Playtesting is something I've had quite a bit of experience with in the roleplaying industry. And it plays such an integral role in the development process, I thought it would make a great topic for a series of Designer Diaries.
First, let me start by saying this: Playtesting Is Crucial. It is an essential part of any game-related development process. But what that entails can vary greatly based on the type of game you're talking about. Sure it's important - but what does it mean, and what does it accomplish?
Board games (for the most part) have defined goals and victory conditions. They have a discrete component mix, with a discrete rules system. This sort of concrete definition helps focus the playtesting... Do the rules work within these defined parameters? Are these goals viable given our rules or anticipated play styles? Do the components perform their function?
Roleplaying games, on the other hand, are far more ambiguous by their very nature. Rules are guidelines, not absolutes. Rather than a book being the final arbiter of decisions or controversies, the players themselves (or a single player by virtue of a GameMaster) assume that role. Even the goals of what you're trying to accomplish are fuzzy -- after all, you don't really "win" a roleplaying game like you do a traditional board game.
With a board game, you can reasonably assume that most people who pick up the game, read the rules and set up the components will follow a fairly similar process and come away having played the same game as other people experienced. Not so with roleplaying games -- you just need one quick trip to the forums to see how the same rules system and setting results in countless variations and different play experiences.
The amorphous nature of a roleplaying game can make playtesting a tricky thing, indeed. Rules, mechanics and scenarios need a good, thorough testing to make sure they are balanced, clear and viable -- but more importantly, when you're playtesting a roleplaying game product, things need to feel right.
With regard to WFRP, that feeling has a lot to do with every other part of the game. After all, we're dealing with Warhammer here -- this Games Workshop license has a long and storied history. A legacy to live up to. The Old World has a distinct atmosphere, and all the moving parts of the game have to make sense within that environment.
So when I sit down to playtest a proposed rule, try out a new career or run through a scenario, there are certain questions I ask myself (aside from determining if something works mechanically):
1. Does this recreate the action, excitement or tension of Warhammer as you'd expect to experience it, regardless of the format?
2. Does this belong in the Old World? Is it a natural fit rather than needing to be forced?
3. Does it enhance (rather than undermine, undo or conflict with) something already established in the setting?
4. Will players see this and immediately react by thinking "Now that's what Warhammer is all about!"
If I can answer Yes to those questions over the course of playtesting, I can be pretty confident that the results will uphold the Warhammer legacy and be well-received by the players.
So that's a pretty good high-level view of what we hope to accomplish with playtesting, and some of the challenges we face when playtesting for a roleplaying game. In my next installment, I'll provide a glimpse inside our internal WFRP playtest group.