Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Five or So Questions with Ryan Macklin on Backstory Cards

Backstory Cards are currently Kickstarting!

Tell me a little about Backstory Cards. What excites you about them?

Backstory Cards is a tool I made to create surprising, dynamic backstory between characters in an RPG. The cards have prompts on them and methods for randomly tying together PCs, events, NPCs, and locations in the world. Some are cooperative in nature ("When push came to shove at event, PC displayed something you weren’t expecting. What was it, and how did you react?"), dramatic ("You, PC, and individual were caught up in a love triangle or other complicated romantic entanglement. Who came out the better? At what cost?"), or even adversarial ("Place is important to [you/PC], and the other one harmed or threatened to harm it. What happened, and how did [you/they] get away with it?") Everyone answers around two prompts each, and you have some interwoven history with immediately usable hooks.

You know those moments of surprise in games, when someone comes up with something that seems out of the blue, but also seems like exactly the right thing to say at that time? I live for those moments in RPGs, as a GM and as a player. And I love character setups that ask pointed questions, which I've been doing at convention games for years (after learning how to do it from Paul Tevis and Brian Isikoff). But the two never quite meshed together for me, because either I was asking the leading questions myself or the game was providing a host of questions to choose from. Don't get me wrong, I love that stuff! But there's something special about being asked a pointed question you weren't expecting, and then coming up with an inspired answer that makes everyone else at the table excited to play.

I love asking good questions! How did you come up with these questions for the cards?
I've been using this technique for years at convention games with partially pre-generated characters. When I would make the pregens, I would have some likely relationships between the characters in mind, but leave the question of "why" out of it. I did that with heroic moments, with love triangles, with complicated pasts. I would create interesting NPCs and ask them all questions to pump up that NPC, and then start the game at the NPC's funeral; I called this technique "the Xavier method" because for a year I kept naming that character Xavier.

Years of doing that, and then becoming more improvisational about it, gave me the basis for the first couple dozen questions. I've also played in a lot of convention games with amazing question-asking GMs like Paul Tevis and Brian Isikoff, who are significant influences in Backstory Cards. All of those experiences have worked out my improvisational Socratic muscles into lean fighting form.

What sort of games do you think these cards would be most effective for?
I tell people that Backstory Cards are good for pretty much any RPG where characters are interconnected at the start of the game. Obvious systems would be for Fate, Cortex+ Drama, and Dungeon World, where relationships can or are put on the character sheet in some form. But I've also used this method (or seen this used) in GURPS, Heroquest, GUMSHOE, Don't Rest Your Head, various dungeon crawl games, and so on.

But it's particularly effective when what you as a group emphatically want to riff on character history as part of the game, whether it's a plot motivator or just as banter. If you need something superficial, it might be a waste of time (but might also create player buy-in). I'm also super-curious to try it as a Fiasco hack, but I'm betting more likely than not that it'll result in a weaker Fiasco game.

How do you think we can, as gamers, use good questions more in games?
My take on questions in games, whether in character creation or in play, is to take to heart one strong idea: answers are agency. Whether that's asking you about minor scene elements, character backstory, or major plot points, by asking questions you're promising agency. Respecting that promise at the table is important. You know those moments when you are specifically offered input, and after you answers someone response with "You know what would be even cooler?" That's not respecting the promise of agency. (That doesn't mean every answer is equally valid -- agency comes with it responsibility. But that gets into answers as negotiation rather than wholesale negation.)

The *World games show how to use questions in play in a brilliant manner -- I have always appreciated how Vincent crafted questions as currency.

There's a tendency to eschew the yes/no question because it can frequently lead to nowhere, in favor of open questions. Most of the time, that's true, but there can be power in the yes/no questions. I recall one time when Josh Roby ran Full Light, Full Steam at a Nerdly Beach Party. The party was on a giant gondola and I wanted to shoot at some people below us who were looking to do the same thing. Josh ask me if I thought the windows slid or otherwise easily opened, and my gut was to say "of course" because saying no felt like a stop. Then I thought about it and say "Of course they're solid glass! That makes it more awesome because I have to shoot through it."

A lot of time, the yes/no question is too simplistic, but look for opportunities to turn that on its ear.

What's up next for you?
I always have games and other projects cooking. The biggest one that I'm slowly chipping at is called the Emerging Threats Unit -- an action-investigation horror game that asks "What if the secret agency fighting supernatural threats wasn't in the FBI, but in the CDC?" I'm slowly creating it in the open, writing about pieces here and there on my blog. (Here's a detailed bit about the premise.)

More importantly, I have a wedding coming up with Lillian Cohen-Moore. That's my big upcoming project, and I have three conventions between now to also eat my time and mental bandwidth. Perhaps when that's behind me, I'll make a worker placement game that's about getting ready for a wedding -- a cooperative game where you play the couple, the best human, human of honor, wedding planner, and officiant. After all, They say write what you know, and right now this is my life.

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