Under the Hood – Conducting the Autopsy

Conducting the Autopsy
By The Warden

Well, the very first playtest of ScreenPlay is done. Let me cut straight to the chase and say that while there were some hiccups with gameplay and phrasing, the game itself was a big success based on the overall feedback of the Development Team. There were specific recommendations and suggestions, but we’ll get into those in a bit. Right now, I’ve been riding high on these results and have already cracked down on a new draft of the rules. (Version 1.02, to be exact.)

Judging the results of a playtest seems to come down to two factors: overall impressions and specific results. The overall impression tells you whether or not the game can be a success because it’s all about the most important element of any game: fun. If your playtesters had fun, laughed like idiots, and/or broke into a sweat during the game (and not because one of them forgot their dice in the car), you know you’re on the right track. With your initial playtests, the overall impression is key to everything that comes afterwards because if you don’t have something people will want to play again… well, the result should be pretty obvious by now.

After that, the specific results can help you narrow down what was lacking or how you can improve certain areas that may not have met or exceeded your expectations. This is what I like to call the autopsy of game design because you have to figuratively cut your game open and study every component and sentence to determine what went wrong or how it can be improved. If your first playtest bombs, the term “autopsy” is more appropriate than if it was considered a success, but the procedure remains the same no matter the results. And if you think your first playtest will go off without a hitch or has no need for an autopsy… well, you’re just adorable for thinking that.

Seeing as every playtest is as varied as every game under the sun, the best approach I can offer is through my own notes from last weekend’s ScreenPlay session. Let’s begin.


This playtest used an idea I’ve had kicking around for a while and this system seemed the perfect fit to try it out. Called “Ironbound: The Curse of the Scarab Witch,” the story revolves around an elite unit of medieval soldiers known as the Ironbound. Tasked with the elimination of all magic-users threatening the Kingdom, these fierce hunters and combatants battle the sins of magic and monsters using only their might, mettle, and cunning. This particular case involved hunting down a witch kidnapping young girls as sacrifices for rituals needed to raise the dead and fuel the witch’s power even further. (Scarab witches, as the players found out, increase their strength by surrounding themselves with the undead.)

We started off with an opening scene in which two of the Writers (or players) took on the role of a young brother and sister picking berries in the woods. Not only was this scene intended to introduce the mechanics of play but also provided first hand knowledge of the event to all the Writers, a trick that would come in handy when their Ironbound characters arrived to track down the witch using clues left behind from the scenes they created themselves. From there, everyone really ran with the improv theme of the game and started to build up a story of their own. It was truly awesome to see everyone take to the mechanics and style of play right off the bat.

Let’s start off with the overall impressions of the game.

  • Calling the players “Writers” and invoking them with the ability to tell the story, not just react to it, really struck a chord with everyone (and some more than others). While a couple of them were inexperienced with this style of play (one was an avid D&D player and the other only started playing RPGs this year, to my understanding), they were able to catch on very quickly and mix in with the others. While my initial intention was not to build this style of game, it has really started to blossom lately and this kind of feedback tells me that I need to embrace it as one of the key features of ScrenPlay. Complete and totally flexibility in both mechanics and story. Boo-yah!
  • The dice mechanics went over smoothly and got the thumbs up from everyone. Easy to learn and apply in game, the Writers quickly adapted to the Stamina boost effect (spend 1 Stamina to gain a +1 bonus to a die roll, thereby avoiding Complications altogether) and even felt a little anxiety over the use of dice rolls. At one point, they debated whether or not a Writer should attempt a dice roll because of the possible consequences… and they were merely looking around in the woods. This hesitation reveals an important aspect of the game – tension. Exactly what I was hoping for.
  • While the text held up (for the most part, though there were some parts that need to be cleaned up or defined in greater detail), there was a big hurdle: me. My old Gamemaster habits crept into play and I was trying to find a way to “control” the story. Easier written than done, to paraphrase the old expression.

Now for the specifics. While the playtest was considered an overall success, there were some suggestions brought up during the game and after we wrapped up for the night.

  • Stick with either opposed rolls or target numbers; not both. Version 1.01 mixes them up and states that whenever dice roll are rolled against an inanimate object or predetermined situation, they roll against a Difficulty between 3 and 11. If it’s against a living creature, both sides roll and fate determines the shape of the outcome. My goal has been to settle on a single resolution system as I find mixing them a lazy form of design, but it’s helpful to test out all your options at this phase of a game’s design. Either way was a viable option, as far as the playtesters were concerned.
  • Clearly defined limits on how descriptions, outcomes, and reactions need to be reinforced. How many times in a round can a single Writer provide a description for a character? Based on the text as written, the Writers were able to demonstrate an ability to completely eliminate the scarab witch from offering any descriptions of her own and so she was quickly beheaded with a flaming sword. It’s why I allow players to break the game using the exact definition of the rules unless it threatens to bring the entire session to a halt. Only by witnessing what happens when your exact words are taken as gospel will you know exactly where the text goes wrong.
  • There were a couple of times when I, the Director, wanted to cut into the story and keep it from derailing. As above, this was due to old habits of mine, but it did bring up an important aspect of gameplay for Directors. There needs to be a safety net for Directors to keep the scene on track as agreed upon by the entire crew. The idea of a trigger built into scenes was mentioned and it’s something I’ve seriously considered. For example, if the Ironbound suddenly decided to head south and investigate the mountains rather than the river where the witch dwells, the Director can use a trigger to divert their attention back to the river. Not to force them, mind you, but to give them one more chance to reconsider. Were I considering to simply release ScreenPlay as a single product and let the world have at it, there would be no need for such a consideration. Since I’m considering the idea of individual ScreenPlays complete with backstory, supporting characters, roles, scenes, etc., that would mean some pre-scripted elements provided as a challenge to the Writers. Which brings us to #4.
  • This style of improvised play will not necessarily work with a scripted idea like High Plains Samurai. The term “Writers” may not fly if the Director has a complete layout of everything and a detailed scene-by-scene account of the story. Can this be corrected by simply referring to the players as Actors? Something to consider.
  • While the Difficulties proved possibly too high in the Ironbound script, the enemies were unimpressively weak. As pointed out above, the scarab witch’s only challenge was a demonstration in how to sneak up on an opponent while she’s casting a ritual. The main cause? The Director is quickly outnumbered by the number of Writers, a typical possibility in many combat-heavy RPGs. The fight with three goblins was fine, but the solo skirmish with the witch was a joke. There needs to be room for a solo opponent to pony up as much threat as multiple opponents without inserting a unique exception to the rules (i.e. bonus descriptions without dice rolls).

Add on a few more minor notes and we have our main list of correction to make for Version 1.02.


ScreenPlay will need an autopsy as some of the key terms need to be shored down and a cause of death (as it were) determined and corrected for the next draft. While it may not involve wearing a white lab coat and dictate my observations into a dictaphone (only because the lab coat hasn’t arrived), I’m trying a new approach to this game by spreading the entire nine page document on my office’s bulletin board. Behold!
The benefit of writing a smaller, more compact system is the ease in which you can display everything like this. I can look over everything and scan through the document faster by using nothing more than good old fashioned brain power. Using the notes taken at the table, I’ve circled and marked areas requiring any correction and designating which sections must be completely rewritten. It also allows me to look at the game as a collection of individual segments and determine if some of these issues may simply be a matter of placement. Learning your typical roleplaying game normally involves referring to something the reader will learn about in more detail later in the chapter or within another chapter altogether. This way, I can evaluate every segment’s arrangement and consider juggling things around for better clarity.

As you can see from the photo (to some degree), I have already begun to make notes of this version’s cause of death (figuratively speaking; gotta stay on metaphor, ya know). Next week, I’ll reveal the results and how they’ll change the game in dramatic ways.

Just hearing about ScreenPlay and Project Phoenix for the first time? You can find the entire tag right here.

You can download Version 1.01 of ScreenPlay from Dropbox.

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