meaning I had grown up in conditions of luxury and so while I had the best intentions of fighting for the working class, I had basically had no contact with them and no understanding of what their lives were like... or how the world really worked outside of my sphere.

Han Zhen also thought that he could learn martial arts from a book.  Same thing.

I got REALLY lucky with the card flips the first few times I tried to fight someone for real.  This was one example of the swinginess that Chris mentioned -- really, Han Zhen *shouldn't* have been beating these people.  But we narrated it that I did some move that was so inappropriate for the situation that it caught the other person off-guard.  After getting lucky like this a couple times, HZ had quite an inflated idea of his own kung fu prowess.  This kept ratcheting up the tension for his inevitable comeuppance.  It was a dramatic irony sort of thing, where the audience knows something the character doesn't.  I got a kick out of it (no pun intended).

There's this thing I want to talk about which was a continuous problem for me in this game.  Not game-breaking, but significantly problematic.

I should start by mentioning that Chris and Sushu are both big fans of Wu Xia and related genres -- from wire-fu movies to Chinese historical war dramas to martial-arts comics, they've had a lot of experiences with these tropes.  I have not.  I mean, I like martial arts, I like Chinese history, I've enjoyed what little I've seen and read, but I'm not real versed in the cliches, the expectations, the story structure, the cultural references, etc.

(I watched "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" for the 2nd time a couple nights ago, with Sushu there to point things out.  She revealed whole worlds of deeper meaning there that I missed the first time around.)

So in our Dark Fragrance game, the other two players had this rapport, this unspoken shared understanding of Color, almost a whole visual language, that I was missing out on.  I didn't have a lot of real clear pictures in my head of what 1920s Shanghai would even have looked like (despite looking up some archive photographs).  This is a handicap in PTA where describing things visually, TV-style, is so important.

(I think now I might understand now how a non-reader of fantasy fiction must feel when invited to game with people who are all well-versed in a shared milieu of kobolds and halberds and druids and so on...)

Anyway, I was determined to stick it out and do my best anyway.  Even if some things went over my head and I had to ask some dumb questions, I enjoyed the game, and I *really* enjoyed seeing my wife GM an extended campaign for the first time, in a genre that she's so excited about, and prove herself to be *really good at it*.

There were some awkward moments.  Like, I wanted my character to be well-versed in high society etiquette type stuff.  So I would say something that I meant to be respectful and flattering, only to the other players' imagination of the scene and their understanding of the in-game cultural context, it came off as awkward or silly or whatever.  I would have to fall back on "Well Han Zhen would know what to say, he says *that*."  The three of us are tight enough that we can work through this stuff and keep the game moving, but there were some times when it distanced me from the role-playing I wanted to do.

Because of my lack of confidence with the genre and setting, relative to the other players, I felt uncomfortable injecting a lot of details of my own unless I was building on characters and situations already established.  I didn't want to, like, get it *wrong*.  I know this is dumb, but, like, I didn't want to call some move Tiger Style if it was actually Crane Style or call some philosophy Daoist if it was actually Confucian. That kind of thing. This is somebody else's daydream I'm playing around in, better tiptoe so I don't break anything.

An example - Sushu, the producer, role-plays my character's father giving me a chunk of money and telling me to go buy up a building down by the docks (the building used by a free clinic that's helping the poor and sick in the neighborhood - OH NO loyalty to my family vs. solidarity with the downtrodden!  It was a great Bang).  Anyway I've got this chunk of money but, like, how much is it?  No numbers were exchanged, so is it enough to... bribe the corrupt police chief who is harassing the nightclub?  pay off the nightclub's debts?  pay off the free clinic's debts? buy back our singer Tien Mi Mi from the rival nightclub who won her as gambling stakes earlier?  Enough to do more than one of these things?

Now in a PTA game where I was more confident about the setting I might just *assert* that the money was sufficient to do thing A and also do thing B.  I might just take the ambiguity left by the producer's narration and shove my own fact in there.  And it would probably work out fine.  But in this game, I was really uncomfortable asserting facts like that because I started thinking about the economics of 1920s shanghai and how much the police chief gets paid and how much property costs and... basically all this "realism"-based, historical, hyper-simulationist stuff... and realized that I didn't know what was a reasonable assertion to make.  So I played it in a very cautious way, either assuming that I couldn't do any of those things with my dad's wad-o-cash, or else asking "permission" from the producer for anything that I wanted to do with it.  Not saying this was rational, actually I think it was quite poor play on my part and that I passed up some interesting opportunities.  It was especially poor play for PTA, which, I mean, there's a *reason* you don't track exactly how many dollars your character has in PTA, know what I mean?  It's supposed to be fast and loose and rule-of-drama and what-would-play-well-on-TV but here I am continually slipping into this overly cautious, logistical, simulationist, actor stance, permission-seeking mode of play.

Basically I had a really hard time getting into the Director Stance which seems to be key to fun PTA play.  It got bad enough that the other players had to keep on reminding me "Jono, stop thinking logistics, it's a TV show".

You see the difference between these three cases:

1. "I bribe the police chief with some of the money, then take the rest and buy a slightly smaller building."  (Pushing into the SIS an assertion that the money is sufficient; stop me if you don't agree.)

2. "Can I bribe the police chief and still have enough to buy a building?" (Asking because I believe it's the GM's job to decide on all relevant facts and the player can only declare character intentions, so I need to ask permission to do anything)

3. "Is the money enough to bribe the police chief and still have enough to buy a building?" (Asking because I want to clarify my understanding of how big you were thinking when you role-played that wad of cash into existence, with the understanding that it's totally up for negotiation)

Even though number 2 and number 3 are identical on the surface, the intention behind them is quite different.  I think number 2, de rigeur in many trad games, is quite poor form in PTA but I think I unintentionally slipped into that mode of interaction more than once during this game.



Hi Jono,

Wow, that's really useful to hear!  I didn't know you had that level of logistical questions going on while we were playing.   I figured if you had an issue money-wise, you'd pull in a Conflict and use your "Rich Boy" Edge to resolve it - it's actually part of the reason I figured you took that Edge in the first place.



The phenomenon I was describing wasn't game-ruining by any stretch; it just created some rough patches.

You're right, making a Conflict and using my "Moneyhaver" edge would have been the sensible and obvious thing to do.  I'm trying to figure out why I *didn't* do that.  I had this weird mindset going on where I thought that in order to enact a cunning financial plan, it was necessary for me, the player, to come up with and describe a plan that was sound and realistic.  Thinking about it after the game it's obvious that this is not the case and has never been the case in PTA, and yet while I was playing that's how I was thinking.

It's much like how in the previous PTA game, the Star Wars one, I kept trying to come up with a tactically sound battle plan as a player.  Which led to all that silly business with my leaving Coruscant to go round up some rebel scum to help me with my next assault.  Which led to boring and pointless scene before diving back into the real situation with nothing really having changed.

Since it happened in the Star Wars game too, maybe my lack of confidence with this setting wasn't the culprit after all.  Hm.  My own mind is a mystery to me sometimes.

I guess part of it might be that in PTA I'm always aware that conflicts are a limited resource.  Only one of them per scene, I only get a scene once each time around the table, and there's only so many in a session before the budget runs out.  All of which inspires a weird desire to strategize about what to "spend" my conflicts on, and a desire to avoid conflicts if they're not "important enough".  Which might have to do with why I didn't just call a conflict over "Does my cunning financial plan work?".


Hi Jono,

There's actually a lot of strategizing you can do with PTA, but it all revolves on fictional positioning, story capital and where the focus of play goes.

For example, in the second-to-last session, I was at Screen Presence 1, and you were having your Spotlight episode.  I spent one scene on my own goals (trying to get soup to Tien Mi Mi) before I realized that I would either have to spend a lot of Fanmail to do anything, or accept failing, and there wasn't anything I particularly wanted to fail at, at that time.

So after that one scene, I deliberately pushed all of my scenes and actions to be exactly what PTA says- be a supporting character during someone else's Spotlight episode- everything my character did after that point, aimed towards your character and his Issue.

Not only did it make it a better session, it also meant I didn't get saddled with a lot of failures and problems during that episode- whenever the scene included both of us, you naturally took the spotlight as appropriate to the Screen Presence.  I also ended up getting more Fanmail without necessarily spending it, during that session.

Obviously, though, all of that is naturally comes out if you just stay in the TV mindset- it's someone else's Spotlight episode and you're a supporting character - you don't need to think of the math or advantages, you just go with it and it works.


Christoph Boeckle

Hello guys

Could you give an example of a partial scene and how it was different to elaborate scene framing, please?

Jono, did you feel that just asking the other two players what they held as reasonable concerning the money issue and have a quick discussion to get on the same page would have been bad role playing? Or that it would break their enjoyment of the genre? From your message I get the idea that you put a lot of value in offering a quality portrayal of your character, and yet you were reluctant to ask the missing info to achieve that level of play.


Hi Christoph,

About those "partial scenes".  They were usually just a couple sentences each.  Here's a paraphrase of one since I don't remember the exact details:

"We see Yu Ying* reading the note you left, and then we see her sprinting across rooftops in the night, wearing her ninja garb, jumping from one to the next.  The camera pans up and we see the moon is reflecting off the water in the harbor.  She's heading towards the warehouses near the docks."

*- (gah, what was her name?  Something with a Y... I'm drawing a blank)

That would be the whole scene, just a few sentences.  Then we'd go on with the next "real" scene in the PTA turn order.

The above scene happened right after another scene where Ling Bai had dropped some information about what this evil gang boss was up to (human trafficking, smuggling women in the cargo of ships, to be sold into prostitution) and where he was hiding out (in the warehouse near the docks).  Yu Ying is a secondary character, but we know she's a badass fighter and we know she's going to have a huge grudge against the gang boss when she finds out.   The partial scene establishes that she's found the info and that she's decided to head off to challenge the gang boss alone.  This creates an expectation for later that Ying is going to be in trouble.  We don't know what KIND of trouble, yet - maybe she'll kill the gang boss and then get caught by the police.  Maybe she'll show up later having taken a beating, looking for help or protection.  Maybe the gang boss will be dead and one of the protagonists will be blamed for it.  It was up in the air, creating tension.  Any player could then have taken up the Ying-vs-gang-boss story thread at any time, and run in their own direction with it.

We didn't use any formal procedure for narration rights.  One person would start and others would speak up and add in details.  It was very ad-hoc, based on a kind of shared intuition.  We often started the narration with "I see..." or "We see..." or "I think we see...".   What we meant was "the audience sees".  Chris started phrasing stuff that way, to emphasize that this is what the audience is seeing, not something my character is seeing or doing.  I liked that phrasing enough to pick it up and start doing it too.

Partial scenes came up at times when the logic of TV storytelling required a scene there to establish what was happening, but it wasn't important enough for the next player to want to use up their whole turn on it.  (I want to use my scene for my own character, dammit!)  Partial scenes were especially handy for connecting the results of one character's actions to another character even if those characters hadn't been directly interacting.  It was also handy for showing what secondary characters were up to.  I felt like they helped the whole story cohere better.  Made later twists feel like they had been set up and weren't just pulled out of thin air.

Another example: "We see all the women who were rescued from the smuggling ring working at the nightclub.  Ling Mei is like 'how are we going to find jobs for all these people?'.  But since they're from all over China they know all the different local dialects and how to make the traditional meals.  We see some customers going 'This is great! Just like my homeland!'. "

A real simple bit of narration just to let us know what happened to the women we rescued.


Jono, did you feel that just asking the other two players what they held as reasonable concerning the money issue and have a quick discussion to get on the same page would have been bad role playing? Or that it would break their enjoyment of the genre? From your message I get the idea that you put a lot of value in offering a quality portrayal of your character, and yet you were reluctant to ask the missing info to achieve that level of play.

Erm.  I don't feel it would have been bad role-playing.  I'm not some sort of method-actor, "never break character!" guy, if that's what you're imagining.  We do a lot of out-of-character table talk in our PTA games, throwing around ideas for what's going to happen next, cracking jokes, etc.  I can't really imagine PTA without the kibbitzing.

It's more like, asking Chris and Sushu about the money just *didn't occur to me* while I was playing.  I don't know why.

I think it often happens that when my character is faced with a really tough immediate decision, I go "oh holy crap!" and then I get a kind of tunnel vision about it, where I'm only thinking about what *I* would do if I was in that situation.  I get into some kind of... deep Actor Stance I guess?  Which means I don't even see options that should be fairly obvious.  It happened in Star Wars PTA, too.

Thing is, I'm faced with tough immediate decisions a LOT, because both Chris and Sushu are great at bringing the crazy Bangs.  (one of my favorites from this game: My wannabe communist-revolutionary student friends decided it was time to raid a rich family's house and forcibly redistribute the wealth... and they picked the house of my father who had recently disowned me.  And they wanted me to lead the raid.  Oh holy crap!)


I think this might be the flipside of a very good thread -- (PTA) Players wanting their PCs to fail? -- which I would recommend to your consideration.

Don't feel too bad -- lots and lots of shows with professional writers have fallen into exactly this trap.  The dude has some money and holy crap it's a big deal whether he spends it on the thing he wants or whether he spends it on the thing his dad wants him to spend it on.  Then the critical moment comes and... ah, no worries, there's enough money for both.  It's a big cheat, and everyone knows it, and it totally sucks.

That being said, it's still your job, even in PTA, as a player to strive towards the best interests of your character, in my opinion.  You have quite enough to worry about.  The Producer should be shoving you into the tough choices.  It's his job to exclude the weak cheaty middle.

The thing I'd like to hear more about is the Bangs, or more specifically, the Bang procedure.  I get the sense, perhaps inaccurately, that you, the player, is as surprised by the Bang as the character is.  So I'd like to hear more about how Bangs happen at your table.



Hi Roger,

I'm not sure Sushu's full procedure for setting up Bangs, though she mentioned prepping for session is in, some ways, like prepping a lesson plan for school.  A useful lesson I learned from GM'ing our last game, that I passed on to her, was that since the first scene goes to the GM, to hit hard with a conflict right away. PTA helps, in that the players give you a set of "Next time..." scenes which serve as great jumping off points.

For us, sometimes the situations were "Whoa!" surprising for us as players, sometimes I could see things coming- Han Zhen getting set up to rob his own father's house was something I saw coming as soon as the mention of robbing the rich was brought up.  Obviously, though, it's easier to take an "audience" mindset when the scene isn't focused on your character.

And then there's the sort of interplay between player characters that surprises almost everyone.  Jono had Han Zhen come to Ling Bai looking for a substitute father-figure, and Ling Bai, being a traditionalist, totally yelled him out about being an unfilial son, and how much his father must have struggled and worked for him to have a good life.  Not only did it break the expected trope, it also worked well for putting pressure back on Han Zhen as a character - not letting him escape facing his father.  I didn't plan that, but it worked out perfectly in play and really set the tone for the last act of the campaign.



Sushu did quite a detailed write-up about how she preps and GMs.  It's here: http://summercomfort.livejournal.com/541550.html

She always keeps detailed notes about the game on her laptop.  (This enabled us to recall the "next time on..." scenes even when a month passed between sessions).  She would do what she called "lesson planning" by looking at what had happened so far and writing out ideas for what could happen next.

She has very little experience with "trad" RPGs having only played D&D like, twice ever, so she's never really suffered from most of the common gamer hang-ups and dysfunctions.  It's interesting to watch her running a game for the first time and discovering the things that I've been struggling with for years.  Like she said this:

QuoteWow, I didn't know how little of planned background stuff ever get used. Thus far for me, it's about 30-20-50: 30% gets used that session, 20% can be salvaged for later possibilities, and 50% is completely scrapped. That's ... not very efficient use of planned material.


Oh wow, I totally forgot about that post!

Yeah, over the course of a season, Bangs get better as you get a better read on what the players are -really- interested in, the nuances of their Issues and Relationships, and what kinds of conflicts causes them to spend Traits and Fanmail.


Christoph Boeckle

Thank you Jono for this detailed answer!

I'm really liking the idea of those partial scenes. Let me see if I got this straight: partial scenes were short conflict-less scenes about secondary characters. Did protagonists ever appear in them directly?

I get what you say concerning your issue about not asking. Alas I have no good advice. I hope you'll find some way out next game!