Monday, April 11, 2016

Five or So Questions with Ryan Macklin on Katanas & Trenchcoats

I was really excited for this interview with Ryan Mackin about the upcoming Katanas & Trenchcoats release, which is currently kicking ass on Kickstarter. My favorite game is Shadowrun, specifically 3rd Edition, which is pretty heavy in the 90s aesthetic. I am lucky enough to be one of the writers that Ryan has accepted work from, which is super exciting, because I've wanted to be involved even from the earlier release of Katanas & Trenchcoats, Episode 1: Welcome to Darkest Vancouver! The video for the Kickstarter is really fun to watch, as well, so if you don't check out the KS for any other reason, you'll still get a laugh. 

Tell me a little about Katanas & Trenchcoats and the upcoming release. What excites you about it?

There's a lot for me to be excited about, but if I had to pick one thing, it's the jam band approach I have to making games. I have the most fun making games when I'm doing it with a crew—the Fate work I've done with Leonard Balsera (and later with Jack Graham on Transhumanity's Fate), working on Leverage and Cortex Plus Action, the four Technocracy books that I developed for Mage: the Ascension, working with the editorial staff at Paizo, and so on.

Last year's Katanas & Trenchcoats, Episode 1: Welcome to Darkest Vancouver took that idea to a silly extreme—27 writers for 22 pages. And while that make for a rougher-than-normal development process, it was super fun to get that many minds playing with my silly idea of iconic '90s gaming.

I'm talking with around a hundred writers now for this new edition Katanas & Trenchcoats—all fans or past contributors of the meta-genre, and all jazzed to make a bigger, badder version of K&T happen. That we're going to make a more robust game in system and setting is also exciting, but I wouldn't have as much fun doing that solo.

More of a logistical question, but: You have had some great teams in the past - how do you find people to work on projects with you, including on this project, who have the style, energy, and personality that work best?
In a word, slowly. In the early days, I didn't form the team; I was brought on by another. That gave me connections with people (and hands-on training on team-style freelancing). The first time I lead of team of my own choosing was on Convention Book: N.W.O. for Mage: the Ascension. I talked with people I knew who were fans—some experienced writers, some newer—and convinced them to form a short-lived jam band.

My approach as a developer and as a publisher is honestly best described that way, as a jam band. When the team is small and nimble, like they were on the Mage books or Fate Core, I do a kickoff Hangouts session to get everyone talking to each other. This is great for getting ideas flowing, but just as important is the humanizing factor: each person hears a voice and ideally sees a face for everyone else. That way, when differences of opinion happen via email or document comments, it's easier to remember the human being we're talking with.

From there, I try to take the same philosophy I have as a GM to running a team: maybe I'm smart about something, but I'm not as smart as a team of a bunch of smart people (that may or may not include me). So I look for people who will surprise me with ideas. Some ideas are outright taken. Some are rejected, but the conversation about that rejection involves further articulation. And some ideas mutate into cool stuff because of the multiple viewpoints.

That's why I put out a call for as broad a range of people as I could get for this Katanas & Trenchcoats book. Me and five other white dudes can come up with some really interesting stuff, but me and five (or in the case of K&T, dozens) people who don't remotely share my background? I consistently find gold there.

What kind of content are you looking forward to bringing in the new edition? Can we expect any specific new rules or setting material?
Aside from a few tenets, there are no sacred cows. The setting is getting rebooted—I think of this full edition as the TV show that got spun off from a movie. The Darkest Cosmos expands to a full cosmology of otherworldly places and to more about Earth itself. Basically, take what was the Year One stuff, and blow it up like a beautiful, chaotic balloon.

The point isn't the blow it up just for the sake of doing so, though. The reason I'm involving so many writers is to create a deliberate cacophony in one book, but one where if you want to follow a single thread holds a lot of potential.

As far as the system goes, the original was ha-ha-funny (and honestly quite playable for only a few pages of jokey rules), but in trying to build a different setting on top of it, my efforts constantly fell flat. So I went back to formula, and to notes I made that didn't fit in the 22-page version of the game. I looked at what did work about the system—the basic die mechanics—and what I do and don't like about games like Fate, Cortex Plus (specifically Action), Powered by the Apocalypse, and the various '90s games I've enjoyed.

I'm dropping more specifics every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the Kickstarter campaign as updates.

What about this project really keeps you interested in working on it - material, background, rules?

I can boil it down to: (1) Getting to make the largest jam band I can for a setting each writer is excited to be a part of. (2) Threading the needle between making a bizarre, humorous setting and giving it dark, sinister vibe. (3) Making an adventure system that combines things I've liked elsewhere in a way that feels, well, "retromodern."

That's a pretty broad answer, but I don't think I would be so interested in this project if it wasn't ambitious. I certainly wouldn't bother Kickstarting something less significant. Certainly if it wasn't that broad, I wouldn't have room for a few dozen writers to work with me on it.

Katanas & Trenchcoats really appeals to people who played games in and around the 90s - what about the game would interest modern and new players?
I see things like Supernatural and don't really think the '90s spirit has gone away. We still like stories of mystical weirdness. We still want to play out being unreal beings.

Folks who have enjoyed systems I've made in the past will be interested in this next iteration of adventure game rules, where I'm blending ideas from the systems I mentioned above. Take Fate's idea of promising agency in any situation, but throw out fate points. Meld die mechanic ideas of World of Darkness, Cortex Plus, and Nephilim together into something that keeps you in a "this world is weird" frame of mind. Look at how GUMSHOE does knowledge stuff, and link that directly to dark forces giving you inspiration. Take the Powered by the Apocalypse idea of GMing, but with a direct and in-world need for the GM to use dice as well. Chew on how PbtA and Cortex Plus handle player-vs-player situations. I'm even cribbing some push-your-luck stuff from Mythender.

I'm taking the things I like that work together for this setting, throwing them in a blender with some Darkest Bananas, and making a gothy smoothie. That's "retromodern"—something that would have astounded us in the '90s and plays out interesting today.

And honestly, I always feel weird getting into deeper design talk about the game, because I'd rather people try to play it for what it is rather than try to pick out the "oh, that's X from Fate" or whatever. But at this point, I'm probably always going to be in a shadow of successful things I've made before, so I just gotta embrace that. :)

Thanks to Ryan for the interview! This was a fun read and I am really looking forward seeing to Katanas & Trenchcoats: Retromodern Roleplaying in GM and player hands. Check out the Kickstarter to see what all Ryan is putting forward for the game!

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