Game Design Hour: How to Schedule a Play Test

'Schedule' by pittaya

‘Schedule’ by pittaya

Let me introduce you to Sonja. Sonja wrote a cool little tabletop RPG. She wants to playtest it, running it with a few people to get a feel for the game, but her attempts to scheduled a game have so far met with failure.

She came up with a two-pronged, systematic approach.

First, she identified a handful of friends–face-to-face and online–who she thinks would be good playtesters. She messaged them directly, describing the game in a couple of sentences and asking if they’d be willing to playtest. No firm date yet; just a yes/no question. A couple of them responded affirmatively.

Then she wrote a broad, public post on her favorite social media platforms, asking if anyone would be interested in playtesting. This was a little different than the first message; she described the game in a little more detail, keeping an upbeat tone. After all, she didn’t know the people who’d read this as well, so she needed to provide more context. A few people commented expressing interest.

Note that she hadn’t scheduled anything yet. Instead, she focused on building a list of people who were eager to playtest.

Then she went to Doodle and created a scheduling poll. Doodle’s great because you can list a bunch of potential dates and times, and get folks to vote on which works for them, but you can use whatever alternative is easiest for you. She set up a bunch of time slots when she personally was free.

Then Sonja wrote a separate post, just for those who responded affirmatively to her first two posts, pointing them to the Doodle. About half of them actually filled it out, and she ended up with one time slot with three people.

Boom! She had enough people to run her playtest and a time slot.

Why do it this way? I’ve tried to start the process by scheduling the playtest session, but people didn’t get that interested, and I didn’t get enough responses to schedule anything. If you engage people about the game first, that smaller group is much more likely to work with you to schedule a session.

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Monster Monday: Komodo Ranger of Tarakona

The savage continent of Tarakona, where draconic races battle for supremacy!

The studious Komodos explore the ancient ruins that cover Tarakona in groups of 5 to 10, typically made up of rangers, investigators, and tamed hunting drakes, who then report back to a team of researchers in a Komodo stone city.

The rangers scout ahead of the exploration party, keeping it safe and hunting for food. Every ranger spends a full year training in the wilderness before they are assigned to their first exploration party, and can live in the wilds on their own indefinitely.

Rangers have a reputation for short tempers and withdrawn personalities, seeing the investigators and researchers as weaklings who couldn’t survive a day without them. While this viewpoint holds some truth, it often generates friction between the members of any exploration group.

Rangers use their poisoned shortbows until attackers close, then engage in melee to protect the researchers.

Text version of stat block, suitable for use in Homebrewery:

> ## Komodo Ranger
>*medium humanoid, evil*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 15
> – **Hit Points** 110 (13d8 + 52)
> – **Speed** 30 ft.
>|16 (+3)|17 (+3)|18 (+4)|12 (+1)|14 (+2)|14 (+2)|
> – **Proficiency Bonus** +3
> – **Skills** Perception +8, Nature +5, Survival +5
> – **Damage Resistance** cold, bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing
> – **Senses** darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 18
> – **Languages** Draconic
> – **Challenge** 4 (1,100 XP)
> ___
> ***Magic Resistance.*** The ranger has advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects.
> ### Actions
> ***Multiattack.*** The ranger makes three melee attacks or two ranged attacks.

> ***Rapier.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit:* 7 (1d8 + 3) piercing damage.
> ***Poisoned Shortbow.*** *Ranged Weapon Attack:* +6 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit:* 6 (1d6 + 3) piercing damage, and the creature must make a DC 13 Constitution save or take 8 (1d10 + 3) poison damage.

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Faction Friday: Raising a Dragon

'Young Dragon' by ejbeachy

‘Young Dragon’ by ejbeachy

Tobias Sinthalel can be used either as a friendly faction that sends the PCs out on a mission, or as a foe that the PCs must overcome. This wealthy noble has managed to procure and hatch a dragon in secret, which needs copious amounts of food, and needs a certain proportion of humanoids in its diet.

As a friendly faction, Tobias engages the PCs to attack various orc and goblin encampments in a nearby forest, and deliver the corpses to a particular spot where a female ranger in his employ, Vialora, pays them. They both keep up the pretense that they need the corpses to verify that the PCs accomplished their task, though the bodies are actually used to feed a fledgling dragon that Tobias keeps in an abandoned dwarven mining complex nearby.

Plot hook: Eventually, the dragon escapes, and Tobias asks the PCs to recapture it without killing it. This can be a multi-session job, as the young dragon attacks small goblinoid encampments and humanoid villages far out in the wilderness and prefers to flee rather than fight. The PCs will have to figure out a way to corner it.

As a foe faction, the PCs hear of a hunter who was captured by a tribe of goblins and nearly fed to a young dragon they kept in their cave. He managed to escape, and the city watch offers a reward to anyone who can kill the goblins and the dragon. The PCs arrive to find a surprisingly well-supplied underground complex, which is also protected by a capable ranger–Vialora–who, if reduced to half Hit Points, surrenders and explains the situation. She’s not paid well enough to risk her life, has grown increasingly uncomfortable with her role, and will help the PCs clear out the rest of the goblins and kill the dragon.

Then, the PCs should probably track down Tobias in his mansion and confront him, but that’s a whole other session….

  1. Bats roost in the first room; the denizens have learned not to disturb them, but they will attack any noisy PCs. A cave-in has destroyed the southeast corner of the room, but from the remaining frescoes on the walls this appears to have once been a dwarven mining settlement.
  2. This room was once a guard room and resting spot for dwarves visiting the complex’s owners or just passing through. A large crack in the floor now splits the room in two. Two goblins crouch here, playing a dice game with a small pile of copper pieces. They’re supposed to be guarding the place and listening for disturbances, but they won’t even notice if the bats screech out. They are, however, attentive enough to notice the sounds of a pitched battle. If approached, the goblins will run down the hall and warn the others, but if the PCs can immediately engage them in melee the goblins will fight rather than flee.
  3. These chambers were badly damaged by whatever quake affected the first two rooms; now all that’s left are crumbled halls that six more goblins and Vialora use to fight intruders. They keep behind corners and fire at attackers from range, retreating to better vantage points rather than engaging in melee as much as possible. The corridor in the north end of the circle has collapsed into a pit; the goblins can swing from ropes across it as an action. PCs must make a DC 15 Dexterity (Acrobatics) check or fall and take 1d8 bludgeoning damage.
  4. The fledgling dragon lairs here, along with several goblins that attempt to entertain it. The dragon has the stats of a wyrmling, except 80 HP and the addition of one claw attack, multiattack (claw and bite), and an extra +2 damage on all attacks.
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Game Design Hour: How to Find Play Testers

'Talking on the offshore' by ePi.Longo

‘Talking on the offshore’ by ePi.Longo

This is part of a series of blog posts where I confront issues relating to tabletop RPG game design.

First off, you may be asking: Do I need play testers? Can’t I play my game with a few friends, then just post it online?

Of course, yes, you can just publish it. And if you’ve got a simple, quick game, that might be appropriate.

But the game won’t be as good as it can be. You’re not everyone. Your friends probably have similar interests to you. You need other perspectives to find holes in your design that you can’t even see.

So how do you find play testers?

There’s no magic bullet. But one way is to run games online for strangers.

Post on your favorite social media network, offering to run games. If you have a lot of followers, you might be able to ask for players for your in-development games. If not, offer to run popular games like D&D.

Then, once you’ve run a couple of sessions with these players, ask them if they’d be willing to play a session of a game you’re writing. Run a game with them.

Now, ideally, you can find a group that will run your game without you even being there. Unfortunately, very few people are willing to run a game that’s still in development. Try asking your players if one of them is willing to do so, but if they’re not, that’s just the reality of indie tabletop RPG development.

At least you’ve found playtesters and received their feedback!

How do you run a playtest and gather that feedback? I’ll be covering those topics in future posts.

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How Ryon Got Kicked Out of Our Group

Play tabletop RPGs long enough, and you’ll run into him: the player who you no longer want to be part of your group. He’s not just annoying; he makes the game less fun for everyone.

Again, to be clear: this post is about a player who decreases everybody’s enjoyment of the game.

That was Ryon. He was rude, he’d elbow people when making jokes, he wouldn’t pay attention, and he’d show up an hour late for sessions then expect everyone to catch him up.

How did we kick him out? We didn’t. At least, not right away.

First, I sat down and defined the specific behavior that was causing the friction. The problematic behavior isn’t a problem for the player, so if you just tell a player “You’re being annoying,” he or she won’t know what you’re talking about.

I remembered specific things that Ryon said or did, like repeatedly shouting “No!” when another player suggested a reasonable course of action, or rolling his eyes repeatedly when another player talked, or pulling out his phone, or elbowing another player. You don’t have to remember it word-for-word, but the more specific, the better.

But I wasn’t done. If you just outline a problematic behavior, it’s easy for the player to discount its impact on the group. Again, it’s not a problem for the player. But if you explain the results of that behavior, you’ve changed the conversation from a personal complaint to a discussion about the entire group.

So I thought about the specific results of his behavior. This is hard to define, because it’s not necessarily external. It can be hurt feelings, or it can be about other people’s changed opinions of the player in question.

Besides, if I couldn’t think of specific negative results from Ryon’s behavior, something else isn’t right. Maybe I’m over-reacting, or maybe I’m identifying the wrong problem. But that’s another post.

Once I identified the behavior and how it was frustrating for our group, I talked to him one-on-one. I was able to do it face-to-face, which is best, since you can modulate your tone or body language. If you can’t do it that way, by voice is next best. I made sure to do it as privately as possible; confronting somebody in front of other people dramatically increases the tension (and the player’s behavior in the group is likely driven partly because it is in front of an audience). In this instance, I just took Ryon into another room as folks were arriving for the next session. While the conversation might technically have been audible if others got close enough, it was reasonably private.

What I told Ryon can be basically broken down into four parts:

  1. Some variation on, “Hey, can I give you some feedback?” You need to give the player a heads-up about the topic you’re about to address, and phrasing it as feedback makes it sound more neutral. It also gives the player a chance to say “Yes.”
  2. Describe the problematic behavior.
  3. Describe the results of that behavior on the group.
  4. Ask the player to try something different from now on. Simply leaving it with a description of the problem focuses on the problem instead of on solutions. By asking the player do try something different later, you shift focus to the future, and the fact that the player can change.

That’s it.

Two important “don’t”s at this point:

Don’t tell the player specifically what to do. Leave it up to the player to figure out a different way of acting. He or she may not do so, but that’s okay; that’ll get taken care of, too.

Don’t argue. The player may want to debate with you about how big the problem is. The player may even do this out of a genuine desire to understand the situation. While you can answer the player’s specific questions, move on from this conversation as quickly as possible. You are not the player’s therapist.

This may surprise you, but most of the time, this will solve the problem. The player will come up with a different behavior, and the problem won’t happen again.

Unfortunately, Ryon wasn’t one of those players. He was a little better that session, but he went right back to the same behavior next session.

So I talked to the player again, this time adding a firm condition between parts 3 and 4: either he changes his behavior, or he’s not going to be welcome at this group any more.

Now again, if you’ve made it this far, most people will change their behavior. You’ve clearly laid out this problem twice now, and that’s enough for most people to realize they’ve been wrong.

But Ryon wasn’t one of those people either. He still had basically the same behaviors; he just wasn’t quite as bad about them as before (instead of showing up an hour late, he showed up 30 minutes late, among other things).

If this happens, it’s time to cut the cord. It’s best to do this face-to-face, but it’s also okay to send them a private message telling them they’re no longer welcome in the group. That’s what I did.

It sucks, but it happens.

Now if you’ve read this post this far, I’ll share a secret with you: I’ve never had a Ryon. I’ve given players feedback along these lines, but it’s never escalated to kicking a player out of the group. Why? I followed this pattern, so each player had plenty of chances to learn.

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Game Design Hour: What You Need for a First Draft

'Writing Pencil' by home thods

‘Writing Pencil’ by home thods

This is an ongoing series of posts where I look at tabletop RPG design pretty darned exhaustively.

Let’s say you’ve got an idea for an RPG, and you’ve written down some notes and rules. Let’s further say that you want to release this to the public.

Before you do, you’ll want to show it to at least somebody else to know what makes sense. You should playtest it, too, but let’s say you know one or two people to whom you can show an RPG, and can read it and get back to you with reasonably useful feedback.

We’ve now helpfully established the goal of the first draft: This is the version that you will show to other people.

So, what is the minimum content needed for a first draft of an RPG?

I think you need three things:

You need your core mechanics. This is further composed of four things:

  1. What do players do in the game?
  2. What do player-characters do in the game?
  3. When do you break from the fiction and use a randomizer (like dice or cards)?
  4. How do you interpret the randomizer’s results back into the fiction?

You also need to explain character creation. Assuming players play characters, they need to know how to build one.

You also need decent spelling and grammar. I’m not trying to be your grammar teacher here; this grows naturally out of your goal. Other people will be reading your work. If you know you’re poor at spelling and grammar, you know they’ll have a tough time even understanding your sentences, much less the game you’re trying to explain to them. If this is a problem for you, find a friend who can fix this before you pass your first draft off to other people.

That’s it. Note what I’m not including:

  • Setting
  • Sample of play
  • Introductory adventure
  • Optional rules
  • How to level up

Those are all useful things to include, but they’re not necessary for your first readers to grasp the essentials of your game. Focus on the basics.

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Monster Monday: Komodo Investigator of Tarakona

The savage continent of Tarakona, where draconic races battle for supremacy!

The studious Komodos explore the ancient ruins that cover Tarakona in groups of 5 to 10, typically made up of rangers, investigators, and tamed hunting drakes, who then report back to a team of researchers in a Komodo stone city.

Once the rangers get a team safely to a ruin, the investigator specializes in delving into it and uncovering its secrets. Part archaeologist, part sage, part adventurer, investigators are smart and careful.

They also each carry an orb of takala, which they use to electrify their staff and arrows.

Investigators typically keep to the back of a fight, using their illusion of falsehood to appear like rangers until they are engaged in melee. If a fight goes poorly, investigators retreat and escape rather than fight to the death.

Text version of stat block, suitable for use in Homebrewery:

> ## Komodo Investigator
>*medium humanoid, evil*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 17
> – **Hit Points** 80 (12d8 + 34)
> – **Speed** 30 ft.
>|12 (+1)|14 (+2)|12 (+1)|17 (+3)|14 (+2)|9 (-1)|
> – **Proficiency Bonus** +2
> – **Skills** Arcana +4, History +3, Perception +4, Stealth +3
> – **Senses** darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 14
> – **Languages** Draconic
> – **Challenge** 3 (700 XP)
> ___
> ***Innate Spellcasting.*** The investigator’s innate spellcasting ability is Intelligence (spell attack bonus +5, spell save DC 15). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components: At will: *light, mage hand, minor illusion*
> ### Actions
> ***Quarterstaff of Lightning.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +3 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit:* 6 (1d6 + 3) bludgeoning damage plus 7 (1d8 + 3) lightning damage.
> ***Shortbow of Lightning.*** *Ranged Weapon Attack:* +4 to hit, range 80/320 ft., one target. *Hit:* 7 (1d6 + 4) piercing damage plus 8 (1d8 + 4) lightning damage.

> ***Illusion of Falsehood.*** The investigator can make itself (and anything it wears and carries) look like any other creature or humanoid its same general size and shape. This will not hold up to physical examination, it does not change the investigator’s voice, and a DC 20 Intelligence (Investigation) check will reveal the illusion.

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Faction Friday: Elydain’s Caravan, The Dragon Egg Smugglers

'The Caravan' by dungeonmiester

‘The Caravan’ by dungeonmiester

Elydain’s Caravan can be used either as a friendly faction that sends the PCs out on a mission, or as a foe that the PCs must overcome. This small caravan of about two dozen tightly-knit, mostly elven merchants, guards, and family members, led by an old elven lady named Elydain Cirelthion, trades mostly in metal merchandise from pans to daggers. Their ten-wagon caravan has plied the trade routes in this area for over two centuries.

As a friendly faction, Elydain contacts the PCs with a delicate problem. They were asked by a client to transport a dragon’s egg to a wizard’s tower. The client is part of an adventuring party that defeated a dragon and found the egg in its lair. Dragon’s eggs are dangerous enough that most city guards wouldn’t look kindly if they found anyone possessing one, but the client paid handsomely, so Elydain agreed. Unfortunately, the caravan arrived at the wizard’s tower to find it destroyed. She now has a dragon’s egg to fence, and asks the PCs to find a buyer. Any number of spellcasters would jump at the chance to study a dragon’s egg; Elydain just wants to ensure that the buyer doesn’t connect the egg to the caravan.

As a foe faction, the PCs are hired by a wizard, Carvorax the Splendid (so he calls himself), who has heard that the caravan recently acquired a dragon’s egg in secret. He wants the PCs to waylay the caravan and take the egg, which they shouldn’t be transporting anyway. They’re unwilling to sell the egg (they already have a buyer in the form of a sorcerer, Tristram the Invincible, who happens to be Carvorax’s rival).

Combat Encounter

If the PCs attack the caravan, its wagons will be pulled into a circle, and guards will approach the PCs outside the circle. If engaged, the PCs will have to defeat the guards, some of whom will remain with the wagons and fire crossbows at range. Once the guards are dealt with, half the merchants will muster and attack with short bows and swords. If at least two of the attacking merchants die, Elydain will approach the PCs, asking them what they want (if they haven’t made it clear), and give them the dragon’s egg. She doesn’t want to see the caravan slaughtered.

As such, make sure that the guards and the merchants are a very tough fight, since the PCs won’t have to kill most of the merchants.

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Game Design Hour: Helpful Sites for the Designer

'service-design-39' by Tobias Toft on Flickr

‘service-design-39’ by Tobias Toft on Flickr

This post covers public websites with features useful for the game designer during design. In other words, this isn’t about publishing your game (that’s another post).

Often, you’ll need to share game materials with other players, or you want to work on your rules from multiple places. Some folks forget the utility of Google Drive. You can create a shared folder on Google Drive for your game, then drag-and-drop your rules PDF into there and share the folder with playtesters. Or you can write your draft rules in a Google Doc, which you can access from any PC.

If you’re creating a game with components, like a board game or card game, or an RPG that uses special counters, The Game Crafter is invaluable. You can not only buy components (tokens, pawns, miniatures, etc.) in any amount you choose, you can actually build a game: upload art for custom cards or a game board, list the components, and order a copy. Prices are reasonable, and you can buy just one copy of anything (in other words, you never commit to a 10,000-copy print run). Particularly useful for RPG designers who use custom cards.

If you’re writing a tabletop RPG and want to self-publish the rule book, Lulu is one of the go-to self-publishing companies out there. Just upload your book as a Word document (or similar), and they’ll create a book out of it, which folks can buy straight off Lulu; you get the money dropped into a PayPal account once a month. They offer a reasonably wide selection of book types (softcover and hardcover at various sizes), and reasonable prices. Just as with The Game Crafter, you can buy as many copies as you want; you’re not ordering a big print run.

If you know of any others, please let me know in the comments.

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Campaign Concept: Savage, Dangerous Nature

Imagine a D&D fantasy world where you don’t screw with animals. If you enter a cave and you run across a growling wolf, you back down and find another way in (or tempt the creature away, or make peace with it, or whatever).

Now, you could make exceptions for some vermin, like sewer rats and spiders, as well as trained guardians. But otherwise, you only fight people.

Obviously, you’d need to establish this with your players. You could mechanically support it by, saying, tripling the damage and HP of each animal.

It would make a game where you explore the wilderness; you don’t dominate it.

Worth thinking about.

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