Tuesday, July 28, 2009

True Testing

I'm am deep in playtest and design twiddling for Beat to Quarters, the naval follow-up to Duty & Honour. I quite like playtesting - its a very focused way of playing, especially when you do the play-and-debrief method (where you play a game and then deconstruct it after the end) rather than the in-play-test method (where you deconstruct as you play). I've had quite a few external playtests too, which is always good (indeed, essential)

However, I have been having some thoughts about the entire validity of the playtest process. This might well end up as a self-defeating argument, but I wanted to get it off my chest.

I like to think I am a competent GM who is better than competent in certain sorts of game and genres. I like to think that in my chosen genre - Napoleonic stuff - I can deliver a really good game. I've studied the period's military and social history, I've devoured dozens of modern and not-so-modern novels set in the period and watched (nearly) every piece of serialised TV and cinema available. And moreover, I love the period! That helps.

So when I come to run D&H or BtQ, I'm pretty competent that I can deliver a good session. Indeed, thats why I designed the D&H system in the way I did - its a game that I can run really well. The enture system plays to my GMing strengths - working with the unknown, tying together disparate bits of story and working within an interpretive ruleset rather than a definitive ruleset. It also depends on the players being empowered to make their own decisions, their own plots and to suggest their own paths to success. I love games like that.

However, you do not get a Free Neil with every copy of the game. So sometimes, when I run playtests, I have to ask myself - is it the game delivering the good session or is it me? If it was someone else in this seat, what would the experience be like? Now obviously there are some issues here.

The first is that I am not suggesting that I am the only person who can run the game correctly - because I am not. I have observed that the people who have talked to me about running the game are also people who are soaked in the lore and love of the period. The upshot of that is of course that it is the sort of game that only certain people will pick up, and when they do, they can use it well. If someone that knows nothing about the period, why are they picking up the game? Hmmmm...

The second is that I suspect this could well be the same case for many games and many GMs. I know that I personally am having a pretty conflicted time looking at D&D 4e. I'm really really enjoying the game we have been playing for the last year and I am tempted to run something after it is finished. However, I know - I JUST KNOW - that the very mechanical nature of 4e and my rather freewheeling, hand-wavey style of GMing are like chalk-and-cheese. It would be horrible. But it is so tempting... Similarly, I know a lot of GMs who like to do meticulous preperation, for whom the concept of the D&H challenges, missions, planning session and what-not is simply a living nightmare of forced improvisation.

I guess the thing to do is divorce a good play session from a good mechanical session. Rather than judging the session on the way it went and how I felt at the end, I should maybe tally up the number of times I ...*ahem*... 'interpreted the rules'? How many time I forgot a modifier or missed a test?

Like I said, a circular debate. I guess you have to think harder about playtesting than just, well, playing and testing. You need that detachment that allows you to see where the Game is working and You are working.


Fandomlife said...

The external playtesters are the key as you've pointed out.

It's a bit like the different types of testing for technical projects: white box and black box, etc. White box acknowledges the testers know a lot about the surrounding process and even how the product is constructed technically, black box makes sure the testers no nothing of the above. I'm simplifying but you get the idea.

So, external testers without your design knowledge is a great idea. I'm not sure testing with people 'not into the genre' is worthwhile though, probably a test too far. Saying that, having a player or two not into the genre is a good thing (it worked for me, after all).

As for 4E, as we've discussed, other than providing fan service to people who like the game, I think you running 4E is totally pointless.

Anonymous said...

"As for 4E, as we've discussed, other than providing fan service to people who like the game, I think you running 4E is totally pointless."


4e is not appreciably more rules heavy or intricate (arguably less so) than 3e and we played the hell out of that for 18 months with Neil as GM.


Fandomlife said...

It seems to one of the main selling points of 4E is the encounters on the battle board. These are essentially a mix of highly codified rules interacting that creates something unique and interesting.

Neil has a propensity to not follow anything highly codified to the extent that we even glossed over some rules in Buffy in combat (not a complaint, just a supporting argument).

Also, I know it's been admitted in numerous conversations, albeit they may have been between myself and Neil, that while Crescent Sea was fantastic it was effectively run like it was in a different system and in done again it would have been.

Yes it could be done, but you'd question the point as I'm pretty sure what makes it unique would effectively not be present.