Community Voices: John Sheldon’s Top Five Things He Learned From Playtesting

Written by Pete Figtree on . Posted in Community Voices: Top Five Lists

Meet John

John Sheldon is an Illustrator and Graphic Designer, and an aspiring game designer. He currently does page layout and electronic publishing for the Society of Automotive Engineers. He spent a few years in the Army Reserve as a Broadcast Journalist doing TV news, including a year-long stint in Iraq producing a daily newscast. The education benefits he earned there are coming in handy as he studies for a B.S. at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He is currently playtesting his first all-original tabletop RPG (Tabletop Blockbuster), which he is developing with his wife, Brianna Sheldon.

5 Things I’ve Learned About Playtesting (by Playtesting)

1 – Start as soon as you can. Playtest as soon as you have something you need to test. If you don’t have a good grasp of the probabilities, go ahead and just roll the dice or pick the cards, or do whatever randomizing step your game involves. If you have an understanding of the probabilities, go ahead and test the interactions of your system as soon as you have enough in place to test. This means different things for different games and systems. Some, like the game I’m working on right now, start testing in a relatively complete state because of the level of detail needed to make the whole thing work

2 – Cut ruthlessly, and don’t get too attached. Unless you get lucky, playtesting will uncover a lot of problems you never anticipated. If it goes well, it will also throw any previously identified issues into sharp relief so they can be readily analyzed. All of these problems need solutions (unless you’re fine with leaving certain kinds of problems), and many of the best solutions involve cutting or changing rules and written material rather than adding new rules and material. So, don’t get attached to your rules. They will change, and the new rules will be better when they stand up to testing.

3 – Focus your work, and your testing. Few games aim to “do everything” the way GURPS aims to, and even GURPS doesn’t really aim at everything. Know what you want your game to do, and watch carefully to see if the play at the table reflects what you want to see. If you’re fairly sure of some segment of your rules (after it has been tested, of course), use the testing time to either confirm your confidence or test some other rules. Make sure the elements you want to test come up early, and often. You’ll see the rules come up in more, different ways, and get better feedback to help you polish your design

4 – Listen carefully. The most important part of playtesting is player feedback. Much of it comes from simply watching the game at the table and trying to gauge the player behavior and reactions, just as you might when running any other game. When playtesting though, you’re watching for how the players react to the rules more than how they react to the scene’s description or the actions of the other characters. The rest of the feedback, and perhaps the most powerful feedback, comes from an After Action Review. Make sure you have time for the players to offer their feedback at the end of the session, and listen carefully. Take notes. Ask questions, and make sure you understand what they really mean

5- Listen Skeptically. Most players will have ideas about what you can do to fix the problems they encounter, or things they perceive to be a problem. Listen to them. Write them down if you think there is value there. Don’t assume the players are right, though. Some things a player doesn’t like, or things that didn’t go well at the table, might not actually be the fault of the rules. Carefully examine a problem, and see if it actually arose from the rules, or if it has another source. Tweak the rules if you’re comfortable, and try it again. Keep rules suggestions in mind, but this is ultimately your product and the person making the suggestion might not yet have a full understanding of the rules the way you do, or the reasons that drove you to design the way you did.

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Pete Figtree

Pete Figtree


I am a father, a teacher, and a gamer. I believe that games can give us some keen insights into our lives, and I know that they can encourage and foster friendships and community.

Ruthless Diastema: Loading the Dice for a Meaningful Life

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