Game Design Hour: How Polished Should My Play Test Materials Be?

Posted by on April 27, 2017
by Emiliano García-Page Sánchez

by Emiliano García-Page Sánchez

So you’re writing a tabletop RPG, and you’re going to run a playtest with a couple of friends. What do your playtest materials need to look like?

I’ve already covered the three phases of prototyping, so let’s look at those recommendations and dig deeper.

At this point, I replace the low-quality materials with something better, but still simple. For tokens, I’ll use plastic poker chips, for example. The point is to move away from scrap, but still avoid investing serious cost. Your game is still going to go through a lot of changes.

I’ll also format my rules into a form that’s easier to read, with headers and some form of organization. This isn’t anywhere near the final version with cool fonts and fancy art, but it’s at least formatted in a way that other people will understand, and I fill out any “(NEED TO FILL THIS OUT LATER)” sections.

So, point #1: your playtest materials do not have to be final. Don’t worry about finding exactly the right tokens to represent health; coins will do fine.

Why not try to make the game look as good as possible? Two main reasons: 1) The playtest may well reveal that your entire mechanic is a bad fit for the game, requiring you to dump those perfect tokens you spent so much time finding. 2) Polished materials create the impression that those materials are final. Your playtesters will be much less likely to tell you that a mechanic doesn’t work if they see how much time and effort you put into its representation.

That said, you want materials that are easy to use in play. During your own personal testing, you probably used things like sticky notes and whatever was at hand to mark things, but those may be harder for your playtesters to use during a game than, say, blank cards or plastic poker chips. You want your playtest to move swiftly, so it’s worth upgrading from playtest materials that were convenient for you but won’t be as convenient for a handful of people around a table. In other words, you want materials that don’t distract your playtesters.

When it comes to your rules, of course it’s impossible to give you a single, clear rule that tells you when your rules are good enough for playtesters. Here are a few guidelines, though:

  1. Have you included all the rules needed just for the playtest? That is, are there any rules still in your head that need to be written down? Add them. On the other hand, don’t worry about a rule for every possible situation; just include the ones you’re likely to encounter in the playtest session.
  2. Are there any parts of the rules you intended to fill out at some point (often marked with “FILL THIS OUT LATER!!!!!”)? Fill those out now. Don’t worry about making them perfect, but either add them or remove them from this draft.
  3. Review the document thoroughly for spelling and grammar issues. One missed word in a rule can color a playtester’s perception of the game (because the playtester may think something’s possible when it’s not, or vice versa) and cause confusion that will unnecessarily eat up playtest time. You don’t have to write perfectly to publish a game, but unclear language will draw attention to itself, and away from the reasons you’re playtesting.
  4. Add page numbers. Your players will be flipping back and forth between pages during the test, asking where certain rules or explanations are, and without page numbers this will eat up time.

How do you run a playtest and gather useful feedback? I’ll explore those topics in the next few posts.

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