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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
With the successful completion of the Crystal Heart Kickstarter in December, I find myself in the fortunate position of starting 2019 with a commission to write RPG material for somebody else. The brief for the adventure was broad – something that an Agent of Syn might face, including an NPC ability or hazard to demonstrate knowledge of what makes Savage Worlds fast, furious and fun! My pitch, as presented during the Kickstarter campaign was:
So where do I start? How do I go from a pitch to a finished adventure? I’m aiming to cover that process through a series of blog posts as I develop Ghosts of Iron.
Right now, that answer is research. While this may be my first commission there are a wealth of resources I can draw on. Firstly, there are my own adventure starters which were designed around a similar framework to One Sheet adventures – streamlined overviews that outline the adventure but require additional GM input to fully flesh out. It also helps that Pinnacle, the company behind Savage Worlds have a treasure trove of One Sheets available as free downloads from their website. I’ve begun mining that to put together a framework – what should be included, how do I highlight sections, how much detail do I give locations vs NPCs vs plot. Once I have identified those I can start to take my existing notes and begin to fit them to the page.
Secondly, there is the Crystal Heart setting itself. While the book is still in development Eran and Aviv have already showcased the world through the webcomic and accompanying page notes. Over the coming months, I’ll be going back to that repeatedly, to pick up on details that I might have missed and to ensure that my adventure embodies the spirit of the setting.
24 hours! That’s all that is left for you to back the amazing Crystal Heart Kickstarter from Up to Four Comics. If you’re still on the fence then let’s summarise what you’ll be getting at this point:
- A full-colour setting book with 200+ pages of details and amazing artwork.
- Six, yes count them SIX short adventures, two of which are available now as free downloads and one of which will be written by yours truly.
- Ten bonus crystals for use in your games, with suggested adventure seeds for each.
- Themed bennies, available as both PDF or a physical add-on.
You can get all this in digital format for a mere £15, back it while you still can.
While I enjoy the system I’ve never been a big backer of Kickstarters for Savage Worlds, even to the extent that I didn’t back the recent campaign for the latest edition of the core rules. Of the many settings only Deadlands and its spin-off Deadlands Noir have really grabbed me. Everything else has gone on my “I might pick it up eventually” list.
Until Crystal Heart.
Developed by Eran and Aviv through their webcomic Up to Four Players, Crystal Heart presents a world in the process of uncovering lost artifacts and knowledge from an advanced Bygone Age. The most powerful of these relics are Crystals, gems of unknown origins that channel unique abilities and powers to the wielder. The catch? The only known method of controlling them requires that the user have their own heart surgically removed and replaced with the Crystal. Only one organisation admits to possessing the skills necessary to do so, Syn. Their Agents are relentless, fearless. Heartless.
The setting is beautiful, intriguing and while only a small percentage of the world has been explored its clear that it has a depth to it that many settings lack. Best of all? A setting book is on Kickstarter right now, the project went live earlier today and is already sailed past the 50% mark.
So what’s included in the Kickstarter? For £15 (~$19) you’ll get the full setting book in PDF format plus any bonus PDFs which are unlocked via stretch goals. £30 (~$38) + shipping will net you the physical book plus all the PDFs while the £55 (~$70) + shipping ‘fan’ level rewards you with all the PDFs, the physical book, print issues of the Up to Four Players comic, dice tray and sticker sheets. In contrast to many Kickstarters, Eran and Aviv have gone for a relatively simple tier structure, with only a single, limited quantity, high-level pledge at £175 (~$225). For that, you get to create a Syn Agent to be included in the setting book, which will include character artwork by Aviv.
The details of the stretch goals have yet to be announced but will include additional content for the core book, a collection of one-sheet adventures and custom Crystal-themed bennies. Given the goal for the Kickstarter is likely to be reached within the first day it shouldn’t be long before the details for these are unveiled.
If you’re interested in the Kickstarter then you can find it here and it’s running until Tuesday 11th December. If you want more information about the setting then I’d highly recommend the comics, which can be found at www.uptofourplayers.com and if that isn’t enough then how about checking out the free starter set, which includes an overview of the setting, pre-generated characters and an introductory adventure? You can download that via the Up to Four Players website or directly from drivethruRPG.
Earlier this week a panel on the latest (and excellent) Up to Four Players webcomic got me thinking about NPC vs NPC actions, specifically during combat. A short discussion over twitter inspired Eran to put out the following today:
That article got the wheels turning a bit further though. In general, when it comes to NPC actions I try to minimise the amount of time involving a second NPC. I hand wave rolls, narrate overall outcomes rather than detailed actions and actively try to avoid lengthy discussions.
Primarily this comes from wanting to minimise the amount of time where the players are sitting waiting. Nobody likes to sit and listen to the GM monologue, especially when they’re trying to portray multiple individuals (doubly so when, like me, you’re bad at accents so NPCs rarely have distinct voices). I also want to avoid having to reference multiple character sheets/abilities, especially with games that are more complex than the Savage Worlds system used in the comic.
The second reason is that of narrative. As a GM I want to keep the PCs front and centre, not being overshadowed by a minor companion who just happened to roll well that session. I speak here from experience. The first campaign I ran was Torg, using published adventures. During one particular section, the group had encountered an over the top superhero who was meant to obtain what they were after while in the Nile Empire. During their daring escape in a plane they came under attack from fighter planes and throughout the resulting combat their NPC companion was useless. Right up until he rolled amazingly and stole the final kill from the PCs.
If it had been a PC in that position, of constantly missing then rolling big right when it mattered it would have been an amazing moment. Instead it felt, to me, like a let down. As a new GM I wasn’t at the point of knowing when to fudge the rolls (a debate in and of itself) so instead I worked to minimise the chance of that occurring again by avoiding NPC vs NPC rolls.
The Up to Four Players strip got me thinking though – do I sometimes take things to far. In trying to keep the PCs in the spotlight is it to the detriment of the game. Gone are the unexpected moment, such as where a weak and feable King gets the upper hand against the expert assassin or a trusted ally is unexpectedly convinced to take up arms against the PCs. Dice add randomness to the game, not only for the players but for the GM as well and maybe it is time I started to add that back in to my games.
So long as it doesn’t take too long.