... now with 35% more arrogance!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Follow-Up: I Hate Play Testing

I talked about a lot of things in my rant about the Cult of Play Testing, but the two main points I wanted to cover were the delusion that pen-and-paper RPGs, like computer games, can become obsolete, and that tight, mathematically-oriented design is a Good Thing in RPGs.

Video games become obsolete when the hardware or operating system they were designed for is no longer available and the game was never ported. The hardware for your typical tabletop RPG is some kind of writing tool, some kind of randomizer, and the people to operate these. The operating system is called "your brain". Your brain is not obsolete, and simple writing tools and dice (or cards) still work the same way they've always worked for centuries. Batteries don't go dead in dice or pencils. Treating tabletop RPGs as if they were computer programs, requiring frequent updates and a rigorous design process, is not only ridiculous, but I suspect mostly about ego, putting on airs of being some great designer.

As for tight, mathematically-oriented designs, the problem with repeated tweaking of numbers to get the perfect system, meshing perfectly and rationally with all other components of the system, is that it produces boring RPGs. Plus, since those components you are tweaking are really a matter of taste, it's not really the perfect system, is it? Just somebody's temporary answer to the question "how do I want to play?"

The thing is, despite the name, roleplaying games are not games; they're pastimes. They are not meant to be rigorously-defined activities with a clear objective, but loosed "play" with transitory "in-fiction" goals. The most fun in an RPG happens not when the system performs as expected and players are able to demonstrate their mastery of the rules, but when unexpected surprises happen. That's why the GM's rulings are so important: not because they fill in gaps in the rules, but because they keep the game from being just a pen-and-paper version of Diablo.


  1. But it is possible to playtest for simplicity and ease of use, not balance. If you tend to forget to invoke a rule or players get it wrong constantly, this tells you to change or drop it. In this regard playtesting is critically useful.

  2. I think we need to parse two different definitions of "obsolete". Something can be obsolete in the sense that it's simply no longer produced or used, which doesn't necessarily mean it's no longer useful, or it can be obsolete if it's no longer useful, because it doesn't work as well as it used to or there's a superior alternative. Tabletop RPGs can become obsolete in the first sense (maybe the fanbase is rather insular and dying out, old copies are worn out, and there haven't been reprints), but not the second. The same's true of video games, though. I've had my younger siblings, one of which has mocked older games (as 14-year-olds are wont to do), play some of my old favorites and they fell in love with them. Sure, the 2D sprites could be updated to a higher resolution, and some tricks the designers used are obsolete on these newer TVs, but the gameplay itself is still solid! And like video games, some older tabletop games could use an update in their presentation. I don't think anyone would argue Gygax was great at organizing rules. New editions could present the same information in more efficient ways, port relevant Chainmail rules, etc. The actual rules themselves, however, do not need changed

    I have more to add later, but someone else needs the computer right now

  3. (cont'd)

    I have to disagree with your assertion that RPGs aren't actually games, though I get where you're coming from as I've held similar views in the past. A game is simply structured play; a series of meaningful choices. When we play RPGs, we agree to some set of rules and make decisions that matter. Thus, they are games. It was realizing this - that RPGs are just like any other game except that they distinguish between associated and dissociated mechanics - that led me to appreciate OD&D in a new light. When I stopped thinking of D&D as some wholly separate thing and began approaching it as I would any other game, I understood that older editions and playstyles hewed closer to my ideal of what D&D should be

    I also don't think there's anything wrong with tight design. The problem is that many designers nowadays (including ones in the OSR) focus too much on the numbers when it's actually the relationships they represent that are important and they work under the strange idea that balance is about making things equal. Of course your game's going to be boring if you're making everything the same! Classical views on game balance don't treat it like a scale, giving different components equal weight. Rather, it's about making everything as different as possible so choices can't be reduced to simple math. Individual preference then plays a larger role in making decisions

    1. Words have multiple meanings, which take on different shades in different contexts. There's a particular definition of "game" that specifies that a game must have a defined goal and one or more winners. It's popular among the Cult of Play Testing, but I even saw an OSR blogger use literally that definition recently.

      When I encounter people using "game" in this very strict sense instead of the loosed sense of any structured play, I counter with the definition of an RPG as pastime, rather than a game.

    2. It's really argue with such different premises; nevertheless, I agree with that blogger.

      Playtesting, to say something on topic, has many advantages, like sorting out clunky rules, options that nobody chooses, and also results you don't want to get. I understand your concern that some people's playtesting seems unreasonable to you but the problem is not with playtesting but your having different definitions of balance.

  4. Folks who go on about TTRPGs being 'obsolete', 'primitive' or, on the other hand, modern games having somehow 'evolved' to be objectively better... kinda make my head explode... just a little. (and yeah, they're equating 'evolve' with 'improve'... which is also dumb).

  5. To maintain the computer program analogy, games suffer from a surfeit of service packs, code changes and upgrades that eventually lead to a game that, while it still does what it should, does so slowly, and is more difficult to maintain. You can still use it as intended, or even go back to just the core rules, but in the former case you're putting up with the drawbacks, and in the latter, putting up with the known issues with the game.

    It's not surprising that, as tastes change, so would the desire for a reboot of the game to hopefully integrate the good changes, and get rid of the unnecessary cruft. It's not a permanent solution, but at least it resets the clock for a bit.

    And, speaking as someone who has been guilty of this himself, your concluding paragraph speaks of a little One True Wayism. You may find that the most fun comes from the unexpected, but that is definitely putting your opinion out there as fact.

    1. Hi, Jason! Welcome to my blog!

      Yep, I'm putting my opinion out there as fact. Because my opinion *is* fact.

      Again, welcome to my blog!