A Pragmatic Theory of Playtesting

Okay, friends! Here's some nonsense that I think.

Internal Playtesting Or External?

The purpose of internal playtesting is to get your game to the point where it's good enough to share outside of your immediate circle of friends. I don't have anything to say about internal playtesting just now.

The purpose of external playtesting is to get your game to the point where it's good enough to publish. This is what I'm talking about here.

The Conversations You Always Have

There are some conversations about Dogs in the Vineyard that I've been having regularly for the decade that the game's been in publication. Most of them are good! "Hey, this game is great! We gunned one sinner down, but made a worse sinner into the sheriff. Why did we do it?"

A few are, yknow, not bad, but repetitive. Every time someone new encounters the game, there's a chance I'll have one of these conversations with them:

"Hey, it's to my mechanical benefit to get fallout. How come I get a benefit, not a penalty, for taking a blow?"

"Hey, I made a town that only went to False Doctrine, and my players were bored. But doesn't creating a murderous sorcerer rob the town of moral nuance?"

"Hey, when the Dogs say that same-sex marriage isn't a sin, doesn't that mean it's not a sin anymore?"

There are some conversations about Apocalypse World, same thing, I've been having them for five years now and no end in sight. Most of them are good. "Hey, this game is great! I thought that my friend Lily would choose the hardholder, and SHE TOTALLY DID! Also Marie violation glove brr, but Ada workspace woo! Woo!"

But every time someone new encounters the game, there's a chance of:

"Hey, when I attack someone but I don't want them to do anything, so it's not going aggro, and they can't fight back, so it's not seizing by force, what move? Like with a sniper rifle?"

"Hey, resetting Hx is borked. You get to know someone better so now you know them worse? What gives even."

"Hey, I kind of hate highlighting stats. It's poo."

And so on.

When you publish a game, you sign yourself up to have the same conversations about it from now on. That's what you do. That's what publishing a game means.

What You'll Never Ever Know

You'll never ever know, I hate to break it to you, but you'll never ever know what people think of your game. Whether they like it or hate it, enjoy it or endure it, whether it's even playable. You won't be there to witness it, and the people who are there, they won't tell you. That information dilutes into the chaos of force, motion, and uncaptured history, it never reaches you intact.

Occasionally you'll catch a glimpse, at a con or something, but your very presence distorts it and makes it unreliable.

All you'll ever know for real is what happens when you're there firsthand, plus the conversations you have.

The Pragmatic Theory of External Playtesting

So then. My pragmatic theory of external playtesting is that you playtest your game to try on conversations about it. You rewrite and redesign until you're having the conversations that you want to have, and then you publish. Or else it never comes together, and you abandon the game instead.

With AW:Dark Age, for instance, playtesting made it crystal clear that if I published, a conversation I would have about the game, from then on, would be "we tried to play, but instead we argued for four hours about how and whether rights worked." I was exhausted by this conversation after just once; I couldn't face a decade of it. So I bagged.

With Midsummer Wood, on the other hand, playtesting made it crystal clear that if I published, I would nevertheless basically never get to have any conversations about the game at all. It just wouldn't take off. I published it anyway, for other reasons; I knew perfectly well what I was getting.

The purpose of external playtesting is to get your game to the point where you're having the conversations about it that you want to have. Then you publish, and those are the conversations that you get to keep having from then on.

Installment 2015-09-24


Topic: Pragmatic? How about Creative instead!
Started by Gordon on 2015-10-05
1 reply by Aaron Friesen.
expand conversation >>

Topic: The Conversation on Rights

On 2015-09-24, Gryffon wrote:

For what little it's worth, I definitely counted myself among those readers who didn't grok the point of Rights in Dark Ages, and I could certainly appreciate how exhausting a lifetime of that conversation could be. But given some time and distance, I find myself more and more enamored of the concept. There's not an easy answer. Of course not. Because that mirrors life—I have Rights, and they've been ignored or infringed upon; sometimes there's recourse and sometimes there isn't. 

So—I'm just saying, I'd love to see Rights get their due one day, even if it's not AW:DA. 

On 2015-09-24, Vincent wrote:

I would too! Thanks for saying so.

On 2015-09-25, Maciej Starzycki wrote:

For me the rights were pretty clear, that was I think first - how to say that - sociological game mechanic? Game system for society? Anyway it was pretty clear. Right can be infringed, but no one will be surprised when you try to do something about it.

Basically - wonderful idea for game in medieval world, where one of the most troubling aspect is making players quickly get how the society works.

Coming to think of it, I was struggling with thought on how to create good system for victorian class society - and now I see that something akin to rights is perfect for that.


Anyway, for what is worth it - I also believe it's great idea. The bigger issue with DA was too much effort on setup.

On 2015-09-25, Christopher Wargo wrote:

Vincent, two things:

1. Is this conversation online somewhere? The big 'Denied My Rights' thread has offerings from you that are cryptic, at best. 

2. Was the point of rights to give the characters and the players a sense of entitlement or justice for which to fight, something that when denied gives the characters and players justification to feel aggrieved? Does it dovetail with your thinking on negotiated assent at the player-level?

On 2015-09-25, Borogove wrote:

(Christopher, do you mean the 4-page thread on the BFA forum?) 

It seems like the common sticking points for PbtA rules are where the rules say a thing, and new players think "wait, it can't possibly mean what it says, does it?" and the answer's always "what, you thought a fake marmot?"

On 2015-09-25, Maciej Starzycki wrote:


Thats actually great point - but that work for many games (Indie especially): "Just read the rules, and take them literally. Don't try to read out more then there is."

On 2015-09-25, Christopher Wargo wrote:

Borogove: yes, that thread.

On 2015-09-26, Vincent wrote:

Christopher: 1. It's in that thread and scattered through others.

2. Some of them, the most troublesome of them, yes, right on.

It does dovetail, yes, in a way that I haven't been able to capture anywhere else. It's that you as a player are capable of both assenting and also holding it against the GM or your fellow players. In RPG discussion we often treat assenting to something and liking it interchangeably, by presuming that you'll assent only to things that you like, and they aren't. You won't.

On 2015-09-30, Mike wrote:

Vincent, do you mind unpacking your goals (or highlighting them elsewhere) for Rights a bit. I think it might help me with what I'm struggling with in a Western thing I'm working on again. 

Basically, it has playbooks (very AW-ish, if not outright copy/paste), but as the Town starts to become ordered, elected officials with power / authority to make the Town a better place appear.

And, I think "packages" of Rights makes more sense that traditional moves, layered upon the playbooks.


<< collapse conversation

Topic: Never Knowing
Started by Thanqol on 2015-09-25
1 reply by Vincent.
expand conversation >>

Topic: 'Motion'
Started by Christopher Wargo on 2015-09-24
1 reply by Vincent.
expand conversation >>

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