Game Design Hour: How to Run a Play Test

By greensefa

By greensefa

This is part of a multi-post series about the practicalities of designing a game. Today I’m going to look at the practical actions you need to take while actually running a playtest.

First, choose a classic scenario. Avoid the temptation to test an unusual setting for your system, like a James Bond action scenario using wushu rules. This will skew your playtesters’ feedback, and you won’t be able to separate problems with the game from problems with the game’s applicability to the scenario. Stay basic.

Second, run the game as if you were the DM, not the designer. As the designer, it’s easy to answer a question about a rule by explaining the reason why you designed that rule. This information will skew your playtest. It gives your playtesters more information than your audience will have. Other potential problems with the game won’t surface, because your playtesters will understand your reasoning behind them. Don’t give them more information than a DM who read your rules would know. That can be hard to do, but it’s important that you do your best.

Third, bring lots of paper and take copious notes. Many small moments occur during a playtest that you want to capture and will slip from your mind once the session’s over. You will notice a pause when a particular rule is introduced, or a conversation about a rule interaction that you will want to capture immediately.

Also: I know, you probably want to use your laptop or tablet to take notes. But people react differently to a person writing on a piece of paper compared to a person typing on a screen. The latter feels impersonal to people, and they’ll feel more like they’re in a doctor’s office than a playtest. It will shut them down emotionally a little bit, which you do not want in your playtest.

Fourth, run the game. Meaning, other than taking notes, run the game like a normal session. Ensure the players are having fun. A playtest involves play, and playtesters who’ve had a good time with your game will give you more feedback than players in a session where you paid less attention to the game itself.

How should you ask for feedback and incorporate it into your game? We’ll cover that next.

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Monster Monday: Komodo Researcher of Tarakona

lizardman by obrotowy-d5xlij1

lizardman by obrotowy-d5xlij1

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.

Researchers are rarely encountered outside of a komodo city, but do occasionally accompany exploration parties on expeditions to particularly interesting ruins. They invariably lead the group.

If a komodo exploration party learns that they are being followed, the researchers and investigators will often use their disguise self and illusion powers to appear like a friendly, wandering group of kala (keeping rangers and hunting drakes hidden) and lure their enemies close before attacking.

Researchers wade to the front of combat attempting to intimidate enemies using Intimidation checks, charm person, and suggestion. They will also attack in an attempt to show they mean business.

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

> ## Komodo Researcher
>*large humanoid, evil*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 13
> – **Hit Points** 90 (15d8 + 30)
> – **Speed** 30 ft.
>|16 (+3)|13 (+1)|15 (+2)|14 (+2)|15 (+2)|16 (+3)|
> – **Proficiency Bonus** +3
> – **Skills** Arcana +7, History +4, Perception +5, Stealth +3
> – **Senses** darkvision 60 ft., passive Perception 12
> – **Languages** Draconic
> – **Challenge** 4 (1,100 XP)
> ___
> ***Innate Spellcasting.*** The researcher’s innate spellcasting ability is Charisma (spell attack bonus +6, spell save DC 13). It can innately cast the following spells, requiring no material components: At will: *disguise self* (any humanoid form), *major image* 3/day each: *charm person, mirror image, scrying, suggestion* 1/day: *geas*
> ### Actions
> ***Multiattack.*** The researcher makes two attacks: one with its dagger and one spell attack.
> ***Poisoned Dagger.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit:* 5 (1d4 + 3) piercing damage plus 8 (1d10 + 3) poison damage.
> ***Touch of Breathlessness.*** *Melee spell attack.* +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. *Hit:* 8 (1d10 + 3) damage and the target must make a DC 13 Constitution save or be paralyzed. The target may make saves against its paralysis at the end of each of its turns.
> ***Spear of the Mind.*** *Ranged Spell Attack:* +5 to hit, range 60 ft., one creature. *Hit:* 5 (1d10) psychic damage and one level of exhaustion.

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Faction Friday: The Caravan of Death

Art by tristram(?) for Diablo III

Art by tristram(?) for Diablo III

Pity Callahan’s Caravan. Pity, or fear it. Wherever these metal-working merchants go, somebody dies.

Callahan’s Caravan of Death is a faction that can be used either as a friendly ally and source of adventure, or as a foe to be fought. It consists of two dozen people (twelve adults and twelve children) spread across nine wagons. They spend the spring and summer traveling the trade routes, selling various metal objects such as pans, knives, files, and scythes, and the other half of the year in a quiet valley where they smith those objects.

As a friendly faction, the members of Callahan’s Caravan face a perplexing problem. Whenever they arrive in a town with their caravan of nine wagons and trade, within 24 hours, someone in that town dies. Sometimes it’s a grandmother on her death bed. Sometimes a person slips and cracks their head. Sometimes it’s more mysterious, like an unpopular council member dying in his sleep. Rumors have spread, and now when the caravan rolls into town few people come out to do business with its members.

Plot hook: The PCs are approached by Millicent Avernath, one of the more successful merchants and the de facto leader of the otherwise mostly democratic caravan. She asks the PCs to investigate and clear the caravan’s name. As it happens, another member of the caravan — Hossil Thrick, a haughty half-elf — angered a hag some months back by making her a shoddy kettle. The hag since cursed the caravan, causing this trouble.

As a foe, the same situation generally applies: within 24 hours of the caravan arriving in a settlement, somebody in town dies. However, the circumstances are usually somewhat suspicious. As it turns out, the caravan has been unable to compete with other, more successful merchants, and agreed to take on a disguised assassin for a hefty fee.

Plot hook: The PCs are approached by Dar Surefoot, the half-orc who organizes the (tiny) local watch, the day the caravan enters town. He’s heard about the deaths, and want the PCs to investigate.

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Semi-Monthly Map: Demons’ Tower

Long ago, a now-lost civilization carved several platforms on this natural upthrust tower of stone. Steep, straight ramps lead up to each oddly level platform. All traces of the past civilization’s activity are lost except for a perfectly circular depression on the top platform, in which faint runes can just be discerned.

Recently, a demon cult learned that the circle can be used to summon demons. They climbed Demons’ Tower and manned it with a dozen cultists and their minions: a small pack of gnolls.

When the PCs arrive, six cultists perform a ritual at the top of the tower (area 1). The party has a limited amount of time–say, 20 combat rounds, or two minutes–to reach the top and disrupt the cultists before the ritual is completed, a portal to the Nine Hells appears, and a new demon charges through it every round.

The next platform down (area 2) contains four cultists, all of whom will cast spells as soon as enemies enter the entrance zone at the bottom.

The platform below that (area 3) contains two more cultists and two gnolls armed with bows. All will used ranged attacks against enemies in the entrance zone (area 4).

The entrance zone (area 4) contains four gnolls armed with glaives; two will charge into melee and the others will stay behind the barricade and defend the first ramp. Thanks to the glaives’ reach, the defenders behind the barricade can still attack enemies who are on the other side of the barricade. A creature can climb over the barricade with a successful DC 15 Acrobatics (Dexterity) or Athletics (Strength) check.

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“Okay, How Do You Do That?”

'2012 Adventure Photography Competition' by FrontierOfficial

‘2012 Adventure Photography Competition’ by FrontierOfficial

Players often get caught up in the game mechanics of what their character is doing and don’t think through the fiction of what they’re doing.

A classic example is a rogue who says he “stealths” across a bare field in full sight of an enemy.

The GM can check this with a simple question: “Okay, how do you do that?”

Crucially, this question doesn’t punish the player. It asks the player to clarify the action in the fiction. The player may be perfectly justified in their action; they just didn’t explain it well.

It also helps the GM understand the player-character’s approach. A character who wants to intimidate a guard can do that in lots of different ways, each of which the guard can react to in different ways, which can further impact the story in different ways. Is this the sort of intimidation that the character won’t want to talk about, or will want to talk about?

Plus, this question encourages players to think in terms of the fiction rather than the rules. Which is what we’re all here for.

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The Treasure Table: This is What You Get?!?

About five months ago I signed up for The Treasure Table, a monthly subscription box aimed specifically at Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition DMs. The first box was supposed to arrive in February.

No box.

I received an email from the guy behind this, explaining that he was having problems with his shipping company. Apparently he’d never used them before, and sure enough they were causing problems. This raised a red flag, that he went public with this process without testing out his shipping company, but such things happen.

Finally, yesterday, on May 1, the March box arrived (!). Oh boy!

Let’s open it up and see what’s inside.

…Oh. That’s not particularly exciting. Let’s fold it out and see….

There’s a welcome letter, four pre-gens, a “love letter,” a tiny d4, and four “cupids and cherubs.” And here’s the problem: I might not be as disappointed if this arrived in early February in time for a Valentine’s Day-themed game, but it’s now May.

Let’s look at the love letter. First off, it’s printed on a piece of paper that’s in that most Valentine’s of colors, orange. Second, you can’t even hand this to your players; it includes both text to the DM and to the player, and the letter begins with “My dearest (Player),” so you can’t just cut out the letter. Apparently, you’re supposed to re-type the letter from scratch.

Also, a minor but significant note: Shouldn’t this be addressed to “My dearest (Character)”? I shouldn’t actually address the love letter to the player him- or herself, right? I understand that kind of mistake in a quickly-written social media post, but in the only page of game content you wrote for the month?

Okay, what’s in the letter itself? Surely some interesting plot hooks! Surely some character nuggets! Nope, it’s just a long confession of love, with no information on the sender. Let’s read a sample!

Upon this canvas I shall spill my soul’s inner-most desires for you, and upon my chest I carve your name with the dagger of carnal desire, so the world may knoweth that only you lie within my heart.

Okay, first off, why use archaic “knoweth” when none of the other words use that formation?

Secondly, carving your lover’s name on your chest with the dagger of carnal desire is not only overwrought, it’s scary. Like, my PCs would burn this letter and avoid the sender at all costs. This would actively cause them to avoid any plot involving the sender.

It gets better! Or, rather, worse. The letter ends:

I live only to please your fiery carnal desires.

Not to harp on the grammar, but I’m going to harp on the grammar: desires don’t feel pleased. Desires don’t feel anything. Desires are satisfied.

But more importantly, this is even darker stuff that has a high chance of alienating players (and PCs). This isn’t just overwrought words of love, this is moving into deep D&S stuff.

Okay, moving on. How about those character sheets? Surely those are interesting…

…nope, it looks like the creator found an online D&D character builder, chose a few race and class options and clicked “Generate,” then paired them with a random fantasy name generator (don’t believe me? The four characters are named Izer Stuz, Sabis, Eldea Valora, and Sivet Longfall).

Besides the fact that the d4 is the second least-used of the standard dice array (that dishonor falling to the d12), this is also the smallest d4 I’ve seen. It’s literally the size of a nickel.

But you get miniatures, right? Yep, four cupids! Most of which are smaller than nickels. And again, yeah, I get it, February means Valentine’s which means cupids. But it’s not February, and even if it were, there aren’t any cupid monsters in D&D. What am I supposed to do with these in-game? Did the designer stat them out? No.

Okay, you may be saying, it’s slim pickings. But surely it’s not expensive.

I paid $35 for this box.

Now, granted, it normally comes with a t-shirt, and I opted out of that (I have too many t-shirts). But still, this isn’t worth $25. Heck, it’s hardly worth $10.

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Monster Monday: Hunting Drake of Tarakona

T-Rex in the Storm by danimix1983-d34zbct

T-Rex in the Storm by danimix1983-d34zbct

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.

Drakes make for vicious predators: they’re basically miniature Tyrannosaurus Rexes with the personality of piranha. The komodos have managed to domesticate them to the point of using them as hunting animals, much like dogs.

However, hunting drakes have not lost their predatory natures. Indeed, komodo exploration parties like to bring 3-5 hunting drakes with them and unleash them all on one enemy, where they will knock said enemy to the ground and can tear it down to its skeleton in seconds.


Hunting drakes are typically released in packs, who will charge one creature and knock it prone so that the other drakes can gang up on it. If other enemies draw near, drakes will use their fire breath to keep them away while the drakes devour their prey. Drakes also do not move on from their prey once it drops to 0 HP; they will continue attacking until its flesh fills their bellies.

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

> ## Hunting Drake
>*small beast, chaotic*
> ___
> – **Armor Class** 15
> – **Hit Points** 50 (7d8 + 19)
> – **Speed** 30 ft.
>|17 (+3)|12 (+1)|14 (+2)|6 (-2)|11 (+0)|6 (-2)|
> – **Senses** passive Perception 10
> – **Languages** —
> – **Challenge** 3 (700 XP)
> ___
> ***Keen Hearing and Smell.*** The drake has advantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on hearing or smell.
> ***Charge.*** If the drake moves at least 10 feet straight toward a target and then hits it with a bite attack on the same turn, the target takes an extra 5 (1d8) piercing damage. If the target is a creature, it must succeed on a DC 15 Strength saving throw or be knocked prone.
> ### Actions
> ***Bite.*** *Melee Weapon Attack:* +5 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. *Hit:* 7 (1d8 + 3) piercing damage plus 7 (2d6) fire damage.

> ***Fire Breath.*** The drake exhales fire in a 15-foot cone. Each creature in that area must make a DC 12 Dexterity saving throw, taking 21 (6d6) fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.

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Faction Friday: The Desert Goblins

Goblins from D&D 4E; artist unknown

Goblins from D&D 4E; artist unknown

The Desert Goblins 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 band of goblins was defeated by a dwarf adventurer, Balrin Darkhollow who decided to lead the group instead of destroy them.

As a friendly faction, a party of unsuccessful dwarf adventurers led by Balrin were attacked by a group of marauding goblins about a year ago. The dwarves did well in the fight, and once half the goblins died, the rest surrendered. In a moment of whimsy, Balrin ordered the goblins to work for the party as hirelings, and to his surprise, the goblins acquiesced. They’ve behaved as more or less faithful servants ever since.

The other dwarves grew increasingly uncomfortable with this arrangement and drifted away from the group, leaving Balrin as the goblins’ sole non-goblin leader. He now leads them in attacks on smaller bands of gnolls, orcs, and other monsters. He’s managed to avoid confrontations with other goblins so far.

Plot hook: The goblins are increasingly difficult to control, but Balrin has learned of a staff of charming in an abandoned temple that has magical traps. His group crosses paths with the PCs, and he approaches them, asking if they’d be willing to retrieve it for him, in exchange for some plunder. This is a good chance for some interesting role-play, as the PCs will probably detect goblins watching them, but the goblins won’t attack. And imagine an approaching dwarf surrounded by a dozen goblin guards!

As a foe faction, the story went about the same way, except that Balrin is a power-hungry dwarf who saw in the goblins the chance to build an army. Any dwarves or goblins who didn’t agree with him quickly met unfortunate ends, and now Balrin commands a serious fighting force through sheer force of will and strength of arms. They’ve been attacking caravans and nearby camps for months now.

Plot hook: The PCs are warned about a dangerous tribe of goblins led by an insane, battle-hungry dwarf. They then find themselves attacked by the Desert Goblins, which retreat after three of their number are killed. The PCs will find the goblins in their mansion.

The following map of the mansion is “The House of Seven Wines” by Dyson Logos. The goblins will not stay in any one given room, and the mansion was abandoned and stripped of valuables long ago, so the map is not keyed. The PCs will simply encounter the goblins in whatever order you find most relevant given their approach. To spice up the encounter, stirges have nested in two rooms of your choice. A back room contains stolen weapons and supplies worth about 500 gp.

'House of Seven Wines' by Dyson Logos

‘House of Seven Wines’ by Dyson Logos

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

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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My Go-To RPG for Any Genre

'Jump of Faith' by Abel Maestro Garcia

‘Jump of Faith’ by Abel Maestro Garcia

You come across a cool movie, TV show, or book, and you think, Man, I want to run a tabletop game in that world. But there’s no RPG designed specifically for it. What system do you use?

Unless another system fits particularly well, I always default to Risus.

Why? The entire Risus system can be described in one paragraph. In fact, I’ll do it now:

Write down clichés or catchphrases that describe your character. You have up to 10 points to distribute among those catchphrases; more points means they’re stronger. When your character tries to do something difficult, choose an appropriate catchphrase and roll as many d6’s as points in that catchphrase, add the results, and compare to a target difficulty number. In combat, you’ll roll against an enemy’s catchphrase; whoever rolls lower temporarily loses a die in their catchphrase. Lose all the dice in a catchphrase and you lose the conflict. Dice are restored at a rate appropriate to the genre (light superheroes: all dice restored at the end of every combat; gritty noir: one die restored per day).

So, all your players can grasp Risus in about 2 minutes.

More importantly, your players can create their characters in about 5 minutes. This lets you get a concept to the table and play it.

Risus isn’t ideal for every genre, of course; it’s better for pulpier concepts where characters tend to get into direct conflicts. If you want to run an investigation game, you’ll need a GUMSHOE-style approach to ensure PCs get the clues they need. If you’re running a Cthulhu-esque game, you may want to add a simple sanity mechanic (add 1d6 to Insanity every time a character encounters something Cthulhoid; above 10 they get jittery; above 20 they go insane).

But no system is ideal for every genre. Risus at least gives you a simple framework for making your characters, jumping into a scenario, and handling conflict.

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