July 30, 2023

Play(test)ing in Space

Playing in Space

I have been lucky enough to find myself in a Space Opera sandbox world. The creator of this world is Adam Station, half of Stations. I have been so lucky to get to play with Adam as the referee and a group of four other amazing role players; Brina, Jamie (The other half of Stations), Rick, and Drew. I had a wonderful couple of sessions with these folks. They were all so wonderful to play with.

A floating handheld console with balloon tendencies, a goth vampire teen, one data systems analysist whose hidden powers reside in birth, a narcissistic simulation junkie, and an old geezer who technology has largely left behind, are aboard a vessel cruising through space on their way to a planet for various reasons. They are lounging around on their phones when the ships AI, Working Title (or Ship for short) alerts them to another ship (with an AI that is inferior at playing games) being in the area. There is an issue with the cryogenic pods aboard the Man is Mot a Bird.

A bit of banter ensues as the characters (and players, this is the first time this group have played together (though many of the individuals have played with one another in other various groupings). The characters explore what their interests are get to know one another.

An adventure ensues and we board the Man is Not a Bird. A good amount of action happens, we solve the problem and manage to keep our hides safe in the process. Mission one for this ragtag group is complete.

Adam has been utilizing Notion. He has created many random generators that we use for creating stuff in the space. Characters, Ships, Planet, Star Systems, all being created with random generators. This game has a lot of cool fun stuff to play with. He has even opened it up to the players to pick out planets to play with and add to the sandbox setting he (now we) are creating.

This is Only a Test

We are engaged in a playtest of a system that is attempting to hack Into the Odd (PDF, Physical (Free League usually give PDF with physical purchase)) while pulling in some other sensibilities from other games in the NSR sphere (this includes many other systems across playstyle genres.) One of Adam’s first loves in gaming, he tells me, was Monster of the Week (PDF, Physical+PDF) and his narrative style of refereeing shows through. A few tweaks between the first and second session also shows me he is not set in stone about the system he is creating, and is very interested in hearing feedback from his players about what is working and what is not working.

Playtesting a new system is always a good time, right? At least you are getting to play a game? Well not always.

It depends on how far in the process of playtesting you are. There are a few things that can really change the feeling of a playtest session. Lets explore some ways to ensure that a playtest session is just as fun as any tried and true game system you know and love. There are times when playtesting can just be such a slog. I have often seen game designers add too much to a game and it make it hard to play.

While this is one interpretation of building rules, often throwing out many things along the way or attempting to fix them as you go. I personally find that less is more. Start small and through play see what needs you have as a referee and see what the players need.

Our first session included advantage for anything in our background or possession that would help us in a task. After a game full of successes we talked and decided that it was probably too much. I mentions Chris McDowell’s blogpost about advantage and disadvantage,

What about adding in D&D 5e style Advantage/Disadvantage as a House Rule?

No! This is a good example of a rule that adds very little complexity, and might seem like an easy add-on, but really it goes against the spirit of the game. The exclusion of mechanical difficulty variation was a deliberate choice to move the game’s focus away from chasing mechanical advantages, and more towards diegetic conversation as detailed above. I can’t stop people adding this rule into their hacks of the game, but I’d strongly advise trying some other methods first.

Chris McDowell, Bastionland Blog 26, March 2020

Immediately Adam recalled having read it and now we had the proof as to why this rule was excluded. Our conversation about it was brief but having tested the rule we were happy to change it.

This is my first point for your playtest. Ask questions of the players, start general to get an idea of what they liked then move on to what they would change, like a stars and wishes (Gauntlet, Burn After Reading RPG) for the game system if you will.

From here you want to get more specific, what is it you, the game designer, are looking for feedback on. Were you not sure how your new luck system worked? Did a specific changes improve the game from last session?

By doing these you are looking to target certain pieces of the game you are testing. So you can focus on how something worked specifically, but you are also getting general feeling about the game. Both of these are important. Sometimes it can be helpful to ask how the ting could be fixed if it is broken. With a single group playtest it is much easier to receive this feedback.

Fix It and Return

Now you have some feedback, you’ve taken the time to think about how to fix what was broke. It is time to retest. Bring it back to the group introduce how you fixed the concerns from the previous session and play. Be careful not to fix too many things at once. Usually focusing on a single or maybe a couple unrelated mechanics of the game will give you the best results. Changing too much at once will invalidate everything you have worked for. the complications that rise out of a single issue could have an effect on something else unintentionally. It is best to work in small steps.

Keep repeating this process until your playtest feels complete enough to release to others to try running. You should try with close people who have played already and then let that expand out from there. It is not necessary to have a giant public playtest, but getting the game into others hands is a sure way to catch all of the things you may have missed.

Getting the game into others hands is also a sure fire way to see if you game is working. Let the system get put through the ringer. Make sure people understand and enjoy the rules. Ask for feedback on how the game made them feel, what they found enjoyable and what they didn’t like.

This last question can be the hardest to work with because not everyone will see things the same way as you. Your design is… yours, and the vision may not be fully shared with everyone around you. That is okay, there will be things that people do not like. Don’t change everything that people tell you they don’t like.

Want to be Part of a Playtest?

Currently Yochai Gal is looking for help playtesting his second edition of Cairn. Additional information can be found on his blog New School Revolution.

If anyone looking to take part in our playtest here please feel free to join the Epic of Dreams Discord where a lot of the work is happening.

If you have further questions about playtesting please feel free to reach out to me in whatever ways you have. I am happy to help with running or playing your game, or I’m not even just opposed to talking about your game with you (all of these are of course are with my time permitting). If you want to get some help from the public feel free to post a link to your playtest stuff here in the comments below.

Derek Bizier, the Halfling Test Pilot” Master

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