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Macklin-Roby Game Design Philosophy

Josh Roby & I have been tinkering with ideas for some time now, between exchanging notes about our work on the Smallville RPG he designed and the Leverage RPG I was editing, working on small-form games like our Vicious Crucible project (which sorely needs an update), and some other ambitious ideas we keep talking about (like the Atlantis Risen project I mentioned while at Gamex). As with any partnership, we’ve started talking in partner-speak and form partner-thoughts. One that drives our designs, individually and together, can be summed up as:

Role-playing games are driven by a die shtick and a coin trick.

This shouldn’t be taken as a universal, but it’s how we think about the games we design and the games we engage with. We look at where the die shticks[1] are, where the coin tricks are, and how they intersect.

And when we see a game that doesn’t have one of those to, that also makes us think. (Like how A Penny For My Thoughts has no die shtick.)

The die shtick

The “die shtick” is about some sort of trick or gimmick used to make rolling dice interesting, compelling, desired, or something else beyond a passive throw.

  • In Cortex Plus (Smallville, Leverage), there’s the gathering of polyhedrals based on what you’re doing, reinforcing your actions & the fiction. And 1s on rolls trigger interesting situations.
  • In Fate, the number of shifts you get beyond the target needed can be spent to achieve other effects. Notably in combat, they do Stress, but you can also use them to make your task happen faster — I love the Time chart — or improve quality or in some cases create additional aspects.
  • In Dragon Age Tabletop RPG, the Dragon Die can give you Stunt Points to do additional effects, if between the three dice you roll you get doubles. (I really dig on this mechanic. It’s like critical successes taken to a new level.)
  • In In Nomine, getting triple 1s means a “Divine Intervention” and triple 6s means “Infernal Intervention.” A crit success/failure that depends on what you’re doing.

A “card shtick” can stand in for a “die shitck,” as with Primetime Adventures.

The coin trick

Sometimes this is a long-standing economy, and other times it’s a way of tracking state and flow. Whatever it is, the handing back and forth of a token for whatever reason (even if it’s not physically done, just on paper), is what Josh & I call a “coin trick.”

  • Fate’s Fate Points & Cortex Plus’ Plot Points are about a currency gained from complicating your current situation, spent to be more badass or power special effects later on. (This is probably the most common form of coin trick I’ve seen, though there are many variations on the theme. I particularly like Smallville’s Earns in Distinctions.)
  • A Penny For My Thoughts is built upon a coin trick. The coins you have determine the length of your story at the moment, and the handing of it says which direction it will go.
  • Primetime Adventures’ fan mail, coins spent by the Producer to fuel a high challenge, rewarded to the players by each other for moments they enjoy in the show, is a pretty potent one. A small-form game I was tinkering with a bit ago, Five Furious Fists of Tiamat, used fan mail. I was happy with the result.
  • I waffle on whether I’d count interesting XP gain systems as a coin trick. But games like The Shadow of Yesterday/Solar System or Apocalypse World do have some neat ways of gaining XP that might count. There’s much less of a flow there, and more simple pure-motivation, but it’s a far cry from nothing. Right now, I would count them.

Games without coin tricks feel pretty dated to me. New ones that lack it have that sense of “going back to old school.” It’s also helped me understand why certain games bore me–there’s no coin trick to help drive my interest.

[Edit] Which is, as I realize after reading Daniel’s comment below, is the point. The coin tricks I see are those that push character & player motivations. The die shticks that I see are those that give depth the a moment of randomness, so that it’s not just a binary pass/fail at once.

Now, this is not a universal, “have this or your game sucks” philosophy. But it’s what Josh & I look for in our own designs and when unpacking games we’ve played. What do you look for?

– Ryan

[1] Which until today we’ve called a “die trick,” but I feel “die shtick” fits better.

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9 Responses to Macklin-Roby Game Design Philosophy

  1. Daniel Solis says:

    Does Do have a “stone schtick”? (Oh man! Shticks and stones! That could’ve been a great sidebar title!)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Daniel,

      Huh. You know, I think Do’s stones are a combination of a die shtick and a coin trick. And now I’m going to edit my post for some clarity your comment has prompted.

      – Ryan

  2. Atlantis Risen? Color me intrigued, good sir.

  3. This quite parallels our development ideas. Essentially, you have one mechanic that provides randomness so the story is not in any person’s particular control, and then you ration out player authority over the story via some limited resource such as action points or plot points or what-have-you.

    I feel like a lot of games play with this randomness/authority dichotomy in novel ways. Something like Don’t Rest Your Head, for instance, only introduces the coin-trick after the die schtick goes a particular way. (Players gain authorship almost to balance out bad luck.) Alternately, something like 3:16 gives players a limited number of uses of “the story goes how I say it does” as a way of deepening backstories.

    But as you say, games which don’t have any sort of coin-trick feel flat. I feel like it’s because there’s this whole axis of play missing where a player could exert some sort of authorship for the story.

    • Josh Roby says:

      Wow, you like, thought about this and stuff. ;)

      I was more: “dice trick and coin trick hur hur hur!

      But your breakdown sounds about right, sir!

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Josh,

      THERE IS NO JOKING ABOUT RPGS! THIS IS SRS BSNSS!!!!!!!11111uno

      ;)

      – Ryan

  4. 4649matt says:

    What is the difference between a dice shtick and a dice mechanic?
    Is the dice shtick just a extra element that occurs on particular rolls, like a fumble or critical?

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      A shtick goes beyond any ol’ mechanic. It’s something that causes an engagement in the dice beyond simply totaling and comparing.

      Mechanic: Roll 3d6, compare against a TN average of 10.
      Shtick: Roll 3d6, compare against a TN average of 10. One of those is a Red Die. If you succeed, add those Red Die points to your “OMG I’M CORRUPTED BY POWAH” pool. (Which could then lead into the coin trick.)

      Does the mechanic cause either an interesting decision or a secondary outcome from the die roll? Then you have a shtick.

      – Ryan

    • Josh Roby says:

      I think of it more as a general principle that creates interesting choices and development. You could characterize the Cortex+ schtick as “roll a bunch of dice and pick two.” Or Otherkind is “roll dice and place them on this mat.”

      Anybody can roll a die (or tell you to roll a die), but when you do something different and interesting, it’s a schtick.