Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Five or So Questions with Stras Acimovic on Playtesting

I got to interview Stras Acimovic, Ace Playtester, and get some great suggestions on playtesting as a designer and a player!

Tell me a little about your tabletop background. What got you into gaming?

I think it was the old Milton Bradley copy of Hero Quest. Hero Quest is an old 1980s board game, played on a board representing rooms divided up into a dungeon, with one player acting as the GM and the rest playing barbarians, elves, dwarves and wizards. We played through all the adventures, and since everyone was still psyched, I just kept making up more. I spent many evenings getting grumbled at by parents who had no idea why we were cooped up playing a board game instead of 'being outside'.

My first actual tabletop RPG was a 1st edition copy of Warhammer Fantasy RPG (in French of all things) that the brother of a friend of mine at the time had and ran for us. We were thrilled the 'big kids' would play with us.

As for my background, I've been gaming over two decades doing everything from crunchy traditional games, war games, more recent story games, and larps (boffer, rock-paper-scissors, parlor, nordic). I love trying out new things, and one of my favorite things is bringing back interesting, little-known games to share with my gaming groups at home.


What is the most important thing to remember when playtesting games?

Be generous and play to the spirit of the game! Knowing you're in a playtest means being willing to go with the flow and make up some mechanics to tide you over on-the-fly. Often I see people try to break a system to 'test it' or simply play straight, without looking for ways to engage with the direction of the game. Playtests often only have the skeleton of a system in place. It's not fully fleshed out, with all the bits polished. Seeing what the whole thing is supposed to look like is sometimes difficult, but do the best you can to try and get to where the game purports to take you, and then see which bits chafe, get in the way, or help you get there and make note of all three for feedback.

Also shorthanding notes during game can be an important playtesting skill to acquire. You'd be surprised how much you forget if you don't jot down a phrase or word to remember it by.


How can playtesters give the best feedback to designers? What sort of feedback is most useful?

How you feel about something is valid and important. If mechanics frustrate you, or confuse things, this is important to note and often useful to designers in my experience. Similarly important is noting what worked well. Many people forget this step (or don't notice it because it's 'working well').

Writing down context for rules you have to house-rule-on-the-fly can also be important - not just what you encountered, but what was available as tools, and what you decided to go with and why.

A lot of designers can't be present at your table so well organized and detailed AP reports are some of the only ways they can get feedback. I wish that there was a culture of 'replays' outside of japan. In japan many folks record the audio of their game, and transcribe it into a record called a ‘replay’ usually with some commentary. Sometimes what’s reported on in an AP report is summarized and specific details that a designer might catch watching a playtest are overlooked or edited out. Replays tend to be a bit more robust as a medium for communicating such things.

As a designer: remember to include questionnaires with your playtests.


What games have you enjoyed playtesting recently, and why?

I played a number of excellent ones recently, picking just a few is tough. There have been a number of thieving and scoundrel-themed games my groups have been enjoying.

I've really been digging Will Hindmarch's amazing Project: Dark. It's a Thief (as in The Dark Project) style game that makes characters using a deck-building mechanic with regular decks of playing cards. I've always loved playing thieves and scoundrels in RPGs and I'm a huge fan of first-person sneaker games like Dishonored, Thief, Mark of the Ninja and the like. This game really delivers on the tactical plays and stealth action. I got to try it as a player a couple times, and just ran a beta at CONLorado as a GM for the first time. Will's flair for adding little NPC dialogues (called ‘eavesdrops’) is absolutely awesome, and I’m really excited about the KS for it.

Another game my groups have been excited about is a project by John Harper called Blades in the Dark. Interestingly enough it’s also a thief/roguish game, but this one focuses on building Thieves Guilds and organizations and lifting your group of ne’er-do-wells up the shadowy ladder of criminal prestige in the city while negotiating the dangerous seedy underbelly. It’s been undergoing some heavy revisions lately, but promises to be pretty exciting.


What is the biggest difference between playtesting as a player and playtesting as a designer?

As a player you, of course, hope to have fun despite any Beta-bumps, and provide useful feedback. So you hope for a smooth, fun game that works.

As a designer, a playtest that goes 'well' and has no bumps is sometimes the least helpful. Recently I was in a game that had all sorts of problems, but was very helpful to the designer because each issue reinforced a mechanic that was removed or changed recently, and showed exactly what made the game sing when put in place, and crash when removed.

Also, as a designer, sometimes the most useful playtests are the ones where you can just hand your stuff to someone who hasn't played with you and casually kibitz and listen to how they interpret rules and read the game without inheriting all the shorthands and assumptions you teach when running the game that can get passed on.

Thanks for the questions!


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Thanks to Stras for the interview! You can check out some of his actual play reports and game design musings at Platonic Solids