When Death is on the Line


Early on in a game of PTA, years and years ago, a group posted about how they were playing a series inspired by The Wire, and the result of one of their initial scenes was that a protagonist was killed. So what the heck were they supposed to do?



Check Your Assumptions

Death is one of the big conflicts that can spring up when you pair the assumptions and context of TV with the assumptions and context of roleplaying games. RPGs have their roots in games like D&D and Traveller, where the characters have to worry about survival — even before you start playing, in the case of Traveller. First-level D&D characters are like tadpoles. Part of what makes D&D exciting, arguably the point of play for many people, is having the characters face danger and survive.

Television does not take that approach. I mean, for the most part, anyway. I’ll talk about the exceptions in a minute, but for most of the history of television, the main characters of a show are all but immortal. The actors sign contracts for however many episodes, and they get paid for those episodes. ABC, say, doesn’t advertise a new series headlined by Ian Somerhalder, make a bunch of cool promo posters, run ads, do product tie-ins at Burger King, spend basically a huge pile of money, and then drop an anvil on him in the first scene. A few watchers would probably think it was the greatest thing ever done on a show, and they’d wait excitedly for what happens next. Mostly, though, it would be a disaster.

Always Be Thinking TV

When you’re playing Primetime Adventures, a game about television, you have to think like television, not like D&D.

Where does that put us with shows like The Wire, or Game of Thrones, or The Walking Dead, or Lost, where it seems like nobody’s safe? It’s still not determined at random. In D&D, your character is at the mercy of the dice. On The Wire, no character died because the writers asked “who should die?” and threw a dart at a board. It’s all carefully planned out and discussed, approved by various approvers. If a main character dies, it’s always a big deal, with repercussions. It affects everyone. D’angelo isn’t asking “Where’s Wallace?” because he wants to loot the body.

So, when you’re playing Primetime Adventures, you have to think about playing the cards in the context of a television show.

1. Is Death a Thing on This Show?

Here’s the obvious place to start. Has everyone in the group talked about this? Is everyone okay with the idea of it? This seems like an obvious question, but sometimes with all that goes on, the little things get overlooked.

2. Does Death Interfere with the Story Arc?

PTA is all about the character development. If you die, that story probably gets cut short, especially if your spotlight ep hasn’t come around yet. If this is a world where characters can return as ghosts, or if you’re prepared to spend a lot of time in flashbacks, then maybe it’ll work. Early on, I really liked the use of flashback to develop characters on Lost. Although they didn’t do that with dead characters. Hey, your group can be the first!

The guy was killed in an auto accident! I looked it up! He was driving in the Yukon, in a pink convertible, to visit his brother who’s an ex-con named Frances, when a tractor trailer comes along and decapitates him. You know what that means, it means he doesn’t have a head! How am I suppose to write for a guy who doesn’t have a head? He’s got no lips, no vocal cords. What do you want me to do?
— Rose, Soap Dish

3. Is Death Something You Want in the Hands of a Card Flip?

Cards tell you two things about a scene: Does the protagonist get what they want, and does the protagonist keep their impulse in check? I can think of a bunch of examples where both of those questions could be “yes”, while the protagonist could still die during the scene. In fact, what if what you really want is to sacrifice yourself so that another character can live, and the cards don’t go your way?

Death as the result of a card flip might be as weird as deciding whether or not a character leaves the show for any other reason.

As it says on page 79, you have ownership over the character you play. Even if death is a thing, you might prefer it to be solely in your hands, just like your protagonist’s emotions, choice of words, and other personal decisions.

This matters well before you get to the cards, too. If the protagonists can’t die, then make sure you don’t paint them into a corner while you build to a crisis.