Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Why Playtest an Adventure?

I have my ideas, but I want to hear yours.

Why is it important to playtest an adventure written for publication?

Are the reasons to playtest (or not) an adventure different depending on the game for which the adventure is written?


  1. Well, I think that a reason to playtest it is to see if it works at all. Give it to some players who know how to bend and break a module. See if they come up with something that you the designer never thought of...those are just a few reasons why I would playtest first.

    I don't think there is much of a difference whatever game you are playing. An adventure should be playtested. Always been my thought.

  2. I helps me see where the short comings are in the adventure. What I need to develop more, what works and what doesn't. It's an editor of the adventure as a concept not just the syntax.

  3. My sense is a writer wants the players to have a certain kind of experience; the only way to know if the adventure achieves it is by seeing real folks react to playing it. I'm sure a lot of initial assumptions fall apart once a real group gets in there and starts mucking about.

    On a more granular level, play testing is a way to determine if traps, puzzles, and secrets result in pixel-bitching or actually work at the table as designed.

    This is fairly subjective, but if the players had fun, regardless of the outcomes, then it's probably on the right track.

  4. After running the same adventure five times... it got objectively better each time. The design of the scenario became more cogent-- like successive drafts of an essay. Game designers that think they are above or beyond this sort of iterative process produce noticeably inferior products.

  5. Playtesting allows the designer to see whether or not there are inherent flaws in the design that render it unplayable as intended.

    For instance, clues that were blindingly obvious to the writer may be impenetrable to actual players. Encounters, traps and puzzles may either be too easy or too hard to overcome. Doing a couple of run-throughs can catch these types of problems.

    I don't see how that would change from system to system, but I couldn't rule out the possibility of some indy game being beyond such considerations.

  6. Because it's a good chance for your peers to tell you things like:

    "this doesn't make sense."
    "this encounter wiped out the entire party"
    "these tables are clunky to use in play"
    "these map areas don't connect up"
    "these maps are hard to use at the table"
    "Harry, this sucks."

    before your customers do. The adventure is meant to be played and be playable. If a variety of playtesters mostly tell you the it's not, or parts are more or less fun than they should be, or stuff just isn't working, you can fix that before it goes out.

    I'm a big believer in playtesting, or at the very least peer review. Everything I've published for sale has had at least one set of eyes that isn't mine or a co-author or an editor looking at it to see if it all hangs together.

  7. Playtesting adventures is of benefit in it exposes the writer to solutions the author hadn't which can be accounted for post-playtest and enhance the quality of the module.

  8. Also, it sounds slightly more respectable than "playing".

  9. I think there's an interesting assumption built into the whole idea of "play testing"-- that someone could even write and publish a module without ever playing it.

    When I'm DMing I'm still inventing: coming up with details, voices, npc/monster interactions. And until I actually see how players react to the tones and situations I put in a dungeon, everything is speculation on my part.

    As I get more experienced my speculations often turn out to be true. But to publish a module that you've never DMed still feels to me like sharing a recipe you've never cooked, odd.

  10. I think it is important that it be playtested by a referee other than the writer. Otherwise, some of the adventure might still be locked in the writer's head, rather than written down (it's easy to run a relatively involved adventure from sparse notes, if you come up with the scenario yourself). Also, a module is primarily written for other referees, so it is their feedback about clarity that you should seek.

    I actually think the player side of the equation is less important, because different groups, in my experience, tend to react in drastically different ways to the same adventure, unless it is extremely linear. If there are lots of puzzles and clues, it is interesting to see if players can actually figure any of them out. As long as solving any particular puzzle is not mandatory for "success" in the module, I don't think it is critical.

  11. Uh, that's some egg on my face. After reading your comment Brendan, I realize people talking about play testing modules are usually talking about having other DMs run them. I'll go drink some more coffee now.

  12. I'm not necessarily talking about giving an adventure to other GMs to run before publication. There are people who write adventures for print without ever playing them at all.

  13. The thing about an RPG adventure is that it can never be perfect—due to the nature of the beast. What works for one group doesn’t for another. What works for one playthrough doesn’t in another. No amount of playtesting can cover all the things that might go wrong.

    That said, playing it is going to turn up things that can make it better. It could be adding some advice for some additional ways play might go. It could be something that makes it easier to use at the table.

    The best playtesting is done by referees other than the author. That’s what will turn up things that the author ought to have put in but that slipped through the cracks.

  14. Writing adventures, and sourcebooks, splatbooks, etc. without playtesting, or adequate proofreading is one of the reason that so much crap exists under the OGL for 3rd edition.

    It exposes issues that are not obvious to the writer. Based upon the introductions to yours published adventures, James, I would say that your particular creative path requires making some players suffer whatever dark little things you happen to have in mind before you can fully articulate them in print.

  15. I believe playtesting is essential for uncovering flaws that aren't obvious to the author or even to someone simply reading the adventure. I know that my group and I have done extensive playtesting for Call of Cthulhu publishers and we have "broken" more than a few adventures that had already been supposedly playtested by the writer. There are unexpected twists and turns in an adventure: clue dumps that can bypassed or worse, killed, assumptions that players will approach things from either A or B paths, but actually find a C, D or E path that seriously screws the adventure, etc.

    I can tell you I have also worked with my long standing group on playtesting not only adventures, campaigns and entire rulesets, and honestly, all have come out much better in the end for the feedback, both constructive and critical of the item we were working on. It is rare that an adventure goes off without a hitch, but there are some that need minor tweaks, and there are others that the publisher has sent back to writers for extensive changes based on multiple sets of feedback.

  16. No adventure survives contact with the players. You need to have another referee test it with his players to see if anything is wonky. There is also a kind of seasoning that goes on with running an adventure or reading a book multiple times.

    There's also the fresh perspective. You need to have the piece come back with a ton of comments and critiques so you're exposed to different perspectives, which make you think hard about things you previously took for granted.

    I also think the product is much better after several edits. In fact, I'd say editing should take much more time than the writing.

  17. To see how they'll break it.
    Cause you can't see the shitty parts yourself - you need a mirror, and players will hold it up to the warts.
    Cause it's shits and giggles.
    Sign me up if you do some.

  18. On the most basic level, this is a hobby about sitting down and playing games with your friends. If you do not sit down and play games with your friends, you do not have the perspective or even the moral right to tell others how they should be doing it. A lot of writing in this hobby is irrelevant or downright harmful to actual play, written by frustrated would-be novellists who do not play, for game collectors who do not play. It is a disturbingly large segment of the market, and ranges from TSR alumni to splat manufacturers at White Wolf to very prolific "OSR" authors who have not actually sat down and gamed since 1987 (am I correct this post was inspired by Mr. Alphonso Warden? .)), but I do not recognise it as a part of the hobby just because of its size. As far as I am concerned, it can go burn, and we will be better off without it.

    Practically, every iteration of playtesting brings out hidden flaws in a module, but also new connections, opportunities, small flourishes and forms of engagement. The initial ideas become richer, better realised. Ideally, there should be external playtesting as well, but for most of us, that's out of the question. Still, if it is possible to run something for different groups, that's very good.

    Can you get away with no playtesting? Yes, to an extent. After all, you cannot playtest a module before you run it first for your group. And not all segments of an adventure will feature even in a playtest. Maybe they will avoid a whole sublevel of the dungeon. Maybe they solve the power struggle in the city with an idea that will never occur to anyone else. It can be done. Years ago, I released a few smaller adventure locales like that (Isle of the Water Sprites and The House of Rogat Demazien) - I was too enthusiastic about them to wait until we could play them. Fortunately, they work pretty well as is, but I wouldn't do something like this again.

    I believe an adventure should at the very least come from an active campaign, and from an active GM. Being an active roleplayer gives you the eye that can decide what is interesting, relevant and playable for a group, and what will produce a bad game experience (like impassable bottlenecks, pixel-bitching, overlong expositions that disregard PC action, all sorts of mistakes). If you haven't played since 1987, and especially if you get lost in Internet-based assumptions about what a certain style of play should be like, it is easy to develop content that looks good on paper but doesn't hold up at the table.

  19. If it's going to be sold, it's probably in the best interest of the publisher that it meets certain quality standards. Whatever those standards are are obviously subjective. But in the end it's up to the writer.

    Different brands have different standards and it's these standards that set them apart. Whether the brand is a publisher, writer or artist, it doesnt matter. I know I personally follow give artists/writers more weight over publishers.

  20. This quote on user interface design is also a good encapsulation of why to playtest an adventure.

  21. I thought the whole raison d'etre of OSR style modules (with either Wilderlands or the One Page Dungeon as the epitome) was to throw outlines at the DM to interpret on the fly. More like the sketch of an adventure (locale), as opposed to a DL-like plot, or fully realized Middenheim.

    How do you playtest a Wilderlands hex with a one-line description of a monster lair?

  22. "That's not a bad question, Burt."

  23. I think fully described Middenheim or bunch of hex descriptions are fundamentally different product type, those serve as place where you as DM pur your own adventures or published adventures.

    Those who insist that adventures should be just outlines, well I expect more complete products because ideas are free and why would I pay for ideas, I pay for implementation. Idea I can get from the product blurb.

    If you don't playtest your adventures nobody tells if there is problems, some straight up illogical matters or thing that just suck.

    Also it has been said that during Lorraine Williams years of TSR management playtesting products on company time was forbidden, opinions are subjective but I think that led to decline in quality of their products.

  24. I think even a Wilderlands-type hex crawl can benefit from playtesting. Even if all the individual hexes aren't individually tested out, more general things about such an adventure can be discovered through actual playtesting that might not otherwise be discovered.

    Are the encounters too widely spaced out? What looks like a good density in a draft of a map and key might turn out to be an evening of drudgery if it brings up the fact that the players have no real way of finding the hexes that are populated, and the ones that are, are too widely spaced to be stumbled on.

    Has something snuck in that's self-contradictory? Is some new magic item a campaign killer? Does some rumor give away too much of the plot? All these things can be tested out in a playtest even in a lightly-described Old School hex crawl-style adventure.

    The same also (especially) goes for random tables, and random dungeon generation schemes. Does only having 1/3 of the rooms populated make the adventure an exercise in mysterious exploration or plodding from room to room until you find the 10th one with 1d3 goblins in it?

    Again, what looks good on paper can be a real clunker in play, and that only comes out... in play.