Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Quick and Dirty: Primetime Apocalypse

A few months ago I wrote about the idea of using the basic die-roll mechanic found in the APOCALYPSE WORLD games all by itself -- a super-lite A*W variant, if you will. There is a pleasing simplicity to this rule, which can generate all kinds of interesting dramatic avenues that neither the player nor the GM had planned. Most of the rolls are geared to give players either what they wanted (but with strings attached) or else something they really, really didn't want to happen. That's potent gaming mojo there.

PRIMETIME ADVENTURES is another game that has very, very simple basic mechanics, although it's really focused on the dramatic side of roleplaying. The conflict resolution involves drawing cards, with the side which has the most number of red cards getting what they want. The person with the highest single card gets to say how it goes down, putting narrative control somewhat up in the air.

PTA is a terrific game that we've gotten a lot of mileage out of over the years, but there are a few things about it that I find a little unsatisfying, and that may be my own gamer baggage. As my friend Rob has observed, PTA is not so good at resolving action scenes; sometimes in a game, it's interesting and satisfying to zoom in on a story element like a fight scene or a heist and see its component parts turning. There are a lot of little things that can go wrong, and the fallout from something like that becomes interesting story.

True, PTA has the "slow reveal" method of turning over your cards one at a time, but that leads me to the other thing that the game that has troubled me over the years. Players have a lot more resources than the GM in PTA, by design, and this is both a strength and a weakness. The GM's budget (and the rules for how it can be applied) only allows her to push so hard, and no further. That means that in a longer game, the accumulation of fanmail means the players can basically write their own ending. I suspect this was part of the point, but knowing that I'm not really going to get any really serious pushback in the long arc of a game means the ending somehow doesn't feel as earned. Again, that's probably down to me.

So here's a little twist I'm thinking about for combining these two fine games. The structure and conflict resolution rules from PTA would continue to work the way they always do, with the exception that the conflict rules wouldn't be used for things outside of character interactions. This gives the GM a slightly bigger budget overall (though since the assumption is still that character drama is the centrepiece of the game, it means that the majority of the GM's "push" goes where it's most important).

The A*W "Lite" model would be applied to things that aren't intercharacter drama, like fights, or heists, or whatever you like that falls under the aegis of "procedural" actions (as Robin Laws would have it). Character traits could give you a +1 on your roll, but no more than this (as bonuses tend to be small in A*W variants). As usual, rolling a 10+ would give you a straight-up win with a little more room than you'd hoped for. a 7-9 would give you a success with strings attached. A 6 or less would mean the GM making an applicable Move -- you could probably borrow or modify the list of GM Moves from any of the A*W games and apply a few signature moves of your own based on the scene. You could have a list of Heist moves to apply if the job goes down wrong, for example.

What I would be hoping for out of a hack like this is something that preserves the overall strength of PTA, which I argue is its focus on character drama and the overall structure of episodic TV that it all hangs on, while making the overall action of the game a little more unpredictable. I think the idea that neither the players nor the GM has complete control over where these little interactions might lead is exactly in line with PTA's overall aesthetic of the GM surrendering control or at least limiting the ways they can push.

What do you think? Anybody tried something like this?

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