Playtesting and Why We Need It

This is going to sound like utter folly when I open my mouth this fine June evening, but nonetheless, I feel compelled to issue a thunderous rant of sorts against many large game design and publishing corporations. It is with great regret that I say that in the modern world, things are not playtested enough.

When I publish an adventure, I playtest it once, sometimes twice. Usually, my editor playtests it as well, just to make sure there aren’t any glaring errors that derail, deconstruct, or otherwise deny the existence of the proposed scenario. Internal consistency is important here. If the PCs hear that Botswana has been conquered by a robot army, if they go to Botswana, they should expect to fight robots.

Not so these days. It is far more likely that when you purchase a gaming book from a major game company, that the material hasn’t been playtested enough, or, sometimes, at all. The massive volumes of constantly updated errata tell me that perhaps gaming companies should playtest more and market less. While gaming companies are a business, it’s important also to realize that when people force deadlines onto game designers, often, what you’ll get is garbage.

Garbage in, Garbage out. As players, we expect a complete product and have the right to purchase a product that is error free from the start. We have become so faithful that we heedlessly purchase products that are still rife with errors, in the hope that the company will constantly and continuously update the product in order to maintain our business and our faith. The problem is, these minor edits really don’t change campaign events or the way characters are roleplayed. They change the rules, sometimes drastically.

Now, if there’s one thing most gamers hate, it’s change for the sake of change. We don’t like change that occurs for no good reason, everything has to have a reason behind it, and be justified. When people say “Don’t go getting your realism in my game,” that’s not realism. Realism is a specific school of philosophy devoted to a set of artistic and social rules. It’s not real either. Which means that essentially, one man’s baby is another man’s bathwater.

So what does that have to do with playtesting? Well, just because you playtest your adventure, module, or game supplement doesn’t mean that you’ll cover every contingency. However, that’s still no reason not to do it. Many game designers and game companies have given up, on the assumption that it doesn’t matter what the gm does, the heroes will always find a way to win. Ergo, so what? Don’t bother to playtest this, right?


The key reason to playtest an adventure is a key phrase that I will parrot over and over again until I don’t have the ability to write published adventures for superheroes anymore. Here it is: No matter how well-reasoned, documented, mapped, painted, and prepared your adventure is, yes, your player characters will eventually figure out a way to win. So here’s the question:

Is it fun?

That’s right. Adventures and game systems need to be fun. They need to be fun, they need to work smoothly, and they need to not have broken elements, especially when combined with the text of previously released material. (This means you, Wizards of the Coast. It should not be necessary to update your errata list monthly.) A group of editor/updaters would not be necessary if proper communication between designers was properly handled, perhaps on an internal website very much like this one.

Playtesting is power. The power to have fun. And the most fun is achieved when the least number of errors occurs in the first printing. Start shooting for zero. Don’t use your fanbase as a built-in playtest group and then publish their findings after their eager purchases have weeded out all but the most obscure mistakes, and released combinations of abilities and things that are ridiculously more powerful than your design team imagined.

Because having to reread the errata for games every month, only to discover that something else is wrong?

That’s not fun. At all.


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  • Upcoming Appearances

    Heroicon, Decatur, Illinois, May 15-17

    Michael will be appearing at Heroicon as a Special Guest, where he will run games and appear on panels. All proceeds from this convention go to benefit troops overseas with games, both donated and purchased, sponsored by a group called Games for Troops. I know it's a trek. Come join me anyway.

    Nexus Game Fair, Milwaukee, WI, June 25-28

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    Michael will be attending Gencon and representing Blackwyrm Games, where his latest products will be playtested and he will have at least one signing.