So, I’ve been lucky enough to be able to playtest a couple of my tabletop RPGs with my gaming group, and while those two games have been wildly different in mechanical fidelity, each seems to have gone fairly well, and were extremely informative. I thought it might be an interesting read to share how I build these playtest sessions, seeing as I’m currently working on my second playtest adventure for my dark fantasy game, Blackmarked. (You can read more about Blackmarked here, here, here, and here).
So, the very first thing I do is I set out with a list of questions I have about my design. “Is it good” is not one of them. When you set out to playtest, you should have real, concrete things that you want to figure out about your design. Ideally, these questions should be specific, because specific questions will hopefully yield specific action items for you to take going forward. If you ask “Is it fun?” the answer you get might be “No”, and “No” tells you nothing about what you should do next. If you ask “Were you able to build the character concept you envisioned with the character creation rules?” and the answer is even still “No”, you know what needs to be done: increase the variance of character creation.
It’s also worth remembering when you write these questions, and later when you hear answers to them, that your design is not the only thing that will influence the answers. Your playtesters and the GM’s style will have at least equal weight on your playtesters’ opinions of the game. Your player might say they were able to build any character they want, but they might only want to build obvious, tropey characters. Your players might say the game seemed hard, but the GM might have just been remorseless, or maybe even they just got unlucky. Knowing your GM and your playtesters’ preferences helps balance this out but, as with all things, a big sample size helps eliminate individual bias.
Now that you know what truths you’re trying to wring out of your players, it’s time to actually build the session contents. At this point, you’re in familiar territory: you’re just planning a session, just like GMing anything else. I’m not going to tell you how to do this, if only because GM prep is a process that’s very different and personalized for every GM.
Here’s what I will say though: you have a couple extra things you need to consider as you prep. The first is fairly intuitive, and that’s that you need to build your game in such a way as to let your players answer your questions. If you’re curious how lethal your game is, you should plan your session with a range of difficulty in the combat, so you can try to isolate where exactly the PCs start falling. If you’re trying to figure out how the Hacking mechanic works, you better put some computers in that session.
Another thing you need to consider is that there’s a much greater-than-average chance that the game will just crumble to bits in the hands of your players. Maybe they’ll stumble across a combination of rules that turns them into unbeatable death machines. Maybe a stray goblin will murder the entire party thanks to a poorly thought-out rule or an unbalanced string of dice rolls. Maybe a player will accidentally roll a useless character, or maybe the whole party will just ignore a rule that you think is pivotal. More so than ever, you need to build a session that is resilient to the most whiplash-inducing swings of luck, focus, and player strategy.
Also consider a general piece of advice for any one-shot, one that goes doubly-so for unfamiliar systems: players have no idea what their characters do in this world you’ve created, so define some clear goals for them. Don’t give them the chance to piss around and mistake their own lack of guidance for a lack of game focus. If your game is about hunting monsters, start your session with all your party in a room with a guy who says “Go hunt this monster, dummies”.
The last big thing you need to consider is that this is the players’ first interaction with your rules. Even if you’ve playtested with this group before, chances are you changed some subset of the rules between then and now, and even if not much is different, your players are still going to feel as though stuff has changed. So, if at all possible, try to structure your adventure in such a way that the complexity of the situation escalates. Think of a video game tutorial: first you jump, then you shoot, then you jump and shoot. Similar theory here.
If you’re still not sure how to build an adventure for this purpose, a solid recommendation is to simply pilfer what you can from other published adventures that are designed to introduce players to a game and see how they do it. Many systems have an introductory adventure in the back of the book, designed to integrate players with the game. Others yet have published adventures that are perfect intros for new players. Feel free to read some of these, study their pacing, their structure, the way they introduce mechanics, and pilfer as need be. Here are some adventures, and their corresponding systems, that I found useful:
- The Sword for Burning Wheel
- Sailors of the Starless Sea for Dungeon Crawl Classics
- Any of the Beginner Games for Fantasy Flight Game’s Star Wars RPG
- Tower of the Stargazer for Lamentations of the Flame Princess
Now, let’s say you’ve finished up your adventure up and are ready to run it. Dope! Most people don’t even make it this far. Now you have the complex part: finding a group to run it with. Just like with writing the adventure, you have all of the normal problems of finding a tabletop RPG group, but with some new problems too! How fun!
First off, you need a group of people who are okay with the fact that the game they’ll be playing is both incomplete and possibly bad. Your players need to be aware of the fact that there might be things in your game that just don’t work. Stuff might be busted, and need to be hotfixed by you on the fly with some off-the-cuff ruling changes. You might have just not thought of a mechanic that the players expect or want to use, and have to whip something up on the spot. You need to be upfront with that, and you need to be OK with that.
You also need a group of people whose biases, tastes, and experiences you are aware of. Sometimes these will be relevant to your core questions (if one of your questions is “Can players new to RPGs pick these rules up fast?”, you should probably find people new to RPGs), but knowing this for anyone will help you understand the context of their opinions and criticisms. If you’re building a story game full of narrative mechanics, and you get a player who’s a 3.5 munchkin, that’ll affect what they think. Don’t necessarily use this as a mechanism to exclude people from your playtests (let’s be honest, the pool of RPG playtesters is not big enough for you to be excluding people), but do use it as a mechanism to determine your game’s strengths, weaknesses, and audience.
Finally, keep in mind that your playtesters are ultimately doing you a favor, even though they do get to play a game. Playing an RPG is a decent time investment, even for a single session, and your playtesters have allowed you to spend that time of theirs on your pet project. At the bare minimum, get them snacks, drinks, maybe a name in the book. If your project is such that you can swing it, offer to give them copies of the completed rules when you’re done (this also serves selfish purposes: by offering someone a completed game, you’ve now got people who’ll ride your ass about completing your game who will help motivate you).
You can also scrounge up playtesters in the form of other designers. If you’re extremely lucky, you can compose a group out of hobbyist designers, taking turns playing each others’ games. This is a fan-fuckin’-tastic way to play a lot of cool games and to also keep your passion for game design lit, but remember that every designer has their opinions about the way games “should” be, and while their advice is useful, it’s ultimately no more inherently useful than any other playtester’s.
So, go out there, and get some people playing your homemade RPG, even if you don’t plan on publishing it or even finishing it. Best case scenario, they love it and and you get the incomparable high of having people play and like your game. Worst case scenario, they hate it, and you learn a ton of stuff about game design that you get to carry into the future (this won’t happen if their feedback isn’t specific, but that’s why we build questions beforehand, remember?). So, really, worst case scenario is just a different best case scenario! You have no excuse.