Thursday, October 29, 2020

Making RPGs: Playtesting 101

From Mockup to Final

Earlier this year, I was ecstatic to publish my first RPG content in a Mothership pamphlet adventure called Moonbase Blues. I've since self-published another couple small pieces and written a few others currently awaiting publication. Though still very much a beginner RPG author myself, I want to share what little knowledge I've gained to help other authors get their start. Several months ago I published a beginner's guide to RPG self publishing, and today I'm going to talk about efficiently playtesting and developing your RPG writing.

Every author has their own distinct writing process, but to me writing is like sculpting. I unleash a glut of ideas onto a page and slowly refine it down into something useful. Each pass adds detail and removes unnecessary chaff. My process typically looks something like this:

  1. Kernel of an idea
  2. Barely comprehensible note soup
  3. Playtest 1
  4. Complete rewrite*
  5. Playtest 2
  6. Finishing touches
  7. Editing
  8. More finishing touches
  9. Proofing
  10. Final

*If I'm lucky, I'll get some developmental editing help around here.

Playtests are easily the most important steps of this process. Without it, I can only guess at what works and what doesn't. A playtesting session runs into glaring problems, sparks new ideas, and shatters indecision. I've developed a semi-formal playtesting method/set of best practices that always dramatically improves my work:

Playtesting Best Practices

NOTE: I typically apply this process to small (1-2 session) adventures, but the principles also work for longer adventures or systems. When I say "playtest" I mean a full or nearly full run-through of your material, not a single session.

Run two playtests. One playtest gets you most of the way there, but leaves gaps in play knowledge. It tells you something, but needs another data point for contrast. Three or more playtests over the same material yield diminishing returns. GM fatigue begins to set in--it's hard to run a good session if you're not having fun. Your material can only get so polished, and further playtesting quickly becomes redundant. Two is the magic number.

Playtest #1: Run this as soon as you have enough material to play a game. The earlier you get a playtest in, the less time you have to write down bad ideas you'll cut out later. The first playtest gives you the direction you need to turn your half-baked idea into something good. Don't worry about running a perfect game, just get a run in and hit as much material as you can.

Playtest #2: Run this once your content is essentially complete. The language doesn't have to be final, but all elements you want in your adventure should be present and fleshed out. This is a double-checking run to see if your ideas from the first playtest hold up. Run this playtest like your life depends on it--test your material under optimal conditions.

Play with friends. Run one of your playtests (preferably the first) for people you've played with many times before. Familiar player dynamics make it easier to gauge player reactions and behavior. It skips the group-getting-its-sea-legs stage and cuts right into playing the game. Your friends will also be more patient with rough material and less reserved when giving feedback.

Play with strangers. Run one of your playtests (preferably the second) for people you've never played RPGs with before. Novel player dynamics push the playtest in unexpected directions and test the boundaries of your material. This is a great way to simulate how your material would work in someone else's game.

Write pre-playtesting questions. Identify potential problem areas and write them out as questions to yourself before your playtests. Does it need a random encounter table or are location-based encounters enough? Did the players care about the NPC in room 4 or did they ignore her? After a playtest, you won't be able to recall what you used to think about the material so write things down while you can. 

Pause to take notes. If you have an idea during a session or events unfold in unexpected or interesting ways, stop and write it down. Answer your pre-playtest questions if you solve them. Your players won't mind, particularly if you're playing with friends. A lot of things happen during a playtest and you don't want to rely on memory.

Fruits of Playtesting

2nd Best Practices

You've heard the best, now the rest:

Take player feedback? A lot of people recommend talking to your players after a game to see how they feel about the session. In my experience, this contributes surprisingly little to playtesting. Players tend to be too broadly positive in their feedback and confirm things you already know from running the game. Specific critiques or suggestions are pretty rare, but still common enough that I do this in all of my playtests. I recommend you do too, but don't hang your hat on it.

Outsourcing playtesting? Getting a friend or collaborator to run your game seems like a great idea. It's a perfect test of how your game will work in the wild. However, a lot is lost in translation from the events at their table to the feedback you receive. There's no substitute for running a game yourself and feeling the mood of the players and witnessing the game's events firsthand. I've definitely experienced some benefits by outsourcing playtesting, but it tends to work better for reassuring yourself that the adventure works than refining specific details.

No time to playtest? Sometimes you get caught on a tight schedule and have to cut some corners, or just want to enhance your existing development process with an extra step. I find much of my playtesting productivity comes before the game, when I'm prepping my notes for an immanent session. My game prep headspace pushes me towards hyper-practical material and spots content gaps that my typical game dev brain misses. It's not easy, but tricking yourself into that headspace by prepping for a mock session can sometimes glean partial playtesting benefits without the scheduling nightmare of actually running a game. Don't make a habit out of it though, there's no substitute for real playtests.

Solo-game playtests? You can run a quick and dirty version of a preliminary playtest by running through the game yourself or with a single player running a whole party. It's a useful mid-ground between a real playtest and not playtesting at all, but you miss out on all the juicy dynamics and decision negotiation that makes a full party such a useful force of chaos. Most responsibly used as a reality check between proper playtests if your adventure changes dramatically in revision.

Playtest #3 and beyond? Despite the diminishing returns, there are ways to push value out of intensive playtesting. Approach additional playtests from drastically different angles. Use different starting hooks or framing devices. Cut out large sections or add experimental content to see how they play. Picture yourself a GM adapting the adventure for their home game with new context.

Wrapping Up

I tend to feel pretty down on my material until I get it to a table and watch it play out. Playtesting provides a warm and reassuring, and sometimes lovingly stern clarity necessary to RPG development.

Playtesting dramatically overhauled my most recent adventure about a dinosaur theme park in space. Vague sense of direction and scale lead the attempted escape from the space station feeling too loose and killed tension during the first playtest. We tightened things up by adding a hex map with key locations and gameplay-relevant points of interest like port-a-john hiding places and binocular stations for scouting ahead. The hex map provided a much more concrete framework for survival-horror exploration and improved the feel of the adventure tenfold.

You can check out the results of my playtesting method here on DriveThruRPG:

I hope you find some of these ideas useful for your game development. I'd love to hear other people's playtesting methods and tips here in the comments.