Friday, June 25, 2010

Open Friday: Actual Play

I feel that, with few exceptions, the best RPG products released since the beginning of the hobby have their origins in actual play by their designers. They may not be slavish, one-to-one reproductions of what the designer and his players did when they used it in play, but they're nevertheless heavily informed by what they did.

So, here's the question: if you discovered beforehand that a given product was something its designer had never played, would that affect your interest in it? Do you think it's important that game designers use their own products or do you think it's possible to design a good game or game product without the designer's personal investment in it? (Note: I'm not talking about a lack of playtesting so much as the idea of a product's being created for reasons other than immediate personal interest by its designer, if that distinction makes sense)

I'm off for the day, as usual. See you tomorrow.


  1. I would definitely think twice about a game that the designer had never played - or had only played in playtesting, and wouldn't really consider playing or running in their own free time. If a designer doesn't have that much sympathy for the sort of game they're designing, how can they possibly expect to do a good job?

    Even if they're working on commission or something to cobble together a type of game they wouldn't necessarily have wanted to work on or play off their own bat, I would sincerely hope that by the end of the process at the very least they'll have come up with something they can look at and say "Yeah, I would want to play that."

  2. If I discovered beforehand that a given product was something its designer had never played it might affect my interest in it. I'd be likely to wait and see what multiple folks had to say about the game before I bought it.

    It may be important for game designers use their own products as good design may be enhanced by personal investment. There is however always the chance of personal investment being there and the end result can still be an unplayable pile of steaming chits.

  3. It think it possible for a designer to write an outstanding RPG product without having played it.

    But not probable.

    Like most human endeavors, RPGs design benefit greatly from actual experience putting things to the test. The taking what you learn, refine it and try again until you get down pat.

    The major exception would be a highly experienced designer writing a product. In that case what happening is that he is taking his play experience and combining it differently for the new product. So while the product itself may not be a result of actual play, the various parts are.

  4. I got news for you, folks. That $10,000 USD ring was mass produced by the hundred in a jewelry factory in India/Pakistan. By the same token, you can produce a truly custom piece of jewelry for the cost of the weight of the gold in it plus a little to the jeweler to make the mold, decent piece around one grand.

    Having said that, it does not make any diferrence to me whether the authro has played the rpg game that s/he authored. Honestly, I never thought of nor do I know, which games were writen without play. By same token, I have played some AWFUL board games, which were being made from scratch with with a view towads eventual publication. If someone told me, which rpgs were written without prior gameplay, I would think about if those game mechanics are any worse than those that evolved from play.

    I like to write my own adventures and modify heavily whatever rpg game I am running. I draw a lot of imspiration for my games from diverse sources, primarily history and trade publications, with a view towards making game more realistic. I would consider any rpg rules to see how I like it, how novel and realistic they are, and if I like it enough, I impelment it in my game. Not so much in the actual play, but in the adventure writing and player character development. So, I never thought or cared about, if the game was born out of actual play sessions.

  5. I expect most bad adventures were not play-tested.

    But some might be bad because although they were based on real session, some of the best bits didn't make it to the finished products. Maybe what made those sessions great was someting that couldn't be bottled. Or maybe it was so seemingly obvious to those who played it that they didn't write it down.

  6. So the question is "should the designer play their game outside the design cycle?"

    I'm of two minds on this. Firstly having lived with the game for several years the designer might not want to play the game for a while. Which is perfectly understandable.

    Secondly the designer probably wouldn't have designed the game if they hadn't have been interested in it.

    On the other hand. if the question is whether the game is played by the designers or simply written, well, you can have all the finest theory in the world, but unless you put it to the test you cannot determine whether it will actually work or not. I find a number of game designers, especially in so-called indie market, get wrapped up in the mechanics of their designs so much that they can't see the forest for the trees. These are the sorts of games where the mechanics starts to get in the way of the gaming experience. You often feel in these cases that there has been insufficient blind playtesting, resulting in a game where the mechanics, seemingly a brilliant and innovative idea in isolation, aren't really suitable for play, or where the designer has failed to explain how they should be properly applied.

    Similarly adventures need to be played through, because people will find out and do stuff that you wouldn't normally expect. Plus they need to be tested by doing silly things, and seeing what the consequences of that are, as well as smart things. And with different groups/gamemasters from the authors, to seee things that are hidden by the designer's/group's style of play.

  7. I reckon Rob Conley is right.

    Designing a great RPG resource certainly seems a lot less likely under those circumstances, but it's probably not impossible.

    Would it affect my interest? Not really. I'd still give the product a look if it seemed like it might be useful to me. It would definitely affect my expectations, though.

  8. Pavane: "the designer probably wouldn't have designed the game if they hadn't have been interested in it"

    That's how I feel, too. Most RPG's aren't going to make people rich. They're labors of love, and if you're lucky and good, you can make a living wage off it. I find it hard to believe that a designer could (or would) spend hours on an artistic endeavor that they did and not come out thinking that it's worthwhile.

    There is, possibly, the scenario where an incomplete or otherwise flawed product gets released. This could be due to printing schedules, or trying to get a product out under deadline, whatever. I can see how in that case, the designers might not feel like they were able to do their best work.

  9. Rob: "The major exception would be a highly experienced designer writing a product. In that case what happening is that he is taking his play experience and combining it differently for the new product. So while the product itself may not be a result of actual play, the various parts are."

    I'm not that's an exception though - there the designer has put together a combination of parts which, although they haven't necessarily used them all in the same session together, have been used and table-tested individually. Moreover, it's a combination of those parts which the designer is happy to endorse - it's something which the designer would happily use at their own table, even if the opportunity hasn't happened to have presented itself yet.

    Compare with the situation with, say, a designer at Wizards who would never use miniatures in play at home, but is asked to design the next edition of D&D with the use of miniatures assumed because management have decided that is what's required. Or a staffer at White Wolf who gets picked to write the next Changeling core book, even though they secretly can't stand all that fairy crap and wouldn't run a Changeling game if they weren't being paid to.

    I'm not saying that either of the above situations have ever happened, mind, just that it's a situation which could easily happen and would most likely lead to disaster.

  10. @Arthur - I agree for the most part however additional playtest does benefit even the experienced designer because of the law of unintended consequences. So a designer that continually playtests even his 200th module would consistently produce better products than the one that doesn't. With all else being equal (which it rarely is)

    I will add a big fat caveat here like all creative endeavors doing everything technically right doesn't mean your stuff will be good. There have been great creative works have come from authors indifferent to rules or their technical skills sucks.

    However relying on that is like trying to win the lottery for your personal income.

  11. If the game designer hasn't played the game they're trying to sell me, how can they expect me to want to play it?

  12. Its obvious. Good cooks eat their own cooking first before serving to others.

  13. Designers who don't play their games.

    Gamers who are actually just readers/collecters.

    Reviewers who haven't played the games they review.

    *scratches head*

  14. Playing it can only help design.

  15. Bigger problem than hypocritical designers (not playing their games) is the WoTC hiright graphic artists and writers to churn out fantasy without any interst in it, and adopting a tone of a thirty year old to a twelve year old audience. At least Gygax was into swords and sorcery. Havig said that, I saw an NPC design system from Twilight 2000, which used playig cards. I liked it, and the next step to expand on it was to read books on Cartomancy (fortune telling by playing cards) and Jungean psychology, to really FLESH out personalities for NPCs. Truth is, Twilight 2000 was a very pale version of the personalities in those two original sources. Game designers are only good for game mechanics, any kind of presentation of game setting is limited by what they read, their talent, and life experience or lack of it. Staring with B/X Duchy of Karameikos, the settign was just terrible and I could fine better sources for my capaign in the real world.

  16. What if the designer has a different play style than yourself?

    For all I know, the Forge of Fury was extensively played and play-tested by the designer(s) before's still a linear piece of crap. But that may be what the designer runs in his regular game. Same with the folks that right railroad-y adventures.

    Whether or not an adventure has been played before gives it no "seal of approval" from me.

    However, I will say that when I find out that an adventure I love HAS been played before by the author, I am overcome by an intense curiosity to know "how THEIR game went." I find it interesting to compare and contrast the author's actual (presumed intentioned) run experience with my own.

  17. My view on this is less of a have they played it and more of a why was it made. Was the game made for being sold? Did the maker actually want to make it? These are the questions I would ask because a game made just for fun and never actually played by the maker will at least have a soul and a vitality to it because the maker invested something into it. You can make a game easy to play and make a game that reads good on paper but chances are if the maker did not want to make then it will be lacking.