Playtesting Perils

My soulslike RPG playtest has hit a bit of a road block. As I described in a recent playtest review, Exhumed is already technically a playable game, and my free time is at a premium, so I jumped right into running a campaign to test every system. Unsurprisingly, this has indeed revealed some issues, which is great! It has also led to some frustration, though, as I scramble to fix problems between (and sometimes during) sessions of an ongoing game. Now I’m struggling to figure out how to balance testing needs versus my desire to run a fun game for friends I only get to see every four to six weeks.

For instance, one player ended up collecting a bunch of really great stuff for his character: a great number of spells, including one extremely powerful spell; a collection of spellcasting implements that allowed him to cast any spell they might discover in the game; and 9 points to distribute among his ability scores (the equivalent of jumping from level 1 to level 10 in the first several minutes of the session), allowing him to cast even the highest level spells. As a result, that player saw his character as the spell caster of the group, and saw all new spells and spell casting items that the group discovered as stuff he should call dibs on.

In a way, it’s useful to me that this all happened, as it has revealed some major issues with the game as originally written. In a game with only three ability scores and no class restrictions on spell use, it’s not really reasonable for one person to be the spell caster—it’s not even meant to be possible. Implements, traditions, and guilds were intended to demand interesting choices on how to specialize as you go, but I failed to make these things sufficiently restrictive.

The downside to discovering issues this way, however, is that fixing such things means taking away a lot of stuff that one player was very excited to have. He’s been a good sport about it, but my ham-fisted attempts to nerf things and adjust rules have created some frustrating situations for everybody at the table. We had to hold up the last session entirely for a while last time when I tried (and apparently failed) to offer some narrative justification for why that player had to lose 9 ability points to undo my goof-up. I had to apologize and remind him that the real reason this was happening was that I was correcting a design error. I probably should’ve just had him adjust the scores before we started playing, but I was trying so hard to make it work as both a playtest and as a regular campaign. And going forward, I have a feeling that striking that balance would be even harder.

We’ve now three sessions into our campaign, and the next slew of changes on my agenda would be so radical that I question whether I can even introduce them to this group of players. I’m considering changing the numbers and behaviors of ability scores entirely, revising the action economy, sharply restricting how many spells a character can learn, and more. I know that the smart way to playtest changes like these would be to just test pieces in isolation from one another, and not cram a ton of changes into an ongoing campaign with players who already have expectations set from earlier sessions. I’m just not sure yet how to fit that approach into a once-a-month gaming schedule. And if the answer is to find other people to test with online, I’m not sure how to satisfy my friends’ desire to see their stories through with a game that feels kind of broken to me.

I’ve emailed a couple players to ask them what they think. I’ve also suggested other games (already playtested and published by other people) that I could run instead of, in addition to, or interspersed with tests for this game. Maybe if I can accelerate testing by doing it more frequently elsewhere, I can reintroduce my friends to a working game all at once, and finish out our campaign that way. Maybe I’ll just finish up the campaign as-is and not worry about testing this version so much, and see what insights I can glean that might be relevant even to future versions developed in parallel. Maybe there’s some other solution I’m overlooking, and my friends (or you, dear reader!) will point it out to me. Whatever the case, I know that I have to rethink my approach. If this were research for my day job, I would’ve already told the designer we need to put a new prototype in front of a new group of testers.

I started this post by wondering aloud how I could balance the need to test with the desire to run a fun campaign. Now that I’ve written up this process of thinking through it, I think the answer may be: I can’t. At least, I can’t satisfy both these goals with Exhumed in the stage it’s in. That probably means it’ll be longer than I had hoped before I can get a finished version out into the world, which is a bummer. I really want to get this one right, though—it’s one of very few games I’ve worked on that several other people have expressed interest in playing. In the meantime, I may shift some energy into finishing up some other games that require less testing, but I want to make sure I don’t lose my momentum on this one. I don’t want to bury Exhumed entirely just yet.

4 thoughts on “Playtesting Perils

  1. Once a month gaming is super hard for driving design and development. You can’t really scaffold ideas with that timeline I don’t think. When I scaffold something I usually run to discord and grab a few keeners and run it right away.

    1. Yeah, I’m trying to figure out whether I could do this more often if I were just wrangling a small group online as needed. I’m not sure how to make it feel worth their time, but maybe I’ll be surprised by the number of people just itching to test a game at a moment’s notice? Barring that, I may need to try “single player mode” or something—really walk myself through it as if I’m the GM and also a player, and see how it feels. It looks terribly strange in my head, but I play single player video games all the time (or at least I did when I had more free time).

      1. It’s pretty easy to find a couple of people for a short one-shot to test something, at least on RPG Talk discord. Anything more intensive, though, and you’re into scheduling and commitments.

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