And on to night three. It was Primetime Adventures, by Matt Wilson. John ran it, Dan, Kate, Thaddaeus and I played. We decided on a show that ended up feeling like The IT Crowd meets Sliders, and it worked pretty well as a concept. I played the nerdy highschool protagonist, Kate my military brat tomboy friend, Dan my wisecracking grandmother, and Thad the entitled rich guy in town. We got sucked into a parallel world (where we were in a steampunk fascist America at war with communist Canada) and hijinks ensued.
The game was hilarious and great fun. Having two semi-comedians at the table certainly helped, and it helped them earn a lot of fanmail. It was immediately clear how the fanmail mechanic was the real point of the system, and having some people who were great at working with it made the system shine.
The crunch (by which, again, I mean just the playing with cards, not the systems around budget/audience/fanmail) was pretty trivial. It mattered, sure, but we were generally more interested in it for what it said about narration rights than what it said about gaining stakes. This was still enough to motivate us to want more cards, and thus to want fanmail, of course. But, like Apocalypse World, the crunch felt like a bit of a lie, like something distracting you from what was really happening in the game.
What, I think, was really happening was what Austin likes to call engaged non-attachment.1 When you can care about a character, but not be attached, you can do so much more with them. You can see them get hurt, get happy, get confused, without feeling that it damages you. When you are engaged, but attached, that leads to turtling often, or at least anti-dramatic behavior of the sort that a real (sane) person would probably do when thrust into dramatic situations. When you have non-engaged non-attachment, you get griefing or boredom. A lot of the best play happens in that middle ground.2
The question, then, is how did this system encourage engaged non-attachment? I think a lot of that came, simply, from expectations-crafting. You could use this same system and get very different play with different names for things and different text. But because it’s framed as a TV show, we start off a little removed from the characters—as John put it, more like puppeteers than actors. That’s half of it. The other half is the way fanmail works. It encourages playing to the table, and thinking, at every turn, about how the other players will react. The simple fact that it is not given by or to the GM makes it brilliant. This encourages a group-collaboration mindset, which helps take you a little out of your character, in a good way.3
The fanmail does something else interesting. It provides the only source of rightward-pointing arrows, but they’re deferred. You do something awesome, and then, in a later conflict, you can get advantage. For example, my character was handcuffed but had some WD-40 in his back pocket. He used it to help himself get out of the handcuffs, but it didn’t lend any advantage at that point. But the fanmail he gained was useful later.
There’s a definite parallel between the fanmail economy system in this game and the coin economy system in Don’t Rest Your Head. This game really demonstrated for us the need to prime the pump early. In Don’t Rest Your Head, though, you have to have a bit of luck and throw a lot of pain at the players to get that pump going. Primetime Adventures takes the luck out of that. But it’s clear that both games require the economy system to be flowing to work. Hoarding on either side breaks it. John felt a little uncertain about how much budget to spend when, though. One realization he had, though was this: “You wanna spend points upfront, but you want to spend points on good stakes. So you need a really good first scene.”
So what does getting these economies going early do? It shapes the stories in a particular way. In the linked video, Vonnegut gives a very classic story shape: you start a little high, you plummet, you rise back up. To get an economy like this working, you need two dips, with a partial resolution between them. This, as Dan pointed out, is the 20-minute 2 commercial TV show structure. And this works really well for Primetime Adventures, obviously.