Ronin Round Table: Play, Test, Play

If you’re curious, it was reading about Chris & Nicole’s ongoing at-home game night that’s got me wanting to talk about my playtest game night. I get to play a few different games on good weeks. I try to play board games like 7 Wonders or party games like Celebrity with my regular potluck group. Some nights I get to play RPGs for straight-up fun, no work attached, and sometimes I play them for a mix of entertainment and study.

That last type of play—testing material for later publication or sharing—usually happens on Thursday nights. That’s when a pair of old friends from college, both of whom are experienced gamers, RPG players, and GMs, come over to my place and play RPGs in my living room.

Our game table is a wide, low Mission-style coffee table I found discounted at a vintage resale shop. Its interior cabinets are stuffed with board games. Its drawers are stocked with dice, playing cards, card games, and wet-erase markers. The players sit on the couch. I stand. I usually stand when I GM.

I do freelance design work throughout the hobby, so we tend to play different games, week to week, depending on what game system I’m designing, learning, or breaking now and again. We play some one-shot adventures and short two- and three-part campaigns. One of our few ongoing campaigns, of course, is Dragon Age.

Our Dragon Age campaign centers on two elves—a rogue and an apostate mage—who are sometimes more like antiheroes than heroes. (I’m not sure the characters would see it the same way.) The rogue, Althea, is a dexterous city elf whose skills as an urban explorer and infiltrator would get her in trouble with the authorities if they were savvy enough to catch her. (Her specialization is still developing as we play—it’s a custom build called "Infiltrator" that I made just for her.) The apostate, Imadra, is a Dalish activist trying to rally elves to throw off the weights of human oppression and restore their ancient civilization. He discovered a buried ruin where spirits from the Fade taught him the first secrets of the arcane warrior tradition.

Together, these two characters have undertaken missions for friendly Keepers, robbed a templar keep, raised money to better equip city-elf soldiers in a battle against darkspawn, slain an Orlesian noble laying siege to the once-secret stronghold of a brotherhood of thieves, and quite a bit more. Big, recurring themes emerged naturally, highlighting issues of personal freedom, the evils of oppression, how hard it can be to escape tradition, and the ever-shifting nature of friendships and rivalries. I try to run a campaign in which the rollicking adventure is punctuated by moral choices that matter—an expression I happily borrow from other Dragon Age designers—creating a nuanced ongoing atmosphere that’s more about allegiances and betrayals than high-fantasy notions of Good and Evil.

To carry the campaign from 1st level to 11th (and on up) in good time, I’ve been using a simple flashback style to tell our story. At any one time, we have two or three versions of the Player Characters "active" in the campaign, at various levels. For example, we might play an adventure that unfolds by flashing back between encounters at 5th level and 3rd level. At 3rd level, the Player Characters might be infiltrating a templar storehouse where an old magical artifact is being held while, at 5th level, the Player Characters are trying to recover that artifact from thieves who stole it from them. (That’s just an example; in practice it’s much more convoluted than that.)

This isn’t a technique I’d recommend to everyone. I use it because it helps us progress through the game levels quickly without implying that progress has been quick for the characters themselves. It lets me go back and test mechanics suited for lower levels (because we keep sheets for the PCs at almost every level) without a lot of retconning, because we know there are weeks or months in the characters’ lives we haven’t explored yet. It lets me juxtapose encounters in a fun way while ham-fistedly pushing the story in certain directions ("Okay, so that thing you stole has been stolen from you…") which I wouldn’t do if we weren’t so pressed for time, week after week.

It’s not perfect but it’s often quite fun.

With just two characters at the heart of all this, the campaign has taken on a style more akin to the Dragon Age comic series, The Silent Grove, than to the video games. We have two recurring templar NPCs (whose names I can’t share, ’cause I don’t think the players even know them yet) who have pursued the Player Characters throughout Ferelden, from Gwaren to the Dales and beyond, but have also saved them from an Ogre attack, allowing the PCs to escape with the understanding that their chase was not over yet. (The flashback technique has helped a lot in making their relationship with these templars more compellingly complicated.)

All of these flashbacks and encounters get punctuated by flights of game-design fancy as I toss in little ideas here and there to expand the campaign or test out new mechanical notions. For example, to rapidly build out a larger cast of NPCs, I tried a technique using cards that interacted with our flashback mechanism to project relationships into the past and future of the campaign. ("One of these NPCs betrays you," we might say, "and one will be dead by the time you reach 7th level.") That’s not a technique I would work into a future product, but it was fun to meddle with. I needed the campaign to be stocked with a cast of multiple NPCs to test out a potential future AGE mechanic, though, and that got me a quick network of relationships that I could work with.

Now the PCs also have an NPC Warrior on their side. They take turns deciding his actions in combat. It helps us test out mechanisms that are warrior-facing and get a better sense of how certain mechanics interact with a larger party. (Plus it’s teaching me how to instruct others to use NPC companions in play.)

A lot of what we’ve tested in my playtest campaign won’t appear in the outside world in any familiar form because it appeared at my game table in its roughest and draftiest form. Often, what I learn when I try out some mechanic I’m tinkering with for a future AGE Exploration-style DLC product is "this doesn’t work, does it?" So I take it back to the drawing board and I refine it.

At any given time, I’m testing two or three or four little ideas and mechanisms that help me find the most fun solutions to certain mechanical ideas I might get. Some of these are strictly mechanical (like how much Health does this monster need) and some of these are about play style (like how to keep making flashbacks fun). All of them help me understand gameplay better and inspire me to write new mechanics, design new DLC, and explore new ways to look at the game.