Was it my playtest or just me?

Just had a playtest go wrong today. That’s fine, in the sense that the first step at getting good at something is being really sucky at something, but I can’t tell what was really the thing that was “wrong.”

Was it the system itself? My explanation? Something from my players? Because it was via Zoom? Something else entirely? A combination of any or all of the above?

We usually play DnD, but when I run things it’s usually old school Marvel FACERIP or Monster of the Week. But I’ve been designing something completely new, maybe too new for this group. It was definietly more narrative, less crunchy, and meant to emulate the feel of a button-mashing sidescrolling video game.

Players roll for “Spotlight” as an initiative, and that number can be used to roll any number of dice, one at a time, when performing actions – like tapping your skill button on the controller repeatedly. You stop rolling when you either - get the number you like, - you get interrupted by rolling a “threat” number, -you run out of Spotlight.

This was based a card game I call “Russian Roulette,” where you declare how many cards you want to turn over, but if you hit the Queen of Spades, you lose. It’s an incredibly simple idea, but creates a lot of drama, anxiety, etc! My players wanted to really play things safe, and only rolled like one or two dice of Spotlight at a time, so maybe the “drama” worked too well.

It was clear no one had a good time, so by that metric it was a failure. How can you tell when something has legs and it’s worth refining, or when you just have to shrug it off and put the idea back on the shelf?


It sounds like your playtest worked as intended. You want people to engage with the Spotlight mechanic, but it appears the rewards for pushing your luck are too low and/or punishments for failure too high. It’s fine if your playgroup tends to play it safe, that is a good barometer for you, because when even they start taking risks you know you’ve made your incentives strong enough.

There is some common advice that for a mystery scenario you need to make the clues twice as obvious as you think they need to be (or more). The same applies for game design. You are neck deep in your own concept so you are hyper aware of all the little nuances, but not the outside observer. Your challenge is to create a system that appears more broken than it actually is. If you want players to engage with a mechanic, it needs to sound exciting and powerful even if it is mechanically balanced.

Tangential but related. Psychological studies have shown that loss feels twice as painful as success feels good. So if you want your players to engage in risky behavior the reward needs to appear at least twice as good as failure. Similarly, if you want the players to feel like the game is “fair” (IE I win as often as I lose), they need to succeed 75% of the time.

If you detail how the mechanic works I can help you dial in what I’ve been talking about.


So one methodology that might be helpful for you to parse your experience is Design Thinking.


Essentially, Design Thinking puts empathy at the forefront of the design process. Thinking about your customer (or in the case of RPGs, gamers) first and basing your assumptions (definitions) based on your conversations or feedback from that group.

Design Thinking is a loop, as the infographic demonstrates. No playtest is lost, because with every test -even ones that go terribly wrong - you learn something. If you dig into why your players didn’t enjoy their experience - or empathize with their pov - perhaps by asking them, then you can better define, ideate, prototype, and iterate therein.

Design is a process. Everything has legs… even if it seems like an abject failure at the time. We always learn something. I would try to ask your players to be honest with their feedback and see what they say. Remember that when receiving feedback, it’s not necessarily what they say, but what’s driving them to say those things.

Cheers, and good luck!


It’s hard to say what went wrong without knowing more about the playtest. The mechanic sounds solid, but the idea of a side-scrolling beat em up as a narrative game feels counter intuitive to me. What kind of story were you trying to tell? Are there mechanics that support the story, or are the mechanics more about hitting stuff? It’s also hard to tell if the spotlight mechanic might leave some players waiting a long time for their turn. Could also just be that your players came into the game with the wrong expectations if they’re not used to these kinds of games.

Did you do a debrief, or ask the players how they felt about it?


As @pizzazzeria says, above, it’s very hard to know anything about your playtest without a sense of what the game you were playing was, the people involved, and what you were going for.

The concept - “a side-scrolling beat em up as a narrative game” - is confusing to me, as well. I don’t even know what that is supposed to be, exactly!

So, if you want more insights or feedback, I’d start by telling us as much as possible about the circumstances. I’ve seen games fail for reasons as simple as the players misestimating how much time they had to play, the goals of the game, a personal dynamic between the players (e.g. one person makes a political joke, leaving another player silently angry for the rest of the session), a misunderstanding of what kind of activity this is, and so forth. I once had a game fail miserably simply because some of the mechanics, it turned out, relied on physical cuing at the table - but none of us would have noticed that before trying to play it online.

I’d write about:

  • Yourself, your process for the game, your goals, and how you put it together.
  • Who else was involved. Who are they? Do they know each other? What are their interests and priorities? (Was one player under the impression that the point of the playtest was to push the system to its limits, for example? Was someone else there “just to have fun”?)
  • What medium was used, and how did it go? Where there communication problems of any sort (internet connection, a language barrier, etc)?
  • What were the expectations of the people involved?
  • What kind of fictional content was created? Is there particular genre? Particular content? Particular creative goals, a la Creative Agenda?

And only then I might look at how the mechanics were engaged and what happened.


@pizzazzeria, I’m with you regarding the confusion on the premise. If it is literally a side scrolling beat-em up maybe the idea is really more of a dice game than a story game.

The game that game to mind for me is Battlecon. It is a FANTASTIC 2D fighter (a la Street Fighter) simulating boardgame that gives the players real strategic and tactical choices (although no dice are used). This is probably not what you intended but that’s what popped into my head.

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Thanks all for the kindness and replies. I’ll admit I was more venting and commenting on this particular playtest process itself, so I deferred from going too much into the system and premise. It was written in some heat of reflection as well-- it was a second playtest, so there was the added frustration of wondering if some earlier problems were solved, if new ones were uncovered, etc. I’m commited to the design process/writing process in my real (?) life, so I’m for sure taking steps through as you all outline-- it’s certainly good to hear that confirmed and I really appreciate @Radmad for their reply. These forums are awesome!

Upon reflection and in response to others, I think a lot of it stemmed from a disconnect in the players as audience. I tried, of course, to set a lot of expection in the genre, style, tone, and expectations of play (and of playtesting) that just didn’t connect. That 4th bullet point of Paul_ T and how pizzazzeria says maybe they’re not used to these kinds of games.

Deckard, you are right in that Street Fighter is something not too far away, and Battlecon is a new one; I’ll have to check it out. My attempt to make it narrative was along the lines of the old Wushu game, where you add any number of details, as part of this Spotlight idea. There’s also some DNA from Feng Shui in that. But rather than taking the idea of “Here’s my action, and I now put three dice of effort into it to see how effective I am,” my players were still stuck in the idea of “For my action, I want to hit three guys, so I’ll roll three dice and see if I each one.” So yeah, even after examples and modeling, it kept defaulting to this.

I do understand where I can rewrite and re-term some things, and that brings me back to what prompted me to post in the first place-- it’s hard to try to figure how what those things are, and to what extent. If you think writing is hard, wait until you try re-writing, right? :slight_smile: Let me tweak some of those things first, then offer some of it for discussion here.


Ok, here’s how I’m refining it. You don’t have to read the previous discussions to pick up the thread from here. This is all still being playtested to see how the numbers play out (meaning using anydice, considering other variables, etc.), but in terms of “feel” and concept this is the direction I like. If you think the feel, concept, and direction is misguided, that’s more helpful to me right now.

:cyclone: WYRD: The force of destiny inside the character. A list of aspects/fantastic powers/stunts, etc. Rated 1 - 5, this number serves as the default/starting setting of the character’s Power Bar.
Ⓧ ◯ ▢ △ and ♢: “Skill buttons” rated from +1 to +5. Each button has its own flavor (Ⓧ are Forward actions, ◯ are Manuever actions, △ are Insight actions, etc.) and are equipped during character generation. This serves as adding to a dice pool when looking for successes, and successes add to the Power Bar during fight scenes.

In other words, characters with high Wyrd ratings will have great raw power but be slow in harnessing it, while characters with high Skill buttons instead will be adept and precise even if it’s building over time.

The basic action roll is to roll one 6-sided die (the “action die”) and score a result of 5 or 6. This is considered a success, a.k.a. “a Power result.” All dice make open-ended rolls, so rolling a 6 allows the die to be rolled again for another chance to score.

Players may choose to roll more dice in addition to the action die by spending points from (or “tapping”) a Skill from one of the Ⓧ ◯ ▢ △♢ “buttons” on the character controller. More Power that is scored increases the effectiveness of your actions, of course. However, any dice showing 1s are at risk of being lost as “Threat dice” that exhaust the Skill being used.

On your turn, you make one of two moves:
–> Build up Power.
Narrate details about your action, then make an Action roll. All Power results add +1 each to your Power Bar.
–> Spend Power.
Narrate details about your action, then make an Action roll. Any Power result allows you to spend any number of points from the Power Bar for a variety of buff/debuff/strike effects.

At the end of your turn, resolve any “Openings.”
Any die that scores a 1 in an Action roll is now a “Threat die” against the character. Re-roll the Threat die/dice, and every number rolled equal to the Threat Level (1, 2 or 3) or below adds +1 Stress. Players may ignore Threat dice before re-rolling (and thus avoid the potential loss of Stress) in two ways:
→ “Exhaustion.” Negate Threat dice by lowering the Skill rating that was just used. (-1, each.) The Skill rating remains exhausted (and further losses may accrue) until the Player chooses to Refresh by skipping a turn
→ “Lose Ground.” Negate Threat dice by adding points to the Threat Meter (+1, each.)
Note that you cannot split the options of Threat dice; they are all rolled for Stress, all Exhaustion, etc.
–> Hard Openings: If the character fails to score any Power results from an Action roll (showing ineffective or “failed” actions), the Threat Meter goes up +1 before resolving the Opening, if any from 1s, as above.

Obviously, there’s more to it than just these paragraphs, so if you want to comment on a three-page Google doc version, there’s this: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1RhL7MS6Bm2fRkuN5obA4QZKqZotcoq-y_CrE4EPcsbg/


Just a minor side comment, and this may be based on a misunderstanding, but it seems like a player is at greater risk to get a Hard Opening if they don’t tap any buttons since in that case they’ll only be rolling a single die and need a 5-6 to get a Power result. This may be intended, but it seems a little counterintuitive that what seems like a cautious move is so risky.

Also, I’m always wary of double punishing failures, where you not only fail at doing what you were trying to do but you also get additional penalties. I think I would prefer a system where you grant openings based on rolling 6 instead of 1 - you get a success (perhaps a great success, if the reroll also gives you Power), but you risk overextending yourself.

Skipping a turn to refresh is also a feel-bad moment, generally speaking. D&D 4E handled this reasonably well - using your second wind to recover some hit points took most of your turn, but if you planned it right you could still do something else too.


That’s not a side comment; that’s exactly the kinds of things I want to hear!

Yes, Players are expected to tap buttons, and the risk is part of the game feel. This brings me to my OP in that I’m trying to figure out how to take that response and tweak my expectations accordingly. Mechanically, I think I will go to 4 - 6 as “Power” result, so even one die can be 50/50, although I’ve been hedging that decision since it’s not very grainy to step up, and suddenly it’s like 98% at the high end. But, maybe that’s what I need, greater reward to make it worth the risk.
Actually, in a recent test I used d10s, but then the default action roll (before taps) was 2D10, with 8 - 10 as successes. I liked the grainy steps between skill ratings, but no one really tried tapping many buttons at all, and the players didn’t like the d10s, anyway. Did I give up on them too soon?

This brings me back to another aspect of the original thread actually :slight_smile: My expectation would be more PBtA style, where it’s fiction first, so the action description stands but the roll says how effective it is. You hit the mark, but it bounces off kind of thing. Also, the “Opening” is there as a way to make it GM-less; it signals a move by the opponents. (a possible one - there is still choice/chance). My players weren’t too used to that, tho, but they liked having some narrative control over the ebbs as well as the flows.

“Skipping” was a poor choice of my wording, above, when trying to make a quick/condensed version. It is a conscious move the player can make and is not so passive as if it were a Uno game. Sorry for that impression.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read and respond! It does mean a lot and you’ve allowed me to think about it more. I’m literally stuck in a hotel for quarrantine as I’m moving, and I need to keep my brain busy :slight_smile:


I’m always happy to discuss this type of game design issues. :slight_smile:

With this type of game, I think it’s important to keep in mind that while the GM sees all the players’ turns as roughly equal, for the players their own actions are much more important to their experience. This means that having a mix of good/bad turns may seem fine to the GM when a player who has a string of bad turns may have a very unfun experience (especially as we humans are highly sensitive to bad results).

This is always a danger with fortune-in-the-middle, where you describe what you’re trying to do, then randomize, and then describe the outcome.

My instinct has become to move towards fortune-first as much as possible, where you first randomize and then describe what you’re doing. (Feng Shui has this, at least in the second edition, but it doesn’t enforce it very much so it’s easy to slip into the more trad fortune-in-the-middle style of play in my experience.)

What I’m suggesting now may be a very different type of game than what you’re envisioning, so feel free to ignore it. It’s similar to how I’ve approached the (very light) sketches I’ve made of the loot grind RPG that came up in a discussion here some months back.

So my idea would be to let the player first roll their dice and then choose their maneuver based on how many and what kinds of successes/Power results they get. I would keep the buttons - I think those are a very fun idea overall, and they slot fairly well into this - but give different types of successes to different dice results from the various buttons, or give different dice to the different buttons. Like, maybe red dice give attack power, blue dice give attack accuracy, green dice give maneuvers - you get the idea. Or a blue die gives accuracy on 4-5 and the ability to split the attack over multiple targets on a 6. Maybe a red 3-5 is +1 damage but a red 6 is +2 damage with a drawback.

On the player’s turn, they pick which buttons to tap, roll those dice, and then pick out a move (or more than one move maybe) they have access to that fits what they rolled.

To my way of thinking, this has a couple of advantages. Instead of getting the possible results of “I did what I tried to do” or “I failed at what I tried to do” when you roll the dice, you get “This didn’t go so well, but let’s see what I can do with this” (which could be followed by “Huh, that wasn’t so bad after all!”) or “Wow, look at all this! I can do something awesome!”, which works better for my tastes. You can still shoot for a particular move by picking dice that gives you a better chance of getting it, but if you don’t get what you need you can probably still do something else.

This is similar to how some card games and card computer games like Slay the Spire work: Each turn you get a number of options, and the fun part of the game is using those options in the best possible way.

But like I said, this may be a completely different game from what you’re looking for.


Interesting that you say “this type of game.” Is there something specific about the above rules that sparked that or are you referring to TTPRG stuff in general?

Your ideas about the color of the buttons/Skills is interesting, and I had some thoughts along those lines at one point in the process, even using different D sizes, as I like the combo, button-mashing, element to it. I always consider suggestions.

It’s also interesting that your way of thinking was in fact very similar to the Spotlight idea that I originally mentioned at the top of the threat. It was almost more purely fortune-first the way you describe. Unfortunately, it was pretty big hurdle for my playtesters, and added Yet One More Thing to the action rolls, and I really want a streamlined, quick action game. That’s also my excuse as to why I can’t quite grok Blades in the Dark as each roll seems tactical in its very execution. Yes, it’s quite collaborative in the storygame-ing of it all, but it’s not the flavor/feel that I want. I wonder if BitD, your thoughts, my Spotlight. are more of the trend of recent games though, and worth pursuing?

That being said, I think fundamentally all RPGs, even your suggestion, is still fortune-middle as you describe. After all, the turn begins with the player picking the approach or having some idea of the action before rolling the dice and then executing the moves. Maybe RPGs are always fortune-middle, but it’s the degree to which that enables or blocks a flow of ideas that yeilds the variety of games we have. A purely fortune-first would be something like Catan where you simply roll and gain resources, then you know if you can even build the road or not. (Now I’m thinking also of the old Saga system where players made actions from a hand of cards.)

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With “this type of game” (which I used without formulating it clearly to myself, I must admit) I mostly meant games where the focus is on the characters’ actions and overcoming obstacles - procedural games, in some sense, I suppose, as opposed to dramatic games where the focus is on interpersonal drama, ethical dilemmas, or personal growth.

I don’t think roleplaying games are fortune-in-the-middle by necessity, though the medium certainly pushes strongly in that direction. For example, you could have a game in the vein of what you’ve described where you don’t get to choose which dice to roll at the start of your turn - you just roll your dice and then decide what actions to take (and maybe set up your dice pool for the next turn). But yes, that would be an outlier.

Speaking to your experience more generally, I’m not sure how much you should focus on the pushback you’re getting from your playtesters. Unless you’re designing this game specifically to play with that group, I think you should follow your vision of what you want the game to be, both because I believe it will make you happier to create a game the way you want it to be and because I think a game with a unique vision has a greater chance to find its audience than a compromise.