Circuit Breakers—a Primetime Adventures play report and review

GREY, in his powered armor, grapples with the huge Guardian robot, keeping its grenade launcher aimed away from CONNOR and TANG, who continue to exchange fire with a dozen smaller robots. Meanwhile, the android ELLA is hacking into the mainframe as quickly as she can, hoping that once she’s in, she can defeat the government’s despotic artificial intelligence on its home turf…

My regular RPG group recently wrapped up a season of Primetime Adventures (PTA). Our campaign is called Circuit Breakers, and it focuses on a group of lunatics who are the world’s only hope against an artificial intelligence that has taken over several world governments. As busy adults, we can only play every three weeks, and many of our games have been preempted for various reasons, so it took us ten months to play just nine sessions. That got us through an entire season, though, and the group is ready for more, so I count it a tremendous success. If you’re interested in the play-by-play, feel free to drop by the campaign website at Obsidian Portal, where I’ve posted up each episode in screenplay format, as befits the game. In this article, though, I’d like to talk a little about how PTA plays, what I like about it, and what I don’t.

Primetime Adventures borrows from troupe-style play, apportioning some level of creative control to each of the players rather than letting it all rest on the Producer (PTA’s term for the game master or referee). While, as in most RPGs, the Producer sets the initial scene and is responsible for controlling most of the NPCs, after that initial scene is over the other players take turns calling for additional scenes and setting the agenda for those scenes. Once each player has called for a scene, the Act is over, and the Producer gets to set a new scene. So in my game with four players (plus me,) I can only force 20% of the scenes. This makes extensive preparation nearly impossible—there is no way to know which direction the players will take the game, so it is fruitless to plan too far in advance.

In addition, players have a great deal more control over outcomes in PTA than in normal games. The resolution mechanic very rarely concerns whether or not an action will be successful. If it’s dramatically appropriate that Bobby the robot can hack an electronic lock, then he does it, unless the player for some reason decides it would be more interesting if he can’t. Rather, conflicts are all about the characters’ personal Issues and whether they are masters of their own psyches. For instance, in our game Bobby is a robot with a sort of synthetic body dysmorphia; he thinks he’s a human, and challenges to his self-image are met with violent outbursts. Accusing him of being a robot actually got at least one person killed. During these conflicts, the players never draw cards against each other—they only draw against the Producer. The results tell the players whether or not the character gets what they want out of the conflict, and whether or not they give in to whatever Impulse is associated with their Issue.

The Issues are the central mechanic in PTA, and the Producer should do all they can to poke at the Issues in each scene in an effort to drive the character to facing their problems head on during a Spotlight episode. Each character gets one Spotlight episode per season, in which they are the “star” of the show and their Issue comes to the forefront. The other PCs are still present and still have important roles to play, but their parts are subordinate to the Spotlight character’s development.

I have been eager to play Primetime Adventures for many years, and I was thrilled to finally have the opportunity to do so. It’s a difficult game to understand, though, and we had quite a few Issues of our own in figuring out how it runs! The rulebook is unfortunately lean on play examples, and play reports on-line are scarce. I had to really dig through archives at The Forge to find advice about how to run it, and particularly how to stage compelling conflicts. I don’t think I quite got the hang of pushing for the conflict in our sessions, and my players were frequently timid about devoting their own resources to winning conflicts. More play examples and advice would go a long way to making Producers feel more confident in running the game.

Playing the Game

The conflict resolution mechanic involves ordinary playing cards. The Producer gets a certain amount of “Budget” at the beginning of each episode that is used to purchase more cards during conflicts. Used Budget goes into a pot from which players can award one another “Fan Mail” to show appreciation for good play. Players can spend their accumulated Fan Mail to buy more cards of their own during the conflict, and they also get cards based on how important their character is during the episode and for applying their skills and abilities to the situation. They may also spend Fan Mail to add cards to other players’ draws, and on at least a couple of occasions a player spent their Fan Mail to add cards to my pile, ensuring their own failure.

At the beginning of a scene, the player who called for the scene determines whether it is plot-focused or character-focused. In a plot-focused scene, the card draw determines whether the character gets what they want, and there is a secondary result that determines whether or not they dealt appropriately with their Issue. In a character-focused scene, the main result determines whether they dealt with their Issue, and the secondary result determines whether or not there are adverse consequences or a silver lining to losing their cool.

Here’s an example of how a plot scene from our game went down:

The team was chasing a group of bad guys and a captured civilian through “MotownLand,” a closed amusement park dedicated to the musical heritage of Detroit, at night. One PC, Tang, is schizophrenic and has a hard time distinguishing the difference between reality and the video games he’s obsessed with. During his gunfight on a whirling carousel ride, he got it into his head that he was playing a Western-themed game and started behaving as though he was in a shooter—showing a complete disregard for the possibility of getting wounded (and riding a carousel horse as though it were real). Since it was a plot-based scene, his conflict was about whether or not he’d be able to defeat his two opponents, but he also struggled with his Issue of separating fantasy and reality. Meanwhile, the robot Bobby found himself pursuing the civilian into a fun house and being confronted with distorted images of his robotic body in the hall of mirrors. His conflict was about whether he’d be able to catch the panicked captive, with a side order of confronting his robotic nature. The third PC in the scene, Connor, had a death wish arising from grief over the murder of his wife.

Both Tang and Bobby failed their draws, and they both gave in to their Issues, as well. Tang not only failed to stop his opponents, but he was himself gravely wounded as a consequence of failing to realize that he could actually be hurt. Bobby froze up in shock, allowing his quarry to escape. That left Connor and his self-destructive streak facing both bad guys. Fortunately, he drew well and managed to succeed, but he did it by getting into a gun battle with two enemies and no cover.

And another example of a character scene from the same episode:

The billionaire, but none-too-bright vigilante James “Grey” Greyson was chasing leads concerning someone injecting people with some kind of mysterious nanotechnology. A list of addresses for potential victims lead him to the home of his own sister, Renee. He made up a reason they needed to talk while he tried to find out if she had already been injected or was otherwise involved. During their conversation, the culprit with the nanotech, Van Deventer, showed up, turning out to be Renee’s coworker. James’ Issue is his paranoia about revealing his secret identity. The conflict in this scene was whether he could prove that Van Deventer is up to no good without revealing that he is the vigilante Grey. He drew well enough to succeed in keeping his secret, but there were untoward consequences to doing so. Van Deventer used a “flashy thing” to knock both of them unconscious and inject them with the nanotechnology.

Gamers who like statistics and lots of die rolling will likely be disappointed with PTA. It’s closer to a freeform experience than more “traditional” RPGs. After we were done, a couple of us were eager for something a little crunchier, although I suspect we’ll be going back for Season 2 of Circuit Breakers eventually.

Developing the Game

Normally, we think of set up ahead of game play, but in this case, I wanted to save the strongest part of PTA for the end of the article. Unlike most games, Primetime Adventures does not come with a setting of any kind. Instead, the players and Producer develop the setting collaboratively during the first session of play. Usually everyone brings to the table an idea of the kind of game they’d like to play, and maybe some things that they’d like to avoid. In our group, someone suggested science ficiton pretty early in the discussion, but other than that, and the resident goofball insisting that monkeys had to be involved, we didn’t get very far. The game is ready for indecisive players, though. If the group has a hard time coming up with a premise for their show, the Producer can deal out some cards, and there’s a chart in the book that maps various ideas to the cards. Since we were stuck at sci-fi monkeys, I dealt out some cards, and the ideas started flowing. We quickly rejected “The Suburbs”, but “Agents” and “Dystopia” got everyone excited, and it didn’t take long before we wound up with an idea for a group of secret agents in a cyberpunk setting. We talked about the tropes of cyberpunk, which lead to artificial intelligence and some ideas about a robotic police force.

Once the premise is decided, the players get to work developing their Protagonists. A PTA character is encapsulated by a relatively simple description. We had the “MacGyver of Guns,” the “Rogue Police Robot,” the “Billionaire Vigilante,” the “Burned Out Spy,” and the “Trigger Happy Agent.” Each character then gets an Issue—some personality flaw that will create problems for them—and an associated Impulse—the way they tend to respond to their Issue being prodded. Most of those Issues were detailed in the previous examples. Our tech expert, Simian (that name turned out to be the sole vestige of his monkey fixation), resents limitations imposed by authority. It leads him to performing unauthorized experiments and taking absurd risks, just because someone tells him not to. It’s up to the player how much detail or history goes into the issues. We knew, for example, that Director Connor’s wife had been killed, and it had driven him to drink, but at the beginning we didn’t know why. During the first couple of sessions, he had a very evident mistrust of robots, which he often focused on Bobby, the rogue police droid. During Bobby’s Spotlight episode, it came out through a series of flashbacks that he was the one who had killed Connor’s wife, an event that created the logical conflict that allowed him to transcend his programming. The backstory for two Protagonists was largely created through play, although the bones of the story had been in their character development.

The next piece of a Protagonist is their Story Arc. Each Protagonist will be important in some episodes and unimportant in others. Each Protagonist also gets a Spotlight episode, which is mostly about them, although the other characters are still involved. The players collaborate on when each Spotlight episode should be, making enough room for everyone to shine. In our case, we knew we wanted the vigilante Grey to be relatively mysterious for the early episodes, so his arc started slow and rose to a crescendo in Episode 7. We knew Bobby was going to be fascinating to the audience, and that much of the show’s mythology was going to have to be based on his nature, so he got a very early Spotlight in Episode 3. The more important a character is in a given episode, the more cards the player gets to draw. They also get first pick of which scenes they want to call, giving them a little more control over how the episode runs, and at the end of the episode, they get the option to change their Issue if they feel they’ve adequately explored it.

Finally, each character gets three Traits, which can be either Edges, like “unlimited funds” for Grey and “gun nut” for Tang, or Connections, like Connor’s “mystery informant” who turned out later on to be Renee Greyson, an executive of the AI research company Greystone Industries (and Grey’s sister, of course).

This collaborative development process makes for a game where the players are usually more invested than in other games. We had very little trouble with absenteeism during our campaign, with the exception of Simian’s player, who showed up to the development session then was never seen again. It also helps quite a bit that it is, by its nature, limited to either 7 or 9 episodes. We found that we didn’t have time for four acts per session, but instead of breaking each episode into two sessions, we ran our episodes in three acts. Knowing that we had only nine afternoons (ten counting the development session) to get through the story made us much more aware of how important each session was, and nobody was inclined to skip. Furthermore, since it was easy for the story to break when a player wasn’t present, everyone felt some healthy pressure to show up.

Both the Story Arc and the scene calling mechanisms make sure that every player gets some time to shine, and it forces the more charismatic or vocal players to defer to the quieter ones. Of course, if someone is truly determined to be passive, even the game mechanics can only do so much. (I’m looking at you, Tyler!)

As I mentioned before, there aren’t many examples of how to actually play the game, and I think it would be difficult to play it “correctly” using only what’s in the book. In fact, even with numerous play reports and discussions on-line, I still fumbled it regularly. It’s very natural to want the resolution mechanic to decide “did I succeed at this task,” and PTA just doesn’t work like that. I also found it difficult to activate the Issues as often as I should have. I usually wound up with a rather large pile of unused Budget in front of me because there just didn’t seem to be enough opportunities to use it. Our sessions definitely leaned more toward collaborative fiction than game playing, and that was frustrating for those of us who really like to sling dice.

On balance, I’m looking forward to playing Primetime Adventures again. Hopefully next time I’ll get to do it as a player rather than the Producer, but either way I won’t turn down an opportunity. It certainly isn’t something I want to play all the time, but it’s definitely a good “palate cleanser” between heavier games.

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