Playtesting your Tabletop RPG

This post was written by Vee! We share very similar thoughts on playtesting – Hayley

I firmly believe that learning to love playtesting is one of the most important parts of becoming a game designer. While it may seem daunting and scary to run an unfinished version of your game to a group of critically engaged players, playtesting is one of the most effective ways to add value and quality to your game.

But if you’re anything like me, love doesn’t also seem like quite the right word to describe how playtesting feels. Sure, I like it sometimes… other times, it is a large and pointy spike in my anxiety levels. So how do you get the most out of playtesting sessions? How should you approach playtesting to make it both manageable and effective?

In this article I cover my perspective on why and when to playtest, and take you through some considerations for thinking about your own approach to playtesting.

Why Playtest?

There are lots of valuable reasons to playtest your game. It has helped me with:

  • Making sure the game is fun
  • Finding the heart of the game
  • Determining development directions for the future
  • Identifying the features of the game
  • Gathering actionable data for improving the game
  • Finding places where the rules are unintuitive, confusing or slow
  • Clarifying vague points, holes in the rules or rules text
  • Researching player interaction with the game, and with each other

Different Stages of Playtesting

While it is never too early to playtest, you should be continuing to playtest throughout your game design process. The act of playtesting is about gathering data to learn from, and to iterate your game design into something better.

But not all playtesting is the same. It varies depending on your stage of the design process and the scope of the game. According to Technopedia these stages are: gross, in-house, blind and final. Here’s how these playtesting stages apply to roleplaying design at Storybrewers:

Gross Playtesting

An initial test to see if the game idea works on some level, generally carried out by just Hayley and I. This can often help with determining what kind of game we want to make. The goal at this stage is to assist in creating a strong understanding of the game idea or direction. Sure, it may change later, but this initial run should give a definite starting point to direct the design.

In-House Playtesting (Close Networks)

After some development, we hash out a minimum viable game. This is a barebones ruleset that we use to run a playtest internally with close friends, family, and willing victims. This is still very casual, but we actually have some rules! The goal is to find the weak spots in the ruleset and fix them so that we can prepare the game for wider testing. 

In-House Playtesting (Wider Public)

Once we have a ‘not embarrassing’ ruleset, we take this out to conventions and our wider network to see the ruleset in action. We iterate our game a lot at this stage, so it might be the case that the next step from here is back to earlier playtesting stages. Resist the urge to think that this means you are getting knocked back or failing. This cycle is normal and how you make improvements to your game, you’re making progress!

Blind Playtesting 

This stage is about having other people run your game. It happens once you’ve got a more polished ruleset that you’ve written out and committed to on some level. You’re aiming to understand if you overlooked anything, and if the ruleset as written makes sense for someone that is not you. A common problem is that the instructions as written may not include enough information to get the feeling or rules of the game across without having the creators present.

Final Playtesting

This is the last playtest round before the game is released. It should be done with the final play materials and with as much completed as possible. The goal is to get everything spick and span, to make sure everything is to standard before printing and distribution. 

Collecting and Analysing the Right Data

During a playtesting session, there are usually two kinds of data that you’re receiving. The first is your own personal observation and the second is direct feedback from others. Both form important datasets that will improve your design. 

Personal Observation

Personal observations are things like:

  • What you noticed while watching people during the game, Are they having fun? When is the energy high? When is it low? What is the balance of spotlight like?
  • What you yourself felt during the game, What was the mental load of the GM? Was I excited? Did things play out like I expected? What things were different?
  • Any thoughts or moments that immediately jump out at you, This doesn’t work at all! There should be content warnings in place here. Why did the players do that unexpected thing instead of where I wanted them to go?

The best way I’ve found to really make the most of personal observations is to spend quality time afterwards reflecting on the experience. If you are designing in a team, you can present your observations and debrief with your colleagues. If you’re developing by yourself, it may be easiest to spend some time writing these up or leaving yourself a voice recording. The important thing is to make time to do this, preferably within the week.

There are many frameworks you can use for reflection exercises. You should find one that resonates with you. My favourite is the four F’s of active reviewing

  • Facts: events and key moments in the experience, both in-fiction and at-the-table. 
  • Feelings: the emotions you felt throughout the experience. 
  • Findings: investigation and interpretation, the how and why analysis.
  • Future: the future implementation of your learning and the plan going forward.

One bonus tip is to also try to record playtest games to have them available for later analysis. Sometimes hurried, scribbled notes just don’t cut it (shocking, I know)! 

Over time, you’ll learn to hone your intuition and it’ll become second nature to be able to do this kind of processing. 

Direct Feedback from Others

Typically, there are two main ways this data is collected: either chatting about it after the session ends, or, via a survey after the event. While there is no right or wrong way, different answers to the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘why’ of gathering direct feedback may affect the results. 

For example, I’ve found that immediately after the session, in-person feedback can be beautifully coloured by the feelings that permeated the game. This would be desirable if you’re looking to understand the emotional tone of your game. On the other hand, an anonymous online survey can be a better format for receiving critical feedback that people may not be comfortable saying to you in person. This would be better if you’re trying to identify the weaker segments of your game.

The kinds of questions you ask will also be extremely important. There are times where you’re doing more exploratory testing where the best question will be simply, ‘so, what do you all think?’ There are other times where you will need to be more specific, ‘at the start I mentioned that the main thing I’m interested in was the sports match system, was that a smooth experience for you, or did you get lost or confused during the game?’ So before running your playtest, have a think about what kind of feedback you’re looking for and plan accordingly.  

When analysing this sort of data, you’ll need to be looking out for trends, not individual instances. Trends in feedback and trends in people’s experiences will tell you where you need to devote your focus. An individual instance may be easy to disregard, and a strong trend can be hard to ignore, but what happens if you get feedback that lies in the middle ground? Our approach in this case is to frame this as a question, rather than jump into the solution: what has caused these people to say that XYZ doesn’t work? This may make it clearer to understand what the problem is. 

Tips for Surviving Wider Playtesting

I’ve spoken a lot about the framework, approach, and processes involved with playtesting, but another very important dimension in the process is you, the creator of the game and your relationship with playtesting. It isn’t always easy. In fact, sometimes playtesting can be downright difficult.

When times are tough, I remind myself of the following:

Don’t get discouraged

It’s all part of the process. Progress isn’t always linear and it can be better to focus on ‘what can be improved in my next iteration’, rather than ‘is this a good game?’ While the fantasy of the genius filled with inspiration effortlessly creating is alluring, I often find behind most great works of art is just countless hours of practise and doing the thing.

Be kind to yourself

No one is perfect, no one needs to be. Sometimes you’ll get feedback that is tough to process. It can be tough because you know how much work it will be to fix the issue, or it’s worded harshly, or it just hits you in a particular way you just cannot place into words. Resist the urge to guilt-trip yourself further, or say mean things to yourself. Instead, indulge yourself in some self-care – you’ve worked hard gathering this data, you deserve it! Analysing it all can come another day.  

Take things with a grain of salt

Always try to connect feedback with the bigger picture. Contextualise everything. Interrogate the why at every step. Try your best to understand the underlying picture, and if you’re having trouble, seek out other people’s opinions on the matter.

Keep it light

Remember to enjoy yourself, crack jokes to lighten the mood and celebrate the steps you’ve taken to get this far. How awesome is it that you get to run your game for these people?!

So, do I love playtesting? 

I do. I am eternally thankful of how it connects me with people who play my games. I cannot overstate how much I value its impact in improving the things I’m making. I am grateful for past-Vee’s gumption of building the initial skill and confidence to undertake the process for the first time. I look forward with joy and trepidation at every new playtesting instance, and I love that I can cope with the bad and celebrate the good. I love playing games with people!   

 

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