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.