The Joys of Playtesting

We had a playtest session last night. We were testing an entirely new system that works very differently from what we’re used to so the action was halting. I wrote it but I didn’t know if I was doing it right, mainly because I don’t yet know what “right” is for this system. That’s one of the unique things about playtesting. It’s not like GMing where you are enforcing rules and interpreting them. With playtests there are a lot of times when you don’t know what the rules should even be.

Playtesting is also a weird mix of GM fiat and paying attention to what the players want, even subconsciously. One of the first things to look for is frustration. If you spot it in a playtest session, you have to quickly go from GM to product development and ask them what makes the situation frustrating. Unfortunately in most situations the player won’t know how to answer that. A second line of questioning can go along the lines of what they would want to happen in that situation.

As the game writer, playtesting is also an odd experience because players are used to me knowing how the game is supposed to work. One of the players that was there for the initial development of The Artifact remembered this stage and how you’re not really sure how any of it is supposed to work. Keeping up the illusion of system mastery is tricky because I don’t have a mastery of it, there may barely be a system to master. Letting the illusion drop is problematic because then the players want to change everything. When that happens, the game grinds to a screeching halt because no one has the confidence to proceed.

For the whole session, as a designer and as a GM, I may realize that something is just not working. If I change it mid game, it will break the illusion of mastery of the game’s vision. There’s the temptation to change it right away but sticking with a bad rule can be very informative. It tells me not only that the rule is bad but can also show why the rule (or concept) doesn’t work. With that information it’s far easier to come up with a rule that does work well.

Playtesting can be deeply frustrating but it is also frequently rewarding. Some of the simplest solutions to problems come up when you’re under the gun to explain to a player how they can do what they want to do.

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2 Responses to The Joys of Playtesting

  1. Very cool blog article, Emmett. Is there anything you could have done (preparation, cold testing the system, player handouts?) before the test to avoid the frustrations you had or do you think your experience was just typical of play tests?

    Surely it can be less painful! But how…

    P.S. I’m totally angling for more advice for Chapter 7 of the guide.

    • Loc

      It might just be my personality that makes some of this frustrating. It’s important for me to keep reminding myself that if the player doesn’t understand, that part of the game needs to be better described. Maybe the concept isn’t natural and it will make the game too hard. Every game designer is going to hit that moment, I’d dare say even Awesomesauce (the game with only one attribute) even had these moments when (if?) it was first playtested.

      Every game is going to have it’s own frustrating moments. Either the designer didn’t explain things just right or maybe the system legitimately breaks down at a certain point. They stop the game and that’s jarring but it’s exactly why you have to playtest. I can’t imagine a game that doesn’t have that moment where the designer is mentally scrambling trying to put things back together. It’s scary because it’s threatening what you’ve worked on for all that time but that’s why a game needs playtesting.

      For me that’s scary. If I survive it, I’m happy. If it all falls apart, that’s my fault. Some people might be fine with that. It’s not all bad though. Sometimes a fix is even better than what you imagined at first. Sometimes a player says, “Hey I can use this to. . .” and you never imagined what comes next and it’s amazing.

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