So I’m back in the player-saddle for a campaign and it’s time to talk about it here. We’re using the clever (and even better mechanically now in 3rd edition) Prime Time Adventures, an RPG which emulates television shows mostly with a mechanic that focuses everything on “screen time”. If it’s an episode about you, you get to do more. If you’re peripheral you get to do less. Simple and elegant.
The nature of the series though is left open, and our GM has taken an interesting approach to that, above and beyond what the rules suggest. As a result, we’re playing a game with more player input in setting than I’ve ever done, and a setting so obtruse it has an almost anime feel. Also, the process we took to get there has been as interesting as the game itself, so I’m going to record that process as well.
Our GM started by asking us to name one or two stories we enjoy. The focus was on television, or comics because they are also very similar serial media, but could be anything. The list we generated was quite awesome, and I kept it for homework to watch and read all the things on it that I hadn’t yet. The list:
- Locke and Key (Comic)
- Ergo Proxy (Anime series)
- Shade the Changing Man (Comic)
- I, Claudius (TV show)
- Rome (TV show)
- Blake’s 7 (TV show)
- Firefly (TV show)
- Saga (Comic)
- Rat Queens (Comic)
- Desperate Housewives (TV show)
- Pleasantville (Film)
- Dark City (Film)
- The Americans (TV show)
- Black Sails (TV show)
- Vikings (TV show)
- The Prince (Book)
- Interstellar (Film)
We also talked about what particularly we liked about these shows, and we developed some key themes that kept coming up over and over again in this discussion, such as:
- Power of families and cultures effecting individuals
- Multiple viewpoints on agendas and missions and duty
- The mundane, human elements brought to the central focus of fantastical or cinematic stories
- The normal, small, everyday and human becomes critical to larger, epic, superhuman stories
- The facade and pretence of cultures and environments, which can even extend to brainwashing or near-as
- Facades to the point of false memories and unreliable narrators, creating great mystery
- People being caught between two worlds, or travelling from one into another, returning to their home
With that list of seven things (for six players and one GM), the GM asked us each to write one sentence. Not quite a pitch, he didn’t want us to be that specific, but just an idea to explore. Our sentences were
- With the last chance of humanity in their hands, every decision has the weight of history
- An OId West town with divided power is thrown into greater turmoil after the discovery of an alien artifact
- A boy-band is about more than just fame when they are all metahumans
- Civil servants must maintain the facade under mad or absent masters
- Teenagers are forced to carve their own path when their parents or mentors vanish
- After peace is declared, opposite sides must work together to preserve it at all costs
- People are randomly paired up and forced to share a cell for a year to experience other viewpoints
What happened next was a strange discussion where we tried to jam as many of the ideas together to create an idea. The last idea really captured people’s imaginations, and we were able to combine it with the peace and the weight of history and the civil servants and the lost mentors. The Old West and the Boy Bands fell, but we kept the idea of spooky aliens and metahuman powers. We decided on a political thriller show, not unlike Kings or Homeland – mysteries, intrigue and human foibles in the face of holding humanity together – but in a world very different and very confusing, which makes me think of anime but then there’s stuff like Orphan Black too.
We decided to call it THE CELLS. I went away and made this picture to sum it up. The GM went away and came up with our pitch:
The war ended in a flash of white light. That much we’re sure of.
There was a flash of white light and then everyone on Earth lost a day of their memory. And when they came to, they stopped fighting. They had to. Most every weapon of war in the field had melted. Every piece of body armour had burnt free of its wearer. Every drone and war jet had crashed. There was fire everywhere; the casualties were astronomical.
Some places were luckier than others. Some people fought the fires, even though they have no memory of doing so. Some saved important supplies and infrastructure though they have no memory of doing so. Some pulled wounded soldiers from burning tanks though they have no memory of doing so. Some were heroes though they have no memory of being so.
Then the word came down from Global (the Global Alliance High Command but no one calls it that). There would be no more war or the white event would happen again. The remaining military would enforce order for a period of one year.
During that year, those who wished to contribute to the running of their city-state were required to submit to a year of defactionalisation, spending the year in confinement with members of competing ideologies. From this pool of willing prisoners would emerge a new generation of leaders into a world without war. Or else.
The willing from the Cells.