Thursday, February 26, 2015

My playtest feedback process

I'm just about to start going through playtest feedback for 13th Age in Glorantha. I thought readers of this blog might be interested in how I process playtest feedback for 13th Age books.

Sometimes I read playtest feedback right away. But usually I wait and read as much of it as possible in a single big batch. Glorantha's first playtest is going to take the big batch approach. 

In either case, I take the good ideas I like out of it, or notes that seem to be identifying major problems, and write them down in my own words in single sentence summaries, sometimes noted as to whose feedback they came from. I keep these notebook pages of possible playtest changes going through the entire process. (I write small so I can fit a lot on a two page spread!)

When I'm ready to implement the changes, I start by reading the whole list of possible changes. After crossing off notes that have proven incorrect, I start in and work through the notebook pages list, crossing notes off as I deal with them or decide they aren't actually problems. How do I decide when comments aren't problems? A few ways, but mostly through uncovering that the rest of the feedback supports a feature a couple people found problematic, or discovering that the original comments were in fact inaccurate, or by creating new design elements that sidestep the issue, or by weighing the evidence and judging that what bothered the tester is a feature instead of a bug! 

Sometimes I'll get playtest advice that's so good, accurate, and important that I want to make changes immediately. That happens most often during playtest feedback on classes, when something sparks that can fix a lingering problem or create a wonderful new dynamic.

In most cases, it's better to wait a few days or weeks longer and make changes in one thoughtful extended pass, because even small changes can require multiple revisions scattered throughout the document. Revising the same sections multiple times because of repeated changes is not only maddening, it also seems to increase the risk of me screwing up a change that should have rippled out to multiple pages of the book.

I suspect that other designers handle playtest feedback differently. But I admit that I'm not sure. I haven't asked many other designers how they handle the playtest revision process with RPGs.

Here's a picture of what a typical page of playtest process looks like in my notebooks. These were notes from last year on Robin's The Strangling Sea.

Yes, I'm still writing in notebooks. When I'm rolling with design work I'm usually just typing into a computer, but when I'm noodling ideas or writing notes about things I want to think about before acting on, I use a pen.

And while I'm taking photos, here's the pile of all the notebooks I've used for 13th Age design. They're all from my friend Sara's company,, I love the weight of the paper and their spiral-bound durability as well as the fun covers. I've used one full book already for 13th Age in Glorantha (blue robot) and it looks like I'll use up at least another half (black fish).

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Monk & Frogfolk Today, GottaCon in Victoria Friday

Greg Stolze’s TheForgotten Monk 13th Age novel is wrapping up its Kickstarter in a few hours. Jonathan Tweet and I are on deck to write short stories using Greg’s characters and the novel is huge fun for fantasy readers, martial arts fans, and readers who like truly smooth and infuriating villains.

For a different type of villain, check out Temples of the Frogfolk, the second issue of the 13th Age Monthly, out today to subscribers! Author Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan is also on board to write a short story for The Forgotten Monk. Sign on to the Monthly now and you’ll also get caught up with last month’s installment, Dragon Riding.

A couple days from now, Friday the 27th, Jonathan Tweet and I are among the guests who will be running and talking about games at GottaCon in Victoria. I’m running 13th Age in Glorantha Friday night, Shadowrun: Crossfire Saturday afternoon, and also helping with a Saturday workshop on Crafting Hooks (along with Ryan Macklin and Rodney Thompson, to name the workshoppers I already know) and a Sunday workshop on running Kickstarters. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Where dragon riders came from

 [art by Rich Longmore]
Dragon Riding is the first issue of the 13th Age Monthly subscription that started a couple weeks ago. You can pick up a subscription tothe 13th Age Monthly for the yearly price of $24.95. When you subscribe, you’ll get all the 4000+ word issues you missed so far in the year.
The Monthly’s second installment, Temples of the Frogfolk, will be published toward the end of this month. I’ll say more about the hopping-froggies soon, but for now I'm talking about how Dragon Riding made it into 13th Age. The biggest influences were Anne McCaffrey, Morno, Wade Rockett, and ASH LAW.
Anne McCaffrey because I discovered both D&D and her dragon riders of Pern the same year—1974—while living in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Somehow I got hold of the second of her dragon riders books, Dragonquest, instead of the first. I read it enough times that I had no choice but to include a school for dragons in the first dungeon that I drew on graph paper.
(Confession: the school for dragons was a big blank area in the graph. I had no real idea what the school for dragons was going to be like. It may not have just been luck that my 5th grade brain was never forced to figure it out, because I put the school behind the room that was modeled after the Watcher at the Gates from Tolkien’s Moria. Nobody ever made it past that room. Huh.)
Push forward many years and McCaffrey’s Pern books have had a great deal of influence on fantasy, maybe more than people know. McCaffrey’s depiction of newly hatched dragons impressing on humans to whom they bond as life mates has been used everywhere from Elfquest (elves and wolves) to the Temeraire Napoleonic dragon series by Novik. Maybe I’m wrong about McCaffrey creating that impression, maybe it was already in the wind somewhere, but I think she’s the person responsible.
At one point these 13th Age dragon riding mechanics had a bit of talk about bonding rituals and such-like magical impressionism. But handling it in any detail felt like a story angle that GMs and players should invent for themselves in a personally satisfying way if they’re into that type of thing, and in the end I took it out of the rules.
Morno gets credit because his illustration of dragon riding sold me an aerial dragon combat game once upon a time. As in, I saw Dragonlord, and I bought it. And then I really wanted to play it. I held on to it for years, tinkering with ways to make the game playable. Or perhaps the word would be “fully, enjoyably playable.” I think I still own Dragonlord somewhere in a forgotten game box, but it’s not like it is going to be any more playable now; so it was time to invent a system for dragon riding combat that would work.
Wade Rockett forced my hand by seizing on dragon riding as something cool that was happening in the Dragon Empire and not letting me forget it. I chirped, “Yes, sure!” to Wade’s suggestion of handling the topic in 13 True Ways. So when 13 True Ways grew wild and overpopulated, it was clear that dragon riding was going to have to come later. It’s even somewhat true that creating a dragon riding article pushed us farther on the path toward having a 13th Age Monthly. There’s room for smallchunks of constant fun, and there was a need for a few small pieces on topics that, in hindsight, we should have covered in 13 True Ways.
ASH LAW gets credit as co-author of the piece because when I turned away from the topic, pleading that I had other design tasks to handle, ASH kept designing dragon riding systems, each better than the last. ASH wasn’t going to let it go. He wants to write a 13th Age sourcebook on mounted combat and he was going to push the system through even if I was stuck in the mud of no-that-won’t-work.
So eventually I stopped being a stick-in-the-mud and designed a system we could be happy with. This Dragon Riding piece is going to serve as the basis for how other mounted combat works in the game. It also has notes on how to apply the mechanics to different types of campaigns and notes on how to run and balance battles for PCs who are on dragonback.

And it gives me a good reason to dig through old game boxes, because the counters and maps from the Morno Dragonlord game will be perfect for the sessions I run as dragon riding adventures!