I'm currently designing a game, and I have most of the elements of the game sorted in my head. I'm in the process of codifying them, and I wanted to know what game elements are essential for a playtest?

I currently have a Dice roll mechanic to cover combat/skill checks, character stats and skills. I have something similar to nature from mouseguard. Eventually I want to introduce feat like abilities but I don't think I'm able to make enough of them in time for the playtest.

Are these enough? Or do I need to add more?


9 Answers 9


I'm going to take the contrarian point here:

If you're still designing elements for the game, a playtest is the wrong choice

See a much better written explanation here:

You need to stop playtesting. It's not just that you're doing it wrong, it's that you're doing it wrong in ways that hurt your games. Furthermore, by promoting a culture of design in which playtest is held up as the be all and end all of the design process, to which all other elements of design must bow down, you are causing at best cause other, newer designers to feel inferior and inadequate and at worse cause them to mutilate their own designs in ways similar to which you have mutilated your own.

Now, as he explains, there are excellent reasons to playtest, mainly to test the comprehensibility of your rules.

However, when working out the game mechanics, you should have a complete statistical model of your game. You must not rely on other people to figure out that the mechanics of your game do not match the intent.

Instead, using graph theory and statistics and game theory, you should be able to completely model the mechanical-theoretical (and mechanical-practical) domains of your game. You, as game designer, need to prove that every given combination of elements fits your intent and the expected behaviour of players.

This restriction of "complete mathematical model" also has the nice side effect of reducing reliance on silly systems that obscure and obfuscate the stats behind the scene in some vain hope that it will make them go away.


I currently have a Dice roll mechanic to cover combat/skill checks, character stats and skills. I have something similar to nature from mouseguard. Eventually I want to introduce feat like abilities but I don't think I'm able to make enough of them in time for the playtest.

This means that you aren't ready for a playtest. At all.

Instead, you should be using statistical models to look at all possible outcomes of the combat/skill check system and the modes of modification that feats introduce. Only when you believe that your statistical model is correct and complete (which by definition requires making all of the mechanical elements for that subsystem of your game) and rendered into some textual form, is it time to test.

You will be testing two things:

  • Did you explain your system correctly?

You should be able to predict the outcomes of the mechanical interactions that your playtesters attempt. (See: making your beliefs pay rent.) If the outcomes do not coincide with your models, try to investigate where your model was incorrect or your explanation of system was incorrect.

  • Did your models capture the complete range of action?

It is quite possible that you did not anticipate ranges of action being taken, and playtesting can show those.

The danger is Do not design your game for your playtesters. Instead, use them to identify flaws in your writing and your models of system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is contrary to good design practices in every single field. Exercising your design with real users early and often is the way to getting a usable game. If your goal is a "complete mathematical/statistical model!" then maybe you don't need it. If your goal is a game, that people, you know, play, you do. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 13:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ I strongly disagree. People tend to use playtesting as a crutch to avoid doing heavy analysis. Playtesting is important, but not for the purposes outlined in the above question. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 13:50
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    \$\begingroup\$ I strongly disagree to your strong disagreement. It doesn't matter how statistically sound your game is, if it's not fun for the players it's absolutely meaningless. Playtest it, find out how to make it fun for the people that play it and THEN analyze all you want, then playtest it again, etc. As an addendum to mxyzplk's comment, pretty much everything that is made to be used by someone else should have as much feedback from the intended users as possible, from as early as possible. The game is for them, not for you, or else what you want is not a game. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yandros
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 15:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ At the level of design that "I currently have a Dice roll mechanic to cover combat/skill checks, character stats and skills. I have something similar to nature from mouseguard." implies, statistical modelling is all that is fun. The necessary narrative and agency that turns that into a roleplaying game are missing due to lack of setting and supported choice. Playtesting that is basically playtesting craps. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 16:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ A discussion about this on chat \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 21:01

The big things I can think of off the top of my head that you need to be ready to playtest are:

1) The mechanical ways a character is defined and made distinct, PC and NPC (stats, attributes, moves, whatever method for doing this you've chosen)

2) A mechanism to resolve conflict, PC-NPC and PC-PC (physical fighting, potentially also social conflicts)

3) A mechanism by which the outcome of attempting a task is resolved (did you sneak past the guard, pick the lock?)

4) Who has narrative authority when? (Who's in charge of getting this show on the road, choosing setting, background, and defining what the non-PC world is doing? Probably not much of a concern with a traditional GM-ed game as, well, the GM tends to have it all, all the time :p But included for completeness' sake, as it's not always the case.)

I might have missed something? But I think in general once you have these 4 things you have a complete enough game to play through, though naturally it hasn't all been fine-tuned and you do need understanding players who know that and are willing to test it out and tinker with you.

Of course, the game needs something unique and interesting beyond these things that makes it a better/different option than all the other rpgs out there, but if you're writing an rpg then you probably already have an innovation ready that can be road-tested in play as long as those 4 things are dealt with.

  • \$\begingroup\$ From personal experience, unless you have flexible characters (or quick character death) #1 is probably the most important. Nothing ruins play for players worse than having your character turn out different from what you were picturing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yandros
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 15:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Setting, theme and tone should be added to the above list. While the game-like aspects of a roleplaying game are obviously important, without some kind of setting or content, it's unlikely playtesters will understand the intent of your mechanics, or how to achieve "fun" in your game. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Commented Mar 26, 2012 at 5:59
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user867 Definitely, in terms of what makes a worthwhile game, but I was more trying to define 'mechanically complete' than 'good'--though I did throw in the note about having unique qualities. \$\endgroup\$
    – RSid
    Commented Apr 2, 2012 at 21:49

You can run limited-scope tests as long as you let your playtesters know that everything won't be available, consistent or reliable until you sort things out. All you need is the part you intend to test, and that does not even have to be written down. You may even test things like different dice mechanics, switching between alternatives on the run. You just have to let your players know about it so that instead of getting lost, they can offer advice and feedback.


When deciding whether to playtest, the two options I usually consider are:
1) Can I in fact learn the thing I hope to learn from playtesting what I have?
2) What can I learn from playtesting what I have, and is that valuable to me right now?

For me, the answer to one of those usually turns out to be "yes". Then I go playtest, get surprised by a lot of things, try to figure out why things went the way they did, toss out the vast majority of what happened as not being proof of anything, and return to design with a teeny bit more data, insight, and inspiration. If you like audio, here's a podcast about playtesting, where I ramble about various things I've seen and done, while John provides some concrete tips from his Usability Testing background.

It sounds to me like you're ready to run a combat and do some skill checks, which will tell you a little (not a lot, due to missing context) about how combat and skill checks play. Personally, I would wait to test that until I could also test how it relates to progress in the fiction and change for the character, as those incentives will impact how players choose to engage with combat and skill check opportunities. But that's just me, and perhaps such incentives already exist somewhere in your system.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you just want to "run a combat and do some skill checks", you can easily do this without bringing in other people. This is, technically, play-testing, but it doesn't use up the time and goodwill of people who have volunteered to playtest your game. Even better than running "a combat", you can run "all the combats" (between 2 specific opponents). Draw a tree showing the different ways the combat can play out (e.g. "Player A goes first, and hits") and calculate the chance of each one happening. If you just calculate a few "moves" into the combat, this will reveal a slew of balance problems. \$\endgroup\$ Commented May 18, 2013 at 20:30

So long as the adventure you run is designed to exercise all the elements you want to test and you have cooperative players, I think you're good to go. As you add more elements, you can test the evolving system in the same way later.


I would recommend deciding on the core mechanic, and writing it down as precisely as possible. I've found that the simple edits can be discovered while writing/typing it out. Also, once they are documented you can share them in a much more consistent format. PS: You might want to visit rpggeek.com because from what I understand, they have forums dedicated to helping independent systems along - developers helping developers. Also determine what your system hopes to accomplish. Some systems out there focus on combat and discard the rest, some have social stuff as the focus but lack structure or balance in combat. Nary the twain have met but I strongly encourage you to try.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome~ Could you add a link to the forums you mention to enhance the utility of your contribution? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 7:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sure. You could click the link to the core site and click the "Forums" tab, but here's a link to the forum list: rpggeek.com/forums/region/2/rpg \$\endgroup\$
    – CatLord
    Commented Mar 24, 2012 at 13:30

I have been a playtester on and off for years with a system that may or may not ever be published. Here is what I have learned:

  1. Playing a playtest campaign has allowed me to build characters and campaigns in ways I'have never been able to with a stock system
  2. As long as people are flexible and don't mind rules changes on the fly, these campaigns can be very rewarding.
  3. Who cares if it ever is going anywhere as long as anyone is having fun
  4. On the creation side of things, just be prepared to do a lot of work in between sessions to keep the rules up to where the players want to be. When a player reaches the ability/rules ceiling they will lose interest. This may mean playing something else or not gaming at all for long stretches of time.

To answer the question more directly - The elements that you need are a concept, dice, flexibility and the will to make it fun. These things make a succesful playtest.


The absolute minimum is a means of putting characters into the playtester's hands, and some mechanic to playtest - usually the basic task system.

After that, a full task system and character generation are the normal next step.

Then, combat/conflict follows.


If you are still trying to determine what approach you are using, you are definitely not play testing. When i was actively working on my own system with three other designers... we used a dual "evaluation" and "play test" set of guidelines. One we would use usually as an evaluation follow up to a written document. This was really just for feedback on points we wanted, and was iterative - i.e. we used the same people over and over (3 groups) so their knowledge continued to build. I'm not saying its perfect, but you are welcome to use anything you can from my efforts (i still work on it, rewriting the whole thing right now)...


  • \$\begingroup\$ For what it is worth, your link is dead. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Commented Oct 13, 2019 at 11:32

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