Organizing Playtests

A couple days ago, I did a design chat with Ryan. One of the things we discussed was how to organize playtests. The particular kinds of playtest opportunities available to you will inevitably shape the game you can make. A consistent group with a regular schedule will allow you to produce a different game than you could make with one-shots at conventions with strangers as your only playtest opportunities.

I guess I can’t overstate the importance of having a group of people who’re not just willing to play with you, but willing to play unfinished, rough games. Whether that group is the community of con-goers, a local group, a group you play with online, or something else, make sure you have people to play with. Writers can do a lot of their work alone, the famous butt-in-chair advice, but as game designers, a crucial component of our work requires us to coordinate with other willing people’s schedules.

This is social work, finding and organizing such a group, selling them on the vision of your game (because even folks who’re generally willing to playtest might not be interested in a particular game’s subject), and organizing the actual playtests themselves. Even as a relative extrovert myself, I find it very helpful to have someone else available to manage all of that surrounding work. In my case, that someone right now is Stras, who has catalyzed playtests for Arcadia. I am a big believer in not discounting the time and effort required to engage in coordinative communication.

So, Stras helps me get together regular fortnightly playtests. This now brings me to the idea of playtest budgets. This is a concept I was introduced to by Avery. In short, you only have so many hours of playtest before you have to eventually get a game out or set the project aside, so make those hours count and recognize that perfectionism is the enemy of done.

In my case, I plan to have Arcadia fully designed by the end of this year, so I can finish the text and release it next year. Given that we are playing roughly every two weeks (to allow me time to work out changes to the rules between sessions), that means that I have about 15 more sessions before I need to have this game done. Each one needs to be addressing a question I have about the design, even if that means deviating from “natural” play. Saying to your playtesters “I want to try out this bit of mechanics, so can we steer things that way” is totally acceptable.

Right now, I have three main questions:

  1. Will my idea for mechanics around magic work as I intend?
  2. Will my ideas for character growth and advancement work as I intend?
  3. How can I emphasize the reality of families as powerful factors in the setting?

I think I have time to answer these!

How about you? What parts of playtesting do you need help on? What techniques do you find valuable?