Worlds of Design: A Playtesting Framework

What are we looking for when playtesting a (tabletop) game we have designed? That is, what tells us it might be worth pursuing further? I am going to generalize here to most tabletop games, since RPGs are a category of tabletop.

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Interesting Game Decisions​

I was playing for the first time a World War II naval development of my science fiction video game Doomstar, which in turn descends ultimately from Stratego/l’Attaque. It uses a hexagonal board rather than squares, pieces can ordinarily move two hexes (or more) in a straight line, fighters and bombers can take advantage of aircraft carriers and islands to change direction and move further, pieces have variable strength, and in other ways it’s really not much like traditional Stratego.

I asked myself what I’m looking for as I play a new prototype game solo. The answer is, I’m looking for interesting game decisions, lots of them. If the game has interesting decisions for players to make, then maybe it will be an interesting and enjoyable game for others. In this respect I’m kind of old-fashioned, as most of the games I design are “strategy games.”

But this led me to ask myself, what other kinds of things might one be looking for in early plays of a game?

An Interesting Story​

How about “telling an interesting story”? Keeping in mind that history is a story, this may be what the simulation wargame designers are looking for, and part of what I look for in historical games like my game Britannia. But I was thinking more of the people who play games to enjoy the stories rather than to compete. This is particularly true of role-playing games as played by (I think) the majority, and of a great many video games. I personally don’t play games to be told a story any more than I play games to learn history, yet I know there are many who play games to learn history or to be told stories.

Humor​

How about “lots of laughs” as another thing that the designer might look for? This would be particularly true for party games, and for many family games. I think there are some RPGs with this objective as well, judging from the titles.

Screwage​

“Opportunities to mess with/screw with your friends” is another objective. There’s a whole category of “screwage” games where this is very important.

Diplomacy​

What about “opportunities to manipulate or convince the other players of something”, which might be close to the hearts of Diplomacy players and negotiators in general. Poker certainly involves subtle forms of manipulation. This could also be an objective in some RPGs when played by certain groups.

Learning​

“Opportunities to learn” would be important for “serious”/educational games, and for “simulations” in general. Historical RPGs, though uncommon, likely would have this objective.

Personal Engagement​

“Personal involvement in the story” is a hallmark of many role-playing games. This is quite different from being told a story, which is what I referred to earlier. This is being involved in the story that you as players write. RPG’s can go either way. The GM can use the RPG as a way to tell a story, or the GM can set up situations in the RPG so that players can write their own stories, in effect.

Mystery​

“A sense of mystery” might be something else one could look for in a game. This could be an exploration game (which is what some RPGs amount to), it could be a deduction game, or it could be a detective/investigative game (again, possibly an RPG). Many puzzle-like games will include mystery.

Experiences​

Some video game designers make games to engender particular emotions in the player(s), or to fulfill certain kinds of dreams: “experiences”. They would then be looking for something quite specific. This is much more difficult to do in tabletop games, other than RPGs. (RPGs are the bridge between the tabletop and modern video games; video games owe a lot to tabletop RPGs, as many people wrote about at the time Gary Gygax passed away.)

So when you design or playtest a game, you’ve first got to know what it is you’re looking for! That’s why intended audience of a game is so important, because games designed for commercial consumption must be aimed to satisfy an audience, not the designer.

Your Turn: What do you look for when playtesting your ideal RPG?
 

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

aco175

Legend
I would add something about a gamble or a big pay-day. You risk something to gain a larger reward. Like playing Monopoly and you have the Free Parking option where you put $500 into it. There is no risk in this option but a pay-day exist. More along my thought is in Axis an Allies where you pay money to roll for a super weapon that may turn the tide of the war. You can be conservative and not roll to make more tanks or such, or spend that money for a chance to gain jets or something cool with the gamble to get nothing.
 

payn

Legend
To build on "experiences" I'd say adherence to genre expectations. Has the game been skinned properly for its genre? Do the mechanics provide the expected experience? For example, if the game is supposed to be about survival, does it feel gritty? If the game is supposed to be suspenseful horror, is it scary and anxiety driving?

This is, of course, determined by taste. I know many folks like generic resolution systems that can be skinned to anything. I never get the right feel from such systems. YMMV.
 


evildmguy

Explorer
To build on "experiences" I'd say adherence to genre expectations. Has the game been skinned properly for its genre? Do the mechanics provide the expected experience? For example, if the game is supposed to be about survival, does it feel gritty? If the game is supposed to be suspenseful horror, is it scary and anxiety driving?

This is, of course, determined by taste. I know many folks like generic resolution systems that can be skinned to anything. I never get the right feel from such systems. YMMV.

OMG, so much this. If the game advertises itself as something, I expect the mechanics to back it up. I do think this makes it a bit meta, as the mechanics are more on the player side than the character, but that's fine. I'm thinking of Vampire The Masquerade or even Werewolf the Apocalypse, where how it was advertised was not how I saw it played.
 

dragoner

solisrpg.com
I don't play for the mechanics, as much as the setting, there needs to be some synergy between the two, with the mechanics fading into the background. At the same time, if it is too focused on one game, it has to be super cheap, and easy to play, or I won't play it again.
 

OMG, so much this. If the game advertises itself as something, I expect the mechanics to back it up. I do think this makes it a bit meta, as the mechanics are more on the player side than the character, but that's fine. I'm thinking of Vampire The Masquerade or even Werewolf the Apocalypse, where how it was advertised was not how I saw it played.

Some genres are intrinsically a bit meta; they're stylized in some areas, and if you press on them, they don't feel much like the genre (and yes, some people will puff up and say that's a bad genre. I don't care).
 

aramis erak

Legend
When I'm playtesting (and I've gotten to playtest for several great companies), I'm looking for...
  • Is it clearly written?
    • Do I and my players agree on what it says?
    • Does our experience match the designer's expectation
  • Do we as a group find it fun?
  • Do we as a group see any major flaws with the assigned component?
  • Is it worth the effort to use in play?
  • Is it similar in power to other things for the same system/setting.
  • Is it missing any key elements.
One company recently, we made a conceptual leap that the playtest coordinator and the designer hadn't. Caught them off guard. They revised to make room for that. I'm proud to have contributed. And I'll be happy to talk about it in more detail when the playtest NDA embargo is over...
 

You do have to deal with the fundamental problem of assessing your playtesters--especially blindtesters--feedback in terms of "Is the fact this is radically different from what we expected an indicator that the playtester is an outlier--or that we are?"
 

aramis erak

Legend
You do have to deal with the fundamental problem of assessing your playtesters--especially blindtesters--feedback in terms of "Is the fact this is radically different from what we expected an indicator that the playtester is an outlier--or that we are?"
Which is why several blindtest groups are essential to good playtesting.
 




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