Ryan Macklin is an award-winning game designer, writer, editor, and human of many talents. You can find out more about him at http://ryanmacklin.com/ and follow him on Twitter @RyanMacklin
Minerva Zimmerman: Ok then, for those that are not aware of Ryan Fucking Macklin From the Internet, how do you introduce yourself?
Ryan Macklin: I guess it depends on the context. If I’m talking with game people, “tabletop roleplaying game designer and editor.” If I’m talking with fiction people or other professionals, then it’s just “editor.” If I’m talking with software developers, I might jokingly call myself an “IT survivor.” And if I’m forced into an awkward airplane seat neighbor conversation, I introduce myself as little as possible. Mainly to avoid the dreaded “Oh, have you written anything I’ve read?” question. Though, lately I’ve responded to that question with “So you know, all writers hate that question.” :)
MZ: That’s a good response. I am stealing that.
RM: But mainly, I’m an RPG guy.
MZ: I’m partially asking because I’m still not 100% what all you do.
RM: Hah! To be fair, people outside of RPG-land don’t really know what all goes into making games. I mean, there’s the abstract concepts, but how those skills overlap with “real world” stuff is weird.
MZ: I will admit I mostly stopped worrying about it because you seem to hand me booze every time I start thinking too hard about it
RM: That is how I got many of the jobs I’ve had since I started doing this in 2007.
RM: But in an effort to explain, a game designer is this weird job that’s part psychology, part technical writing, part creative writing, part UX design, and possibly some other parts depending on your role as a designer, developer, editor, and so on.
MZ: What’s your favorite part (speaking of questions you hate)
RM: At least it’s not That Question. :D To pin it down, um, hmm. Mind hacking.
MZ: Cause you’re a pretty creative writer, but you’re also a programmer, and a nuts and bolts kind of guy. So I wouldn’t try to guess.
RM: The essence of game design, to (mis)quote my friend and renown game designer John Wick, is in creating situations of non-optimal choices.
MZ: Same with writing
RM: Right. Well, kinda.
MZ: I mean if you give characters optimal choices you have to explain why they take the wrong one.
RM: Like, in fiction writing, you’re creating the non-optional decision point and choosing the decision. And the lead-up to said decision point. I don’t have the advantage of knowing the lead-up or choosing the decision for the player. Generally speaking. Sometimes I know the lead-uip
MZ: Yeah, I’m not entirely certain I would enjoy RPG writing because of that.
RM: I think you might… if only because “RPG writing” is like saying you “write English.” It encompasses a lot of things.
MZ: I did some computer game writing, but even then I got to write stuff out for all the decision trees.
RM: I generally like writing systems—the rules and mechanics for games where in-the-moment decisions lie. But there’s adventure writing, which involves a lot of prose and broader narrative decisions. Or writing options that the rules use, which are more decisions to choose from.
RM: Or writing up creatures that interface with the rules and create dynamic tension. If you’re making the sort of game that uses creatures.
MZ: I do enjoy Storium
RM: Right! More as a player or narrator?
MZ: Player. When I try to write my own setting for it I get bored super fast.
MZ: I work on it every so often, but I figure if I’m boring myself it isn’t good for players.
RM: I was a stretch goal for Storium, with a setting based on my own IP, so I kinda have an advantage there. But also it’s kinda easy to get bored of writing the same thing. And there’s even another thing. Like, my intro for my Storium world needs to be pregnant with choice and story possibilities, not a preamble to a world.
MZ: Hmm. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing wrong.
RM: Like, it’s easy to fall into a trap about telling a brief of what’s happened in the world up to the play point. Readers love that, but it’s not as useful for play. Useful, but less so, so it needs to be less of a priority.
MZ: Well, it’s only like 1/20th of what you need to create at most
It might be the first thing players read, but it probably shouldn’t be the first thing you write as a creator.
RM: You know that writer trick of writing scaffolding you think you need, like detailed backgrounds, and then not publishing it as part of your work except where needed and with something else going on (like emotional interaction)?
MZ: Yeah, I do a lot of that. maybe 1/100th of what I research ends up in the story.
RM: Right, because fiction writing today focuses on character lenses, yeah?
MZ: Well, mine does for sure.
RM: We’re not living in the Tolkien world-lens time. People write like that, but it’s not in fashion.
MZ: I’d argue Harry Potter is more world-focused. mostly because I think Harry is the worst character.
RM: I haven’t ready Harry Potter. I was a movie-watcher, until the movie with the fucking giant spiders, and then I mic-dropped on all things Harry Potter. Except for Wizard People, Dear Reader. WIZARD PEOPLE, DEAR READER forever. So I’ll have to ask you: is there a lot in those books where you get exposition about the world directly from the author? And not from a character telling Harry something?
MZ: mmm no, it doesn’t do that style.
RM: Right. So in fiction-land, there’s training to at least deliver world content that way. In RPGs, there isn’t a character lens in the prose, but in play. So the words, even when it’s creative setting writing, is author-delivered. Even in games I’ve worked on like The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game or The Leverage Roleplaying Game, where we used in-world voices for the text, it was treating them as the author rather than two characters talking. (Well, we broke the fourth wall with Dresden in marginalia comments. They also did that with The Atomic Robo Roleplaying Game.) So it’s easy to fall back into the “poorly execute Tolkien” trap with stuff like Storium world writing.
MZ: Huh. Now I’m trying to think of all the formats that have a narrator to see if there’s new RPG opportunities there. Like… maybe, Nature Documentary RPG.
RM: That could work, if you know what the point of play is from an emotional standpoint.
MZ: Well if the players are the animals being documented, and the GM is David Attenborough
RM: But that is its own trap. A lot of early game designers try to make games that emulate a genre of storytelling, because we think in analogies, rather than be homages that appreciate a genre of storytelling without trying to be awkward about it.
Okay, let’s run with that. So the players are playing (important difference) animals being documented.
MZ: if you did it sort of like a theater game
RM: The GM could also be Morgan Freeman.
MZ: so the players are throwing out things the narrator has to deal with and vice versa
RM: So, we know what the characters are doing. We have a lot of ideas about what the players could do, but what do we want them to feel? What’s the thing we want to reward players for doing?
MZ: Being… interesting?
RM: And therein lies the problem. That’s not something you can really reward. And it’s its own reward anyway. There’s a game called Fiasco. It’s billed as the Coen Brothers story game. Tabletop has featured it. It’s pretty fun. The player behavior that gets rewarded is putting characters in difficult situations and building up an arc, either a good arc or a tragic, horrific downfall. Those are my modes of trying to be interesting. So if we’re doing a nature documentary thing, what does the “filmmaker” (to give the GM a genre label) want? To film interesting stuff. As a player, then the filmmaker wants to push for interesting stuff, but doesn’t necessarily have control of the environment because they’re an outsider. I dunno what to do about the animals. :)
MZ: well, they should want what animals want right? Food, sex, survival
RM: Then it starts to sound like a board game, because roleplaying a lion that’s DTF isn’t necessarily interesting. Unless you’re LARPing, maybe. But it could be a board game with a resource economy and other weird stuff. A lot of people who make RPGs early on end up really making superficial board games that don’t actually have much connection to the story they’re trying to faciliate.
MZ: See this is why it hard for me to wrap my brain around. So in a RPG the player has to be an element of design?
RM: A primary element! It’s easy to see what characters want. It’s easy to see what we want out of characters, which is of course not the same thing. But mind-hacking players to feel enjoyment, sorrow, contemplation, etc. is the real task of a game designer. Conveniently, it’s a co-op thing. We’re not CIA torture-masters or anything. Even if our games have rules for being a CIA torture-master.
RM: There’s a system I would play that nature documentary in, but it wouldn’t be about the animals. There’s a game called Primetime Adventures, which is about playing a TV show, using a TV show framework rather than a game about combat. I would use that, where one person is the documentarian, another is the helicopter pilot, another is the producer, etc. There’s also a GM, who plays out the role of everyone else. And that game really becomes about the drama between the crew. That’s a human story that people can hook into. With a system that rewards dramatic struggle and shapes the arcs of characters over play. It’s not what you’re talking about, though.
MZ: Hmm. Yeah I see how what I was thinking doesn’t work well.
RM: I’m gonna super have to think about how the heck to do what you’re thinking. Like, maybe it could, if you know what the players want. Maybe the players want to frustrate the documentarian, and the point of play is that struggle.
MZ: animals trying not to be documented?
RM: It might still be more board game. Or maybe a Daniel Solis-style writing game like Happy Birthday, Robot! or Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple. Or doing things that the documentarian already has. Or ruining something, like following a gazelle for three weeks, only for it to be eaten by a lion off-camera.
MZ: yeah it does seem more board game Ok, so let’s drop this idea for now and try to focus on the things you DO need for a good RPG.
RM: I recommend writers who like games check out the Daniel Solis games I mentioned, because they’re pretty cool. They aren’t games where you play roles, but write parts of sentences with specific words while playing a game that constrains you.
MZ: I think I’m straight up going at RPG creation from the wrong end.
RM: So, give me a quick pitch for a setting. Just a sentence.
MZ: Gnomes leave home to make their way in the world.
RM: Awesome. Give me a broad, ongoing trouble that these gnomes have to face in the world. Be as high-concept or specific as you like. But definitely ongoing.
MZ: Prejudice from the humans who don’t believe gnomes should work outside the lawn.
RM: Okay, now for an impending trouble. Next week, something’s going to happen. No one knows it’s about to happen, but it could turn the gnomes’ lives upside-down. And it’s not related to the prejudice. What is it?
MZ: Hmm Can it connect in any way?
RM: If that’s the idea you have, let’s start there.
MZ: Well, I have a couple ideas… maybe some kind of illness or a major problem with all the lawns of the world. Or gnome terrorists could attack human targets and its obvious to all gnomekind that the humans will never be able to stop them cause… reasons.
RM: Those are both things. Maybe concurrent, maybe one now and another is in your pocket for later. Alright, you have a setting sketch.
MZ: Oh and my idea was that the players have to create characters who desire an occupation that is completely un-gnomelike. like astronaut, rock star, dancer, hair dresser, etc.
RM: Next up: figure out what the player-characters are doing in this world, then make up some fronts that have either antithetical or sideways objectives, and some places that serve as sets for action or intrigue. Okay, so rebel gnomes.
MZ: yes, who seeks to find a place in wider society
RM: Thus, you have gnomes that want to self-oppress. You have humans that hate “sidewalk gnomes” Maybe you throw something else in there, like a secret griffon cult that sometimes helps gnomes out, but it’s never out of generosity
MZ: Ooo and humans who want to “save” gnomes
RM: Yup! So, we’re talking about setting here, but there’s an organizational piece that comes to mind: are these protagonists assumed to be working together toward some common goal, or are they merely connected by their desire for these individual goals? Those are two very different dynamics: one is a single story with side plots, and the other is a collection of multiple stories that sometimes interweave. Totally different gameplay requirements.
MZ: I like the interweaving idea for this.
RM: You may well have a GM-less, round-robin sort of RPG. Fiasco doesn’t have a GM. All of the roles of a single facilitator, rules arbiter, and source of adversity are distributed ad hoc.
MZ: Well, this is my Storium idea I keep getting bored of
RM: It might not be a great Storium premise. Maybe it is, but I can see a bunch of scenes where it’s just about one character, maybe with a second as an aside, chasing a dream. Then you have scenes where they’re all dealing with threats. Actually, that’s probably fine as a Storium premise, because the asynchronous element means you don’t have bored, inactive players sitting at a table waiting to be engaged. There’s plenty of other Storium games and the Internet in general to keep someone occupied.
MZ: I think it could work… but I probably do need some kind of unifying thread
RM: Characters are chasing a fantastic dream while suffering the slings and arrows that come with rebelling against their own kind and against an oppressive majority.
MZ: there still needs to be something that keeps throwing the players back together toward one goal
RM: That’s where an ongoing and impending threat come in that’s global to the group the PCs belong in. Survival is the default. And it’s a default for a reason.
MZ: I want this to be funnier
RM: Social survival can be made funny. Rather than physical survival. But this isn’t like a courtly farce, where the characters have cause to be in the same place and deal with each other.
MZ: I’m kind of inclined to go back to the TV idea and have the players be on a gnome reality show
MZ: So the players have agreed to this as a stepping stone toward their dream but no one has their best interest in mind except themselves
RM: So the ongoing problems are going to be more reality-show based. At some point, my publisher for Backstory Cards is going to finish and release the most awesome reality show-themed RPG ever: Hyperreality. Lillian and I playtested it a couple years ago, and it was hysterical. I kinda love that society has more or less co-opted “hysterical” to be a synonym of “hilarious,” rather than its pseudo-medical definition. It feels very mocking of pseudoscience.
MZ: There are worse things to mock
RM: True. I used to be a government employee.
RM: Oh, if you want the see the framework I’m using for this setting building stuff, check out the Game Creation chapter of Fate Core System. It’s available for free in e-form, including at fate-srd.com
I pretty much was just riffing on what we wrote there.
MZ: Awesome. Well, this Conversation ended up more like a hands-on game design brainstorm.
RM: Welcome to 50% of RPG panels. The other 50% become GM advice panels, no matter what they started out to be.
MZ: Hahahahaha. Let me tell you about my character. :P
RM: I’m sorry, I think my cable is starting to go out. Forever.
RM: There was a cool “Tell me about your character, $5″ booth at Big Bad Con. Money to go to Doctors Without Borders. It was fun.
MZ: That’s pretty brilliant Is there anything else you want to make sure we talk about?
RM: I like telling people that I know more about the legal ramifications of cow STDs than most folks do, but there’s little to talk about other than what I just typed. You’d rather hear about my character, let’s put it that way.
MZ: hahahaa. Careful. You start with the cow STD’s and I’ll start talking about seals sexually molesting penguins in the wild.
RM: I saw that across Twitter today!
MZ: (DO NOT GOOGLE THE VIDEO)
RM: The article, not the act.
MZ: I dunno, I’ve seen your part of the internet…
RM: It’s funny. You introduce me as Ryan Fucking Macklin from the Internet. I haven’t really done much of that bombastic RPG designer persona since my now-wife and I moved in together. I hung up that giant flask. My “Night Macklin” Twitter account doesn’t get as much love. My hair hasn’t been dyed pink in over a year.
MZ: Eh, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe we should make an account for your Liver and its plan for World Domination now that you’re not keeping it in submission.
RM: Hah! I tell people that thanks to the medication I take, I have a mortal’s liver now, so I can’t go on holy crusades in bars.
MZ: Eh, part of the fun of holy crusades in bars is to actually drink much less than everyone around you so you get the best blackmail possible.
RM: The medication also makes it so that Benadryl makes me sleepy now. Use to not. Really ticks me off.
MZ: Ginger Ale. The evil drinker’s secret weapon.
RM: I tell my own blackmail stories, so that no one else can use them as ammo against me. There was one convention where I was sooooooo hungover for my game the next day, I ended up being sick and even nodding off in the bathroom mid-game for almost 30 minutes. I apologized at the end of the session, because we didn’t finish. One player said “Thanks for running! I got the real Ryan Macklin experience!” That was a call to action.
RM: I want that story once, not again. :D Well, I didn’t want it then, but you know what I mean. I didn’t want that repeated. That was during my self-medicated, self-destructive era. I suppose I sort of associate my bombastic self with that period of time. I still play a bit hyped up. I mean, I wore a damn cape up to an award show last August and handed it to the host like he was my valet. But sober :)
RM: That said, being a lush totally got me a lot of work, which lead to the context in which I met my wife, so hey. Not that I advise that for others. Being a lush is not a cheap hobby!
MZ: Nor is being a game designer.
RM: Well, being a tabletop game designer is about being a pauper. So if I’m to be a lush, it has to be because friends and fans want to buy drinks for me. Thus, a self-correcting problem. Except for the yearly bottle of Sortilege that I get from a fantastic friend of mine in Canada. I think I’ve had you try that, yeah? The pancake liqueur?
MZ: is that the maple.. yeah, that stuff. Delicious. I only got a tiny taste cause I was driving.
RM: We will have to rectify that. There’s a layered shot that my roommate and I came up with. It’s that, Sortilege Cream (which is like pancake Bailey’s), and Kahula. IT’S AMAZING. Two of those things are only available in Canada. One only it…Quebec and Ottawa, maybe?
MZ: I will have to check the list of places I am banned from returning to.
RM: Have booze mules.
MZ: Can we call Canadian’s mules? Wouldn’t they be booze moose?
RM: Antlers are hard to get onto planes.
MZ: well, in the passenger cabin, sure. I’m a museum professional. I know how to ship a moose.
RM: You know how to ship a moose. I know about cow STDS. This is a game.
MZ: a very terrible game :)
RM: Life is a terribly designed game.
MZ: It’s like they weren’t even trying to balance gameplay.
RM: Or give a crap about player emotional experience. WHERE IS THE NARRATIVE!
MZ: I want to reroll. My stats are all wonky. And I seem to have taken points in Mayan pottery.
RM: But we’re writers. Our job is to make that random stuff someone turn into a paycheck, right?
MZ: Show me the money.
RM: I have, like, $6.
MZ: I could probably scrape together a few $ in change.
RM: It’s yours for the low low price of dealing with the hell of crafting a narrative about Mayan pottery. Not that the Mayan pottery is the problem. The hell is in the “crafting a narrative” part. :D