One of the great joys and challenges of game design is playtesting. On one hand, seeing your creation doing what it is supposed to—and people enjoying it—is incredibly uplifting. On the other hand, watching your perfect mechanic break under play can be heartbreaking. Despite the emotional roller coaster, having people that are not you playing your game is a necessity. Much like gaming in general, you can playtest using one shots, or in a campaign. Playtesting with one shots is pretty straight-forward, but playtesting for a campaign is a different beast altogether . . . and happens to be the topic of today’s design journal.
The Necessity of Playtesting
Playtesting is a crucial part of game design, much like in computer programming. This is largely because there are many similarities between the two. Both use a written set of code to act and react to input to produce output (that is its own topic for a later date). Unlike video games, RPG rules are even more tricky because they combine the freedom of player choice with GM interpretation, allowing for a nearly infinite combination of possibilities.
That could make playtesting sound too daunting to even try—but in actuality, the actions a gaming group takes are more predictable than not, so you can test for the most common cases and let GMs make their own rulings or slug it out in forums about the fringe stuff.
When we playtest a game, we want to test the mechanisms of the game through actual play. That is, we want a group of players to play the game, to see what works and what doesn’t. Now one shot playtesting can cover many of the mechanisms of the game (combat, skill checks, spells, damage, etc). But there are some mechanisms that don’t come into play until you play consecutive sessions, and these need testing too—so we need to do campaign playtesting.
The Challenge of Campaign Playtesting
Campaign playtesting is tricky in some ways. For starters, you need a dedicated playtesting group who will be up for playing the game session after session. This requires a certain amount of commitment. Once you have a group, here are some other things you can run into:
- Rules changing mid-campaign – as the rules are being developed and fixed, you need to update the campaign group with a new set of rules. This sometimes means that they will need to re-build their characters between sessions.
- Slogging through broken stuff – sometimes you find something that breaks, but it keeps coming up in the game because you have not had time to fix it.
- Parts getting dropped – some parts of the game may get dropped during the campaign, so players cannot hold too tightly to anything happening in the game.
- You need to run a campaign – in addition to designing the game, you need to manage a campaign at the same time, rather than running a single scenario over and over.
Despite all that, you still need the group to come committed to seriously play a campaign, even while everything is under construction.
Hydro Hacker Playtesting
For Hydro Hacker Operatives there is a large component of the game that can only be testing through campaign play. That is the Neighborhood; the place where the characters live.
The Neighborhood is its own playbook, complete with Stats and Moves. It has a mechanism for advancement through Renovations, and it has some resource allocation mechanics where you need to allocate water to its stats in order to keep the Neighborhood running. There are also Threats, similar to other PbtA games, which target the Neighborhood.
In the game, the Neighborhood activities take place at the end of a story (not a session), and Renovations take a number of stories to complete. Threats advance during play, but also grow and expand over multiple stories. So, the only way to explore those mechanisms is to run it in a campaign.
So for the past few months I have been running the game in a campaign mode, like I would if it were a game I purchased. We did character creation, session zero, and played our first story. In the coming weeks, we will begin to explore those Neighborhood mechanisms in more depth.
In addition to the normal playtest goals, here is a list of campaign mechanism goals that I want to see come up in play:
- Start and complete a Neighborhood Renovation – I would like to see the characters improve some aspect of their Neighborhood through a project.
- Advance a Threat to conclusion – I would like to see one of the Threats in the campaign come to fruition, and see how it affects the Neighborhood.
- Have the players defeat a Threat – I would like to see the characters take on a Threat and defeat it.
- Become a Neighborhood Icon – I would like a character to retire into the Neighborhood and see how that changes the Neighborhood and campaign.
Test Twice, Cut Once
Playtesting is an essential part of the design process. Some things can be tested in one shots, but other mechanisms can only be tested through multiple sessions of play. Playtesting in a campaign form can be tricky as it relies on keeping a campaign going under a shifting set of rules.
Have you ever playtested something in a campaign mode? What kinds of mechanisms have you encountered that only come out during campaign play?