My new culinary hero

I bought the household a cookbook for Christmas.

This was (is) part of the household’s new year’s resolutions, which include eating better and other nerdier ones which we’ll get to later.

The cookbook is Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, and two months out I think I can safely say it’s been a great purchase.  In that time, I have learned from this book:

  • How to make chicken stock.  This alone is an invaluable piece of information, and Bittman is correct – it’s totally addictive once you learn how much better homemade stock is than canned.
  • How to wash and prepare a leek.  Who knew that the best way to really get them clean was to slice them almost in half lengthwise and fan them out?  (Well, he did, obviously.)
  • How to core a cabbage.
  • How to make popcorn on the stove.
  • How to prepare risotto.
  • How to roast your own red peppers.
  • And probably a lot of other things I am forgetting about.

It’s light on pictures, except for the informative line drawings used to demonstrate the various cooking techniques – but you know what?  I’m fine with that, and this is coming from someone who typically prefers her cookbooks liberally laced with nigh-pornographic food photography.  This is a practical book that is full of practical advice, and while it may not have as many pretty pictures as other cookbooks I have known, it DOES have a heaping helping of useful tables, ideas and suggestions for modifying recipes, and (most important of all) a good index in the back.

Bittman’s writing style is breezy, easy to follow, and has just a touch of humor in it that makes recipes for even food that scares most people (like risotto) seem less intimidating.  When an instruction comes up that might seem bizarre to a novice chef like myself, he actually tends to take the time to explain why it is that, for example, you don’t bother to peel the onion you’re putting in your chicken stock.  It’s like having a kitchen mentor that hangs about comfortably within range if you need to ask a question without being dogmatic or intrusive.

And with two thousand recipes, if you can’t find something to add to your repertoire in here, you’re probably not trying hard enough.

This one’s a winner, folks.  Consider it next time you’re hitting up the cookbook section.

Character-driven storytelling with Primetime Adventures

Some time ago, because I am a very bad girl, I picked up a copy of the .pdf of the roleplaying game Primetime Adventures.  Today, I finally got around to reading it.

The Elevator Pitch

Primetime Adventures is a game where you and your friends work together to create a story in the style of a prime time TV show.

The Assessment

I like it.  Don’t know if I’ll ever play it, but even if I don’t, there is high-quality material to be mined from it no matter what system I’m playing in.

The Details

PTA is a pretty easy system to like.  It requires very little in the way of materials, setup, or prep time for the game master – odds are excellent that aside from the PTA rulebook you already have everything you need lying about in your house.  It’s also pretty much entirely genre-independent and will support any sort of story you care to dream up, provided that:

  • The story you want to tell includes strong character-driven elements and
  • You have the right group.

Having the right group is of course important for any game – and certainly reams of paper and piles of pixels have been devoted to the subject – but more than almost any other system I’ve ever looked at, PTA relies on your group’s ability to work together and compromise.   This begins at the very instant you make the decision to use the system – the first session of any campaign is always devoted to the pitch session, where the players work together to decide what genre and tone they would prefer and establish the length of your imaginary television show’s “season.”

After that, the players work together to create the ensemble cast that will populate the show, and work out what their character’s central issues and defining traits will be.   These traits can be called on to gain advantages and extra cards when the time comes to negotiate conflicts – but more on that in a moment.

Each session of PTA is an “episode,” naturally, and each episode proceeds in a very democratic sort of way.  A scene is proposed, the players work out the outlines of what the central conflicts will be, and these conflicts are played out as other players (and audience members if any) look on.  Conflict resolution is diceless, and relies on a standard deck of playing cards to determine both who will get the result they desire and who wins the right to narrate the scene.  The narrator will describe what happens, and you’re off to the races.  New scene, everyone!

Some of you might be thinking that this sounds like you spend a lot of time sitting around listening, and you would be right; in this sense PTA is probably not a game for impatient folks.  On the other hand, literally every moment of the game encourages contributions from other players to the action: players who are not participating in a scene can even spend some of their resources to tip the balance of a conflict they are watching in a direction they think is most interesting.  It’s not hard to imagine how some players would be put off having their story so heavily impacted by the peanut gallery – again, the key here is getting together a group of folks who don’t mind that sort of thing.

Whether you mean to actually play the game or not, however, the rulebook is well worth reading just for the very sound advice it gives on getting quickly to the core of how a character can contribute to dramatic situations (via his or her Issues) and how to identify and employ well-placed, satisfying narrative scenes in a collaborative medium.  This stuff is gold – no matter what system you’re playing, attention to details like these can very simply just make your game better.

Let’s pretend, for example, that you’re playing D&D.  D&D tends to be much more action-heavy than PTA, and tends to rely on the whims of the dice, rather than the metagame-level agreement of the players, to produce its narrative.   Sure, you’re not going to be plotting out your scenarios months in advance, but what if you’re planning a session that will really let one of your PCs shine?

You could do this overtly, by choreographing a grand set-piece battle – but you can also play some subtler tricks using the guidelines offered in PTA for characters in supporting roles and emphasize your featured PC’s conflicts and troubles by setting them in counterpoint to scenes or subplots involving other PCs.  You’re setting your rogue up for a confrontation with his father, poised even now to betray him?  You could play up the need to take care whom you trust by having your unworldly paladin encounter a devious con man – or really drive the knife home by setting your warlord up to depend on his former mentor in a time of desperate need.  When the mentor comes through and the father lets down the side, the contrast should make the drama of the situation all the more poignant.

This is the sort of thing PTA is designed to enable – using the conventions of well-told TV tales to punch up the character dramas that keep audiences tuning in every week.  It may not matter to the folks on the couch all that much what happens in the overarching Villain-of-the-Week plot…it’s the characters and the interactions between them that really keep the audience coming back.  And there is room for more of that in almost any game, regardless of genre or degree of rulesy crunch.

If You Only Read One Thing

Read the explanations of “Issue” and “Screen Presence” (pages 12-14), which will explain the basic mechanics of how a character-driven story arc works.  For bonus points, add in the basics of scene creation on pages 26-31.  Players and GMs alike can benefit from asking themselves what the scene they’re engaged in is really “about” and what it’s meant to play up.

If anyone out there has actually tried PTA, I’d be happy to know what they think.

Happy gaming, everybody.