Thursday, November 14, 2019

Simple Questions From Playtesters

It's been a while!

*brushes off the dust*

Last weekend, I went to METATOPIA, a game designers' convention in Morristown, New Jersey. The convention has a simple, and wonderful, premise: designers show up with their games-in-progress; they show these games off to players and other designers; they get feedback.

I got a lot of very, very good feedback this weekend, both for games that I have been working on for quite a while, as well as for new games that are barely alpha-stage prototypes.

Many of my playtesters, as mentioned above, are game developers themselves, and these sorts of people come to the table with innate skills and insights that make their commentary both direct and valuable. To wit: they have played and made enough games so that they can look at yours and, without too much muss or fuss, cut to the heart of rules decisions and descriptions that you, who are too close to your project, didn't even know you were having trouble with!

Here's the big example from the weekend.

I brought the mid-beta rule book for A Distant Galaxy, my new role-playing game. This game uses the Traits System (featured in Boldly Go!), although the system is tweaked a bit for more Star Wars-y play. Vehicles are smaller and rustier. There are robots instead of synthoids. You can attune to the Source and wield the powers that were once the purview of the Solar Knights. And so on.

I knew that running A Distant Galaxy at METATOPIA was going to be a little tricky. There's a bit more crunch to it than there is in Boldly Go!, mostly having to do with the acquisition of money and stuff. I spent a long time creating equipment lists, a rudimentary trading system, some quick rules for vehicle design, and so on. I knew that buying stuff was a not-insignificant part of character creation, and I knew that I wanted to have my players go through character creation so that they could get a feel for the system. The problem, as I saw it, was that METATOPIA's game slots are only two hours long.

"Right," I said to myself. "Having them design vehicles is probably the most important part of the Equipment section, so I want them to test that. The rest of it I can just handwave. I'll tell them to pick some things and then they can be on their way."

That was not exactly how I phrased it when I was describing the process at the table, however.

See, the thing is that I hate making lists. As a game designer, I've gotten pretty good at doing them in a pinch, but they are the least appealing aspect of the design process for me. Skill lists? Spell lists? Monster lists? Augh! Many of the innovations in the Traits System were created solely so that I could circumvent the dull prospect of listing things as much as possible.

Because of that, I started my explanation of how we were mostly going to skip the Equipment part of character creation with the following:

"Okay, so, since equipment lists are boring and tedious, and since too much shopping will cut into the play time, I'm going to suggest that you just skip..."

At this point one of my players looked at me and said, "hang on. If you think equipment lists are boring or tedious, then why do you have them in your game?"

Ah! Touche! 

Based on that comment, and on other comments received at the playtest, I have decided to revise the Equipment section of A Distant Galaxy (and, likely, every other iteration of the Traits System that requires the players to pick equipment). Here's what I'm doing.


  • There's a list of a lot of different items.
  • They all cost money. 
  • You get a couple of items to start, based on your background.
  • You get some money to start.
  • You buy the rest of your items with that money.

The new way is very similar to the old way, except.
  • The item lists are simplified.
  • You start with money and some items.
  • You also start with equipment picks in various categories. For instance, Pilots get 6 picks under the Transport list. 
  • Players also get Free picks, which can be used to buy equipment in the General lists.
  • Instead of spending cash, players use their picks to get items. 
    • You want a ray gun? That's 2 Weapon picks. 
    • You want a bigger ray gun? That's 3.
  • You don't actually spend your cash on your equipment. That just rattles around in your pocket until you need it during the game.
  • During the game, items cost roughly an amount of money equal to 10^X, where X is the number of picks.
    • That small ray gun is 100 credits. The bigger one is 1,000.
I know that this seems like functionally the same thing, but it feels a lot smoother and faster to me. Figuring out how to divide up your 10 picks to buy Equipment seems a lot easier than finding out you have 2,921 credits and then mathing all of your purchases. Smaller numbers and smaller lists, as well as players being sent to specific lists based on their backgrounds, means a much faster equipment loadout stage, which means everyone can start playing a lot faster.

Although, who knows, maybe it is functionally the same thing, and my writer brain is just confounded by any number larger than 20.

The important thing is that a player noticed something in the system that didn't work for me and pointed it out to me. As a result, I made a new system that I feel is more elegant and more in tune with the game system as a whole.

The moral of this story is: Listen to your playtesters!