2008-01-11: Playstorming Sign in Stranger
This weekend, the good folks of the Imagination Sweat Shop are helping me work on Sign in Stranger, which has gotten me to put down in words some thoughts I've had about the process of playtesting. Not all playtesting is the same, there is a spectrum within the activity. The differences are important, and getting the right kind at the right time can be crucial.
As in the process of writing a book or story, design of a role playing game requires the help of other eyes and ears. It's part of the unique nature of role playing that the final product will be used by multiple people at the same time, and will have to be communicated to (hopefully) many, many people over time. Feedback can help you do that, but very different kinds of feedback will be needed and constructive at each stage of the game.
I believe I heard this scheme first from Vincent describing something a writing guru like Peter Elbow had said, or his creative writing teacher at UMass. At the beginning of writing, one of the tricks of being able to do it at all is to be able to turn your own critical voice off. If not, you'll (and when I say "you", I mean "I" and "we") get tangled up in doubts and confusions about whether you can write—keeping you from getting to what you might write if you could. At this point, it's better to be free from others' input, this gives you the freedom to just write any old thing—which in turn allows you to write anything at all.
In writing role playing games, this is the throwing ideas around part. Or rather, moving from having a hazy idea for a game, on to formulating some concrete ideas about what will be involved in playing the game. Getting it out of your head and down onto paper in some useable form. Contests like Game Chef, the Ronnies and 24 Hour rpgs are very useful for jump starting this process. They provide a timeline, peers and a receptive audience for the second stage, all of which give incentive to you in letting go of your doubts.
The second stage, once you have something down, what is needed is a friendly eye. An audience that understands that what you've written is far, far from the final product and that can help you figure out how to take this lumpen mass and make something brilliant out of it. Saying "this is crap" at this stage can do more than give you little constructive to go on. It can knock the wind out of your sails and make it all but impossible to continue working on the project. Everyone is susceptible to criticism, but at this stage of the game the critique needs to be on level with what can be expected from the project.
It is more useful to point out what are the strongest aspects, and ask questions about how the more unwieldy parts might work, allowing the designer to come to grips in their own mind about the drawbacks—which of course are there. But critiquing the final presentation, writing style and final playability of the game are not appropriate at this time. This is actually a critique that I have of the judging in many of the game writing contests—raising the expectation that any game written for a short term project could possibly be a finished game, is unrealistic at best. It is like judging a sapling for not being a tree.
And don't underestimate the power of having a friendly voice at this time—I suspect that it is a requirement. I would not be surprised if every single designer who has completed a game had someone play this role for them for each game. (And of course, saying that will bring out everyone who wrote their game in a basement alone for 6 months and never saw another person, much less the light of day). But having someone respond to your project, and believe in it—to be able to see the power of its eventual form, is critical. We have to believe in the our games in order to write them. Having someone else behind you can make all the difference.
After this, feedback on the game in motion will be most useful. Seeing the game in play is the only way to tell whether and how it will work (imo). This is a moment where Playstorming (tm) can be extremely helpful. The approach Jason, Eppy, Jim and John have taken here is to tackle design in the midst of play. Which sounds like it may be unfun, and that is true. Just as when you get a group to play test your game, it's good to do so with a forgiving group that understands that you are trying to see if the game will work at all, and can't just sign up for a fun evening guaranteed, so to in playstorming you have to really enjoy the process of brainstorming how a game could work as you go along. Though of course, some of us do get off on that. :)
Another thing needed is for the designer to be flexible enough to let go of what you have planned for the game, and for the game to be at a stage where this is useful. One point where this is likely to be so is when you are just putting it in the air. When you have an idea about the structure, but not a solid grasp on how to get there. The philosophy of playstorming is to charge into the unknown and to see, based on how it feels in the midst what you are doing, what mechanics or structures make sense.
After this, or instead of this, if you like a more back and forth experimental process, comes playtesting. Playtesting is taking something written up and putting it into play. Of course, the rougher the draft of the game, the more likely there is to be some playstorming involved. But the primary purpose of playtesting is to give the designer feedback on what they intended. To let you know if the flow that you envisioned actually arises from the game you wrote. There is of course alpha and beta testing which, as we all know are play with the designer present (alpha), likely running the game, and play where you are not present (beta), letting other people interpret your rules as they will. Beta is especially useful for helping one see what you haven't written down, what it still in your head and uncommunicated. Beta testing is so important, this is another stage of the game that is critical for the process of design. It's all well and good if you finish something, but if it's not something that anyone but you can play, then why do it? Playtest allows you to present a game that doesn't require you to be present as part of the system.
Man, this keeps going on and on, doesn't it? I promise, not much more now.
After playtesting the rules comes playtesting the text. Though, no, there is one more stage in there. Initial friendly playtesting can be followed up by play with a strong critical intent. Playing to break the game down, forging it, if you will, into a stronger form of itself. It's my understanding that the playtest group that Thor, John et al. have do this kind of work. It's a great final stage of design. Allowing you to be sure that what you are putting out there into the world is something that will really work.
Again, it is wrong to put your belief in your game into the hands of others—a particular group might just not "get" your game, where others would. But then, that is always a danger of playtesting, so the best defense is likely to get as much play of the game as possible. This is a tricky part of playtesting too. How do you inspire others to play an unfinished game? Being enthusiastic about it and inviting others to do so, and running it at cons is a good way to get more alpha testing, which can then inspire beta through participants taking it home, or by making a play report that gets people interested and involved. And I love to play other people's games in progress, out of love for them and the games, but also to add to the general reciprocity of the community. Giving to others who have not given to you, does come back in the big maelstrom of supportive creativity we are lucky enough to be part of here.
Okay, now the playtesting the text. This is another very important stage that seems often to be missed in the indie game scene (I've no clue about the more mainstream rpg publishing process) but is one that is another critical point. Having people, who are not you, play the game in its final form. Which, of course, could then trigger revisions. Due to the pressures of deadlines and publication, this step is likely overlooked. I know I wasn't able to do it with either of my games. Mea culpa. Publishing the game as an initial ashcan allows one to get this level of final finish, but in the absence of that, getting some play groups to use the text would be greatly helpful.
So, any parts I missed? I'm actually bringing Sign in Stranger to playstorming late in the game, but I feel like I'm still open to seeing what different rules might work for it. Now that I've had more play, and gotten beta testing done (thank you folks!!!), I want to revisit it and see if there are simpler more elegant ways to do what I want it to do.
2008-01-11 20:29:27 Eppy
We're very excited to have you here for the playstorming!
2008-01-11 22:18:18 Seth Ben-Ezra
I'll just mention that, as I've been playtesting stuff recently, I've been trying to get an audio recording. That way the designer can actually hear what was done at the table and not merely get an "after-action" report. (This is based on some comments by Joshua BishopRoby on the Master Plan podcast, BTW.) It's kinda like getting the best of both worlds for beta testing; you get to observe the game in action while still removing yourself from the system.
2008-01-12 04:53:37 Emily
I'm looking forward to it, Eppy. :)
Neat idea, Seth. Which games have you done it for? I can imagine that it might be good to abstract it down some, if there are particular parts that stood out.
2008-01-12 17:07:50 Emily
It's great to see that a lot more people are offering playtesting in a formal fashion. Saint you all! Iain McAllister et al just started up a forum to help coordinate designers needing playtesting with groups willing to play.
This is a real service. (And great look, Iain.) There is even a category for talking about playtesting theory. Maybe I should go re-post this over there. :)
2008-01-14 15:37:37 Seth Ben-Ezra
>Neat idea, Seth. Which games have you done it for?
So far, Sons of Liberty, A Penny for My Thoughts, Serial, and Business Solutions. The various designers have all appreciated it, as far as I can recall.
2008-01-17 16:07:26 Christoph
Great explanation and insight into the creative process.
2008-01-17 19:35:40 Emily
Thanks very much, Christoph.
The session went very well. I hope to get to play with them again sometime soon. There is a lot to dig into with this game.
I'll post about it in full over at ISS, but for now one great addition to the game from this session had to do with how to describe the world. You use a mad-libs-like process to figure out what the alien world looks like. At the start of the game, you go around and make up some things to start you off.
As we pulled the random words out of a cup this time, each of us in turn asked a question about what we wanted to hear about, that related to our character's special training as a colonist. I asked about the landscape, since my character was the agriculture/botany specialist and default nature guy. Then somebody else answered the question, describing the scene.
It was simple and satisfying and we used that process throughout when we pulled random words. It creates a great back and forth creative flow. I'm sold.
2008-01-22 03:08:09 Eppy
Hey, Emily, thank you for playstorming with us. It was an absolute delight. And I just want to publicly praise how the random words instilled a feeling of exploration and discovery in the game. Drawing those words and anticipating what they might be was a wonderful microcosm of the curiosity and wonder (and even dread) our characters must have been feeling. It is a brilliant way to keep the unknown unknown in a game full of GMs.