Transneptune Games

warm games, cold nights

Why don’t we just play Primetime Adventures?

So, I think Primetime Adventures is a great game. So great a game, that we might well ask why we don’t just use it for everything. Well, because of reasons.

Let me unpack that a bit. Some time ago, I was promulgating the notion that most of what makes a successful instance of RPG play is shared genre-expectations among the people at the table. I still think that this is true.

Primetime Adventures is a game with some powerful mechanisms for getting everyone at the table to share those genre-expectations. It’s a one-two punch: first the pitch, where everyone at the table gets in the same general area of idea-space, and then fanmail, which works1 as a feedback mechanism to let players tell each other “yes, more of that, please!”

At some level, this is what a game needs to do. Get people on the same page, and keep fine-tuning that. Obviously, yes, there’s more: surprise them, allow for unexpected ideas and voices to be heard at the table, etc. But all of that needs to exist within the space of shared expectations.

So why don’t we just play Primetime Adventures?

Because a game can be a voice at the table, too. A game can be a pitch and a set of tools for reminding people (or even explaining to people) what the genre-appropriate things to do are.

I think that this is the essence of what I mean when I say that I prefer a game to make me do something, rather than let me do something. I really want a game to provide feedback that pulls me back into the space the designer laid out in the pitch.2

Now, there’s a big gulf staring us in the face here between knowing that our mechanics should get people to play something that looks like the pitch, and being able to make mechanics that do that. That’s the gulf we fill with creativity and trial and error. Make decisions, try them, see when they work and when they don’t. Think about why they work and why they don’t. Adjust.

(A post-scriptum: I guess I come on strong here in favor of rules-to-make-you-do-something. That’s not the same as mechanics-for-doing-something. Consider the fruitful void. The mechanics of Dogs in the Vineyard can make you have scenes and narration and questions and answers about faith, in the specific and general. But the rules don’t touch it once. Still, they make you aware of it, and the game leaves a space for it. In fact, mechanizing everything can get in the way of some things happening in a meaningful way.)

  1. When it works. It can and does fail. []
  2. And when a game’s mechanics don’t, but rather pull you away? That’s a game lying to you, and it’s so very painful. []