Playtesting RPGs

Over the years, I’ve participated in playtests for a number of games, often as part of ORC. It’s a good community to run such games in as we have a variety of different gamer age groups – from younger gamers just starting out in their first RPG, to those who first played D&D in the 1970s: we’ve playtested Runequest scenarios, Traveller adventures for BITS (British Isles Traveller Society), Dogs in the Vineyard, and A/State in the past. Most recently we’ve playtested: Cliché: the Roleplaying Game of Predictable Horror from Drunken Badger Games, as well as The Secret Fire RPG.

If you’re making a commercial RPG, you’re going to need to test it. To do that you’ll need to “playtest” it (or “beta” test as it is sometimes called – this term is loosely based on software development), which basically means running games in a test environment – usually a single session game, or over a number of sessions – often with a particular group or groups. The idea of these sessions are to destruction test every aspect of the rules: to see what works and what doesn’t. Local groups like ORC Edinburgh are great for this, or you can use your own group (however, see below).

With that in mind, I thought I’d compile a brief article about playtesting for those who are taking the plunge in designing their own RPG system (I hope it’ll help!).

Publicise it

Seriously, if you want to run a  game you’ve got to get players. The best way to do this is through the web although if you’re lucky enough to have a Friendly Local Gaming Shop (or FLGS) you can probably put up a flyer if they’re amenable. They might also provide you with the venue. Membership sites like GPA have their own press exploder, but this isn’t quite what you need for a playtest. What it is worth doing is visiting sites such as ORC or communities like ENWorld and posting there.

Remember that if you’re looking for players you’ll need to find a GM as well, unless you plan to run the game yourself (see below). Make sure that you provide a clear link or method of communication, and make sure that you don’t post the same thing multiple times in the same forums. I’d suggest you ask them to contact you, either via web form or email – if you create a playtest pack later on, you can then send it to them. If you put it up directly on a website it will either be downloaded and never used, or (if its within a forum) taken down my moderators (and quite rightly too). Using email creates a immediate contact with a playtester and is far more personal than a download link. It also helps keep some control over what you may have spent years preparing, i.e. your Intellectual Property (IP), as well as providing a record of who has requested what. You can also set up a distribution list enabling you to contact all your playtesters easily as well.

RPG conventions are also great places to run games – you’ll likely get a bunch of people you’ve never met (or have never met each other before) and it provides a perfect control group. Make sure you watch the time though!

Create a playtest pack

A playtest pack is essential if you’re running a playtest. Ideally this should be in the kind of format that any pc or phone can read – PDF format is usually best for this, but make sure the file(s) are a reasonable size: less than 5mb is best and shouldn’t clog up an email inbox.

  • A form to list all of the playtesters names (including the GM). Contact details should only be used to keep them informed of the game, and not used for marketing, and you should check that they are OK about seeing their name appear in the credits as a playtester.
  • Quick start rules – keep the fluff; e.g. setting and background information to a minimum, save it for the sell sheet. Make sure that you have combat and PC generation (and abilities) covered. The players may not have all the information of the final game but it is good to have as much detailas they may need.
  • Character sheets (blank or pregenerated). If you want to test out character classes or PC generation,  the best way to do it is have the players create their own characters. Make sure you factor this into your Quickstart rules though, along with any extra setup time!
  • A sample adventure. If your game is very background-intensive, then this adventure should introduce the players to the setting, but be careful not to overwhelm them. An introductory game should run 3-5 hours, but remember to leave some time for feedback at the end.
  • A brief summary of what is required of the playtesters.
  • A feedback form asking what they liked/disliked, what could be improved etc. or in regard to specific areas.
  • A Non Disclosure Agreement (optional), or NDA as it is known.

Reward Playtesters

Mostly playtesters are rewarded with a name check at the start of the book, but if you are partnered with a specific company (like The Secret Fire and their partners: LR Hobbies, The Dungeon Alphabet, and The Wilderness Alphabet), you may be able to offer money-off vouchers or a discount on the finished product (or even a signed copy). At the very least, a name check is the least you can do. Remember that these people are willing to spend time testing your game, so treat them accordingly.

Be prepared

I can’t emphasise this enough. If you’re not ready to run a game, then it isn’t suitable for playtest. You can’t create rules to cover every eventuality, be prepared to wing it, but make sure you have a clear idea about what happened or what you did with your rules. If you’ve found any errata, have it to hand or update any playtest materials ASAP. Carry a notebook to note down anything relevant during play – sometimes the most innocuous remark can have an impact on your view of the game, be an inspiration, or cause a moment of clarity.

Listen to criticism and identify what works

Not everyone will think your game is 100% great. Don’t be a smartarse or arrogant about your game. Be prepared to listen to what people say and respond positively, even if the criticism is negative – remember that your game is being judged, not you. If something isn’t working, change or remove it – at the end of the day, you should be your toughest critic. Don’t treat criticism as a personal attack (its not!) – if someone is overly negative find out why, without antagonising them.

Incidentally, one of the best ways to get feedback is to hang out with players after the game. You don’t have to get trollied with them in a pub (although it does work), but just socialising with them can provide a very good environment to get their thoughts.

Get someone else to run it

Just because you know your game inside out doesn’t mean that anyone else can. If you’re wanting people to pick up your game, you’re going to need to be sure that someone else other than you can run it. Find someone (or several someones!) to run a game using your system and a playtest pack. You may need to do a little more work but you’ll get a much clearer idea of what the problems are – as well a playtest pack you may also need to create a GM guide to running the game. its pretty simple to do – just think how you like to run the game: Light-hearted humour? Gritty realism? Make sure that any adventure includes staging notes for the GM, how to set the tone, etc. As with any players, feedback from a GM is just as important – they may also highlight rules that need tweaking and errors in your logic and rules set.

So that’s it. My thoughts on running a playtest. At close of play, you should be your own harshest critic: what would you have done differently?

Hopefully this article has proven of some use to any would-be developers. As always, I welcome any feedback. If you’d still like to engage my services as a playtester (or developer! 🙂 ), please contact me using the form below.

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Published by Bill Heron

Wannabe game designer and would-be author. I've been playing RPGs for over 25 years and have recently started creating my own RPG called Mandragora: Ashes of Freedom. I also run a number of RPGs: Cthulhutech, Call of Cthulhu, WFRP, and D&D. I'm active in the Edinburgh RPG community at and regularly play RPGs.