Questions for Game Designers: Ryan Macklin

Questions for Game Designers: Ryan Macklin

Never far away from a kick-ass gaming project, Ryan Macklin has been involved in the writing and/or editing of projects such as Don’t Rest Your Head (and soon, Don’t Hack this Game), Dresden Files RPG, Leverage, Technoir, & Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, and Hit A Dude. Ryan dispenses with the gaming goodness on his site, but he can also be made available to have his brain picked on twitter. He will also be at Gen Con, where he is an Industry Insider Guest of Honor.

He shared his thoughts with me a while ago, and I get to share the awesomeness with you.

When is a roleplaying game successful, from a perspective of play?

The easy-and-useless answer is “when it’s fun.” More to the point, it’s when that fun can be recounted in your mind as a story of risk, triumphs, pitfalls — the sorts of things that make for exciting narrative in our own minds.

So when the aftermath of a game fills our minds with all those points of tension and we want to retell that story to re-experience it, success!

What should an RPG do & how do you know you’ve done it?

The key element of an RPG is the ability to play with platforms & tilts, with persistence & consequence. It doesn’t matter if the game has one single system for resolving things of a bunch of subsystems, if the game supports the idea of a through-line.

Take D&D 4/e, which some like to claim (in a very hipster way) that it’s not a roleplaying game. When you’re in a battle, you have all these battle rules which can feel like a skirmish game without a necessary acting component. But because you have moments after battles where what happened in that battle effects an overall narrative — from small bragging moments like “man, did you see me kill that demon?” to consequences like “damn, that one kobold ran away” or “crap, our cleric’s dead” — you have persistence. You have story.

That doesn’t mean persistence makes for a good RPG, but it a necessary component to make something a RPG in the first place. Another component is space for human interpretation & retelling, but that’s another topic altogether.

When does an RPG fail (if ever) as a system? What are common problems as you see them?

When a system routinely produces uninteresting results, or is more cumbersome than its reward, then it fails. But you also get fail points when the game awkwardly constrains human interpretation.

A lot of early designer efforts I’ve seen make the system too light, trying to cover everything. And when they play it, it will because they’re putting implicit spins on the game during play that others won’t know to put in their games. Games that work only under certain circumstances based on a play style that fall apart when others handles them.

Also, most people can’t actually write their implicit elements into their texts. Which is why working with an editor who hasn’t played the game with you the whole time is key to a successful, accessible game text.

What is your favorite game you’ve designed? What lessons did you learn building it?

Though I’m not finished writing it, I am finished designing it: Mythender. I’m blogged quite a bit about learning lessons, but to sum them up, I’ve spend the last few years learning how to design a game around an explicitly tactile experience. I had this idea of tying the story of a grand battle at the table tied to that more primitive brain associated with tactile experience & basic visual accounting — the “he has more nuts than I do” sort.

I’m happy to say it works pretty well. But it took many iterations to make that work without breaking on its weight or making the heavy-die component — as it requires well over 100 d6s — into something that can be sidestepped or ignored, as that would push the experience from semi-tactile to fully-cerebral.

Man alive, that sounds so academic. I had to make a game where you might roll 40 dice not boring due to the handling time. And after having a hundred playtesters try it, looks like I did.

What is your favorite game that someone else designed? What do you like most about it? What one thing would you change (if any)?

For its system, the Apocalyse World engine. It’s elegant, works damned well with the implied setting elements — games about scarcity, low population, local-scale politics like you’d see in a Western, weird psychic stuff. The system is harsh & unforgiving, which honestly took me several plays to warm up to because it’s harsher than most games I play. But because the engine promotes qualified successes, hard choices, and compromise/concessions, the play experience nearly always feels like it’s at a point of tension.

What I’d change? The text. 🙂 It’s written for the hip, inside crowd. Luckily, you don’t need to read it to play, as the rules are on handouts that can be explained by the GM.

When is an idea/concept good enough to turn into an RPG? What makes something “gameable”?

When you have two or three ideas you can rub together to spark your imagination, you have an RPG seed. It doesn’t take much to have a concept. That could be a couple system ideas, or a couple setting ideas, whatever.

Making it gameable is another thing entirely. Lots of work, trial & error. That’s for both system & setting. People don’t talk enough about playtesting setting, but then huge parts of the gaming community fetishizes system the way that some car enthusiasts do engines.

Tell us about something great you’re working on.

I just got done writing notes on a potential game whose high concept is “Jewish Halfling Rokugan.” But I’m playing that one a bit close to the vest.

I’m also hoping to carve out more time to work on my book on convention GMing. I’m really excited about that. The pedagogy of this hobby is a passion of mine — in all aspects, not just design.

And then there’s Fate Core & Don’t Hack This Game, which are currently in my editing hands.

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