Design Journal: My experience running my first playtest.

I’ve tried my hand at writing quite a few systems over the year, but I finally got to the point where I could conceivably run a basic version of my game to see if the thing even works in the first place.

I ran it last night for two of my four regular players when the other two couldn’t make it to our scheduled game, and it was a complete blast! I opted for a post-Return of the Jedi Star Wars game skinned onto the top of it so my players wouldn’t have to learn a new setting, and it worked like a dream. They infiltrated an imperial mining garrison, pretended to be stormtroopers, and successfully stole a shuttle! AND one of my players was playing as a Jedi, and the system could support it as well!

It was an ABOSOLUTE THRILL to finally run something that had came out of my head, spewed into a Google doc, and helped us now tell our little story together. Super fun time, and my players were both very, very happy and positive with the experience even with me asking them to mercilessly tear it apart. I even got a couple of good notes on what I need to change or add at this point, but the thing is largely workable as is.

I posted about my experience on the RPGDesign subreddit, and user FF_Ninja posted some great follow up questions that helped me think through the experience. Below are their questions in bold and my answers:

What state of completion would you say your game is now?

If I had to say, I would expect a GM could run something that looks approximately like what I ran yesterday with my players as long as they had the pregens and my scenario notes. I largely told the story from the hip – I had a premise, a mission, and an adventure site. Literally everything else I was able to improvise (and my rules supported very easily!).

I barely have character generation rules (although it’s a lite rule system, so what I have is most of what there is going to be), so I would need to walk someone through making new characters.

What were the biggest takeaways you got from the playtest, including things you definitely want to keep or change?

The biggest takeaway is that my game engine works. I have designed it so that my PCs and encounters are almost the same mechanically – think of how Fate allows PCs, NPCs, environment, items, etc. all have Aspects as a rule. I found that treating my encounters all the same – whether exploration, combat, or social – can work as well. This was huge for me, and it was both challenging and rewarding as a GM to run encounters this way.

The engine works, so now it’s figuring out how to make it sing. It’s mostly minor things – I need to come up with a different word besides “Mettle” for one of my attributes as I love it on the page, but saying it out loud was quite clunky. I added a possibility of a critical success mid-game to dice rolls that was very rewarding in how it was achieved and seemed to make my players happy when they rolled it. That was a call I made on the fly, and I want to write it up.

Those kinds of things, minor, but the stuff that will really make the system polished instead of an amateur work like it is now.

What aspects of creation were the most difficult for you to sludge through?

I’m actually worried that this is still coming, which is probably why I haven’t done it yet! I need to come up with concrete rules on PC character abilities. My attributes are pretty great right now, but the stuff that really makes characters unique – call them features, powers, moves, whatever – I need to figure out how to implement that from a character generation/progression point of view.

I don’t want to do classes, but instead am leaning toward “feature packages” where you can purchase individual talents – like being good at piloting or mechanics in Star Wars – or you can purchase the “Jedi Guardian” feature package that gets you a handful of exclusive features because I want to protect that “Jediness” in the setting. Note that I’m not actually trying to write a Star Wars game, but it is incredibly easy to relate concepts in these terms!

Coming up with magic/force powers/supernatural stuff was a little challenging, and I doubt it’s close to its final form, but I took a lot of influence from the Monster of the Week move “Use Magic” for now.

Generally speaking, the hardest, and yet most rewarding was continually cutting out the fat and bloat in the rules to ask myself why I had this extra rule when something else already exists in this very rule system that would work just as well.

For example, encounter design. I wanted to treat the entire game like skill challenges from D&D 4e. Whether it’s combat or another complex challenge, it’s all treated the same. For a while I was picturing clocks like in Blades in the Dark. That system is gorgeous in how simply and universal it can be to track PC progress in a challenge.

And then it clicked for me that I can use the same mechanic for encounter design as players use to track their Attributes (which is based on the Usage Die from The Black Hack).

Not to toot my own horn, but holy smokes, that was a game changer for me, and I think/hope others will take to the idea once I go public with the rule set. It was incredible and thrilling as a GM to run encounters this way, and equally incredibly easy to do so from a bookkeeping perspective. I felt like I was playing a game too since I had to narrate things based on a dice roll I made in reaction to the actions taken by the PCs.

Figuring out all that was both a challenge and beyond exciting when I had the break through!

I’ll be posting up character sheets for the two Star Wars characters early next week and hopefully have more to share after next Wednesday when I test the engine with four players in a post-apocalyptic urban fantasy setting!

I can’t wait!

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