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The Art of Playstorming

Many years ago, the utter genius Epidiah Ravachol—who you may know as the designer of the Jenga-horror RPG Dread and the mind behind the Patreon-supported zine Worlds Without Master—came up with this brilliant term called “playstorming.” I’ve used it numerous times on Twitter, and people ask me often what the word means. My less-than-140-characters response of “It’s playtesting and brainstorming” never feels like an adequate answer, since the portmanteau element is obvious, but how you do it isn’t necessarily.

As I ‘ve used it, “playstorming” is the rapid prototyping of game playtesting. It’s where you take a small idea, get some game materials, and hit the idea hard with a friend or two. It’s something you can do over coffee, as it’s not an hours-long playtest.

From the words of Lord Ravachol:

In my opinion, playstorming works best as a jumping off point. Like, “I have an idea, but it’s lonely and needs little idea friends so it can develop into a healthy adult idea.” Or as a way to break you out of a rut. Like, “I have an idea, but I cannot for the life of me get this idea to work. Help!” It’s not the entirety of a design process. It’s more of a way to shake up your muse and get things flowing.

The “brainstorm” part of it comes into play the moment you run into a problem, whether that’s the rules you made not supporting a natural action or circumstance, any of the players stumbling for what to say or do, or the result of the rules feeling uninteresting or disappointing to all at the table. When that happens, you pause the play, state what’s wrong, come up with some ideas to solve it, implement one, and proceed.

It might sound like that, by the end of this process, you’ll have a workable ruleset. That’s not necessarily true! In fact, that’s not even the goal. The goal of playstorming is to generate a list of attempts and responses: you write down the things you’re trying as or after you’ve tried them, and after you’re done playstorming, write down the results of those things—why something worked, why something didn’t, whatever.

This style of rapid prototyping reveals flaws that might not be immediately obvious to you as you’re writing a ruleset by yourself, but become obvious five minutes into having two other people look at it. Knowing systemic flaws early is better than late. It can also reveal unexpected elements of the game, good and ill, like seeing a mechanic you thought would be interesting end up being unused or find some throwaway line in an explanation be the most important thing to say.

When you playstorm, you have to take everything you did with a grain of salt[1]. Things that failed might have failed for more nuanced reasons than you thought, and might not be worth discarding so quickly. Things that succeeded might have succeeded because of the playstorming environment, which isn’t the typical RPG environment. And, of course, playing something for short periods of time in order to break down rules itself creates play results that aren’t inherently suitable for longer-paced, less designer-analytic play.

And that brings us back to the “brainstorming” part: the point of brainstorming isn’t to come up with the right idea, but to come up with many ideas that you later refine. Playstorming is just that—you’re suppose to come up with many ideas and try things, and use that collection of ideas to help you while you’re designing the game.

– Ryan

Image from: blog.enerdynamics.com/2011/08/03/how-to-deal-with-low-probability-high-impact-risks

[1] Did you know that when people say “a huge grain of salt,” they’re misusing the original metaphor? The evolution of colloquialisms is fascinating.

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One Response to The Art of Playstorming

  1. Tooting one’s horn is another interesting idiom considering its origins. The horns we think of now are car horns and brass musical instruments, which of course you’d toot yourself, but it originally referred to a lord or monarch tooting their own trumpet in court. Makes no sense now, but that’s the beauty of language: it can be completely senseless and still make sense.