We need to make a couple of assumptions. First, that you’ve seen a TV series at least once. Second, you’ve had a conversation at some point in your life.
Still here? Excellent.
An RPG is like a good conversation. Those up-to-three-in-the-morning-figuring-out-the-nature-of-reality-type conversations. That conversation you had with your best friend that made you realise you actually were in love.
A good conversation is about discovery. It challenges and surprises you. Conversation does this because it involves other people, with their different viewpoints and experiences, asking questions of you and making you find answers.
When playing an RPG the process is the same, except the questions are being asked of the role you are playing, your character. To do this Prime uses the structure of a television series.
One player will be the director. They are in charge of the world you are in, much like the director for a show will choose the scenes and guide the tone of the story. The other players are actors, each taking the role of a character.
Let’s introduce a very quick example:
“Ahead of you the corridor ends with an unlabelled door with a keypad. Otherwise the corridor is featureless, though it looks well-travelled.”
“I plug in my hacking tools to the keypad and try to unlock the door.”
“This is a military grade security system – the feedback from that will leave you with one hell of a headache. The door slides open with a barely audible whisper. The corridor ahead has numerous doors, some of them open. From within you can hear laughter and conversation.”
“I grit my teeth and focus. I can’t let anyone know I was here.”
The director introduced a scene, and through the back-and-forth between them and the actor we discovered something about the character. Just from this short exchange you may already be building a mental picture of them.
What if different choices were made, however?
“Ahead of you the corridor ends with an unlabelled door with a keypad. Otherwise the corridor is featureless, though it looks well-travelled.”
“I place a small breaching charge on the door and blow the lock.”
“The door flies open as a deafening boom echoes down the corridor. Before all the debris has finished landing you can hear shouting, alarms and chairs overturning.”
“I pull out my pistols with a grin. Now the fun starts.”
Same situation, different choices and very different mental picture of the character.
Every scene will have a key situation like this that at its core is asking a question of the characters. Their choices in turn ask the director, in effect, “How does the world respond?” The resulting conversation builds a story together.
There are two fundamental principles that drive a good situation:
“Everything is worth what it costs.”
“You can do whatever you want, you only need face the consequences.”
Fundamentally you learn about your character, you shape them, when you discover what they are willing to pay for, what they will sacrifice and what they will not.
Every situation in Prime must therefore have a chance of failing and have something at stake that the characters care about. For the first to be true, there must be something working against them. This doesn’t have to be an active agent – a lock opposes the door being opened as much as a guard. The second we’ll cover in more detail later.
Each time you sit down to play you’ll go through a number of scenes like this, collectively making an episode, as you might expect. Do this regularly and you have a season, all of those together these will build a series.
Like any show or movie you won’t see a three-hour walk in real-time on screen (well, outside experimental art cinema maybe) because that would be horribly boring. A quick scene change, maybe a little bit of on screen text saying, “Later that night,” and tada! Likewise there’s no point playing through every last minutiae the characters do. A bit of narration from the director, a description of the new scene and we’re back into the actually interesting bits. And much like filming, in between scenes the actors are free to drop out of character, chat about how things went, things they’d like to see, take a loo break, etc.
So that’s the big picture view of how a game of Prime plays out. Let’s dive into the rules in a bit more detail and see how it all happens.
Every series of Prime starts with a pilot episode. Much like its namesake, it serves to introduce the world and characters that will follow.
Unlike its namesake none of that will be known before the episode starts. The pilot involves all the players deciding these things.
First, you’ll want to pick or create a setting. For your first few series‘ you’ll want to pick a pre-made setting to keep things simple. Here are some good questions to help you decide:
- How optimistic or cynical do you want? A world where justice prevails and the wicked always get what they deserve? Will the characters face hopeless battles that will slowly break them or be larger-than-life heroes defeating evil wherever it is to be found?
- What sort of challenges do the players want to face? Political intrigue? Sword-and-sorcery battles? Espionage or heists?
- How powerful do the players want to be? Weak humans constantly outclassed, or legendary figures with reality as their plaything?
Answering these questions should help you narrow in on an appropriate setting. Now each of the lead actors needs to create a character to play. Again, we use a series of questions to provide the seeds from which they will grow:
- What social standing or background does your character come from?
- Menial – subsistence living, looked-down-upon, unskilled
- Getting-by – basic craftsman, office worker, cog in the machine
- Comfortable – skilled, well-fed, stress-free
- What kind of environment did you develop in?
- Dangerous – betrayal, hazardous, unknown
- Repetitive – monotonous, boring, routine
- Changeable – moving places, new people, varying environments
- What have you lost, what vital part of your life is newly missing?
- Freedom – physically or mentally you are restricted
- Confidence – you doubt your choices and decisions constantly
- Memories – who you were, who you knew, all gone
- Home – it’s where you belong…or at least, did
- Reputation – the way they look at you now, what they say
- Trust – it isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you
What the answers look like will depend greatly on the setting, which is why we decided that first. Think about the world you’ll be inhabiting, and what life looks like for its inhabitants. Your answers might not be exactly matching the categories above, but for these questions pick the closest matching concept as these will have specific effects later.
With these questions answered, you have a good outline of your character. Don’t be tempted to fill in too much of the character’s past or personality at this time; the details will come later, as you play. In fact, that’s pretty much the point of the game – finding out who and why these characters are. If you plot their backstory in full now, there’s no mystery, no discovery, and if you come up with a better idea later (and you will) then you can’t change it.
Building your characters together like this will help ensure everyone is on the same page. Both as characters and players you will be spending a lot of time together, so it is vital everyone has a game they will enjoy and want to be a part of.
So far, everything we’ve discussed has covered the “role-playing” part of role-playing games, the conversation bit of our “conversation with rules” definition. Now we meet the rules and the game half.
Every single value, measurement or quantity you’ll use or reference in Prime is simplified down to a universal five-point scale:
Minimal, Low, Average, High, Extreme
The low and high ends are capped with None and Infinite respectively, but pretty much everything useful comes from the scale above. Weight, time, distance, value, love, fear – all these and more are expressed with the same five terms.
Now we can use these terms to get some functional descriptions of your character down. Every character in Prime has as their base six attributes, divided between two domains and three qualities:
The values these take depend on your answers during your character building. Start all of them at Low, then, if you picked:
- Social Standing
- Menial – increase Strength and Dexterity one level
- Getting-by – increase Intelligence and Wisdom one level
- Comfortable – increase Charisma and Poise one level
- Social Environment
- Unstable – increase Strength and Intelligence one level
- Repetitive – increase Wisdom and Poise one level
- Changeable – increase Dexterity and Charisma one level
- Freedom – decrease Strength by one level
- Confidence – decrease Dexterity by one level
- Memories – decrease Intelligence by one level
- Home – decrease Wisdom by one level
- Reputation – decrease Charisma by one level
- Trust – decrease Poise by one level
Sam grew up in the slums (Menial), and became a thief, constantly moving from one place to another to avoid being caught (Changeable). However they’ve become paranoid from constantly looking over their shoulder (Trust). With this background, Sam gains one Strength, two Dexterity, one Charisma, but loses a level of Poise. Strength is thus Average, Dexterity is High, Charisma is Average, Poise is Minimal and everything else is still Low.
Hilary’s family were minor nobility (Comfortable) and had been for many generations (Repetitive). Suddenly their parents were accused of fraud and imprisoned (Reputation). Hilary gains one Charisma, two Poise, one Wisdom, but then loses one Charisma, leaving Poise as High, Wisdom as Average and everything else (including Charisma) as Low.
Putting it all Together
So how do we use these attributes in an actual scene?
We play cards.
Well, okay, you draw some cards. We use card draw to add randomness and impartiality to events. Both of these are important. Remember that the point of the game is discovery. By ensuring the key turning points of the story are out of everyone’s complete control, all the players, including the director, can be surprised by what happens.
You can use a standard deck of playing cards. Each actor needs a deck. Take all four 3’s, two 2’s, two 4’s, one Ace and one 5. Shuffle these together to be the actor‘s deck. Give all the picture (jack, queen, king) cards to the director. The director will give you one of these cards on occasion when things go wrong, to shuffle into your deck. More on that later.
An Ace is equivalent to minimal, a 2 low, 3 is average, 4 is high and 5 is extreme.
Each time you draw a card, you will have a target value in mind, and the card succeeds if it is equal to or lower than that target value. Thus, the higher the target value, the more likely a draw is to succeed. Picture cards are always a failure. Once you’ve drawn a picture card, hand it back to the director – thankfully these don’t hang around.
Whenever a character does something that may or may not succeed, that character‘s actor draws two cards. These cards use the most relevant attributes of that character as the target values.
If Sam from the earlier example wanted to open a door, they would likely use their physical attributes to pick the lock or force it open. Their actor would draw one card against Strength which would succeed if it was equal to or lower than Average. The second card would be drawn against Dexterity and would succeed if it was High or lower.
If Hilary wanted to get through the door, however, they would likely use a different method. Perhaps they could act like an employee, and persuade the security guard to let them through. Using Poise and Charisma as the two attributes gives two target values of High and Low.
Before you can start drawing cards though, you need to declare a few bits of important information.
First, what are you actually trying to accomplish? What does a success here look like to your character? This is your goal. The more detailed or specific your success conditions, the harder it will be to succeed. If getting through the door is all that matters, the character might not care exactly how. If they need to do it quietly, or without the door looking broken afterwards…well that’s a mite bit trickier. Likewise, the broader a definition of success you are willing to accept, the easier it will be.
Second, how are you doing what you’re doing? Prime has three broad categories of approach:
- Direct: straightforward, no fuss but also blunt and aggressive. This is the simplest and quickest option, but whatever is in your way is getting hurt in some fashion. If Sam is forcing the door, the direct option is shoulder-barging it open, with the door the thing getting hurt. If Hilary is trying to convince the security guard the direct option is threatening, ordering, or otherwise brow-beating the guard into opening the door. Naturally this will not leave the guard very happy.
- Finesse: subtle, careful, but difficult. This option has no collateral damage but is harder or more complicated. It’s the choice for when details matter. Sam taking this approach might pick the lock. Hilary would befriend the guard. It’s more involved, but it doesn’t leave a mess behind.
- Hold: the patient, defensive approach. Both of them could just wait until someone comes out the door, but who knows how long that will take? This approach has a more mechanical side-effect – shuffle all your already drawn cards back into your draw pile.
Third, what’s at stake? Remember, “Everything is worth what it costs.” What are you willing to pay to succeed? You might not have to, but you need to be prepared to. A stake is either personal – some kind of injury or distraction, represented by getting a picture card from the director – or time – some other situation will now need dealing with sooner than it otherwise would. Pick which consequence you are willing to accept upfront.
Once all three things are declared – goal, approach and stake – then you can draw your cards. It was mentioned above that actions can be made harder or easier. By default you draw just two cards, with the target values being two of your attributes. If what you are doing is easy you have an advantage (or maybe two if it’s really easy) – draw another card for each advantage with a target value of Average. If you’ve chosen a harder path, then you get one or two disadvantages – draw an extra card for each with a target value of Low. If a disadvantage draw fails, then you discard it (once you’ve drawn all other cards) along with the lowest value non-disadvantage card you’ve drawn. As you can see, having advantages makes it easier to get successes, but more disadvantages makes it harder since it cancels out potential successes.
Here’s how Sam and Hilary might play out this situation (one choosing finesse and one choosing a direct approach:
“I just need to get through, so I’m going to act like I’m in charge and order the guard to open the door. My goal is just me on the other side of that door, my approach is direct and I’ll take time as the stake. I’m not leaving until he lets me in.”
“Okay, draw for Charisma and Poise.”
“Minimal, that’s a pass…and Low, two passes.”
“Alright, you’re in, but the guard does not look happy. As you walk past him, you think you see him reaching for his walkie-talkie. He might be calling ahead.”
“I’m going to try sneaking up to the door and picking the lock without making a sound. So success is getting the door open without the guard noticing anything, my approach is definitely finesse, and I’ll take a personal stake.”
“Okay, finesse will add a disadvantage, so draw your two cards for your attributes.”
“Average and average, awesome.”
“Yeah, but now you have to draw your disavadvantage.”
“Aw man, Average again! Well, I guess I’m losing one, and I’m left with only one pass.”
If at least two pass, then you have a smooth success. What you wanted happened, and it didn’t cost you anything.
If no cards pass, then you have a rough failure. You didn’t get what you wanted, and you’ve lost your stake.
If only one passes then you have a choice – rough success or smooth failure? That is, lose your stake but achieve what you wanted, or fail your action but otherwise keep your stake? These are the crunch moments when you decide who the character really is, and what truly matters to them.
It’s important to note that a smooth failure also allows you to try the action again, but the approach must be different, and if you’ve tried and failed with all three approaches, well, that’s it, it’s just not going to happen. The character has tried and re-tried all possible avenues they can think of, and none of them have worked.
Each episode or session of Prime will consist of the director presenting the lead actors with a series of scenes. Within each scene the characters will face one or more situations. The lead actors will choose what their characters will do in those situations, then draw cards to discover what the result of that is.
You now know how to play a basic game of Prime. It is just that, however: basic. If you’re new to role-playing games play an episode or two through with just these rules until you’re comfortable with the action resolution process (declare goal, approach and stake, draw cards to resolve) and the rhythm of scenes and situations.
Once you’re comfortable (or if you’ve played role-playing games before) you can move onto the other pages that introduce additional features.