JP On Gaming

Monday, May 3, 2010

Playtest Jitters

Saturday the 24th, I ran a trial, “alpha” version, of the adventure and setting I have been blogging about for the last few months. The game was an opportunity to sit down and play with my buddies in Montreal: Steve, Alex, Yves, Dan, and ET. Such a “reveal”, I always found nerve wracking as so many things can (and usually do) go wrong. Such things like impossibilities in the system, aspects or perspectives that were missed or overlooked in previous phases of development.

Again, many things can go wrong.

For one reason, play-testing always bring image of my good friend David (Bibi)’s vampire game for Helios 2000 where the adventure came to a screeching before we (the players) followed a path that was sensible but that he did not expect. Btw, this says nothing about the adventure, it was very good, but we put ourselves into a corner.

As I said, nerve-wracking.

So I was thinking. What are the best ways to avoid such pitfalls? This article aims to work on “convention” or “tournament”-style play, those games where the DM is not necessarily the author. A regular DM often gets the option to “explain things later” (and I do that a lot myself).

Use the QA approach

I am a computer engineer by trade. And thus, I often approach problems (and solutions) in gaming in software development terms. As a developer (author), I try to come up with code that work the way I want and I strive to make things work according to my vision. The QA guy’s role is to find ways to break my code. So he throws all kinds of weird things at it. As an author, the QA guy’s role is to try and solve problems by sending unique or strange case at it. “What if the PCs have a protection from evil spell up?” or “What if the party has a character with a ridiculous score in [Perception/Sense Motive/Diplomacy]?” See how the adventure reacts to it. Be realistic in your evaluation here.

Of course you cannot catch every single possibility, but try to catch most of it. The goal is to figure out how to break the story. Again, I say story because the artifices you can use are many to reach your goal.

Here is one example. The PCs are invited to a feast as guests of honor where a noble NPC will be poisoned by the villain. Sounds familiar? Yes. It’s a simple premise.

What if, one of the PCs, ignoring the laws of etiquette stands up and casts a detect poison spell? What happens to the adventure then? Here, using a simple spell, your premise may be broken. When thinking in D&D terms, I try to think of low-level spells and powers as those the PCs are most likely to throw around without any reason. Perhaps the villain uses a poison that is in two parts. Say something that reacts to wine?

At some point, however, the game must be allowed to go on. The rules for etiquette must apply and a certain measure of common sense and consequences must be applied. PCs that constantly break the rules of etiquette should be thrown out of the hall. They may also become suspect, “how did they know the food was poisoned?”

No substitute for experience

I said it a million times, nothing beat playing the game. Someone I strongly dislike comes to mind (Greg-I) immediately comes to mind as a good example (don’t worry the dislike is shared). The guy knows what every DM & author should and should not do. I played one game under him and it was as tedious as most of the lectures I had to endure while in college. He would read two lines, then whine about bad adventure design, then explain what is wrong and why he wouldn’t have done thing one way. Reading the adventure after playing it under him, I found that it really wasn’t half as bad as he said and in fact, enjoyed running it.

He knows everything. But he doesn’t DM for a million bogus reasons (truth is: he may find out he’s not as right as he thinks he is).

Be flexible in the design

Many adventures are made so inflexible that it’s like watching a movie. The players have no real say or impact on what is happening. You keep thinking “you know, I would do something different.” Slasher movies… WHY oh WHY does the hot girl run up the stairs instead of running for the back door? Dramatic effect, yes, but in an RPG, many will go to the door OR through a window if need be.

Now, certain types of adventure (such as dungeon crawls) are by nature linear, but putting some thought into the design and rooms is a big one. I generally prefer to write “point A” and “point B” and assume the DM/party will make their way through.

Come up with options/alternatives

Your ideas and writing are not sacrosanct and a holy gift from God (you) to the world! No. They are not. Really. Most of what I write end up in a “see you later” bin. Play-tests are an opportunity to expand and flesh out what is happening, with the benefit of having 4-6 heads and ideas flowing through into your adventure. Use the input they give you to make your writing better (and without necessarily telling them…).

Again the goal is to have a product that is very fun, interesting and that almost any DM can take and use in their game world. The more alternatives you have, the better the result.


I’ll detail how the play-test went next time.


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