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Designer Diary: Help from Outside the Imperium


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Posted 21 October 2008 - 09:30 AM

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Hello! My name is Sean Schoonmaker, and I am a Dark Heresy playtester and contributing author to The Inquisitor's Handbook. I have pirated Ross' Design Diary for a moment to talk about playtesting and its role in Dark Heresy, as well as some of the common myths surrounding it.

Virtually everyone wants to become a playtester, but very few consider what this actually entails. Most envision themselves privy to the darkest secrets of the game while manipulating its development from behind the scenes, basking in the envy of others as they use the newest classified creations. Best to shake that image from your mind right now and get ready for some work!

You're not cleared for that information
All playtesters in your gaming group sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement with the game's developer, which is a legally binding contract. It means exactly what it says: you may not discuss playtest material with anyone outside the group. No posting tantalizing hints on the forums, no "just between you and me" chats with chums at your local game store, and no use of any of the material outside your group. It’s even wise to avoid "I know but can't tell you" comments, as they invariably turn any conversation sour. So in many ways, it can be a lonely and unrecognized vigil.

In for a penny, in for a throne
When you sign on to test a manuscript, you're committing to test the whole thing, not just the parts that you think are cool. You still get to test the cool parts, but it also means that even if no one wants to play the Imperial Navy Bilge Scraper or try out the Hesh Pattern Rivet-Gun, it still has to be done. It also means that you may spend a whole session in exploration of what happens if your Acolytes try to tickle an Ork, or using nothing but Investigation skills in the Librarium. In short, you have to explore the entire manuscript, and all the silly things Acolytes might try to do to disrupt it.

Oh the stories they tell
To set up suitable situations for playtesting, the GM needs abundant creativity to keep things fun. That said, the spirit of the game tends to infuse everyone fairly quickly, and there’s no shortage of really humorous situations that spring up. In a regular game, a player can’t often tell the GM, "No, wait! I've got a better idea of how we could have played that." Now, you not only have that chance, but it's encouraged. It becomes fun to say, "What if we try to use that skill this way?" and eventually leads down the road to hilarity — especially really late in the evening. You may find that players will chuckle for days about "that one time with the Ork."

There is no "I" in playtest

Your biggest responsibility as a playtester is to point out when things have gone awry. In most cases this is relatively straightforward, such as, "We found the Arch-Heretic too tough with Psy Rating 4, but thought that Psy Rating 3 would be about right." However, you should put aside thoughts of "We didn’t like the rules for bilge scraping, so we wrote some for you to use." So, armed with your well-tested input, they're bound to make changes, right? Perhaps. While you might find an "error," it might be key to an element of the game you haven't seen yet. Once you file your reports, you have to trust that the game developer knows what's best for the game.

The devil's in the details

Playtesting involves writing reports that not only say you found something that didn't work, but also explains the circumstances and details behind the test. Instead of "We really hated the section on bilge scrapers", you'll need to expand your comments to "Two members of the group noticed that the rules for the Bilge Scourer talent allows them to make five attacks per turn against Void Rats while blindfolded, but it wasn't until the second run through the encounter that they found the loophole." This gives an editor the solid facts to judge your comments.

Herding cats
Probably the most difficult part of playtesting is assembling all these detailed notes. You've finished playing for the night, chuckling about some of the fun you've had, and are cleaning up the flotsam and jetsam scattered across the table. Perhaps your players have hastily scribbled some notes concerning the evening’s experiments, with the good intention of writing them into a report "later." It's the responsibility of the whole group to combinethese fragments into a cohesive report in a timely manner. Is your whole gaming group ready to provide that level of commitment?

You want it when?
In most instances, the designers have factored sufficient playtesting time into their production schedule, but sometimes the best laid plans can run afoul of crashing hard drives, late submissions, or a million other challenges. Can you get your group together, test a manuscript, and finish the write-up by next month? Just like writers and editors, you have a deadline, and need to get your reports in on time!

Experience points
As you become more experienced with playtesting, you'll find the experience pays off. A good grasp of game theory and probability will begin to creep into your brain. You'll really start to get a feel for what makes an encounter playable and fun for the entire party — not just the gunslingers. Your skills as a GM will blossom as you try out new and different ways of looking at things. If you stick with it, both the game developer and your players will look to you as trusted source of good input, and perhaps even ask you to do a bit of writing.

Ask not what the Emperor can do for you
Take a deep look inside yourself and ask why you'd like to be a playtester, after reflecting on both the work and the rewards. You see new material before the masses, but you can't tell anyone about it. You work to make comments and suggestions that might be ignored. You labor long hours so your names can appear in a tiny footnote at the back of the book. Why? First, because it can actually be fun, but mostly to make every 40K roleplaying title a little bit better, clearer, and more playable — to make this game truly shine!

Now that my rants have likely caused a Corruption Point or two, I think that it’s time to leave…

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