Metatopia is a convention in New Jersey, USA run by Double Exposure. It is my favorite convention. I get to see a lot of my friends, which is great, and the atmosphere is completely bursting with creativity. I also get to playtest games, most of the time.
What is playtesting?
Playtesting is when a designer or designers gather together people to test out their game by playing it or reading it and talking about it. Typically the latter is referred to as a focus group. There are alpha playtests where the game is in very early stages, betas where it's in a relatively playable state, and so on. There are also high test playtests, which are really intense, typically made up of experience designers as players, and focused on getting the game to its best state.
You don't have to playtest a game. Honestly! You can make a game and put it out there without playtesting it even once. I've done this a number of times and there's nothing wrong with it. However, the reality is that most of the time your games will be far more refined if you playtest them. You get more input, find more of the squeaky wheels to oil, and have different perspectives. It's useful!
How do you playtest?
There are articles out there that can walk you through playtesting from the designer or game master perspective. What I'm more interested about is how to be a playtester. After all, it's my favorite part of games.
I am not the strongest roleplayer, nor do I understand probability basically at all. However, I can get the way games work - I can tell when something meshes well with a setting or idea, and I can help people work through what they are trying to say or do. I also can see patterns of behavior caused by mechanics. These are, thankfully, useful to playtesting.
Below I have some suggestions on what to do if you find yourself at a playtesting table. Hope you find them valuable!
- Listen to the designer and how they describe the game and its genre, setting, and expectations. Don't talk over them or interject your opinion. Let them set the scene. Let them have some space to share their ideas and their concerns, and ensure they know you are listening (active listening is helpful). Don't allow others to step over them if they look like they are uncomfortable about speaking up - speak up for them. A simple "Hey, what were you saying?" in the direction of the designer can make a difference. Keep in mind that steamrolling (people talking over others from perceived authority or privilege) can damage a playtest just as much as the designer just giving up and walking out.
- Use all of the resources at your disposal. If there are mechanics presented, make excuses to use them in line with what happens in the game or focus group. If there are tools on the table - index cards, tokens, cards, dice - make sure you understand what they are for and make sure you at least try to introduce them to the action.
- Ask questions. Always ask questions. If you don't understand something, ask for clarification. If you don't know what the designer wants from the situation, ask for their guidance. If you want to take an action and you haven't already been given permission as part of a scene, ask to permission. If you see something missing, ask if it should be there, and if it should, how you can help introduce it, and if not, why not. If you suspect something is going to go against the theme of the game, ask why it's done that way. Always, always ask questions - don't assume, no matter how much of an expert you think you are.
- Show enthusiasm and give positive feedback. Don't jump around and yell, but do respond with positive feedback if you like something, give clear reasoning behind your reasons for liking what is happening, and so on. Be unafraid to smile and give encouragement to the designer, and ensure that at the end of the session, even if it was a hard one, you thank them for providing the game for playtest. You're helping them, but there's no point in playtesters if there's no game. It's a symbiotic relationship, for good and ill!
- Be honest, but kind and respectful. If you think a game sucks, don't lie and pretend it was great, but don't be a moldy muffin about it. Use "I" statements if you want to give negative feedback, and feel free to pair them with questions ("I had trouble understanding why we would use a d6 instead of 2d6 for a game Powered by the Apocalypse, could you talk about that a little?" "I felt like I didn't have a lot of agency in the game because of the strict character roles. Is this a permanent feature of the game, and if so, why?"). You can always tell a designer what you don't like - after all, playtesting is about making the game better, not pretending it's perfect. Just be kind.
- If something goes sideways with the other players, let the designer know either privately or, depending on immediacy, at the table. If something goes badly with the designer or with other players, let con staff wherever you are know as soon as you can. My major highlights here would be bigoted or hateful behavior, harassment, inappropriate content (18+ with under 18 individuals in the playtest, etc.), and so on. If something is truly upsetting, definitely feel free to leave, but make sure you communicate the issues to people who can make efforts to prevent it happening to other people. We can only make improvements if we know about the problems!
In all, there are a lot of things that playtesters can do to improve a convention playtest and help to get strong results. Sometimes it's hard because the games can be early in development, or possibly have flawed premises. That sucks, for sure, but we can all work together to make games better, and make our environments better for creating better games and playing better games. If you want to be a part of that, take a chance sometime to participate in a playtest and see if it's for you. I hope that someday we'll share a table!
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