Minimum Viable Playtest
There’s a strategy we have here at Off Guard Games: Minimum Viable Playtest.
Whenever John and I get a game idea, we talk about it for a bit, and see how excited we are by the prospect. What catches our fancy varies. Sometimes it’s a piece of the setting, or a cool scene we can imagine playing through. Sometimes it’s a clever new mechanic we want to test out. If both of us are excited about something, we set down what’s needed to have a minimum viable playtest. What does that mean?
You don’t have to have a finished book with professional sheets and an encyclopedia of world details—just enough to sit down and play a game at home with some friends. You want to aim for entertainment for an evening. This means you need a few things to hit the table:
- Elevator Pitch. Tell the people at the table what they’re going to be playing and what’s the buy-in.
- Core System. You want the core mechanics outlined in a way that someone (not you) can read, understand, and reference during the game.
- Character Sheet. You want folks to have a sheet as a reference device to help remind them of what they can do.
- Reference Material. This is a catchall category for things you’ll need in play. More below.
- Starting Scenario. You don’t need box text, but polishing up what you’ll be doing will help in a number of ways.
Let’s take a look at each of these in detail.
The first goal a game has is to find its audience. If you can’t get a crew excited to play, you probably need to go back and work on this. You want to write this for every game for a couple reasons.
It will help you crystallize what the game is about. If you can’t put on paper some basic answers about the game, it’s probably worth it to spend some time thinking about purpose and audience. I like to answer a few basic questions. What do the players do? What do the characters do? What does the GM (if you have one) do? What are you playing to find out?
It also gives you a good way to introduce people to the session, and have your expectations be clear. Setting expectations is always good.
Finally, if expectations are clear and the group is excited to jump in, you probably have something worth working on. The first goal of every game is to get to a table. If you can’t find a group excited to give it a spin, you may want to spend your energy on a different project.
Players want to know how to engage with the game. If you can’t condense your core rules into a one page (or two page front/back) handout, you probably want to take another stab at it. Folks process things at different paces and want refreshers and references when learning or adapting to a new system. You could just slowly explain all the steps a few times, but seeing where people get stuck and what questions they have is invaluable.
If you want to playtest a game, you need to be able to teach it relatively quickly. The 300 page detailed explanation with advice is for the book. Condense everything you need down until someone could read it and learn it in a short amount of time. Watch what people ask about (it means that piece is unclear or hard to find on the page). If you have too many systems and sub-systems it becomes exponentially harder to see people engage with them and learn from them in the span of a single playtest.
A character sheet isn’t just a record of play—it’s also a place where you can note some basic rules reminders, provide an area to keep notes, and give folks a chance to jot down feedback. It doesn’t have to be a fancy thing—some circles and squares in a word document should work. But remember that this is often a focal point for engagement, and a way to help people structure their thoughts and the process of making a character. This is absolutely crucial for play.
I have a friend that loves a clean table when GMing. But that’s the sort of thing that happens long after you’ve internalized the rules. Players trying something for the first time prefer to have stuff on-hand to look at and reference without stopping the game, I find. This reduces questions and interruptions and can also remind you of the rules, since this is an alpha/beta! You don’t have everything memorized!
If you have two phases of play? Make a handout that lists the steps so everyone can play along. Going to be making some characters? Have a name list on the back of that.
List the bare minimum you think you’ll need. Think about what the game looks like with one, and without. Remember that you can add more references as the game goes on if you need to, but be flexible. Sometimes a little extra work will go a long way to making a smoother playtest. Exactly how many do you need? I can’t tell you offhand. It’s something that varies game-to-game, and you’ll have to trust your gut on.
When we made Scum and Villainy, people kept asking for a starting scenario. I remember at the time being confused. As a GM, wouldn’t you just make one? But I realized two things.
First: this greatly lowers the bar for getting a game to the table. If you have a scenario made for your first playtest, people can re-use it. And that’s one less thing they have to do before running the game (in addition to reading the rules, printing, pitching it to people and so on… folks running betas do a lot of work!)
Secondly: By forcing yourself to examine a starting scenario, you will lift some burden from yourself even for your beta. If you’re spinning tales on the fly, you have less bandwidth to watch people’s reactions and ask yourself questions about how the mechanics are working. I find that hashing out details for yourself is immensely helpful in and of itself.
Some games have dynamic openings (you don’t know what you’re playing until after the characters are created). That’s fine! Do what you can. Prep some monster descriptions. Make yourself a handout of tables to roll on. Do whatever you can to help you focus on the playtest itself.
Do you absolutely need a character sheet? It’s going to be expected, but perhaps your friends won’t care. So why is it on the list? For us, that’s what we prep for our first playtest. There’s an art to knowing what the barest minimum is (what else can I cut?) and having a functional playtest. Perhaps you can get away with less? In which case go for it. The above is just what we’ve found works for us. If you set a lower bar, it creates less overhead and gets your game to the table faster. In which case you’ll see the excitement of the folks playing, and be motivated to keep working sooner (hopefully!).
But how little is too little? What works for you? There’s only one way to find out. Make some games!
Till next time.