Tips and tricks for running a successful first play-test of a new game I am making

Pretty much as it says in the title: I have a new RPG rules system I've been working on and I'd like to get it on the table sooner rather than later to see if it works. The caveat is that I only meet with my group every 3 weeks or so, so I'd like to make sure the play-test session is as fun as possible, given that the rules will probably turn out to be pretty broken when stressed!

Comments

  • Tell more about the type of game you're making. There are different types of playtest focus, but their priorities largely depend on the nature of the game. For example, you might need to test rules mechanics, presentation, emergent player behaviours caused by setting design, thematic punchiness or like a half dozen other possible things.

    As general advice, I recommend having a notepad handy and jotting down issues as you come across them. This is superior to trying to remember them and writing them down later, for obvious reasons.
  • Go to Daniel Solis' blog and hunt down every bit of advice he has for playtesting. All of it pretty much applies to RPG playtesting as well; you just have slightly different goals.

    3 Steps to Interpreting Playtest Feedback
    Advice for the Playtest Hangover
    The Magic Trick of In-Person Playtesting
    This Soup is an Awful Cake: 5 Tips for Taking Playtest Feedback
  • The notepad idea sounds like a good practical one. Thanks.

    The game I'm making is mechanically a little bit out of the ordinary (not massively so, but enough that I'm unsure how well they will work), so I need to hammer the die mechanics.

    The game has a fixed setting (The SkyRealms of Jorune, so I can draw from the existing background material), in which I'm intending for the exploration of the world and its peoples to be a large part of what makes the game a satisfying experience for the players. My players would all be completely new to this setting, which I suppose you could describe as 'thematically punchy' (not quite clear on the meaning of that phrase).

    Play-testing the presentation of the rules or setting I don't care about at all at this stage - I was thinking that the players will get everything (apart from a character sheet) verbally from me.

    I don't have character generation written yet so I was intending to pre-gen the characters to allow me to shortcut that step (and give me something to aim for when I do come to write that part of the rules, assuming the pre-gens worked OK).
  • Go to Daniel Solis' blog and hunt down every bit of advice he has for playtesting. All of it pretty much applies to RPG playtesting as well; you just have slightly different goals.
    I certainly will. Thankyou!
  • Play-testing the presentation of the rules or setting I don't care about at all at this stage - I was thinking that the players will get everything (apart from a character sheet) verbally from me.
    I'd urge you to reconsider that. I've found that thinking through how I will present the rules, in what order, how I explain the game world etc., has a big impact on the enjoyment of the game. Too often have I stood there and gone "Oh yeah, I forgot to tell you about this bit", made incoherent explanations, stumbled and looked insecure. If I look insecure about my game, it will affect how the players engage with it. If I have a prepared colorful flavor text, a well-rehearsed rules breakdown and a confidence that this is a system I have thought through and not just a crazy idea I had last night, I find the players engage more, because I engage more. The general energy around the table is an important factor, and a stumbling presentation can suck some of that energy out. You should still explain that this is a first playtest and things might not be 100% awesome, but having some confidence in the game really helps everyone engage.

    (Oh, and I think that how the game is presented and explained is an integral part of the game itself, since it syncs people's expectations and has a massive influence on how the game is played. So it should be included in your rule book. But that's a different issue.)
  • I agree with Simon about the importance of the presentation, even if you don't have any texts yet - you're still presenting even if you do it all orally, and the way you present in combination with the particular player psychography determines a lot about the results.

    Of course that's not to say that one needs to focus on the presentation in a given playtest. If you've got more pressing playtest concerns, you've got more pressing playtest concerns. I certainly can't playtest every aspect of a game simultaneously exactly because there's too much to keep track of all at once, and I imagine it's the same for others.

    Your general plan with the pregen characters and so on seems to me like a solid one, considering your goal of playtesting the rules mechanics. Just prep your adventure material so it specifically addresses the things that your rules system does, so you'll get an opportunity to apply the various rules during the playtest.
  • Thanks for the advice and support guys.

    I meant 'presentation' in the sense of written game materials such as rule-sheets and the like, rather than verbal presentation. I would totally prepare what I was going to say so the rules come across confidently.

    One thing I'm not confident about is my ability to take notes of enough detail during the game without slowing it down. Any tips on that? I suppose I could make an audio recording of the whole session.
  • If you can tape it, tape it. Things will be evident upon an objective listen that you might not notice live, due to immersion or attention/bandwidth.

  • Taping would be interesting, if you have the patience to go through the tape later - not a given, at least not for me. Also, from what I've seen of tape analysis, you'll get a lot of observations about moment-to-moment technique, which might be distracting if you're not there to analyze "the mistakes I did while GMing last night" but rather trying to figure things out about the game itself.

    What I do myself is that I do initial analysis on the spot and only note down the conclusions. So I don't write down e.g. how long each scene lasts, I merely observe at some point that "good scenes are being hurried through for no reason", write that down and then later on remember what I was thinking about specifically at the time by reading that note.

    One thing that we've been doing here that you might consider: I started a sort of a playtest ring a year and a half ago, with the idea that we'd playtest all sort of games and analyze them together. I established a mailing list for the purpose and invited all the playtesters plus all the designers involved on the list. We would playtest games and then do most of the after-game discussion on the list, with the head tester writing up their analysis, others adding their observations, and the designer maybe asking some clarifying questions.

    The advantages of doing all this in writing are pretty obvious, I think; even if you're the head tester yourself and therefore write mainly for yourself while writing the playtest report, you'll still capture the exact thoughts and impressions you had of the playtest. That will prove useful if and when you find that you'll only be able to come back and really tackle the issues revealed by that playtest a few months thence; instead of having to trust in your memory or some hurried notes, you'll be able to draw up a couple thousand words written by yourself on the spot. It's more work, obviously, but still less than analyzing a recording of the session :D

    I'll also note that one of the best playtest conditions is to have somebody else lead the game and sit in observation yourself. This is more of a beta playtest procedure, of course, so no need to worry about that before you've got all the ducks in a row and are starting the veterinary check-ups on them.
  • Some very interesting ideas there, thanks. I think I may go for taping it as I don't mind going back over it personally. I'd love to get my game to the stage where I could observe someone else running it - what a buzz that must be!
  • I'd say also be clear on what you're looking for.

    E.g., when Robin Laws sends a playtest draft that I've been involved with, it's nigh done. there are certain kinds of feedback he simply doesn't want. So long as I know he wants to know "what specific things didn't work or confused you, and how did this happen?" and NOT "what do you think needs to be completely changed?", I can try to give feedback that he can use.

    When I'm in a Metatopia game, I need to know if we're talking a focus group (likely, the author describes the concept of the game, and there's little if any actual play), a test of a particular subsystem (lesson learned in one case: Don't give me the central role when this subsystem comes into play -- give me a side role), a beta playtest where we'll go at speed for an hour or two, a full play session with roses and thorns at the end, or something else completely.
  • Some more ideas:

    If the game allows, it can be useful to already design your game in a modular way. For instance, if you have a specific character generation process or resolve mechanics, you can test these independently of the rest of the game. Integrate it into some other games you GM and see how it works, ask some GMs to use that module and get feedback how it works.

    Also, I see different stages with different focus (was mentioned before in another way, I think):
    1. GM yourself with best buddies
    --> brainstorm, try out new ideas
    2. GM with various groups
    --> tweak/optimize your design, get a feeling for what works & gets people excited
    3. Observe groups GMed by someone others
    --> test how robust your game design is, make notes & intervene if necessary
    4. Give ruleset/guide to stranger & let them GM
    --> test presentation of rules/material

    I'm sure a lot can also be learned from software development & testing, though it may be overkill for indie development.

  • Integrate it into some other games you GM and see how it works
    Nice idea, thanks!
  • If you can only playtest every three weeks, you might consider recruiting additional playtesters online to get more feedback.

    My suggestion is don't worry about fun. You want to know if the system has issues and if you put greater effort into making it work than you do with a typical game, you won't have as strong a feel for the system. I would recommend doing whatever you normally do when you prepare.

    Since it is a playtest, and things might not go as expected, it is totally possible the session will suck. Let your players know this in advance.

  • My suggestion is don't worry about fun. You want to know if the system has issues and if you put greater effort into making it work than you do with a typical game, you won't have as strong a feel for the system. I would recommend doing whatever you normally do when you prepare.

    Since it is a playtest, and things might not go as expected, it is totally possible the session will suck. Let your players know this in advance.
    Very very very much this. Heck, I'd be really wary about using your usual group because they're coming to a session expecting fun...even if it's already known to be a "playtest" session. They're not going to be good at dedicating themselves to a playtest mindset.

    Given that it's in alpha, your first goals should be to determine if it works, period. After that, you do another round of testing to see if there's anything glaringly broken about it. Then, you can do a round of testing to see how it works with playgroups (and tweak the experience there)...and I'd argue that this third round is where you bring it to your "once every three weeks" group for feedback and "making it fun" advice.
  • Note that "the best players" and "the best playtesters" are two groups, not one. There may be some overlap but don't expect it automatically.

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