Playtesting to find WTF Moments

As +Peter V. Dell’Orto noted, I’ve spent a lot of time this vacation writing. An exchange we had on passing back the twenty-third revision of one of the two projects we’ve been collaborating on made me appreciate for the Nth time the value of playtesting, and also what “simple” means.

I do a lot of spreadsheet work when developing rules. It helps me ensure that there’s a logical consistency in my mechanics, and when I do the right spreadsheet work, it helps to ensure that the work I do is scalable. Does this rule work for a human? A human with the strength of a T-Rex (supers)? A T-Rex with the Strength of a human (disadvantages)? Works for Mice, Men, and Godzilla?

So, when I do this, I often make use of Excel, and the ROUND, ROUNDUP, ROUNDDOWN, and TRUNC functions. Picking the right function helps me keep the breakpoints where I want them.

However, after this recent project with Peter, I will way, way more often make a final pass, and ask the Very Important Question: if you’re doing this three hours into a four-hour game session, having imbibed three glasses of wine, countless Doritos, and no small amount of bad pizza . . . and you have to make a GM call for the fiftieth NPC that your players must defeat . . . can you still do it?

I mean, having the breakpoints for (say) a ST progression go from 18-22 (centered on 20, what you get with ROUND(N/5,0) might be a beautiful mathematical thing . . . but if in the middle of play you have a new ST 23 NPC, does it make you swear loudly and have to choose between pulling out a calculator or pulling out your hair?

Yeah, OK, I can learn. Nearly everyone can reckon by fives. Why use 18-22 when 20-24 would do?

The lesson learned here is the value of a gaming group. Without one, you don’t really realize when the wonderful rule you’ve created makes your friends want to blast you with d4s loaded into a 6-gauge shotgun. Or, after pulling out a book, a computer, and smiling as you get the answer you wanted, you look up and five guys and gals are giving you the “the pizza’s getting cold and my one-second action has now taken me fifteen seconds to say and fifteen minutes for you to fiddle with” look.

Anyway, playing your rules with a group (even solo with a friend) will point out the flaws in things. My evening once spent Fighting with Peter pointed out some major issues with my book. The rules there weren’t bad (though there were a couple of hidden Murphys), but they couldn’t be easily explained in play, and ultimately, this resulted in important errata for Technical Grappling.

Playing your rules with actual people means you have to explain them quickly and clearly. It means doing it under time pressure. And it means ensuring that they work in actual play. And that means having done such playtesting, you’re more likely to put in print stuff that’s Awesome.

One thought on “Playtesting to find WTF Moments

  1. Playtesting is a good way to find out things

    a) don't work like you expect
    b) don't work like others expect
    c) can be done much more easily
    d) are too hard to explain to see actual use

    That's not exhaustive; it'll do other things good and bad. But I find "Read this and tell me how the rule works" is a good way to find out if you're communicating what you were trying to communicate. And if that was worth a damn.

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