Roll Perception Plus Awareness: An Interview with Ryan Macklin, Creator of Backstory Cards
Welcome back to Roll Perception Plus Awareness, a column about roleplaying games and their place in a genre reader’s and writer’s world.
Recently, I got to talking with Role Playing game creator Ryan Macklin. He is the creator of Backstory Cards, a tabletop roleplaying game aid currently being funded on Kickstarter. Ryan was kind enough to answer some questions about him, and Backstory Cards.
PW: Tell me about who Ryan Macklin is.
RM: I’m a 35-year-old tabletop game designer and editor, cat person, and recovering IT professional. I’m a co-creator of Fate Core, The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, The Leverage Roleplaying Game, and many others (including my own RPG about deicide and apotheosis, Mythender). My day job is as an editor at Paizo, makers of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.
Also, I’m getting married this coming September to the awesome and talented Lillian Cohen-Moore. Last year, I would have said that I’m almost comically defined by my many jobs in games, but wedding planning is its own full-time gig.
PW: What’s the elevator pitch for Backstory Cards? Why should Roleplayers use it? Who is the target audience?
RM: Want your gaming group to make characters that are interconnected to each other and the setting? Want to be surprised by your answers and create stories you wouldn’t have thought of? Backstory Cards is for you!
I made this first and foremost for me. My game-mastering style involves asking pointed questions to get players invested in their characters and the action. I’m often good at coming up with questions, but sometimes I stall out or even get bored of asking the same questions again and again. Playtesters who aren’t as good at improvisational questions really took to Backstory Cards as well, which makes me happy. I think anyone who likes playing or running games where the characters are connected to each other or the world will enjoy using this.
PW: Where did the genesis of the idea for Backstory Cards come from?
RM: This comes from a technique I’ve been using in convention games for, oh, seven years? For quite some time. Convention games can be hard to get off the ground in a short timeframe, and I noticed how the power of asking pointed questions during the setup can increase buy-in. Some of the questions would be about shared awesome, like “Jenny saved you on the last mission from some threat. What did Jenny do?” Then I would turn to Jenny’s player and asking two questions: “Are you okay with that?” and “What did you save Enrico from?” Sometimes the questions were more dramatic in nature, like asking for two characters to be part of a love triangle, and follow-up by asking who ended up losing out.
I was running a Fate Core game for a bunch of friends last Gen Con, and I did this same technique again. But there was something different about this time, and it took a couple months to realize: I was no longer surprised by the questions themselves. The answers often surprised me, but because I was in control of the questions as the GM making them up, there was a predictable element. I then drafted up Backstory Cards shortly before Metatopia — a fantastic design convention in New Jersey — to demo it to colleagues. I only had half of the deck, but people fell in love with it there.
RM: There are nearly 50 “prompt cards,” card that have a prompt with some fill-in elements, like “XXX.” Along with each prompt is a number between 1 and 3, and arrows that direct to another player at the table. There are some instruction and aid cards to go with the set, which means the whole system fits nearly in a small box that you can throw into your gaming bag.
When you draw a prompt and come across things you need to fill in, like another character or a setting element, you draw further cards to fill those in — arrows to point to other player characters, and numbers to choose a setting element. With that, you have a prompt to answer, and that answer is often a jumping off point for either more conversation right then or something to happen in play.
PW: Story card systems and subsystems, from the Everway Fortune Deck to Once Upon a Time have cropped up now and again in roleplaying. What have you learned or adapted from these earlier games and aids?
RM: Wow, I haven’t thought about Everway in years. I don’t know if I have any specific things I can call to, though I’m sure that Everyway and Once Upon a Time have influenced Backstory Cards subconsciously. It’s an interesting design challenge, though, creating a tool that exists in a void you fill with your imagination, and used in an unpredictable order. Of course, that’s absolutely the point with Once Upon a Time, though unlike with that, Backstory Cards has to work with whatever preconceived setting and character concepts you bring to it.
PW: How has Backstory Cards developed and changed during your playtesting?
RM: Given that I’ve been unconsciously designing this for several years, the basic mechanism didn’t change from the first physical prototype last October to today. I did learn new ways of using it, though, which is making its way into a free PDF supplement we’re calling The Techniques Guide.
I have revised many of the questions, though. Even now, there are some that I’m eyeballing to possibly rewrite or even cut. But that’s what it is to be a designer — you’re never really done tinkering with your stuff. Even things I’ve worked on years ago get revisited and hacked today.
PW: Backstory Cards clearly has a lot of Fate DNA in it. But, since its system-neutral, what other sorts of games would Backstory Cards be a good fit for?
RM: It’s more a case of parallel evolution there. I actually started using this technique when I was a GURPS convention GM. It just happened to be that my GM style really lent itself to Fate, which was part of what caught Fred Hicks’ and Leonard Balsera’s attention, which in turn lead me to being part of the Evil Hat Fate team.
I see Backstory Cards is great for any tabletop game where you want interconnected characters. I know that people have used it for dungeon crawl games in order to spice the character stories up. Games like Cortex+ Drama or Dungeon World are natural fits, but also games where relationships don’t matter at all to the mechanics. To me, it’s easier to say what games it’s not good for: where you don’t have starting relationships, like your Reservoir Dogs-style narrative or amnesia plots.
PW: Anything else you want to tell us about Backstory Cards? Where can readers learn more?
RM: My business partner in this is Brooklyn Indie Games, run by Tim Rodriguez. He’s got experience with card game production and a good rapport with the printer that we’ll be using. I pondered doing this myself, but my fiancée gave me some sanity-saving advice for both of us: “Don’t think about running a crowdfunding campaign while we’re planning our wedding.” Tim’s been a fantastic partner in all of this, from crunching the Kickstarter math to hiring Daniel Solis to do the logo design. He’s a great human, and we keep each other pumped about and focused on the project.
Folks can go to BackstoryCards.com, which right now goes to the Kickstarter campaign and will later be the home for Backstory Cards. We’ve got one live demo on there now, and will be doing some other live demos over the coming weeks in different systems and settings.
PW: Thanks, Ryan!
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