Pouring Out Your Soul
By The Warden
See that title? It’s the feeling that rests in the pit of my stomach as Friday night draws closer. I’m about to bear my soul for others to admire or laugh at. My new game is getting its first playtest and I’m worried. However, it’s incredibly true when it comes down to that first playtest. As I start writing this week’s post, it’s only a little more than 24 hours until I run my first game of ScreenPlay for my Development Team. While most of them have read through some of the material I’ve been working on, it’s all been nothing more than abstract words and imagined possibilities at this point. It’s not until you actually drop dice on the table that you can find out if your mechanical machinations can actually function come game time.
It’s a nerve-wracking and also thrilling moment, something I imagine playwrights go through when their latest presentation goes live on stage for the first time. Once the curtain opens and the music starts, there’s nowhere else to go but out in the crowd and that’s where things really start to change. Anything you could have done previously (save for working on the mechanics as part of a team) has been on an individual basis, particularly with playreading. Just like with a play, starting up a fresh, un-playtested game will depend entirely on the group experiencing it. The group feeds off the consensus of the whole or the loud body language and responses of a single individual. In a play, if no one else laughs when you do, human nature tells you to calm that chuckle down and blend in. Same goes with gameplay; if the majority of players are feeling confused or toned down during the game, it has an effect on the individuals. There’s always an exception and if you can connect so strongly with that right individual, it can truly sway the group in your favour. Then again, it can also go the other way. My point being that the first playtest of any new system really truly depends on how everyone interprets the events as a group and you can never prepare for that. At all. You’re literally tossing it out to them and hoping for the best.
Some designers see that as a need to get as prepared as humanly possible so they leave nothing to chance. Every rule, every character option, every piece of equipment is exactly defined, every sentence is reviewed and a few others are cleaned up to ensure the only mistakes that can happen are ones you could never have seen coming. Not me. I like to go in with the absolute basics and ride the wave the rest of the way. It’s what I’ve done with previous playtests before and is probably a tactic I’ll continue to use for years to come. I have a backstory, a rough location, and enough roles for each player to call their own. All I’m looking to playtest the core rules and the character roles. Everything else is a bonus at this point.
ROLES, NOT ROLLS
There’s a bit of a Catch-22 with ScreenPlay: it’s purpose is for everyone (the Director and every player, known as Writers) to work together to create a story. You can’t “create” a story using a fully-conceived story, otherwise you’re just using buzz words to get players interested. For this playtest to be a true success, my priority is not the rules… it’s the roles. If players do not walk away with the impression that they were Writers, not players, in this game, I’ve failed in my creation. Sure, the rules are the engine, but the roles are the gas pedal and steering wheel.
Roles in ScreenPlay are loosely defined positions within the backstory designed for Writers (players) and Directors (GMs) to fill with their own cast members. For Writers, they can only interact with the story through their characters and each role provides them with tools and options for just that purpose. They’re also intended as a starting point for the full version of the character and the rest is left up to the Writers, whether it’s before the first scene is introduced or as the story progresses.
For tomorrow’s playtest, I have 5 character roles ready to fill. Technically speaking, they get me excited and seem like they should do the trick. And I could be completely wrong. The group will be the deciding factor and dictate how the next round of revisions will go. While each individual Writer may have their own impressions of how well they were able to interact and shape the story, their impressions will be revised by the impact of the entire group. “I didn’t have the same experience as everyone else,” they may say to themselves or out loud to you, “but after seeing everyone else enjoying the experience with their roles, I’m sure you just need to tweak this one and it’ll all be good.”
See? It’s all about the group. For any playtest of any system (unless it’s designed for only one player). Playtesting is not solely about ensuring the mechanics work, or that turns don’t take too long to complete, or witnessing just how powerful that curse human spell works; it’s about seeing how well players can work together to figure out your game and have fun with it. It’s about how well they co-operate, even if their characters are working towards opposite ends because the players still have to work together to make fun happen and continue to keep the experience enjoyable. It’s a game! You, as the creator and GM, are solely there to guide, not lead. As tempting as it is to take control of the situation and tell them they’re doing it wrong, you’re not doing your game any justice. They’ll give you what they see based on what they’re given and it’s your job, oh creator, to observe and study those results. Are they what you hoped for? Perhaps things didn’t go quite as planned, but everything seemed to hold together for the most part. Then again, maybe the outcome was nowhere near what you expected but something rose from those ashes and has given you new purpose and guidance for the next draft. That’s what playtesting is all about and that’s why I take a minimal approach to that first session. I’d rather embrace the surprise than hold back the waves of unexpectedness.
And so here I am with twenty-two pages in my hand, eternally flipping through them to somehow ensure myself that it’s all there. It just needs to be discovered and given a chance. Next week, I’ll share the results.