Mackinaw: How I Built an RPG

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If you’ve listened to our podcast, you might have heard that I like designing games. From board games to role playing games, designing has been a creative outlet for me for the past two years. Starting with designing a small board game called Mars to Jupiter, it is an exercise that I used to hone my game, rules, and graphic design skills while costing almost nothing and making little mess.

While I still enjoy designing board games (look for Soap Box Samurai whenever I get around to actually prototyping it), recently I’ve been designing more role playing games. Mainly inspired by small indie games like Lasers and Feelings and All Outta Bubblegum, I worked my own games. Umami Chef (2015), a game about adventuring chefs, followed by Dicey Heist (2016), a game about performing movie style heists, taught me that it’s difficult to be creative in today’s modern RPG scene. So in 2017, I set out to try and build another RPG, this time journaling my process as I worked to my goal.

Mackinaw started mainly as a joke, much like Umami Chef did (you can more about that here), from the Split The Party podcast’s Split The Tree “segment”. Let’s make a lumberjack RPG. With a premise nailed down, it was time come up with some rules. As we’ve discussed a couple of times on the podcast, what makes a game great is when the themes of the game are reflected in the mechanisms of the game. Lighting candles in Ten Candles, pulling Jenga bricks in Dread, and lighting matches in A Scoundrel in the Deep are all mechanisms that really drive home the themes of each game. With Mackinaw, this was a little tougher than I had anticipated. Reading articles on logging and lumberjack culture lead me to the modern day vision of the lumberjack as being one of hyper masculinity. After further digging and reading, I decided to shift idea of masculinity to robustness and started to look in other directions to tie mechanisms to theme, specifically the forest and trees. After many post-it notes of random thoughts, a stupid pun won out the day.

Many other games out there have had skill trees associated them, but Mackinaw’s skill tree is only similar in name. When I originally hesitant on going the skill tree route when first conceived. I typically like keeping my games to a single piece of paper and adding tons of rules revolving around the typical concept of skill trees would have been too much to keep to my artificial limits. So instead of using your typical flow chart style skill trees, Mackinaw’s skill trees act a little like real trees. When you need to make a roll, you will chop off some of your tree to use, and when you run out of tree, you’ve got to wait for it to grow back. To further the theme a bit more, I preyed on the idea of Lumberjacks being romanticized by many to be stern drinkers. Mackinaw uses this by allowing players to recover hit points when they can consume their favorite beverage, whether it be coffee, whiskey, or orange juice. With some themey ideas in place, it was time to start fleshing out the basic rules.

To start with, I wanted to figure out what kind of resolution mechanism I wanted to use. When it comes to table top role playing games, I love chucking dice, and the more dice the better. For ease of access, the humble six-sided die was chosen because most people have a couple of them sitting around the house. You can even go down to your local drug store and pick up a set of d6s for around a buck or two. Now what to do with all those dice? Knowing that I was going to use the Skill Tree mechanism mentioned before, I knew most people would be rolling multiple dice at a time. I had options to choose from like hitting a target number (Like The One Ring or Dungeon World) or having each die try to hit a target number (that is 5s and 6s are a pass). I chose the latter after looking at some of my favorite games, and having the ability to succeed on any roll was important to me.

Design notes and sketches during the brainstorming process.

After choosing a resolution mechanism, it was off to trying to decide how a character would be better at something than someone else. If all characters are exactly the same, I find that pretty boring. In most RPGs, this is quickly done with character stats, with your basic mental, physical, and social abilities represented by them. This would have been all fine and dandy, except another pun over took me. In the beer and pretzels game Kobolds Ate My Baby, the basic character stats in there are part of an acrostic (yes, I had to look up what this word was) where the first letter of each stat spelled “BEER”. For Mackinaw, I decided to use the acrostic “LMBR” for the skills Logic, Moxie, Brawn, and Rapport. While Logic, Brawn, and Rapport match those three basic stats mentioned earlier, Moxie is a little bit different. While I wanted the skills to be an acrostic, I was having a hard time trying to figure out what Moxie would actually do, but I’ll talk about that in a bit. For now, the four skills were set and start with a rating of 1 which the players can increase to a max of 6 with the build points they have when creating characters. I was initially weary about doing this, because I felt like a character made with 6-1-1-1 stat array could be too min-maxy and broken. I eventually decided to hell with it, because I think the pros of rolling 6 dice at a time are out weighed by the long wait to recharge all 6 of those skill tree dice.

Looping back a bit, I want to talk about the Moxie skill. As I just mentioned, the Moxie skill didn’t really feel like would actually be necessary, especially with your basic mental, physical, and social stats already being covered. So what on Earth was I to do with this skill? What happened next, actually surprised me. Moxie is defined as “force of character, determination, or nerve” (according to where ever Google gets its breakout definitions from). “Force of character, determination” led me to simply use it as a stat that defined hit points. This I felt was kind of dumb, especially if you spend those skill points into other skills so that you’re less likely to get hurt in the first place, and it would really suck if got knocked out with only 1 HP. This led me into thinking of ways to make losing HP more painful, while not taking a character out of the fight, hence the Conditions. These conditions really hamper you when making a specific roll, halving your normal chances of success. These Conditions also paved the way for their opposite, Advantages.

Still though, all of this added together the Moxie skill still felt less useful. This changed when I did some more digging on the definition of moxie. Merriam-Webster define Moxie as “Courage,” and that’s what changed it for me. Moxie is now used when making “Courageous Tasks,” which can be anything the GM sees appropriately fit. The caveat to this, is that there is a fine line between Courage and Stupid, so I’ve given a lot of leeway to the GM and players when trying to decide which is which.

With that, it was time to start writing and arranging. I used Microsoft Publisher to do my pamphlet layout and some of the artwork in GIMP. I also used some art from online for a temporary place holder while I find time to make similar art myself or hiring someone. To get the layout figured out, I folded a scrap piece of paper into the pamphlet shape and used sticky notes to arrange information in what I thought was the most cohesive manner. After writing, arranging, and editing, and doing that again a couple of times, I finally settled on something that I felt comfortable to release to the world.

If interested in playing Mackinaw, click the link at the bottom to download a copy of the current PDF. If you like what you see, or if you have any suggestions on how to make the game better, leave a comment below! The PDF will be updated with art changes and rules revisions, but only with your help!

Click Here to Download Mackinaw.

To stay informed about the latest updates to Mackinaw, or if you’re interested in any other of Alex’s past present or future games, be sure to subscribe to the Split The Party Podcast and follow Alex on Twitter at @The_m01e.

Author Alex

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