Lessons from playtesting once in a blue (super wolf blood) moon

When I last wrote about playtesting Exhumed, I lamented that it seemed impossible to deliver a fun experience to my friends and whip my rules into shape. I had been trying to test so many different mechanics across so many sessions that each session was getting bogged down with the fallout of experimental fixes that didn’t actually work, or that took away stuff people liked. I was all set to finish up this campaign with the rules I’d used last time, and plan to playtest elsewhere. When we finally met to play, though, my players convinced me otherwise, using some simple logic:

If we can only play so infrequently that everybody forgets the rules between sessions anyway, what’s the big deal about teaching some new rules each time?

So, I put away the old rules, pulled out the unfinished notes I’d been working on for the last month, and ran our fourth session with the most comprehensive, disruptive, and (for me, at least) confusing slew of rules changes yet. At the end of the game, I was sure that I was going to have to scrap most of the changes. There’s a reason why you supplement your playtesting observations with direct questions of the players, however: Sometimes, what seemed broken to you felt awesome for them.

At first, I wondered if this was a case of my design intent being terribly mismatched with their play preferences. Gathering their feedback about why they liked certain things, though, I realized that things that felt clunky, confusing, and inconsistent for me (as the GM) felt just fine to them (as the players). We changed the entire way that rolling against your abilities works, for instance, from “roll under an ability score that ranges from 3–18” to “roll a die with as many sides as your ability score over a target number.” This was a tiny nightmare for me because I had five different ways of determining the target number, and I failed to pick one to use consistently. The players didn’t even notice. They even liked that the difficulty numbers changed a bit to reflect how some challenges were tougher than others. Now I just need to decide on a consistent, easy-to-remember way to set those difficulty numbers so the game doesn’t make GMs pull their hair out.

I still have a lengthy process of sifting through notes and fixing bugs ahead of me. And I still have some other potentially big experiments on the horizon. (With apologies to a couple players, I had to explain that I’d bitten off more than I could chew in earlier sessions, and certain rules would be on hold for a while. We’ll figure out the details governing superpowers handed out by eerily friendly strangers another day.) Nevertheless, I’m really looking forward to hammering this game into shape thanks to the input of a group of players who remain extremely patient, flexible, and blessedly unable to remember what the hell we played six weeks ago.

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