Playtesting: some reflections

Lovecraftesque playtests

I’ve collated the information from the first Lovecraftesque external playtest and I thought it might be useful to discuss it here. I’m not going to talk about our game, instead I’ll be talking about the playtest in more general terms, in the hopes of deriving some more general lessons about playtesting.


We advertised the playtest through our website, Black Armada, and through G Plus, Twitter and Facebook. We put the files in a public drop box but only provided the link on request to people who expressed an interest in playtesting.

We received 31 expressions of interest. 29 of these were from people who appeared to be men, 2 from women. 6 were from people who we know quite well in real life, and another 3 from people we’ve met a few times in the flesh. The rest were from comparative strangers.

We allowed six weeks for playtesting from the day we announced it. We sent a reminder out at the midway point to anyone who we hadn’t interacted with for at least a week, and another one a few days before the deadline.

Of 31 expressions of interest, 19% sent in a report.

We received 6 playtest reports within the playtest period – just under a 20% response rate. All of these were submitted by men. 2 came from friends, 4 from comparative strangers. Between these we got 22 session-hours of playtesting, or 72 person-hours.

It seems to me that we were fairly fortunate to get as many as we did. In previous playlists using a similar method I only had a 10% response rate, from a smaller number of expressions of interest. The improved success comes, I think, from a combination of us being better connected within the indie roleplaying community than I was back then, and having a game pitch that was always likely to be a bit more popular.


None of the playtesters received any guidance from us or clarification. They were given a set of detailed questions covering 10 aspects of the game, which were rather bossily labelled “READ THIS FIRST”, in addition to the rulebook and some supporting materials.

None of the playtests involved us, either as a participant or a witness.


All six playtest reports responded to the questions we asked fairly assiduously. I wouldn’t say they were all completely comprehensive, but none of them ignored the structured questions, and all responded to most of the points we wanted covered. One came with a blow-by-blow actual play report (which was quite valuable beyond what our questions elicited).

I shall now provide a breakdown of the issues identified by the playtest. (Either identified by the playtesters themselves or apparent from their report whether they themselves realised it or not.) I have classified them as follows:

  • A critical issue is one which would make the game unplayable.
  • A serious issue is one which would make the game not fun or prevent the design goals of the game from being realised. If even one group identified a serious issue, I’d count it.
  • A major issue is one which makes the game very clunky or interferes with realising the design goals of the game.
  • A minor issue is one which doesn’t interfere with the design goals or make the game avery clunky, but rather is a matter of polish. Minor rules clarifications also fall into this category.

I’ve obviously had to exercise judgement as to whether an issue identified by a group is attributable to the design, and whether there’s anything that can be done in the design to ameliorate the issue. In one or two cases, because different groups reported radically different observations, I haven’t recorded an issue, but will instead watch for these recurring in the next round of playtesting.

Here’s what our groups found:

  • Critical issues – 0 (phew!)
  • Serious issues – 1
  • Major issues – 2
  • Minor issues – 16

50% of our groups caught all three major or serious issues, but 33% only caught one and 17% didn't catch any.

A note here about consistency: not all our issues were detected by all of our groups. Two groups (one of which played twice) did not pick up the serious issue identified above, and the two major issues were each picked up by only three of the six groups (arguably one of them was detectable in a fourth group, but I think we might have dismissed it based on their evidence alone, as it didn’t look that serious). More importantly, these were clustered: 3 groups caught all the serious and major issues, 3 groups missed at least two of these issues.

I want to be clear, by the way, that I don’t consider the above to be a poor reflection on any of our groups. I suspect the ones that missed issues did so because they were more familiar with the style of game or the genre. Some of our clearest and most helpful feedback came from groups that didn’t catch a lot of the bigger issues, but did notice many smaller ones. All the feedback was immensely useful.

The above suggests to me that you want at least three groups to test a game to be reasonably confident of picking up on major and serious issues. With fewer, you might get them, or you might be unlucky. (Of course in our case, we would need four groups to guarantee catching them all.)

By the way, I haven’t analysed the minor issues, but my impression is that they were sprinkled liberally through all six groups. I doubt if there’s a single group that didn’t pick up some minor issues missed by the rest.


The top line conclusion is that you need to playtest, and not just with one or two groups. The comparison with the playtesting on my previous game is instructive. I only had one response, which added a little to my own efforts at playtesting. But clearly, my analysis above means that there is a high risk of failing to catch even quite serious issues with such a low level of response. There would be innumerable smaller issues that will have slipped the net.

Getting playtesters isn’t at all easy. I think we were fortunate this time around. Our voices carry a bit further as a result of a few years circulating in the online indie gaming community. We got support from a couple of people with a very wide reach, and although it’s hard to say how much impact this had, I would guess a lot. And our game concept was more grabby – though whether we would have been taken as seriously if we’d proposed such a concept three years ago, I can’t say.

One thing I would observe is that it’s a lot easier to make playtests happen if you offer to organise them yourself. That’s pretty obvious, but it is worth saying anyway. You can tackle the tendency for the game to get cancelled by providing a venue, making sure you pick people you can rely on and above all not dropping out yourself. And you can make sure decent notes are taken and guarantee to take them away with you. It’s more effort, and if you want it to have the same value as an external test you’ll have to be disciplined about not facilitating the game itself, but it dramatically increases your sample size, which reduces the chances of missing a given issue.

Do you hate Call of Cthulhu?

If so, you may have assumed our new game Lovecraftesque, currently playtesting, isn’t for you. I’d like to persuade you that it is.

Lovecraftesque is about collaboratively creating a slow-building, brooding horror, piece by piece. It is not a traditional investigative game. It does not focus on cracking the plot or saving the world. Instead, the focus is on building atmosphere and tension, creating a slow-burn horror.

Lovecraftesque lets you create your own horrific monsters and dark revelations of bleak, cosmic doom. You won’t be chucking around copies of the Necronomicon, fighting Migo or having dreams of Cthulhu. I mean, you can do that if you’re all absolutely committed to that, but that’s not what the game is for. The game is designed to let you put together your own horrific vision.

If you’ve played and enjoyed Microscope, you may get something out of Lovecraftesque. The players each create strange clues that hint at the nature of the horror to come, but without discussion or debate, and without needing to cleave to some pre-decided plot, so that the Final Horror is built up from disparate ideas, and beyond any one person’s control.

Because the game is all about creating horror, not about investigation, you only get one Protagonist to play with, and you take turns playing them. Everyone else gets to have fun intriguing, tormenting and terrifying the Protagonist until, ultimately, they come face to face with the Final Horror. And because the game isn’t about saving the world, it assumes that the Protagonist won’t do that – and instead of seeing how the Protagonist heroically wins the day, at the end we focus on showing how inscrutable and ultimately unassailable the horror really is.

If you’ve played Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, or similar games, we think you’ll find Lovecraftesque is a fresh and interesting take on the subject matter. But if you like horror and hate cthulhu, we think this game will give you something very different to the traditional Lovecraftian roleplaying experience.

Find out more about the playtest here.

Lovecraftesque – playtest now open

The first draft of the Lovecraftesque rules is now complete, and we’re looking for playtesters to try it out.

A reminder: The game is all about creating your own story of brooding horror in the mould of Lovecraft, but without using any of Lovecraft’s material. It’s a GMless game, in which you spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to intrigue, torment and terrify the Protagonist. You and the other players create strange clues for the Protagonist to investigate and, ultimately, draw them together into a compelling Final Horror to drive the Protagonist to despair or insanity.

The game takes about 3-4 hours, and requires 2-5 people to play.

If you would like to playtest the game, leave a comment here or email me at lovecraftesque at vapourspace dot net. We’re looking for feedback by Saturday 14th March – if you can’t play before then we’d still love to hear from you, but we’ll be moving forward with the next stage of the project after that.

Admiral Frax adds “I’d really value hearing from people who don’t know any Lovecraft.  The game should be set up so it is equally enjoyable with or without knowledge and I’d really like to know if that holds true.” Good point.

Lovecraftesque – who watches the watchers?

Since the last post we’ve been hard at work nailing down the few remaining details of Lovecraftesque that weren’t already nailed down. We’ve conducted an informal playtest that went well (though we didn’t have time in the end to try out the Journey into Darkness or Final Horror, which are two parts of the game I’m excited to see in action). And I’ve been beavering away turning our notes into a proper set of instructions so other people can playtest the game too. Plus we asked people on our G+ feeds who would do good art for this game, which yielded some really excellent suggestions. It’s been a busy week.

Anyway, a bit more detail about the game is in order. One of the things that’s unusual about the game is that there’s (normally) only one Protagonist. This mirrors Lovecraft’s fiction, but there’s also a very good reason for it – it creates a sense of isolation and helplessness that just isn’t there when you have a party of competent people supporting each other. A consequence of this is that at any given time only one person is playing the Protagonist, which created some interesting design challenges for us. These design challenges have created an aspect of the game I’m really keen on – the Watchers.

We toyed with having a completely shared approach to GMing, like (say) Fiasco, but we wanted to provide a bit more structure to help players to know who is responsible for driving the story forward, when it’s ok to contribute, and so forth. So we’ve kept the traditional GM role in the form of the Narrator (albeit rotating amongst the group) but supplemented it with the Watchers. The Watchers are able to intervene in the current scene by spending tokens to introduce fixed effects – most commonly clues, but also other things, like suddenly turning an investigation scene into a reprisals scene. Just as important, they are allowed and encouraged to elaborate on the Narrator’s description of the environment and NPCs.

This produces a powerful sense of atmosphere, in which every aspect of the scene is dripping with vague unpleasantness and tiny details the Narrator added for colour become amplified.

Narrator: “There’s a clock on the wall”

Watcher 1: “It has a loud, intrusive tick-tock noise”

Watcher 2: “The ticking is incessant. Tick-tock. Tick-tock. You find it hard to sleep.”

This mechanism is placed right at the centre of things during the Journey into Darkness – more on that later.

Each of the roles (Narrator, Protagonist, Watcher) is summarised on a cue card.
Each of the roles (Narrator, Protagonist, Watcher) is summarised on a cue card.

Introducing Lovecraftesque

[Edited to add: Lovecraftesque was successfully kickstarted in 2015 and you can now buy it here]

Admiral Frax and I have been working on a new story game. It is a game of cosmic horror in an uncaring universe, for 2 or more players. It is called Lovecraftesque.

What’s different about this game?

  • This GMful game will see each of the players contribute clues which build up to a cosmic horror of your own devising. You won’t encounter Cthulhu, deep ones, mi-go or any of Lovecraft’s creations, but something fresh that feels like it came straight out of a Lovecraft story.
  • You spend most of your time as a narrator whose role is to torment and frighten the protagonist of your tale. There’s no party of investigators, and the protagonist may be more interested in running away than uncovering what’s going on.
  • The game owes a heavy debt to Graham Walmsley’s Stealing Cthulhu – it codifies and mechanises the ideas in that book, creating a story along Lovecraftian lines while leaving you flexibility to deviate from the formula when you need to.

Here’s a little teaser of the game structure – more on the way.

Screenshot 2015-01-03 11.35.37

A mini-Monsterhearts hack: provoke

When you try to provoke an emotional reaction, roll with Hot.

On a 10+, you get the emotion you wanted, and take a string on the character. They choose how they respond.

On a 7-9, they choose:
The emotional reaction you wanted, and give you a string.
An emotional reaction of their choice, but it’s overwhelming and they have to respond strongly and immediately to it.
No emotional reaction, but they have to respond in the way they think you want.

The standard Monsterhearts version of this move is “turn them on”, so the emotional reaction desired is sexual arousal. In the original move, there wasn’t any specified emotional reaction (it was just implied by the name of the move) and there wasn’t any option to choose an emotional reaction either.

So now, you can use this move to:
Turn someone on.
Fill them with fear.
Provoke them to anger.
Make them jealous.
…and so on.

And, when you get a weak hit, they could avoid giving you a string by having an overwhelming emotional reaction of their choice:
Getting turned on and throwing themselves at you sexually.
Gibbering incoherently or running away in mortal terror.
Exploding with anger and hurling themselves at you, fists flying.
Venting their jealousy or rage at you, loudly and conspicuously.
…and so on.

They can also avoid giving you a string and keep emotional control by responding in the way they think you want them to, such as:
They think you’re trying to turn you on, so they sleep with you.
They think you’re trying to intimidate them, so they they back away slowly, hands where you can see them.
They think you’re trying to provoke them to anger, so they punch you in the face.
They think you’re trying to make them jealous, so they watch transfixed as you kiss that other guy.
…and so on.

A House Askew

So, I’ve recently been rather taken with Avery McDaldno’s new game Dream Askew. If you’re not aware[*], it’s an Apocalypse World hack[**] which takes at least three interesting and innovative steps: first, to distribute MCing between the players and assign each a Situation (like a Front) to play; second, to give the players Principles to play their characters by (like MC principles in AW, but directed at running player characters); third, to convert the usual dice-based system to tokens – spend a token to make a Strong move, gain a token when you make a Weak move.

I am so impressed, in fact, that I’m thinking of making House on the Border a DA hack rather than an AW hack. DA’s mechanisms could solve some design problems I’ve been grappling with and meshes quite well with what I’ve written so far.

Just as before, each House would have a number of Values, things the House, uh, values in its own right – like Justice, Truth, Killing Nazis and such. I had been using an elaborate Value-specific XP system, but with the token-based approach this gets easier:

  • Whenever you do something that strongly accords with a Value, put a mark against it. When you do something that strongly opposes that Value, erase a mark against it.
  • When you have at least (say) 3 marks against a Value, you can make strong moves without paying a token, provided the action in question strongly accords with that Value. If you do, you don’t get to put a mark against it. In addition, when you take an action that strongly opposes that Value, erase 2 marks against it.
  • When you have at least (say) 6 marks against a Value, in addition to the above, you can make strong moves without paying a token, provided the action in question accords with that Value. And when you take an action that opposes that Value, erase 1 mark against it.
  • You can’t get more than (say) 7 marks against a Value.

The more virtuous your actions, the easier it is to act with virtue, but the more pressure you’ll be under to keep on the straight and narrow. Plus the token economy fixes two issue created by the previous system: first, that there was no generalised reward system; and second, that actions not according with any virtue lacked any mechanical support.

Of course, this will involve a significant rewrite of the game, with lots of custom moves needing amendment. And I really ought to play Dream Askew before going any further – at the moment I’m going on the way it works in my head rather than the way it works at the table. Which is fine, as I am very keen to give the game a try.

[*] If you’re not aware then you should definitely check it out. It’s not for everyone, I suspect, but there’s plenty of great ideas to chew on.

[**] Although, the more AW hacks I read the broader the definition of an AW hack seems to become. Eventually all games will be defined as AW hacks, including games created earlier than AW.