I may not be the best game designer in the world, but if there’s one thing I do know, it’s playtesting. I’ve been a playtester for a variety of games from RPGs to party games to board games to light card games to heavy war games. I’ve been chief of product development for a startup card game publisher, and a lead playtester (and copied on ALL playtest reports) for Marvel Heroic Roleplaying. A good set of playtesters can make your good idea great, or kill your bad idea before you invest too much time and effort.
With the open playtest of the new iteration of D&D coming tomorrow, I wanted to offer some of my advice on playtesting and giving feedback. Wizards of the Coast will provide plenty of instructions on what they do and don’t want to see, so obviously that could easily supersede anything I say here. These are some general guidelines to keep in mind for D&D, so hopefully you find these tidbits helpful while playing the game and collecting your feedback.
Respect Their Playtest Decisions
The designers at WotC have decided that the first thing we’re going to see is going to include pre-generated characters, and not have character creation rules initially. I understand not being happy with this decision, however, it’s not like they’re going to suddenly decide that there will never be character creation rules. So when submitting your feedback, you don’t need to tell them “I wish I could see the character creation rules.” As professional game designers, they’ve decided (after many meetings, I’m sure) on this method of rolling rules out, so try and respect that. Keep your responses to what you were provided, not complaining that you don’t have what’s already been promised.
Work From the Big Picture Down
There’s plenty of time in the development cycle of the game. The wording of a feat or the exact text of a spell are important but shouldn’t dominate your feedback. After all, if the entire magic system changes, that’s a lot of wasted effort in critiquing 1st level spells.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t note these things down. However, the big picture is the most important: how the game feels overall (in this case, does it feel like D&D?), was combat satisfying, and so on. This part will probably be represented most in surveys. Also important are core mechanics: rolling to hit, how skills work, hit points, etc. Then the lowest amount of your attention should be given to the small details that could easily change later.
Be Charitable With the Format
If the playtest files are anything like the previous versions, it’s going to look like a Word document. No art, no fancy layout, only minimal attention to organization. Again, this is something that we know the final product will have. So picking apart the exact placement of a sidebar or location of a rule isn’t going to be worth a lot.
If there’s something that you find confusing because of placement, it’s OK to note it. Just don’t focus on it. Be charitable with the format the content is taking right now, and do your best to be charitable about these kinds of issues in favor of focusing on the actual rules and gameplay.
Don’t Kiss Up…
Even if you love everything about the game, you don’t need to gush to the game designers about how great they are. It’s simply not helpful to the game.
…But Be Sure to Praise What You Like
That said, if there are specific rules or aspects that you like, be sure to note them. All your feedback doesn’t have to be about what doesn’t work: noting what does work and what you really enjoy can be just as important (if not more so) than what doesn’t work.
Offer Suggestions, But Let Them Design the Game
We’re all game designers to some extent. We really want to be helpful too, by offering alternatives. This is OK in controlled pieces. Just don’t hang too much on each of these. Remember, you’re likely responding to only portions of the game, while they’re both looking at the game as a whole, but also comparing your feedback to everyone else’s, and trying to find mutual solutions to as many issues as possible. Thus, your suggestion on how to fix a rule might be brilliant, it just doesn’t necessarily fix everything that needs to be fixed at once. Let them do the heavy lifting as far as the actual changes, and instead, focus on communicating what you feel works and what doesn’t work.
Note Your Dealbreakers, But Try and Put It In Context
You may decide that any game with bards is not a game you want to play. You may even refuse to play any game that uses a d12. I can’t tell you how many things I’ve now seen on forums of taking the form “if D&D has _______, I know it’s not the game for me.”
Certainly note this in your feedback. But be aware that the vast majority of players aren’t going to share this view, and the game designers have to cover all of those, not just yours. So try to take those kinds of rules in context. If that’s the only thing that doesn’t work for you, do your best to put it aside. Give the best feedback as you can, taking a larger view of it all… even if you can’t stand bards.
Playtest What You’re Given, Not What You Fear
Finally, remember that what you’re seeing is only an early portion of the rules. It’s an important portion of the rules, probably the most critical parts, but there’s plenty more development and expansion to come. Thus, if you try a rule, and it works out or it doesn’t, report on that. In a lot of cases, you can extrapolate some worst case scenario of how a rule couldn’t work based on what comes later. Resist this urge. Assume that whatever comes later will be properly balanced, come out at the right rate, and be explained perfectly. You can’t predict what form these rules will ultimately take, nor does it help the designers for you to try and out-guess them. Playtest what you have in front of you, not what might come later. If this open playtest goes well, maybe you’ll be there to playtest everything else too.
One final note: I compiled this list of advice based specifically on playtesting this version of D&D. Every game with potential is different in some way than what’s come before. That means there’s not one-size-fits-all advice for whatever game you might be playtesting. Hopefully, however, this will help you when filling out your surveys when playtesting the new version of D&D, to help make the best game possible.