Why you should playtest

Posted by on February 9, 2017
"service-design-41" by tobiastoft on Flickr

“service-design-41” by tobiastoft on Flickr

I’ve run across a surprising number of people who will design a tabletop RPG, then publish it without doing any playtesting. I’ll admit it: I was one of them.

To be clear, I’m not talking about folks who throw together a simple RPG, then publish it on their blog as an early draft for feedback. And I’m not talking about people working against a contest deadline.

I’m talking about designers who never playtest. This post is for you.

Why should you playtest your games?

1) Your words aren’t clear to other people

It’s clear to you, and it looks like it will be clear to other people. But folks have all sorts of different experiences and exposures to games. You may use terminology they’ve never come across.

Even beyond that, writing clear rules is hard. It’s very easy for players to find loopholes, or interpretations that let them break the game.

2) Math gets out-of-whack quickly and in surprising ways

That dice mechanic that seems so elegant in your head will work great in the scenarios you’ve thought of, but what happens when someone pushes it? What happens with a group of jokesters, or serious RPers, or GMs who like to throw very hard challenges at the players?

How many bonuses can someone add to that die roll? Can a PC overwhelm the odds?

3) You can’t know what parts won’t work together

So far, I’ve been talking just about atomic pieces of the game. All the pieces of your game have to work together. Those interactions can cause all sorts of havoc in the actual game.

Here’s an example: the rules say you can apply bonuses from “relevant skills” to a die roll. What happens when a PC builds all of her skills around a certain task, then applies all of them to the same roll?

Or let’s say you’re making a traditional epic fantasy, dungeon crawling game that includes healing potions. Have you looked at the price of healing potions, and made sure that PCs aren’t making enough in treasure to just load up on 10 healing potions each before every encounter?

4) Why spend a lot of time on mechanics that you’ll likely change?

This may sound counter-intuitive, but bear with me. Let’s say you have a reasonable idea for a mechanic in your game. Write it down, then move on to another part of your game. Don’t spend lots of time fiddling with the math. Write down a reasonable mechanic, then playtest it. Playtest it as much as possible. The playtest will tell you how the math should work, and any weaknesses in the rules themselves.

Adjust based on player feedback, not based on the voices in your head telling you how it should be.


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