Geek Girls Rule! #240 – Playtesting

Ok, not actually a playtest, but that’s Me (white skirt), Ben, Joe McDaldno, Marcy and Lesley playing Monster Hearts, the impetus behind the sudden flurry of game design posts.

I am giving this its own post because playtesting is how you tell if your game is playable, if people want to play it and what you need to do to fix this broken ass game that makes perfect sense in your head, but not so much to anyone who isn’t living in your head.

Playtesting is important and terrifying.  Well, to me it’s terrifying.  I’m sure there are indeed people out there who are all, “La La La!” about it.  I am not one of them.

This is roughly how my playtesting goes:

1. Playtest with me running.
2. Playtest with someone else running, me playing.
3. Sit (silently) while someone else runs the playtest.
4.  Send my darling infant out into the world on it’s own to be playtested without me there to answer questions or defend it.  Ask for copious notes or a recording with commentary.

The first test lets you know if you have something at all runnable/playable with someone who knows everything there is to know about this game running it:  you.  This can give you insight into whether the mechanics living in your head have any appeal to the other people you game with, who ideally enjoy the same sorts of games as you do.  It will also let  you know if the meta-plot/fiction of the game is appealing or interesting to them.  If someone finishes up the playtest with “I can’t wait to play it again!” You may be on to something.

The second test lets you know how it feels to be a player, and the number of questions the GM and other players have to ask you will give you an idea as to how well you’ve done articulating the rules on paper.  This is also a good stage to use for asking people what particularly worked well for them during specific stages of the game.  When you’re there you can pause the game to ask what people think about various mechanics regarding which you may have your own doubts.

The third and forth test (and honestly, you may want to skip the third entirely) will let you know if the rules stand on their own without your guidance or interjections.  Sitting silently while others juggle your baby in front of you is incredibly hard, particularly if they forget they aren’t supposed to ask you questions, and ask you questions.  #3 is only for those of iron will, or with laryngitis (which is how this came about on one occasion).

Now this is how I’ve found playtesting works best for me.  Other people have different styles and methods, and none of them are bad or wrong.  A lot of it depends on how your write/design your games and where and when you require feedback.

Now on to some helpful playtesting tips.

Tip #1:  If you can, record it.  You may take notes like crazy, but if you record it you can go back and listen to how the game went, and pick up things you may not have thought were that important and so  you didn’t write them down, but they actually are pretty vital.  Things like how the rules affect narrative flow and such.

Tip #2:  Don’t marry yourself to any part of that game.  Yes, you can have an over-arching fiction/setting/meta-plot, but when it comes to individual rules and mechanics, that thing that you thought was so very clever and revolutionary has an exceptionally high chance of just being annoying and broken to anyone not you.  Brace yourself for this. It will happen.

Tip #3:  Accept criticism.  For the most part the people playtesting your game are going to be your friends, whether IRL or online friends, and they most likely want to help you.  Listen to them.   They will tell you where the game did and didn’t work for them.

Tip #4:  The inverse of Tip #3 is Don’t be afraid to ignore some criticism.  Weigh what people tell you.  If everyone who plays the game says that something is broken, then it probably is, or at least the rules for it are.  If one person says it’s broken but everyone else disagrees, it’s probably not actually broken.  Also consider who is criticizing what, particularly if they’re an outlier.  This is not to say that one person may not have the game-changing secret that will make your baby better, but odds are against it.  Particularly if that one person generally engages in a play style different from that for which you are shooting.

Tip #5:  Be GRACIOUS.  People are volunteering their valuable play time to test your baby for you and help you make it better.  Thank them.  I’m not kidding.  At least a verbal or written thank you for their time and valuable insight.  If you’re printing the game, you may want to consider sending free copies at least to those who have GM-ed the game for playtest, if it ever sees print.  Even if you didn’t like or didn’t use what they said, thank them.

In many, many ways critique for an RPG is similar to a critique for any other form or writing.  You want people to read/try it out so that they can help you make it better.  You need to weigh what they say versus how many of the people who ran/played it/read it said that same thing.  If there is something you’re trying to convey that your readers/players just aren’t getting, do not assume the fault lies in them.  There is only one common denominator here.  Look at what you’ve sent them and start asking yourself the hard questions.

In both fiction and games the number one piece of critique I look for is:  “Tell me what I left out.”  You know this game, this story, this novel better than anyone because it lives in your head.  And sometimes we forget to write down things that we think are blindingly obvious, because they are to us.  But unless you tell your readers/players why a character does something, why a skill works like that, they don’t know, they can’t know.  They can guess, but they might be wrong.  You want to try to avoid misunderstanding, particularly with game systems/rules.

This is basically how I’m approaching playtesting.  Your mileage may vary.  Other people have different styles and processes, don’t be afraid to ask around for help or tips.

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