Posts Tagged ‘playtesting’
Last night, Josh Roby and I ended up spontaneously podcasting with the ever-charming Tim Rodriguez of the fine podcast Dice + Food + Lodging. Josh and I talked about playtesting — how we go about it, what we’re looking for, pitfalls we’ve dealt with, and lessons we’ve learned.
The episode. It’s 25 minutes long. Josh was on shortly before recording a game we’re designing, Atlantis Risen, and I stopped partway through my commute in order to talk. (If you’re curious where I recorded from, outside The Ferry Building in San Francisco [image]. It’s the stop between the first and second third of my commute home.)
Was a good talk, even if I ended up talking more than Josh. He and I have very different environments: he has a dedicated playtest group that is trained the way people who do writing or art critiques are trained. I travel to conventions and constantly playtest with new people. Both are awesome, as they generate different experiences and feedback.
Apologies for the lack of Fate content. I have one more bullet point, though I’m unlikely to blog tomorrow, as I’m going on an Origins-methadone vacation. :) But that’s what next week is for!
 Which has no website yet.
Lately, I’ve been playtesting Zeppelin Armada, a card game being developed by Evil Hat & Jeff Tidball. I’ve playtested some other stuff for Tidball, including Fantasy Flight’s Horus Heresy. I like playtesting card & board games. And over the years, I’ve refined my process for being able to give decent feedback — and they all involve smartphones. Having a quick internet-enabled camera & voice memo device has been super useful.
Here are some really simple tips for how to capture more information during play with your smartphone. Some designers will be happy to take media, in which case this is of direct benefit. But for those who don’t — and that’s understandable, given that there’s only so much time in the day and multimedia takes more time to digest and index than text — it’ll still help you do up playtest reports.
Cameraphone For The Win
When a weird rules situation or other situation comes up, I take out my phone and take a picture of the problem. This helps me catalog the issues that came up in play, so that later when talking about the game or compiling a playtest report, I have a visual record of what issues we had.
Now, that isn’t always enough. In the last game, we took a picture of something early on and I had forgotten why. So next time I do this, I’ll also keep some note paper nearby, marking it by photo number and a note, like:
(1) order of operations?
(2) needs iconograpy
(3) does it cancel or just nullify damage?
Know that these notes are shorthand for me, not something I’m going to email to the designer. (I might email a very weird situation that comes up at the table to the designer, in which case I’ll snap a few pictures and note “(x) email to Jeff.”)
Note the Initial Game State
This is a new one, a result of the last game of Zeppelin Armada I played. I wished I had taken pictures of each person’s initial state, because you get some random cards at the beginning. That sort of data could be useful in playtest reports for games where that can vary. Such things color the play to follow.
Debrief With Voice Memo
These days, smartphones can easily take voice memos. If your playtest has a questionnaire with it (and it should), go around and record everyone in the group answering each question. You’ll get cross-talk that’ll generate more thoughts than if you just went home and wrote it up based on recollection of the post-game conversation.
And if your playtest doesn’t come with a questionnaire, allow me to riff of the Zeppelin Armada one for some basic things to ask:
Date you played:
Names of all players (as they would like to be credited):
How long did the game(s) run?
How did the game end?
Did you try out the alternate rules/victory conditions? How did that go, compared to the regular rules/conditions?
Did any eliminated players wind up sitting around for a un-fun length of time? About how long was that?
Was there lots of table-talk during play, a moderate amount of table-talk during play, or little to no table-talk during play? Why do you think that was?
Which parts of the game were the most fun? Why?
Which parts of the game were the least fun? Why?
Were any particular rules or cards confusing? Which ones? What was confusing?
What else should we know?
Some designers will happily take your recorded debrief (and others even recorded actual-play). Some only want a text debrief. Some will take the audio but still ask for a text debrief. What’s important for you, as a playtest coordinator, is that you’ve captured information. So even if the designer doesn’t want the audio file, it’ll help you give what’s asked for.
Not an Excuse to Slack
Just because you have all this captured data doesn’t mean you get to slack off. Do your playtest report up as soon as you can. Otherwise, your data points won’t be fresh; even if you’re able to vaguely remember what happened, you’ll have lost some of the emotional context that would also be useful data.
Hope this helps, and happy playtesting!
Matt Wilson, creator of the beloved and acclaimed Primetime Adventures, is working on the third edition. Folks following me know that I’m the editor in this edition. Matt’s applied the latest round of edits, and my god is this a beautiful game. If you’ve played the second edition (the one most people are familiar with — the first edition used dice), I think there’s still something to get out of trying the third.
But he wants to get some more playtesting in before he publishes it. It’s sort-of like an audience participation ransom — if you want to see PTA3 out in the wild, Matt needs your help!
Can you play a five-episode season in the next three months? Do you want to check out the awesome that’s PTA3? Then email Matt at email@example.com with “I want to playtest PTA 3!” in the subject line.
(And if you have been playutesting, send Matt your comments. It’s okay if you haven’t finished your season. He could use feedback now and then.)
Thanks for your help!
P.S. Also, damn. Nice looking website, Matt!
The brilliant and gracious Jeremy Keller posted a bit today about how I broke his game-in-development, Apex Redacted I mean Technoir. He talked about how I balked at the intent of his mechanic, to emulate noir genre, by showing how the mechanic harmed my desire to emulate the source fiction. I said in the comments that I was merely paying forward the advice given to me very pointedly by Rob Donoghue.
Let’s turn my lunch hour into story hour, shall we?
I did a playtest of Mythender at GenCon 2008 with Fred, Rob, and company. Two very useful bits of feedback came from that, one shining and one brutal:
- Fred proved the idea behind the game was solid. He relished ending Cthulhu by using his character’s ability to incite love in the hears of others. He loved Cthulhu to death. Think How The Grinch Stole Christmas. Now make it about deicide. Yeah, that was hot.
- Rob broke the every loving shit out of my mechanic. (Link to my talking about it in detail over two years ago.) And that’s what we’re going to look at today.
I mention Fred’s bit not only to say “look at my game, isn’t it the coolest idea evar?” but to also say that if I didn’t have that counter-weight to Rob’s contribution, I would probably have been a bit crushed as a neophyte designer. Which would have been a shame, since Rob was doing that out of love.
The old Mythender system had you come up with four traits about how you go around killing gods. You rated them from 2 to 4, or something like that. So you might have:
- My hatred of the past 
- Bloodtooth, the sword I forged from the first giant I slaughtered 
- My spectral warhorse, made from the souls of all warhorses slain in battle. 
- The song of Thunder, whose melody deafens gods 
(I’m intentionally using the new form of Weapons naming over the old trait ones, in case those who played earlier versions are wondering.)
The die mechanic remains the same as it’s always been: you roll X number of Storm dice and however many Thunder dice you have; successes (2-4) on Storm dice give you more Thunder dice, and successes on Thunder dice give you Lightning tokens that you use to inflict vicious wounds. The X originally came from the stat ranking.
My ingenious idea was “dude, I want to make people interested in using their worst stats alongside their best.” So every time you used a stat, you checked next to it. Once you checked them all, you erased those checkmarks and I gave you some currency you used to do more awesome shit mechanically (get extra dice, increase gains, etc.)
Because I presented the idea with that sort of wording to my home playtest group, they played along. They didn’t try to break that intent, to see what would happen.
Along Came Rob…
If Rob was a cruder man, I would say he fucked that intent in its goat-ass. But Rob’s a gentleman, so, uh, he gave it a stern talking to about its harlotry? (Yeah, I got nothin’)
Rob always used his higest trait. And he creamed the fuck out of my system by doing so. He didn’t care about the build-up reward. He wanted the most dice he could have at a given moment, regardless of future gains.
And he was doing better than the other players at gaining stuff to end Cthulhu.
(He also broke another rule he said sucked, where he couldn’t give his gains away. As in, he said “No, that rule’s lame” and handed players some of the mountain of dice he gained right in front of me. I was too shocked to protest. Later, I took that feedback to heart, but not in the way he did it. I owe us all talk about addition-based design as a means of extending rulesets for special options, rather than cluttering a base set with all sorts of things you could do.)
I went home, glad there was a cool story told with my game but also shaken. I spent months avoiding working on Mythender, because I couldn’t bring myself to admit the game didn’t work.
Then I finally sucked it up and redesigned traits…which became Weapons. And I’m far, far happier with the result.
The lesson here that I learned from Rob, and that Jeremy learned from me:
Your genre-reinforcing mechanics don’t mean shit if they aren’t fun for the players.
Word is bond.
 A bit of bloggy advice: I’ve started taking to writing my blog posts the night before, and then just quickly reviewing them the next day before manually posting.
 Which is the game designer version of whipping out your johnson like it was a fucking winning lottery ticket. Or something.
 And I have a blog post brewing in my mind about how toxic that word is in RPGs today, in that it is a detriment to the design process. Also, four is too many, another blog post perhaps.
 Is that the term for the opposite of exception-based design?