Good playtesting is essential if you want to publish a one-shot, but there’s more to playtesting than sitting around the table with your friends – as fun as that is! Here are our top five tips you can use to playtest your one-shot effectively.
1. Balance your encounters
Look at your players’ abilities to balance your encounters. You’ll be able to hit them where it hurts—and give them badass moments too!
Before starting the one-shot, there are a couple of things you should check. The first one is encounter balance. Dying in the first round is no fun—and killing monsters without a challenge is boring! Now, balance works in different ways, depending on the system. For D&D 5e, there’s the Challenge Rating system, which you can use as a guideline to guess how difficult will an encounter be. There are several tools that calculate encounter difficulty for you—one of which is the Encounter Counter. Remember that action economy also plays a big role in balance: a group of medium enemies could be harder to beat than a single strong one.
An easy (and engaging) way to balance your encounters is to look at your players’ abilities. This will let you use monsters that are vulnerable or resistant to their abilities (it depends on the encounter you want to create!). For a playtest, you can give pre-generated characters to your players to make sure the party will cover all major archetypes. A party of wizards will be squishier than a party of paladins, so the feedback you’ll get won’t be as useful.
2. Make sure puzzles don’t become stale
Well-designed puzzles should always have consequences, even if the players don’t crack it.
The second thing is puzzles (if you have any)! Puzzles are a different type of encounter because players rarely resolve them with a die roll. This means that striking the right difficulty for a puzzle can be tricky, especially if the group you’re playing with is not used to solving them. Before your playtest, make sure you have alternatives if the players get stuck with it. Taking too long to solve it should have consequences (a guard walks in), and not solving it correctly should too (the entire building explodes!). This will ensure that the adventure keeps going no matter what—the show must go on!
The hard part about puzzles is that you, as the creator, know exactly how it’s solved. So you’ll need external input to know how difficult it actually is! Something I like doing is to playtest the puzzle by itself. Give it to a friend without the context of the one-shot and have them tell you how long they take to solve it. This might not be possible all the time, as sometimes you can’t separate puzzles from the RPG mechanics. But if you can, it’s worth trying!
3. Find players willing to playtest
When looking for players, set the proper expectations—make sure they know what playtesting means!
Now, this is the tricky part of RPGs, isn’t it? You need actual people in order to play it! For a playtest, unless the one-shot has a specific party size requirement, aim for a party of four. This is the standard size in most games, so it will give you a clearer image regarding its balance. If you don’t know enough people who want to try it, you can use looking-for-group tools online. Roll20 has one such tool, which has the bonus that players looking for groups there are already Roll20 users. And playing online means more possibilities of finding people!
When recruiting for a playtest, set the proper expectations for your players. Make sure they know they know what they’re getting into: there might be some issues, such as balance or pacing. If you want them to use pre-generated characters, they should know in advance too. But remember, it’s a game too and your players are there to have fun!
If you’re in our Discord server, you can also use the #looking-for-group channel to find players for your game!
4. Keep an eye on pacing
While playing, watch your players’ body language to see how they feel about the current scene.
Now comes the actual playtesting time. You probably thought about pacing already when you were writing the adventure, but sometimes we don’t realize how fast or how slow some scenes can be until we play them. So, observe your players (in a non-creepy way, if possible): their body language and the way they speak will tell you if the pacing is off. Make sure you’re balancing scenes with upwards and downwards beats, too. If all scenes are positive (upwards), they will become monotonous after a while. But if they’re all negative (downwards), they’ll be depressing and hopeless.
Of course, in RPGs, pacing depends on the players too. If they decide to argue about their plans for the next two hours… well, it’s a problem. But remember that the bad guys aren’t waiting for the characters to come up with the perfect plan! And if a scene is feeling too long, consider cutting it short. A fade to black with a summary of what happens can be a wonderful tool if used sparingly.
A great way to control pacing is with a clear plot structure. You can use World Anvil’s Whiteboards to organize your plot in a neat and clear way:
5. It’s playtest time!
Take notes during the session and have a round of feedback in the end.
Running a playtest is different from running a regular one-shot. We already talked about watching your players’ body language, but you should watch out for any balance or pacing issues you see on your own too. Unless it’s a quick fix, though, grab a notebook and write it down. You don’t want to stop the session to fix your adventure: not only will your players have less fun, but it’ll also be harder for you to detect pacing issues.
When the session ends, have a quick round of feedback. Be clear to your players that you want honest and constructive critique, and ask them to tell you something they liked and something they didn’t like. Be careful about biases: if you have friends or family in your group, they might not be willing to give honest negative feedback! In this case, read between lines and write down what they are not mentioning too: it’s probably something they didn’t enjoy as much.
Then, it will be a matter of taking these notes, organizing them, and editing your one-shot. Adventure design is a process of iteration: the first version will have issues, but the more you playtest it, the better it will be!
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