Over the new year, I arranged for two playtest sessions of Kannagara. I was involved in one, but not the other, which was deliberate. For the game in which I was involved, I could see how things went for myself, and have a direct sense of the dynamics, but I also, inevitably, guided the game in the way it was supposed to work. For the other game, I only have a written report, but I do find out how the game goes without the designer helping out.
Unsurprisingly, it goes better when the designer is present.
The other thing that became clear was that the first draft does not work.
This is not really surprising. Kannagara is quite different from existing role-playing games, particularly from the ones I have most experience of writing, so I don’t have any close precedents to rely on. Even when one does, when writing an Ars Magica book, for example, the first attempt does not always work. I am not, therefore, very disappointed with the playtest result. It would have been nice if everything had worked first time, but it would also be nice to win the lottery; I don’t make plans on the basis of either happening.
The main problem is information overload. The players felt that there were too many new words, and new ideas, coming at them too quickly, and they had trouble keeping track of where they and their personae were up to.
I was aware in advance that this was likely to be a problem, but obviously did not do enough to address it. I want to avoid requiring people to read a thick book before they can start playing, but I also want to introduce a setting that is unfamiliar to most Westerners. That was never going to be an easy task, and I haven’t succeeded yet.
As I still want to avoid putting a huge book in front of new players, the only way to solve this is to restructure the initial scenarios so that information and background are introduced more slowly.
That will also be connected to a couple of other problems that arose. Because the personae are created in play, some people complained that they didn’t know enough about their personae to roleplay, while others said that they didn’t initially realise that the options available to the personae were presented by the rules. These are connected, of course: because the players do not know enough about their personae or the setting to make sensible decisions, the rules tell them what those sensible options are. I think I need to make this more explicit. Players will become able to make their decisions completely freely (based on what the personae know) after they have played through enough scenarios to understand the world and their personae, but in the initial scenarios they are still learning the game and the setting. Of course, players could read all the background material first and start off with a wide range of choices. That will be an option when I have the full thing written.
One other thing that came up from both groups was that they thought cards would be very useful. There are a lot of elements of the game that could be printed on cards, and arranged to help the players keep track of what they have created so far, and both groups thought that this would be a good idea. Since I have been wondering whether I should use cards since extremely early in the development process, the next draft will.
However, it will not be a card game. It will be a roleplaying game in which the cards do some of the record keeping for you. They may end up doing quite a lot of the record keeping for you; I’ll have to see how development goes. This is not completely new; Everway had something similar years ago, and Shadowrun seems to be doing almost exactly that with its gun cards now.
The bright side of the playtest is that I got very positive feedback about the basic ideas behind the game. It is true that I was playing with friends, or having friends do it, but about half of the playtesters have professional RPG writing credits, and are not going to encourage me to waste my time. The executive summary of the playtest report would be this:
It needs serious revision, but please do revise it.
So, that is what I will get started on now.