Using Your Voice: How To Be A Good Playtester

In November, Rob, Rach, and I wandered down to Metatopia and took part in a playtesting extravaganza. If you've never heard of Metatopia, and you like playtesting or want to get your game tried out, then you need to get to Metatopia. It's the only convention for RPGs I know that focuses on playtesting and getting designers connected to one another.

Avonelle and Vinny work hard to ensure that new arrivals to Metatopia feel welcome and have an understanding of what playtesting and being a playtester are like. And yet, not all of us can have the magical experience that is Metatopia. Many of us are relying on our own instincts and thoughts on playtesting to provide feedback to designers. We play their games, take some notes, and provide random feedback hoping some of it is useful.

Even more of us are trying to be supportive without providing useful feedback. We say things like "That was really great. I really enjoyed this game!" We think that's helpful or useful. We think that's gonna help designers because it'll make them feel good. Or maybe we don't feel like our feedback would be useful so we just default to supportive.

Either way, many of us are flailing at playtesting games hoping that something we say is dynamic, impressive, and helpful. With the rise and domination of Kickstarter, many games are being released ahead of time for playtesting. Some of these companies, like Magpie, have formalized methods used to submit feedback with google forms. Other companies rely on the confidence of playtesters to email them with their feedback. And still others just hope someone tags them in a G+ post about their game.

Recently a conversation came up on the Gauntlet about playtesting and what it means to playtest. I asked some pointed questions towards the folks talking and we came to realize that intention doesn't really bely outcome. If you say you want to playtest, in my mind, you are saying you want to make a game better by helping the designer with feedback. However, it became apparent that many people playtest simply to get a preview or exclusive look at the newest games soon to arrive.

Is there a sweet spot in the middle and what does that look like? How can we get the opportunity to try new games before they release and still provide effective and useful feedback? What is useful feedback? What isn't? How can we be mindful when we're sending feedback to the designer as we keep in mind it's their art we're examining? And how can we ultimately be good citizens in this community as we support designers?

Naturally, I asked a bunch of designers what makes a good playtester. I also integrated my own core beliefs about community, and my experiences being a designer and asking for feedback at Metatopia and in my local community. From a designer's perspective, especially as a new designer, it's a little harrowing and a lot upsetting and maybe just a little fun. It's certainly an emotional ride.

Playtester Principles
Want the Game to Succeed
One of the key components of walking into a playtesting situation is to want the game to succeed. This means, you really want that game to become something you can buy one day. There's something about it you can sink your teeth into and it's something you love enough to throw money at eventually. The other part of wanting something to succeed, means going in with the intention of helping the game do better, not just having a good time.

Sometimes we play games we know we're not going to like because our friends are into it or we signed up for it on a whim at Metatopia. We shouldn't tap out half way through and give shitty feedback just because it's not the game for us. If you're going to be playtesting, keep in mind that you need to play games you really want to help make it to the finish line. Even if you don't like the game, as long as it's not gross and offensive, you should still want the game to do well because games are great and that person is putting their heart on the table.

Always Give Constructive Feedback
You know what's not constructive? "That was awesome!" "This is brilliant!" "This game is amazing. I love it!" All of those are super supportive but not actually helpful. When you're going to give feedback, it's important that you make sure it's not just a bunch of compliments and that it's legitimately constructive feedback. If you find yourself needing to continually put in cheerleading, then by all means pepper it between your actual feedback.

What is constructive feedback? It's specific, it's mechanical, it's emotional. It's all the things you experienced during the game that you felt helped or hinder get you to the promise the game offered. Figure out or ask what the game is trying to do. What is it trying to make you feel or what is it trying to facilitate and then ask the hard question: does it deliver that? If so, how? If not, how not? Those are points of interest to designers. Focus on those for your feedback. "I liked mechanic x because it made me feel y. Was I supposed to feel y?"

Be Specific
While your thoughts on the overall game may be lovely or scary to hear, designers aren't generally looking for your overall feedback. They're looking for specific things that you can point to and say "This was awesome because of x." Or "This sucked because it threw me out of the fiction." These specific points are important because designers are often so close to their games it's hard to see it from the outside at times.

Really try to take your time with the game when you're playtesting and try out different mechanics as much as you can. When you're noticing something not working, that something is important. Specify what it is, why it wasn't working for you, and how it made you feel. If the designer wants your ideas on how to fix it, they'll ask, but realistically, they just want the specifics of the situation and not your ideas on how to fix it. The devil is in the details, so always sent feedback that's as specific as you can get.

Take Notes on All The Things
This is something I've started doing when I playtest. I take notes as I go, noting what we're doing, why it didn't work out, and what conclusion we came to. Any questions players had about it, I ask them to circle that part on their sheet and write a question about it. I'll take notes as we discuss the thing that's bugging them, and then I compile the data into an email and send it off to the designer.

Scribble on character sheets, quickplays, basic move sheets, and anything else the game comes with that you printed. It's all gonna go in the recycling anyways. Notes really help clarify what you were thinking and how you were feeling. I jot down how something made me feel if, in my head, it doesn't jive with what I think the game is doing, or if it made me feel something strongly I feel the game is trying to do. But always take notes while you're playtesting so you can recall later what you were thinking when you go to give your feedback.

Mechanics! Mechanics! Mechanics!
As much as designers work hard at having a cool setting, the things that're gonna make this baby sing are the moving pieces. Mechanics are the core element of most designs that bleed heavily into the fiction and bring us back to the fiction over and over again. Of course, if it's a system you're familiar with, that can both help and hinder. You may be able to fudge or strong arm a situation if you're familiar with the system more so than if you're not.

Pay close attention to mechanics. See how they work into the fiction. See if they're awkward or not hard hitting enough or too hard hitting. See if they break tension or create tension. See if they make story or stall story. Anything that tends to stall story or play should be noted. Anything that breaks the genre should also be noted. If you feel there are too many currencies, then that should be noted. Basically take really hard long looks at the mechanics and when the game stalls out, see where it went wrong mechanically before you look anywhere else.

Playtester Agenda
Don't Break the Game
Seriously. You shouldn't be proud you can show up and shit on someone's creative work and make them feel bad. There's no medal for being a douche nugget and being the person who actively tries to break games makes you a douche nugget. Games are literally creative, artistic endeavours people are trying to create for others. Be kind, courteous, and respectful. Don't walk in with the intention of exploiting rules and loopholes to make the game unplayable for you or other people.

Sure, there's a certain idea that if you can exploit the rules to make a bad play session, the designer should know. But what they're looking for is how the game plays as written, not when it's taken to extremes and contorted so you can cackle with glee as the game falls apart. Go with the intention to try the game, not to break the game. Never break things. It's just plain mean.

Ask Questions Like Crazy
As you're playing, if you happen to be present with the designer and you're confused about something or want to see what would happen if you did a thing, just ask! Ask questions. Let the designer fill in the gaps for you. And if you see an issue, then gently point it out. Ask if you're supposed to be feeling how you're feeling. Ask if this mechanic was intended to let you do x if it feels out of place. Ask what the intention was with certain mechanics or set up. Ask. Always ask.

Questions help designers see how people are viewing their game and where the game is leading thoughts. It also can often help point out of a flaw, inspire a new idea, or help paint a clearer picture of intention. Some of the best questions I get are "Why did you do x with y move?" in terms of PbtA games. I get to think about it, and see if I had an intention or if I was just making shit up. It really lets you think about what you're doing and why when people ask questions. So always ask questions. Always.

See If the Idea Holds Water
There are a lot of games out there. And sometimes designers feel the need to make a game about an idea that may or may not be the best idea out there. When games are first in development, you're often testing to see if the idea is compelling or not. That's it. You're not playtesting to see if the mechanics sing or if the game flows. You're just seeing what that genre or style of game is saying to you and what its intent was all along.

Sometimes, our ideas don't hold much water because while they're good in theory, when you sit down a bunch of people to play, it obviously doesn't progress much or actually playing it is boring as hell. I'm fortunate I haven't had that happen, but I know the day will come when it does. Some ideas are just cool in theory and not in application. Or pieces of the game are cool in theory but suck in application, so you have to kill that part even if you love it a lot. Let them gently know that. Very gently.

Point Out Where You Got Lost and What Got In Your Way
The game should be driving you towards having a specific experience. When you're playing a game, it's promising you'll get to do certain things and behave in certain ways. If it fails to deliver on those things, that tends to break the fiction or break the play and the game may have gotten in its own way or may not have mechanics to support where it lead you to. That's always a concern and you need to take note of this when you're playtesting.

If a mechanic leads you to somewhere that gets in the way of story as opposed to leading to story, really note that to the designer. Especially if it happens through multiple uses or playthroughs. If a mechanic leads you astray, so that you end up in weird places that don't make sense, same deal. Anything that stops play or gets in the way of story or loses story really needs to be noted. For these situations, I recommend trying to recap a little of how it happened, so take a few good notes around those moments for the designer to grasp the situation completely.

Answer Questions Thoughtfully and Honestly
While it seems like this is a logical bit, it can be really unnerving and difficult to tell someone parts of a thing they made sucked. But try to communicate how you feel with honesty, integrity, and gentleness. When the designer asks you specific questions about how the game is working or not, it's important you answer honestly rather than brush it off or ignore it if there's a problem. The designer is trusting you to help them make the game better.

If you're taking notes, and a specific question is asked, go back and see if you noted anything about what's being asked. Often I find that I do. I also really try to make sure that if there's a mechanic I like but didn't understand fully, I admit all of that. That I liked what I saw, I didn't feel it did it's full thing, and that I didn't understand what would happen if it did fully do its thing. Sometimes that's enough to make the designer step back and look at it. Take your time to think about your answers. Don't feel rushed. Designers will wait. But do make sure you answer honestly so that they don't think something is good when it's not.

Overall, good communication, integrity, kindness, and good intention all payoff in the long run. Playtesting is about paying attention, being present, and wanting a game to do well, and be better. It's one of the few times players will encounter a game that currently isn't about them. It's about the game and the designer. It's such an inverted philosophy that a lot of people struggle to really provide good feedback because they're just thinking about how good of a time they had instead of what the game needs from them.

If you're going to playtest, then playtest. Don't tell people their game should be more like game x or game y. Don't tell them how to fix the game. Tell them about your experience, ask questions, and tell them what you liked. Don't be pushy. Don't overgeneralize your experiences. And don't take it personally if the designer doesn't listen to your feedback. That happens sometimes and that's okay. Be kind, but honest.

These principles and agendas should help you get through playtesting in 2017. If you're going to pick up the Playtester playbook, I recommend you keep in mind that playtesting will be one of the few times in gaming it's not about you, and much like community organizing or facilitation, it'll be a time when you're focused on the product instead of you, the player. It's an amazing experience to see your feedback help make a better product and I sincerely hope everyone will try playtesting if they haven't already.

And maybe, just maybe, we'll start understanding that playtesting is part of making games awesome and our community better. Moving forward with love in playtesting will make sure people remain relatively safe, feel heard, and everyone feels valued and respected. Love will make designers feel better about getting playtesters they trust and playtesters will be able to lend their voices into the design process without coming off as useless when often they are trying to be supportive.

So go forth and playtest! Help designers make better games! Help yourself become a better player!

Be vulnerable and stay fierce.