Forward Planning: Playtesting

It’s hard to understate the value of playtesting a game or adventure. The human brain excels at filling in the gaps and seeing what it expects to see, so when you’ve been immersed a piece of work it’s all too easy to overlook simple errors or conflicting information. You know that the map to the dungeon can be found in the secret archives of the thieves guild but then forget to mention that the thieves guild even exists. Or maybe you alter the adventure hook and now a merchant is not only the big bad antagonist but is also found dead during the opening scene. Suddenly the players are paranoid about shape-shifting doppelgangers and you’re left with either retconning everything or trying to adjust the plot on the fly.

In a home game, GMs are expected to adapt as they go but when it comes to publishing an adventure those little (and sometimes large) errors just cause headaches. Another GM reading what you have written doesn’t know all the little details that you omitted due to space limitations or that your players always break into the wizard’s tower on the first floor, hence why there is no description of the ground floor. It’s up to interpretation, which is why published material should always be playtested and read over by an editor. Trust me on this, it’s a lesson I have learned the hard way.

With that in mind last week I ran a playtest for Ghosts of Iron, the first step in identifying any potential issues that I had overlooked or details that I had omitted. As the writer I went in with a few clear questions I wanted to answer:

  1. Does the adventure work as written? Not ‘does the version floating around in the head work’ but does the one-sheet writeup provide enough detail at the correct points for the players to know what they need to do and be able to do it.
  2. Is the adventure fun? I’m serious here, as an experienced GM it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming you will always write a daring tale of thrilling heroics but that is never the case. I’ve written and run adventures that just fell flat before so I couldn’t assume that this one would automatically be enjoyable.
  3. Are the difficulties appropriate to the task at hand? It’s all too easy to write a challenge that is impossibly difficult or, conversely, absurdly easy. This is especially true when you assume a particular party composition with the associated skill sets.
  4. Can it be broken? There is truth in the statement that two heads are better than one. It’s especially true in gaming if there is a challenge that the GM has set then at least one player will think of an unexpected way around it. This is good, and isn’t something to be avoided. The issues you want to avoid are those that completely break the scenario, that turns 4 hours of fun into a 30-minute tale of there and back again.

Thankfully, the playtest worked pretty well. I was careful to keep to the details as they were written and from my perspective, it easily passed the first two hurdles. On the third, we identified a few points where the difficulties as written assumed the PCs possessed a less frequently used skill (which they didn’t) while the combat encounters were appropriately balanced given the action-orientated nature of the mission. As for the final question, can it be broken? Almost. The players did identify a possible way to bypass the first third of the mission due to a missing detail during the mission briefing. It’s an easy fix and one that I’m glad we spotted.

Beyond those core questions, the playtest also picked up on smaller, non-critical issues, such as elements that needed to be clarified or highlighted better. So while a major rewrite isn’t going to be required (this time) I have plenty to work with before passing it on for the next critical step – external editing.

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Forward Planning: Sections overviews

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks dividing my time between a couple of projects, including the research for Ghosts of Iron. While I hadn’t originally planned to pick it up just yet this included purchasing Savage Worlds: Adventure Edition and getting up to speed on the changes to the system. This was made possible thanks to an unexpected conflux of events – the book being released in a near final format and the unexpected surprise that I had made enough from sales of my Demon Hunters adventures to purchase the pdf outright. So to everybody that has made a purchase – thank you.

My second focus has been pouring over the One Sheet adventures released by Pinnacle. When writing my Adventure Starters I have found breaking the text down into sections from the start is invaluable. It provides a clear focus and when faced with a limited word count helps me to judge the respective weight to assign to each part of the adventure. So how do One Sheets break down?

First, the obvious – They’re limited to one double-sided sheet. On average that breaks down into ~1500 words of pure text, including heading the many one/two character words such as d6 that are used for character or monster attributes. In the grand scheme of things that is officially Not Much.

From there, adventures tend to break down as follows:

Introduction & background – A quarter to half page setup for the adventure that details what has already happened and why the PCs would become involved.

The plot – A brief walk-through of the plot covering half to three quarters of a page. Due to the inherent limitations of the format this is usually presented in a simplified linear fashion based on the assumed progression of the PCs. Those same limitations often prevent railroading as the job of providing depth and details is left to the GM.

The twist/set piece – More often than not this involves a climatic combat against the major antagonist followed by a brief conclusion. Typically half a page long. For Ghosts of Iron my intention is to slot this into the middle of the adventure, to provide a transition scene between locations and to showcase a mechanic that is often underused (in my opinion).

One major antagonist and an Extra – A half page, condensed entry detailing the major antagonist, their stats. If space allows for it this may also include the stats for an Extra, although many rely on references to associated setting books to save space. Unless the adventure is combat oriented this is usually a quarter to half page in length.

So now that I have an a breakdown of the format how do I proceed? My first step, unusually, is to just ignore all of the above. Instead I concentrate on fleshing out the adventure via bullet points and notes. For this I mostly rely upon a design notebook that I carry in my work bag and I just jot down any and all thoughts that come to mind, connecting and cross-connecting them as the adventure comes together. The process is as much a way to stimulate my mind as it is to produce any actual output.

From there is the first bash at writing, the stage I am currently at. Using my section breakdown as a guide I start to put the adventure together. At this point word count isn’t important. While writing my PhD thesis I learned the hard way that I tend to overthink my writing and try to edit as I go. It’s not a process that works, I go round in circles trying to perfect a single paragraph before I even know what the rest of the page will look like. Part of why I maintain this blog is to work on this, I try and keep my editing on posts here to a minimum. They may not be as polished as I’d like but it forces me to just write and get my thoughts down on paper.

So that’s where I am – Working on the first draft, mostly during my commute to and from work and then slowly pulling it all together.