Primetime Aventures is a game by Matt Wilson, billed as a game of television drama. It focuses on the dramatic lives and personal issues of a group of characters as if they were the ensemble cast of a TV show. Pretty much any sort of TV show works.
Dramatic roleplaying games are exactly my cup of tea, so I’d heard about Primetime Adventures and I had been looking forward to giving it a try. At the most recent meeting of my monthly RPG Book and Brunch Club, I finally got my chance. So what did I think of it?
I love this game. It’s not just a cup of tea. It’s afternoon tea at the Ritz. The game knows what it is designed to do, what kind of play it is supposed to facilitate and encourage, and it accomplishes that expertly. More importantly, playing it was a lot of fun.
Stuff to say first
My experience of Primetime Adventures was using the second edition of the rules. I know that there’s a third edition out, and I’m interested in trying it out too, but this review is only about the second edition.
Also, I only played in a pilot episode, not a full 5- or 9-episode season, so I don’t yet know what the ups and downs of a season would be like in play. It sounds like a cool concept, though, and after my experience in a pilot I’m excited to try it out.
The Weird Museum
The TV show we created for our pilot was called The Weird Museum. Set in an out-of-the-way (and way-out-there) museum in London, the series focuses on the madcap mishaps of the museum’s curators and support staff as they deal with the unexpected effects of their fantastical exhibits while at the same time trying to keep the museum open.
I played Max *incoherentmumbling* Blond, the aging paranoid conspiracy theorist security guard, whose nemesis was the easy-going and affable tour guide Ponsonby, who mostly just wanted to be part of the gang.
My favourite character, however, was Dr Juan Itor, the over-qualified Spanish janitor and secret world-saving agent of an ancient fraternal order of janitors. He’s like a combination of Perry the Platypus and the Janitor from Scrubs, always rushed off his feet and on the brink of averting the apocalypse when he’s summoned to help out with the (relatively) mundane concerns of the museum staff.
The pilot episode featured the arrival of a new member of staff, an American action archaeologist who comes to appreciate that the museum staff can handle things even when it really really looks like they can’t. An accident in the canteen involving an omelette and the Curator of Mysterious Eggs led to a magical tornado ravaging the exhibit of Masticated Rocks. The main cast eventually got together to get rid of the tornado and get everything cleaned up for the next tour group.
The game was hilarious and utterly wonderful throughout.
The inevitable Smallville comparison
Readers of this blog will probably notice that I like the game Smallville, another roleplaying game that focuses on personal and interpersonal drama, with a side order of plot. It’s even based on a TV show, so it was unavoidable that I have to compare the two games.
Having playing it now, I think Primetime Adventures strikes the balance between character moments and plot better than Smallville. In practice, Smallville encourages games that focus much more on character moments while sidelining or excluding any “plot” that isn’t a byproduct of the drama. (This is also the type of game that Hillfolk works best for.)
One of the ways that Primetime Adventure achieves this is, perhaps counter-intuitively, by putting responsibility for setting scenes partly in the hands of players. In Smallville, this is the responsibility of the GM (Watchtower), but in Primetime Adventures all the players take turns. And the first thing that someone picks when setting a scene is whether it will be a plot scene or a character scene. Everyone gets a say in how much plot or how much character there will be in an episode, and once that decision has been made players know what sort of interactions are expected of them in the scene.
The stats of Smallville characters are highly detailed, leading to deeper characters that are more intricately connected to the other main leads. However, this is accompanied by some intrusive and often laborious resolution mechanics. Hours of play at the table can represent a much shorter period of time elapsing in the fiction, and the perception that very little has happened (although what does happen is very dramatic, naturally).
In contrast, Primetime Adventures‘ rules are very light touch, and sessions can actually feel like full episodes of a TV show. Here’s an example. Character creation for Worthington Academy, my current 6-player game of Smallville based on the X-Men, took 7 hours. In that same amount of time with the same number of players, we ate a delicious brunch, pitched several series and selected The Weird Museum, did character creation of Primetime Adventures, followed by a pilot session of about 8 scenes, and then held a post-session discussion about how the game had gone. None of this felt rushed.
I love Smallville‘s character creation process, and I love Smallville, but after my Worthington Academy game wraps up in another couple of sessions, I will be ready to try out a different game. Primetime Adventures could well be the game that I go to.
Fan mail for fan mail
After the game, we had a discussion mainly about the mechanic of fan mail. Essentially, when the Producer spends “budget” against the players these tokens go into a pot in the middle of the table. As a player, I can then award one of those tokens to another player as fan mail if that player did something that I liked. It’s very subjective, and of course it’s possible to think of ways that a subjective system might be used badly, but those objections were all hypothetical. In our game, fan mail worked. In a campaign with players you know, I expect it will work pretty much 100% of the time.
The only issue we had with fan mail in our game is that some players didn’t understand how it worked to start with. Even those that did were slow to start handing it out. Once we got going, things worked fine, but by then everyone had very little fan mail and we were already halfway through the session. Given that this was a pilot episode, and nobody started with any fan mail, it put us at a bit of a disadvantage, so to make up for it we awarded one token to every player, which solved it for us.
Frankly, if the only complaint I have about a game I’ve just started playing is that I didn’t immediately understand all the rules, I think that game is worth sticking with. And I think I will.