Design Diary: Learning from Playtests

We just got back from running several very promising playtests at Gen Con, so this is probably a good time to start explaining our playtest process and what we've learned so far from it. I'm looking forward to going over the specific details and lessons from the playtests, but there's too much to cover in just one article. Instead I'll address each lesson in regular Design Diaries here. This time I'm just going to cover the general goals of our system and playtests.

The Asylum system was developed specifically for its unique setting and it's actually been in the works for some time now. In Asylum, any character can participate in Contracts which allow them to magically buy, sell, and barter any of their abilities. To keep this mechanic from getting out of hand, much of the system was designed to keep the game mechanics simple and transparent to the players. Similarly, we've attempted to make the system as easy as possible for the Narrator to plan, adapt, and adjudicate events.

To achieve our goals the Asylum system was built upon a strictly defined set of game mechanics specifically designed to improve accessibility and narrow the participation gaps that can come from system mastery. By predefining much of the scale and scope of our game mechanics we have obtained a certain amount of foresight into where and how our system might break. As you can imagine, such foresight is extremely helpful in both designing and testing game content. One of the advantages of this sort of preliminary balancing is that it allowed us to focus our playtesting more on other aspects of the play experience, such as system usability.

We started privately playtesting Asylum in small groups around the beginning of 2013. Those first few months resulted in probably the most dramatic changes as some elements were discarded or replaced and others became the cemented fixtures of the system. Since we already know how to keep player abilities roughly balanced, a large percentage of our updates and revisions have been focused on making player choices meaningful for both character development and play. We aren't aiming for all characters having equality in every situation, but we want to make sure that players always have several viable options to consider. For this reason we are working to avoid combinations of choices that lead to traps or dominant strategies, so players should never regret the choices they made for their character concept.

With that all said, I'm going to end this update by summarizing our system design goals:

  • Diegesis - The system terminology should roughly align with the concepts and nomenclature of the setting. We want players to be able to talk in character about game mechanics without it sounding too forced or "meta." For example, our skill system has four ranks of proficiency: untrained, trained, expert, and master. So instead of explaining out of character that you have a higher modifier in the medicine skill, you might simply say "I know you've got some medical training, but I'm an expert at this." We're hoping that this makes it easier to immerse yourself into the world of Asylum.
  • Balance - We don't want characters completely eclipsing each other. While player characters will be better and worse at particular abilities, they all have different effective options for contributing to the scene. This objective became the impetus for Impact system, which I will explain at a later date.
  • Reliability - The game's mechanics should behave within a reasonable range and scope of their intended and expressed functions. The Narrator can rely on the fact that character abilities will generally fall within expected ranges, and get an accurate sense for how challenging or threatening each scene is for a group of players.
  • Clarity - We want the rules to be easy to read and easy to understand. The general behavior of the game mechanics needs to be transparent both to the players and Narrator. Having a system that's easy to understand makes decisions more reliable and reduces arguments over rules. Just as important, it means we (the designers) are also not obscuring any system malfunctions from ourselves.
  • Modularity - Because characters can barter with their individual abilities, characters need to be built of interchangeable parts. This goal became the impetus for our Aspects system. It also has the added bonus of making character creation relatively fast as well as making it simple to introduce more character options to players even after they've already started playing their characters.

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