Sidebar: Playtesting

Thomas Huxley once said (and I paraphrase a little) that the great tragedy of science is the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact. I think it’s similarly true that the tragedy of gaming is that a beautiful house rule is often slain by an ugly playtest.

Of course, those tragedies are also what make science and gaming more beautiful. By testing our assumptions, we are able to discard ideas that don’t work and replace them with ones that do.

This is what happened this weekend when I subjected my house skills, my bard class, and my shadow-tattoo artist class to a playtest. Overall, the playtest went very well. The players like the new skill set and feel that it gives their characters more freedom to select skills and new opportunities to use their skills creatively while roleplaying. They also liked the flavor of the new classes that I introduced.

That said, there were a few editing issues that we had to address. For example, the shadow-tattoo artist’s shadow bolt ability said that it could and could not be combined with metamagic feats. This was entirely an editing error, resulting from some earlier ideas I had about how the ability should work, and I have since corrected it. Another thing that came up was that the character sheet I created did not list which skills had to be trained in order to use them. This was an easy fix and I have since updated the sheet to make it much easier to see which skills can and cannot be used untrained. Finally, while I thought the conversion table I had listed on my blog would be enough to aid players in figuring out how to convert 3.5 skills to my new house rule set, what I realized pretty quickly is that I also need a cheat sheet that shows the original skill from 3.5 and what its new equivalent is, which I have since added to my blog.

In addition to these editing issues, there were a few rules that didn’t work out quite the way I had hoped. Take the Ride skill, for example. When I first designed my skill set, I placed this skill under Athletics. While this made Ride a Strength based skill, rather than a Dexterity based one, my reasoning was that it would actually be an improvement for fighters, paladins, and rangers- who often use the Ride skill in combat- because they wouldn’t have to diversify their ability scores so much. What I didn’t take into account is that while this might make things better for Medium-sized characters, it screws over Small creatures, who take a penalty to their Strength scores because of their size. Since being able to ride Medium-sized animals is one of the things that makes playing Small creatures enjoyable, placing Ride under Athletics actually discouraged players from playing Small creatures, because it added penalties to their Ride checks. (It also just occurred to me that placing Ride under Athletics makes ogres and other Large creatures amazing riders.) Because of these problems, I have since moved Ride from Athletics to Agility, where it should have resided in the first place.

Another thing that didn’t work out quite as well as I had hoped were skill encounters. After trying to run a Gather Information skill encounter (partly because I wanted to see how the rules worked in action, but mostly because I love the idea of skill challenges), I realized that the number of successes I said players needed to make was a little insane. As such, I have reduced the number by 2 for each complexity rating. I also learned while I’ve been running skill encounters according to the rules as written, I should have been ignoring the rules in favor of game flow. You see, in the Dungeon Master’s Guide for Fourth Edition, it explicitly states that you are supposed to roll initiative in order to establish an order of play. This is a rule that I carried over from Fourth Edition when creating my own house rules. While this rule might work very well in certain circumstances, I discovered that in most cases, it actually deters good roleplaying. For example, when I ran my skill encounter, I had two players talking to a tavern owner while two other players talked to a shopkeeper. Because the two players talking to the shopkeeper rolled higher initiatives than one of the players talking to the tavern owner, it broke up the conversations and even confused one player into thinking that the players were talking to two different tavern owners. It also discouraged players from combining their efforts. For example, one player said that he might have given the tavern owner money in order to boost the Gather Information check of the other player in the tavern by +2. Because of the way that I was running initiative, however, this thought didn’t occur to him and as a result, the two players had a very difficult time trying to get any information out of the tavern owner.

After some discussion with the players about the problems that they saw with running skill encounters the way that I had, one of the players asked if he could show us how his group runs skill challenges in Fourth Edition. I told him I didn’t mind and the rest of the players concurred, so he took the reins and ran the same skill encounter I did all over again for the party.

Let me tell you, watching him run that encounter was like watching someone perform poetry. Players who had never participated in a skill challenge before were coming up with unique ways to assist one another and to use their skills creatively to relate to the villagers and find out the information they needed from them. I’m still trying to digest everything that happened in that encounter but one of the things that I realized very quickly was how fluid everything was when he abandoned the initiative concept and instead asked the players how they wanted to cooperate together in order to get the information they needed from the tavern owner and the shopkeeper. When I run encounters like this one in the future, I hope I can do them half the justice.

As I continue to run this campaign, I hope to keep you abreast of our experiences playtesting the rules I’ve written for this blog. In the meantime, feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section below. Thanks.

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