[PTA] [Quasi-AP] Fringe's The Equation

edited November 2008 in Actual Play

I've been thinking about PTA a lot recently, and it occurred to me that it would be useful on a variety of levels to take a real episode from an actual show and dissect it down to its PTA components.

There are all sorts of good reasons to do this, which I'm sure everyone can reach on their own. The one reason which might be a bit surprising was that I wanted this to serve as a bit of a validation process for PTA itself. Does it really contain what's on its tin? What are the points of divergence between TV-television and PTA-television, if any?

The show I picked for this, mostly because it was still sitting around on my DVR, is Fringe -- specifically The Equation, episode 8 of the first season.

I have a whole stack of notes here that I'm still working my way through in an effort to turn them into something useful. That post will follow; it'll likely be long and rambling and may not be as useful to read as it was to write.

Before that's ready, I wanted to post something shorter that contains some of my preliminary conclusions. I think they might be more directly applicable to the average player out there.

First, a request: I imagine there are probably some big fans of Fringe out there who would be more than happy to point out that I'm completely wrong about a character's Issue, or explain how some plot element is in allusion to a brief cameo in the pilot. Please, I beg of you: resist those urges. If you must speak up, feel free to whisper me. But this thread is not really about Fringe per se -- it's about PTA, and I'd like to see it stay on topic.

So, in randomish order, here are my findings:

  • An hour-long tv show has a lot of scenes. A LOT. I identified almost 30 in The Equation. None was longer than about 3 minutes.

Comment: The average PTA session probably doesn't have that many scenes. That's fine. Still, I think I've learned that scenes aren't a precious resource to be hoarded, and they don't all need to be a big reveal. Sometimes the characters just need to get together and swap notes.

  • A good number of the scenes didn't really have any conflict. This was fine. They had a purpose and they served that purpose and they were still worthwhile contributions to the narrative.

Comment: This one really surprised me. I've been a conflict-monger for a long time, so it was very interesting to see that a scene can chug along just fine without it.

  • A good number of the scenes didn't have any PCs. Sometimes it's one NPC doing something bad to some other NPC.

Comment: This didn't really surprise me, per se, but the more I thought about chopping them all out, the poorer the game seemed to be. I think it's a useful tool in the Producer's repertoire, although it doesn't really seem to be supported by the strict text of the rules.

  • Pre-game preparation by the Producer is not wasted time.

Comment: This is a little weird, as I back-constructed what I thought the Producer might have for this episode, but it still seems valid. PTA probably can be played as a low-prep game, but I think I can see the advantages to doing more up-front work.

  • Genuine affection for the characters helps reduce the "I want my character to fail" effect.

Comment: I'm sort of guessing at this one a bit too, but I feel pretty good about it. As I laid out certain scenes with their conflicts, I can see how there was a conflict and a failure and how that resulted in an awesome scene. But I can also see how any player who had some affection and compassion for the character would be motivated not to throw the challenge.

  • Scene movement gives the Producer's scene establishment powers a sneaky and far-reaching edge.

Comment: I'm probably going to butcher terminology really badly here, but I'll try to make myself as clear as possible. What I mean is that when a scene starts off with two characters as friends, there's a pretty good chance the movement of the scene will result in them being enemies. If they start off as enemies, they'll either end as friends, or end as mortal sworn enemies. The start of the scene sets up either a reversal or an intensification of the situation. I think there's a lot for players to pick up on and use when it comes to scene movement.

As a very rough rule of thumb, it seemed like the scenes I examined were more likely to end in a reversal when the players succeeded in their conflict, with failure more likely to result in intensification. I'm not sure if that is useful or just an artifact of the system, though.

  • This process was enormously useful.

Comment: Really, I can't overstate just how enlightening it was to sit down with a show and go through this process. I highly recommend it.

I welcome thoughts and comments on this; don't wait around for my monster scene-analysis post, because it'll be a little while.


  • Roger,

    At the start of your post I was very suspicious about your experiment since I think mapping fiction-to-game is a bad idea but that's not what you did. You looked at structural components which is more useful. A few comments based on my own PtA play.

    Once I had a scene with only NPCs. It didn't even happen on my turn as Producer to frame a scene. A player used their scene framing opportunity to setup a Focus, Location and Agenda around two NPCs only. She did this because she really honestly wanted to see "what was up" with those NPCs. So I narrated a brief exchange between the two NPCs in question and moved on to the next scene. It was no big deal and added a lot to the game.

    Genuine affection for the characters is *key* to ALL my play.

    For some reason people think they can't "prep" a PtA game because they think the narration trading is going to end up running rough shod over their prep. But that only if you allow "narration" to include authoring back-story, which I don't. "Narration" in my PtA game is restricted to narrating the outcome of the current conflict. So, yes, you may torture the information of the prisoner and the Narrator describes how and when the prisoner breaks and then turns to the Producer who tells them what information the prisoner reveals.

  • I don't have a problem with NPC vs. NPC scenes...or even conflicts.

    In our recent game of IaWA we had two NPCs involved who wound up on opposite sides of the fight and after everyone else had won or been doubled out, those two characters were left to fight it out. It was logistically a little awkward as there was only one player rolling both sets of dice, but fictionally it was necessary. Like Jesse I found it added to the game. I certainly wouldn't avoid it just because no PC is present

    ...I don't remember, is that a rule in PTA that a PC must be present in all scenes?
  • Hi Roger. Thanks for posting this. Good observations.

    Working backward to find stuff like this is hard. I've tried to do it a lot, and sometimes you can interpret issues and wants in a myriad of ways.

    The thing about scenes and conflict... I get criticism about that all the time. And I think what I will do in that mythical time where I revise the book is take the word conflict out of the process and call the procedure scene resolution. Elsethread Thor described a scene in a nice way: it asks a question. Resolving the scene, where you play cards and all that, is in answering the question. It's a little less about OMG THROW DOWN and more about nudges that help you move along.
  • Posted By: RogerPre-game preparation by the Producer is not wasted time.
    Amen! This really can't be said enough. I know that low- or no-prep gaming is all the rage with the kids today, but the fact remains that very few people in this world are as brilliant, creative, and amazing when acting strictly off the cuff as they could have been if they'd given it some thought and maybe even a little planning ahead of time.

    Even if all you're doing is daydreaming and jotting down little ideas in a notebook on your lunch break during the week before the game, you're going to produce better work than you would if you went in completely cold. Every mock dialogue you run through in your head, every "hey, I bet it'd be cool if..." notion that you have during your morning shower, that's all fucking GOLD MEDAL WINNING prep work, and if you grant it a little of your attention in the hours and hours before you sit down at the table, it will always, always pay off.

    In fact, I think that games like PTA or IAWA call for more prep work in some ways, since it's not only the Producer who can look like a genius just by jotting down a few notes ahead of time -- all the players can benefit just as much from doing their own preparation.
  • edited November 2008
    I want to respond to a few things before I carry on:
    Posted By: JesseFor some reason people think they can't "prep" a PtA game because they think the narration trading is going to end up running rough shod over their prep.
    Yeah, that seems likely. What I've been trying to do with the scenes I'm looking at is examining what the Producer might have done if the cards had fallen differently and the conflict went the other way. I've been pretty surprised at how robust the storyline is to the randomness. Which isn't quite the same as saying the conflicts don't have any impact or meaning... but I'll be getting more into that later.
    Posted By: ValamirI don't remember, is that a rule in PTA that a PC must be present in all scenes?
    Not exactly, but it seems pretty strongly implied. The rules suggest that most scenes should have conflict, and they specify that all conflicts must involve at least one PC, so it's not much of a leap to conclude that there should be at least one PC in most every scene.
    Posted By: Matt WilsonThe thing about scenes and conflict... I get criticism about that all the time.
    Interesting, but I think we might be talking about two different things here. I'll point out some examples, once I get to them, of what I mean.
    Posted By: Accounting for Tasteall the players can benefit just as much from doing their own preparation.
    I hadn't considered it in that light before, but it's a good point.

    Next time: The imaginary preparation for the episode.
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