A Good Situation

Situations form the meat of a game of Prime, so it’s important for both directors and actors to understand what makes a good situation and how they are organised.

First and foremost, a situation has to be important to both the characters and the actors playing them. In its purest form, a situation asks a question. Can you save the kitten? Will you defuse the bomb? Is there a way down this cliff? If no one cares about the answer to that question then it’s not a good situation.

As you play and talk about the game you’ll learn what your specific group most enjoys (though never be afraid to experiment now-and-then, you might surprise yourselves). If you’re just starting out, however, then how do you tell?

Look at the choices each actor made during character creation. Particularly the loss – this should be primary goal of the character right now, the drive that keeps them going, their reason for being and doing. Coupled with their relationships you should be able to get an idea of the kind of situations they’ll react to. If you can find something will appeal to several characters at once, even better, and this is something that should be discussed during the pilot episode – what will keep all these characters together? There should be some shared goals or values that will pull towards a common purpose.

A simple way to break down situations is a threat or reward to something the characters are, something they have, or something they are connected to.

The first is direct and obvious: have someone threaten to stab them and that should provoke a reaction from most anyone, but its simplicity also makes it the least interesting long term. It’s good for immediate tension, but tends not to be useful for larger scale situations.

The second is a staple of role-playing games – give the characters Cool Stuff™. The promise of treasure (or trying to take it away) has inspired many an adventure, and works well as a medium-scale goal.

The third is the best long-term or overarching situation. Kidnap a character’s beloved sister, or have an invading army approach the town they grew up in, and they will likely go to any lengths to right that wrong.

A mix of all three keeps things interesting. Also, the suggestions for scale are just that, suggestions. You definitely should put a gun to the head of the characters‘ favourite shopkeeper from time to time, or have them catch an unknown disease that it will take an entire season to find the cure for.

The director will ideally have more situations going than the characters can fully address. Remember our second guiding principle: “You can do whatever you want, you need only face the consequences.” Choosing which consequences are more important is part of their journey, so deciding between saving the treasure chest or the cute kitten will bring the characters to life.

Situations will generally be inter-connected and nested matryoshka style. Reassembling the various parts of an ancient artifact is common fantasy trope, for example. “Reassemble the artifact” is a situation that will last an entire season, but locating each part might only take an episode or two. Within each episode the characters will need to find clues to locations, plan their journey and make their way through all the surprisingly well-preserved traps that no doubt protect the relic. All of which are situations in themselves, and could well last over numerous scenes each of which have their own individual situation.

Don’t panic if this sounds horribly complicated. As a director, break the various situations down into season-, episode– and scene-length. Anything that lasts for a decent fraction of a season goes in that bucket, if lasts for only a couple of episodes down to the majority of one episode put it in that bucket, and everything else goes in the scene bucket.

Write a name or brief summary of the situation on a small card or post-it note or similar. Organise the groups in three rows so that the players can’t read them but you can easily see or least check what each one is. As progress is made, or time runs out for, resolving each situation move it along the row in five steps. When it moves off the end, the situation is gone – the spaceship with the valuable technology has exploded and it’s lost forever, or the evil alien has found the kitten and eaten it. Ideally only small situations should be binary success or failures – failing to recover one of the pieces of the ancient artifact shouldn’t make the final battle unwinnable, but it might make it harder than it otherwise would have been.

Note that while the actors can’t see what’s on each note, they can see where they are, which gives them a very visible narrative clock. Each scene played through will move up another scene-level situation. Each time stake lost on an action resolution should likewise progress an appropriate situation. Maybe failing on a smaller scale situation will cause its parent to advance. In all these cases, the actors can see the immediate effect, even if they don’t exactly know what that effect will ultimately be.

Not all situations have to be connected to a bigger story. Sometimes a monster will just wander in. Sometimes an old lady needs a puppy rescued from a tree. It’s recommended the director have a collection of these one-off situations they can throw into the mix, both to increase the pressure if the characters are resolving other situations too quickly, or to act as complications arising from how another situation was resolved. Kicking open the door of the supermarket might get you inside, but it is guaranteed to bring at least one or two zombies over to investigate the noise.