[Dirty Secrets] Initial Playtest Process

(cross-posted fromthe Forge)

In this thread, I said:

In another post, I’ll write up what I’ve done so far, and I’ll scrawl notes as I go through my ongoing playtest as I learn about the process. Maybe, as we compare our experiences, we can start extracting some principles.

This is that thread! This week was the first full week of “serious” playtest for Dirty Secrets, and I’m pretty stoked with how things are going so far. So this seems like a good time to start this thread. Besides, Jason has been holding down his end of the bargain, so it’s time for me to pony up.

Dirty Secrets is my game of noir detective stories. The idea had been kicking around in my head for a while, but I started actual development work on Dirty Secrets in August 2006. The core premise at the time was having to divide attention between actually solving the case and simultaneously resisting the degrading effects on the investigator’s emotions. The initial system was awful. I never actually playtested it; I could just tell that it lacked that necessary essential spark of fun. But I kept plugging away at it, twisting this part and bending that part, trying to see if it would settle into place.

In the meantime, I immersed myself in the genre stories. I watched Chinatown, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, and Brick. I read Dashiell Hammett, and then Raymond Chandler, and then (via Ron’s recommendation) Ross MacDonald. I even tracked down some issues of Fell and read them. Slowly, the style and feel began to settle into my brain.

The breakthrough came sometime toward the end of the year. I honestly don’t remember when I got the idea to use Liars’ Dice as a core mechanic. I know that, in part, I was influenced by the back-and-forth of Dogs in the Vineyard, which I liked. Plus, it seemed to fit the genre well. Most conflicts in the genre tend to be between two people, fencing back and forth, trying to discover what secrets the other person has without giving up his own. A bluffing game like Liars’ Dice seemed perfect. Plus, with its bidding structure, it has that back-and-forth feel built into the game.

I had some other design constraints as well. Mostly, I wanted a game that I would actually play. Increasingly, I have little patience for out-of-game prep. I want to be able to sit down at the table and get to work. Prep at the table is fine with me, but I don’t want to have to worry about the game in between sessions. Also, I wanted to make a GMless game. Again, this is mostly because this is the sort of game that I would like to play.

At the same time, I wanted a game that my wife would play. Crystal doesn’t usually like the free-wheeling storygames, where you aren’t specifically associated with a given character. She actually likes getting behind the eyes of her character and engaging the story in that way. Thus, I gradually evolved the current setup, which consists of one player who runs the investigator and the remaining players, who play everything else. I jokingly say that this is a game for one player and many GMs, but there’s a chunk of truth in that.

Finally, I wanted a game that combined real player authorship with the ability to enjoy the surprise reveal when the mystery is solved.

I poked at the system for a bit longer, but I soon came to realize that I needed to put the game through its paces. It wasn’t done. In fact, there were large chunks of the rules that didn’t even exist yet. However, I needed to have a test of concept playtest, partly to reveal areas of weakness in the game, and partly to see if the core concept even worked at all.

So, one night, I sat down with Crystal and Gabrielle. The prototype was on the table, and we were about to play. I made all sorts of suicide statements (“This isn’t a complete game”, “I hope that it isn’t awful”, and stuff like that), then we got into it. As expected, there was all kinds of ugliness, but there were three positive outcomes. First, we proved that the fundamental system concept was functional. Second, we uncovered all sorts of areas that needed to be addressed. (For example, how do you handle research in a game where the players just get to make everything up?)

And third, my playtesters said that they had fun.

That was quite possibly the most important item.

Since then, I’ve worked on refining the design, which has included conversations with various friends. In particular, Crystal and I had a highly profitable conversation while driving back from Champaign one evening. Also, I’ve continued to read detective stories and dig up other movies, asking myself the question, “Could I do this scene in Dirty Secrets? What about this scene?”

And now we are into full-blown formal playtest. Each session starts with a report of new rules, then we play, then I gather final feedback for the night, in addition to any comments during the game. In particular, I try to home in on areas that caused a strong reaction from the players, be it good or bad. If it’s bad, I want to fix it. If it’s good, I want to do more of it.

However, last night, I realized that I also need to be looking for the techniques that we apply during gameplay. After all, the three of us have gamed together for quite some time, and there are a variety of techniques that we apply without really thinking about it. If the success of the game relies, even in part, on these techniques, then I need to be sure that I know about it so that I can communicate them in the rules manuscript. I’m not just testing the rules; I need to observe the emergent behavior that the rules produce and be able to explain to a stranger how to produce similar effects.

I also realized that I’ve found my answer regarding the age-old question: “Do you change rules in the middle of a playtest?” My current answer is, “Do not change rules in the middle of that rule’s cycle.” So, you need to see a full iteration of the rule’s effects before changing it. Some rules have a small cycle, so they can be changed fairly quickly. Others have a long cycle and shouldn’t be tweaked until later. I’m also working with an alpha version. Once I get to a stable beta, I’ll probably tighten up and play through an entire story with the same ruleset. I’m also not going to be dogmatic about this. It’s working so far, but I reserve the right to change my mind.

So, in summation, some thoughts from my playtesting so far:

–Don’t be afraid to run “proof of concept” playtests before your alpha is finished.
–Have friends around who can critique your work and offer helpful insight.
–If your playtest is producing functional play, be watching to see what techniques are being employed so that you can explicitly describe them.
–Be careful when you change your rules.

My current playtest goal is to finish out our current story, which will also be the finish of the Mystery Resolution system cycle, which is my current area of concern. Once I get that into rough shape, I’ll probably write up a formal playtest document. Until then, it’s scrawls in my notebook.

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