The Shield & Torch: designing for play (2)

I’ve already done a bit of reflecting on the play-testing for Shield & Torch and the lessons learnt – but this project contains so much that’s new (or at least not-quite-like things I’ve done before), there’s a lot I’m gaining from the play-test and it makes sense

Stop people falling down the gap between expectation and delivery

Play-tests are *great* for revealing how people will actually respond to what you’re saying and doing – how it’ll be interpreted and used by someone who doesn’t have all of the context that’s around your brain. An example from The Shield & Torch:

On the tavern noticeboard is a posting about an anti-guild meeting happening at a location in the tavern, at a specific time that evening.

Chloe’s thought: if multiple players follow this thread, they’ll show up at the ‘meeting’ [I know I don’t have a performer to actually be the person who made this posting…] and can interact over their character’s mutual anti-guild-ness. They could decide to just autonomously start working towards anti-guild action…

What happened, though, is that one person followed that thread, went to the location – and naturally didn’t find a person there. The sign implicitly promised a performer – or at the very least a person – when the evening didn’t actually deliver on that promise.

The solution? A reworked version of the sign that still has all that information, but is also ‘crossed out’ with a note mentioning that the person co-ordinating the meeting is currently barred from the tavern. So there’s clearly no promise of a person – but the content, and the space in which someone can pick up on the idea ‘oh, you can be anti-guild in this world…’ still exists.

You can only play as much as your least play-able element

So, this is a bit of a clunky sub-header, but I think it roughly captures the point. In The Shield & Torch‘s case, it’s our tech (which I will write more fully about elsewhere). We had such a cool idea for the end of the night – a communal event would end with anyone who was comfortable doing so holding hands – triggering the conducting synth in playing music, suggestive of the magic that this group was producing.

But conductive synths get a bit glitchy, and a phone’s in-built speakers are a bit insufficient, when the players have already fully bought into chanting and stamping along with some magical words recently introduced into the process. So no one hears the sound, and when it does play it swiftly cuts out – with some hand-holding getting disrupted by all the movement.

We don’t know the precise tone the end of the night will hit until a short while beforehand – it depends so heavily on the characters people make, what stories and activities really take off, and so on. And we don’t have the variety of resources and level of people-power to fully adjust things like the conductive synth to match the tone the players bring at the end. So (whilst it’ll still be in play elsewhere) – it has to go.

There is, of course, a general tone to The Shield & Torch. The number of people, the many people newer to this kind of event, and what we pre-determined about the world leans the tavern more towards a warm, bustling space that can mix somewhat comedic and dramatic stories, than (for instance) a quiet and tense grimdark venue that demands thoroughgoing angst. But there’s still a lot of scope for specifics to grow from people’s play – and we can’t be committing ourselves to elements that might undermine, clash with, or outright ignore those. And the play-test revealed where there were such elements.

Do maybe ask for at least *one* nice thought

My typical interests in play-test feedback are the following: I want to know when you’re bored, when you’re confused, and when you’re frustrated. My natural lean is towards knowing what needs fixing and what’s getting in the way of play – I find it easier to improve things by knowing that, rather than knowing only what people’s favourite x/y/z was and trying to design around that.

But even I can admit that reading some of the positive feedback on The Shield & Torch – players were invited to answer specific questions, contribute any other feedback of their own, and also (if they wanted to) share a couple of sentences about what they enjoyed – has been so helpful. In reminding me why I’m doing this. In giving me incentive on the days when focusing is really hard. In making it feel less shameless to be plugging tickets online. All those things. Use the play-testing process to your advantage – sometimes that’s information to then drive development and rewrites and rebalancing of a game, sometimes it’s reminders of why it’s worth pushing through with what can often be long and demanding creation processes…

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