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From Con to Con: Playtesting

In addition to my hats as Game Master and Gnomish scribe, I am also an RPG freelancer. One of the companies I’m contracted with is Cubicle 7, which produces the second edition of the Victoriana game. When I decided to use Victoriana as my monthly game, I asked Cubicle 7 if they had any interest in using my group as playtesters for upcoming products. I was excited when they agreed, as I’d never run a playtest group before (and, hey, it’s always fun to get a peek at upcoming products!).

Playtesting imposes some new responsibilities for all involved. I also discovered that many of the things we do as a playtest group would also work well in a traditional campaign. Here are some points I wanted to highlight.

Covering the archetypal bases

A well-balanced group is necessary for any playtest adventure. In D&D, this means you should have the four food groups (cleric, fighter, rogue, wizard…err, I mean controller, defender, leader, and striker) represented amongst your players. Every game has archetypal roles that need to be filled. To stick with the D&D example, the company contact would much rather have you run a cleric, fighter, rogue, and wizard through the “Covert Caverns of Self-Loathing and Parental Blame” than a barbarian, two rogues, and a bard.

It’s also important to ensure that the characters fit their archetypal roles. If the character is supposed to be a pilot, then she should be designed as a pilot, not as a washed-out Jedi with mediocre piloting skills because she neglected them for force powers.

This is good advice for traditional campaigns as well. Balanced parties not only make adventure design easier, but it also makes it easier to incorporate published adventures into your campaign. Establishing roles also helps each player feel like an integral part of the team and someone to turn to when her area of expertise is called for.

Read, re-read, and re-read again…then take notes

As playtesters, you need to run through the adventure as written. As GM, you don’t want to miss something or go in the wrong direction because you didn’t read something correctly (and this is very embarrassing to do with a prepared adventure). Sometimes, you’ll receive a pre-edited version of the adventure and crucial notes might be buried in disorganized sections.

It’s also important to take notes, list important NPCs and connections, and generally give yourself reminders for dense parts of the scenario. If it’s a murder mystery, circle key clues and note how the culprit will react as the PCs close in. If it’s a road quest, note optional encounters vs. key encounters. If an NPC is a sorceror, what spells will she lead with?

Obviously, this is also a good technique for prepping any adventure, even for self-written adventures. Your plot holes and other missing information aren’t always apparent at first glance, and a re-read or two may help you tighten things up. Also, making your own “crib sheets” will help you remember to add important elements that you might otherwise forget in the heat of running a session.

Focus, focus, focus!

When playtesting, you need to run the adventure as written. While players should not be strapped to the rails (indeed, that could be a valid criticism of the adventure), they shouldn’t try to pull the game off course either. If a player does feel that something isn’t quite working or there is insufficient motivation to move forward, then she should take note of that for the feedback portion rather than bring the game to a screeching halt to argue the point.

As the GM, it’s your responsibility to remind players of the focus when things start to veer. It is valid and perfectly okay to congratulate the player for finding a “weakness” that needs tightening, but now that it’s been pointed out the group needs to continue the playtest.

A strong focus is also an integral part of traditional campaigns. It’s been my experience that a loss of focus often leads to a loss of fun for at least some of the players at the table (especially those miffed that a player that just took the game way off course is now hogging the spotlight while the others groan and worry about having to undo the damage). Maintaining focus also involves helping the players along when they’re spinning wheels for too long. Being stumped on a clue or puzzle is interesting for 10 minutes, but not 2 hours. Chasing down a red herring can be fun; burning a whole session or two on red herrings is not.

Staying the Course

It can be tempting sometimes to read someone else’s adventure and say “hey, I can write a better scene than that” or “hmm, I think it makes more sense if Col. Mustard was the main villain; let me change this.” As a playtester, you have an obligation to run the adventure as written, not play co-author. It is perfectly fine to offer your suggestions to your company contact, but they are more interested in how the adventure they handed you plays, not how you would redesign it.

That said, there has been one instance where I felt after reading the adventure that there was a glaring error that needed changing. Always check with your company contact first. Sometimes, what you think is an error really wasn’t, or the error is so egregious that it really does need to be fixed prior to running (but let the company contact make that call).

In traditional campaigns, especially during self-written adventures, there can be a tendency for the GM to “tinker” with the plot line. My general suggestion is to resist temptation and stay the course. Rewriting key elements of your adventure could create new plot holes, problems, and headaches unless you tread very carefully. If your rewrite involves disregarding a minor but important clue you dropped three sessions ago, then it is almost certain that your players will not only recall the clue but try to reconcile it with the redesigned ones.


I’ve found that the most important part of a playtest is the feedback portion. This is why RPG companies use playtest groups rather than “adventure proofreaders.” I always leave room at the end of the playtest session for feedback, as the adventure is fresh in the players’ minds. I usually focus on specifics rather than generalities (“I thought there were too many combat scenes for what was supposed to be a murder mystery” is eminently more helpful than “It was an okay adventure”). I’ll ask probing questions to get better feedback as well.

As the GM, it’s also important that you share your own thoughts as well, since you were the only one behind the screen as well as the target audience for the adventure. While your opinion isn’t any more or less important than the others, it is a necessary part of the feedback. It is probably also your job to report back to the company, so you want to make sure you can give them a lot of substantive feedback.

Feedback is also very important in traditional campaigns. All GMs like to have their egos stroked every once in a while, but constructive criticism (both positive and negative) always helps. “I had fun” tells me nothing. “We spent too much time searching the mansion for two clues” does. If you want good feedback, I’ve always found that specific questions are best. Instead of asking “what did you guys think of today’s session?” ask “did you think the last encounter was challenging enough?” or “you designed your character to be an infiltrator; do you feel you’ve been given enough opportunities to show your stuff over the last three sessions?”

Also, it is important to get feedback when the thoughts are fresh. Encouraging everyone to share at the same time also has the benefit of putting criticism in perspective. There’s a big difference between one player out of six believing that there is not enough combat versus three players out of six; and perhaps the other two players might not think to mention it in a one-on-one conversation.

Finally, if you ask for feedback, be prepared to receive it. Don’t fish for accolades; if you’re doing a good job that will come naturally.

Well, I think that’s all for now. In the next installments, I plan on talking about running a con game for my group, designing a con game for GenCon, and end this article series with my post GenCon thoughts.  Thanks for continuing on my journey with me from Con to Con!

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "From Con to Con: Playtesting"

#1 Comment By Swordgleam On July 9, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

I really like the idea of being able to answer, “I don’t see why my character would care about this sidequest/NPC/plot thread” with, “Duly noted. I’ll try to think of a way to fix that, but for now, just go with it.”

It would require a certain amount of trust from the playes, and temporary cognitive dissonance from the characters, but I think it would be very much worthwhile. It’d be a lot better to spend some time thinking between sessions and then say, “Okay, this sidequest should be of interest to your character because, as I ‘forgot to mention’ last time, element X of the adventure ties into element Y of your backstory,” than to just trash the whole sidequest because it didn’t work at the time.

I’m not sure about covering all the archetypes. I can see where it would be essential to playtesting, and make the GM’s job easier in any case. But it seems like it would remove a lot of freedom of choice. And a party of a barbarian, two rogues, and a bard probably has a much more interesting combat strategy than a cleric, rogue, fighter, and wizard.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On July 10, 2008 @ 2:16 pm

After playing playtest games for a while, do your players want the freedom of a customized campaign, or have they adapted to playtest style games? Did you play custom games in between the playtest modules, or did the players only experience the game as playtesters?

I know that I consciously decide to give modules a chance– I know the transition from ongoing campaign to module’s usually a bit bumpy and give the GM extra leeway. Is the playtest style something your can “opt into” for a game?

#3 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On July 10, 2008 @ 2:58 pm

Swordgleam – If you’re customizing for a particular group of characters, it isn’t much of an issue. However, given the lethality of D&D, I’ve often found it easier to rely on party balance to prep future adventures, since the party I have today may not be the exact party I have next session.

Scott – Most of my playtest group play in other games, so it isn’t much of an issue. When I do insert a module (to use the old school term) into a customized campaign, I usually customize it for them.