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What Makes a Great Playtester

External playtest reports for The Esoterrorists are beginning to roll in. (Thankfully, we kept them a step ahead of the rules implosion.) Nothing like a really detailed, useful playtest report to make a designer’s heart swell with gratitude. That folks are willing to put in the time and effort to experiment with an unfinished rules set, and then write lengthy reports laying out their experience with it, is a signal reminder of roleplaying fans’ dedication and enthusiasm of. Just as there are great designers, there are great playtesters. As a game creator, I am eternally grateful to the intrepid folks who’ve volunteered their time and mental energy to improve my work.

Want to impress the heck out of your designer of choice? Here are the hallmarks of a great playtester:

1. Willingness to engage with the premise. Great playtesters are willing to suspend their personal taste and step outside their comfort zones to try out games which rely on styles of play which may not be their favorites. Failing that, they gracefully step aside and wait for the next playtest project to come along. They recognize that a game’s basic design goals are already determined by the time a playtest MS is ready and don’t waste their time, or the designer’s, arguing for an entirely new premise.

2. Actually playing the game. Especially for the older player most likely to successfully run a playtest, groups are hard to assemble and keep together. But cold comments on a MS without the benefit of play experience are worse than useless. They’re actively counterproductive, confronting the designer with observations of untested validity. (Questions on unclear text can be useful even before play, but you get more focused, pertinent queries from GMs actually preparing to run than from the armchair reviewer.)

3. Ability to assemble a likeminded group. The ideal playtester has a group of players also willing to put up with the confusions, hassles and rules implosions inherent in the playtest experience. Overenthusiastic playtesters ask for the MS before they’re sure they can get their players to participate.

4. Detailed, specific feedback. Great playtesters provide specific accounts of what actually happened during play, especially of what went wrong and why. “We were confused by X”, “Character creation took too long”, “Our game stopped dead when X happened.” “No one got the clue about the broken stairs.”

5. Emotional detachment. The great playtester wants to help the designer solve the game’s problems but has no particular investment in how they get solved. If the designer adopts one of their specific suggestions, great. If not, that’s great too. The great playtester knows not to gray the poor designer’s hair by campaigning for a desired rules change after an issue’s been put to rest.

6. Playing the rules as written. This sounds as a default position that should go without saying in a playtest. But more than once I’ve received playtest feedback saying, “We didn’t like rule X so we changed it to Y.” A great playtester realizes that the designer needs to know how his rules work (or fail to work) and resists the urge to introduce wild cards into the process.

Sometimes a designer or publisher gets truly lucky and finds people with the seventh, bonus quality of the great playtester. They go on to become great community members, talking up the game on the net, running demos, engaging in other volunteer efforts, and generally spreading that all-important word of mouth.

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