The Power of Playtesting (or Get off the Dime Already)

I really meant to write this earlier in the evening and I got wrapped up in old episodes of Code Monkeys and Party Down in between playing Call of Duty: Black Ops and downloading the Dragon Age II Demo which just hit the world today.

I had this clear vision of what I intended to write and, while it would not have risen to the lofty heights of Bradbury or Bester, it wouldn’t have made Hemingway look long winded either.

I have been given a lot of thought to this interesting thread about playtesting posted on If you have any desire to design or enjoy getting into the heads of designers, you’ll find more than a few who have sounded off with opinions all their own. The postulation is thought-provoking and while I don’t agree with the all of the sentiments, I find much value in the theme. The big takeaway, or my synopsis, is put well in the words of Simon Rogers where he stated “make every reasonable effort to get your game right before you begin the essential process of playtesting.” I append one corollary and it’s don’t be afraid of failure. You’ll see the theme in there with the hierarchical discussion of status (such as it may be perceived) of being a designer and the potentiality for a fall from grace if you fail to deliver on the promise of your game. Life is about risk. You can choose to sit on the sidelines or you can pick your passion and give it a go until you find the thing you were meant to be doing. Water seeks its own level and eventually you’ll find your path. Not all paths are easy, therefore you have to have the drive, motivation, and sheer stubbornness to get to your destination. Simply waiting for the streets to clear and the traffic to go away will do you no good. You could die of carbon monoxide poison while letting your car idle in the garage. Go forth and create!

Until next time, I bid you, dear reader, adieu!

5 Notes on, The Power of Playtesting (or Get off the Dime Already)

  1. I hope you give the (lengthy) article your time and consideration. Please sound off here with your thoughts. I’d love to hear them.

  2. That article caused quite a stir internally over at Nevermet Press — personally, I’m of the viewpoint that GAMES should be playtested (read:systems), supplements however (in the case of RPGs specifically) – given the optional nature of them and the ROI being lower from a publisher’s POV, should probably be treated differently. Not to say they shouldn’t be playtested, but I agree with the “Go forth and create!” sentiment and would rather see ideas out there (ideas=supplements) and then have them vetted by the gamers who play them.

  3. Salient points, Jonathan. Everyone has different perspectives and end goals. Some create for the sake of creation. Some create from strictly a business angle. To understand my perspective, I’ll provide a narrow focus: I strive –and encourage my people and those I work with to–look at creativity through a marketing lens. It is a business, but there is no reason we cannot infuse it with passion.

    I find playtesting a fundamental part of the design process, especially for developing new rules and subsystems, but the setting material (i.e. the feel of the world) does not need development by committee. It is the designer’s responsibility to have a well-shaped group of rules put together for people to beat on, poke holes in, and discover any inherent weaknesses the designer may have missed from the whole “forest for the trees” sort of thing. As designers of rules, we can get too close, so it’s nice to give it some distance and space to breathe, so it can be revisited with fresh eyes. If we have the opportunity to have trusted friends, colleagues, and playtesters to beat on the rules with a stick in the interim, there is no reason not to do so.

    The paradox is the more you develop the more you develop an intuitive sense for what works and what doesn’t before it gets out the door and this traditionally parallels your visibility on people’s radar. So you get more people when you need them less. Ideally, every initiate in the outer circle of design would have a playtest group, because that’s when one is most needed to both vet ideas, fuel the designer’s creativity with feedback, and to help him build confidence during the process which is, at this point, probably the weakest in his career. Later on, the playtesters help to keep the designer honest and grounded and it just makes good sense. Despite the brilliance of engineers, cars are not just released onto the road without going through extensive checks, and at the core of it all, RPGs are a product, and it’s a disservice to your base to not go through a development cycle including playtesting. Two points are driven home in this article: no one should use playtesting as a justification for procrastination nor should playtesters be responsible for the content and clarity of your product–they are not editors. Certainly, they can point out junked up or unclear rules and add much value in doing so, but they are, and I’m certainly aware I’m repeating myself, not editors.

    This commentary is something I should’ve included in yesterday’s RWR, so I thank you for response, as it allowed me to give it the proper consideration and attention it deserves.

  4. “So you get more people when you need them less” — Oh… I could only hope for the former. =D

    “they are not editors” – indeed. I think of it as a high-level “something aint right here” alarm. This is why we post our mechanics for things to our blog before publishing – to give our few reader the option for commentary before we commit it to a manuscript. Some very useful discussions have come out of that process.

    Finally – You mention that “the setting material (i.e. the feel of the world) does not need development by committee”. I would 100% agree, with the caveat that comments by the committee are often really useful for all kinds of internal consistency, world-building, cornerstone checks. The same goes for “crunch” – even more so – the more eyeballs on it the better so long as the designers initial inspiration or twist for particular mechanic is not eroded by committee

    “Eroded by Committee”

    that should be a T-shirt…

  5. I’m not saying the playtesters (or committee, as I originally couched it) are not important to the process of the setting—I consider those items you explicate as “keeping the designer honest”. I can regale you with tales of the mangled family tree I had kludged together corrected by several friends and colleagues or there is the tale where I decided to change (unbeknownst to me) a character’s name in the middle of an adventure. It happens, but I figure there are some things we can “fix in post”.

    Mechanics, while I consider integral to design, I intentionally segregate from the setting itself. Although they can be integral to how the story is told or how high (or low) the stakes may be, a setting should be able to stand on its own merits, just as the rules should. I posit it’s like special effects on a base level–they (the mechanics) aid in telling the story, but should fade into the background once things get underway and serve only to tell the story you (or me or that guy over there) wants to tell. If they add value by appealing to a broader base than your target audience, so much the better.

    “Eroded by Committee”? T-shirt indeed.

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