What playtesting can get you

I always tell myself I’m going to document more my ‘making’ process when it comes to games – and since I ran an early-stage playtest for a game a couple of days ago (my first in-person one in an incredibly long time as well), here’s some thoughts on what I learned from that playtest that says something about a) the worth of playtesting and b) what I’m up making and how…

The game was Correspondence, an eerie game of strangeness in a gentle rural setting (GM-less, 3-6 players, roughly 4hrs). Characters receive seemingly impossible packages relating to things either regretfully lost to time, or deliberately buried deep in their past…

I had a working structure with a reasonable amount of colour (helped by the fact the game’s currently set in Cley-next-the-sea, a small village I spent time in fair bit of time in as a kid) – I was at the point where I just needed to see what other people made of it all.

Which is the core thing I’m often looking at playtests, especially ones early on in making: what have I made assumptions about, given my intuitive thoughts about the game/my personal approach to play. For instance, assumptions that I realised were baked into how I thought about the game, but haven’t been written into it included:

– how old player characters typically are
– whether all the action has to take place in/around Cley or if that is just a starting point/tonal reference
– whether the contents of the packages are mundane (and their existence/delivery is impossible) or whether they can be supernatural
– precisely how isolated/remote Cley is (and therefore how isolated/remote characters might feel)
– scenes aren’t limited to featuring the core player characters, as players can just step in to play additional characters if needed

…and there’s various others noted down, but this gives a sense of the kind of thing that playtesting suddenly makes explicit!

Often useful playtesting discoveries are along the lines of: so this is what play looks like when it’s not purely imagined by me, with imagined players behaving a lot like me. Typically these show me what in the game’s structure and mechanics will engender a certain kind of play – a mood, pace, a drive towards certain arcs or moments – and what I’m just imagining because that’s what I like picturing when I imagine some abstract group playing it.

The playtest for Correspondence was no different – currently, I’ve written the game with no fixed cause of the strange packages. I’m keen for player characters’ possibly competing theories to be a focus of role-play, and for players to collaboratively explore and develop the forces at play – for fleshing that out to be part of the storytelling they get to do. But, for something that I want to be such a part of the game, there’s precious little attention paid to it in the game as it stands (and the game doesn’t currently create the conditions for it to be an exciting upshot of play) – so that’ll be one of my focuses in the next draft.

Correspondence is one of the more freeform games I’ve written – you make your character, flesh out their history and relationships, and after sharing this players sketch out the packages other player characters might receive. The rest is largely a general structure and very light prompts for scenes. But that means part of the inherent challenge is how to best set players up for freeform scenes – especially when you want those to build in a satisfying way and create a fun, interesting story with a decent arc. The people playtesting Correspondence are all really good role-players when it comes to generating material, long improv’d scenes and suchlike – but it’s still really helpful to see how they approach this, and how that differs from my abstract idea of it all. It shows me what players really zone in and focus on and how I might, as a designer, better frame and present what I set out in front of them.

Speaking of zoning in on (and pivoting to the opposite) – playtests show me what parts of the game are currently doing zero leg-work! The parts that are barely attended to because they’re only important to me, the person who thinks they’re incredibly clever or cool or just desperately wanted to find a home for this given idea. I don’t know in this case whether I’m going to drop said elements, or whether I think they warrant being more woven in so that they can’t be left to one side – but they’ll have to really justify themselves for that. (And no I’m not saying what they are here because I’m still not sure if they’re even meaningful – let’s say some of them involve dice rolls and I think a bit of me just wanted dice somewhere…)

And then there’s the things that happen entirely by chance during playtests, but leave you with something to think about. Due to the randomness of certain game elements, this wasn’t something that emerged during play, but only when we were looking at the ‘unopened’ packages afterwards – and I realised that we could have had a game where every character had buried something incriminating in the wild mudflats by the village. I don’t know if I want to swing so far into something so specific, but I am wondering whether creating stronger thematic links between all player characters’ packages could create really cool and more easily drawn together stories. So I’m going to linger on that too.

No neat sign-offs for this one: still developing the game, still thinking about aspects of the playtest (I haven’t even got to speak about specific player feedback above but I’ve already written a fair bit, I’m pretty tired and I can always do another blog in the future about that!) and very grateful for the folks who give up time to try out draft games!

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