Playtesting is Elitist
Updated: Jan 12
A table-top role-playing game development blog
For fun, let's go through the development timeline of an indie ttrpg as I try to puzzle out some comments about playtesting.
For context, I'm in Canada, and the ttrpg space in Canada is only so large. A not-insignificant publisher in the Canadian ttrpg space—who shall remain nameless here for the aforementioned reason that our industry is only so large—mentioned the other day that "playtesting a ttrpg before publication is elitist". My most generous reading of their point was that the cost associated, and especially the increased turn-around time for the publication schedule, are impractical for a small indie publishing house.
As a small indie ttrpg publishing house in Canada myself, I disagree. Fervently. But, the point has stuck with me more than can be dismissed as "people be people on the Internet." So, in all fairness, let's look at this.
Oh, My, Look at the Time
I agree that the single biggest time suck for a development cycle is playtesting, absolutely. I've been in traditional publishing for a decade and ttrpg publishing for a couple years, so I've got pretty good estimates. How long does it take to do things? Let's make a ttrpg book.
200-250 pages, depending on layout
50 pieces of art + Cover
How long does that take? If everyone is working on it part-time (because most people I know in the ttrpg space have day jobs) then from my own track record, and of the freelancers I've contracted in the past, I say:
Rules Development. 1 month to a year. Highly variable.
Writing: Let's say 2 months at most.
Editing: 2 months turn around should be cushy.
Proofing: 1 month is fine.
Art: 4 months, but pad it a little because artists always under-estimate. No matter what: always get the art orders in first once you know what you're doing.
Layout: Typically half an hour per page, so, let's say 2 months. Page Masters can be done before there's any finished editorial or art in.
Not a lot there depends on pass-over between departments so tip-to-tail you can do the whole thing in about 4 months, 6 if things get delayed. But what about playtesting?
In-House Playtesting. 3 months of weekly sessions, easy. It's hard to get playtesters to commit to more.
Marketing Analysis: Gathering all the data from the playtests, sifting through it, deciding what's relevant, and implementing changes: 1 month.
Blind Playtesting: Games expressly not run by the developer, free from their assumptions and at-table explanations, to make sure the game can run on its own. 2 months at least.
Final Implementation: Hopefully nothing has to change too much, but, reality often dictates differently. Usually about 1 month.
So...more half the development time of a ttrpg is spent playtesting, even if everything else drags.
For reference, most ttrpgs I've known from myself and other people take, all in all, about a year to a year and a half. And again, assume that anyone doing this is both obsessive about it (because you have to be) but also juggles a day-job, family, or both.
The Solo Publishing House
If you're a ttrpg publishing house of one person—and some freelancers as necessary—you can therefore expect to be making one whole book a year. That's about it. I suspect the idea that playtesting is an elitist luxury is rooted in the concern that how are you supposed to make money (let alone a living) if you release only one product a year?
This creates a problem: from the outside that's not a lot of output. You run the risk of even fans of your work tossing around terms like "dead game" and feeling like the House has no movement in the market.
Obviously, if you make ttrpg zines or a combination of other smaller content you can expect to do more, but, that means more key development, or potentially superfluous product.
Something has to give. Should that something be playtesting?
Why Do We Need Playtesting, Anyway?
In my opinion you need playtesting because you're in a bubble.
Thinking Process' Aren't Universal. As the developer things that make sense to you but may not make sense to others in play. What may be intuitive design to you may fly in the face of reason for someone else.
Your Friends Can't be Trusted. Your home game isn't good enough to prove anything; these people know how you think and can adjust the rules to your perspective. Friends will always see how to make it work, and not if it does work. And the support of friends usually comes out as bias rosy praise or benevolent confusion, because they like you.
Your Co-workers Can't be Trusted. Asking the opinion of people already indoctrinated into the project is foolhardy, because they can always make up the difference in whole-project knowledge, something a prospective GM or player will not have.
Developers Run With Thought Bias. Developers always cover up their own rules deficiencies when running their own games. If you're there to guide play, you may not realise the rules you're adjusting for that others running the same game would not know how to adjust. If you need to be there to guide the process, then the rules themselves are faulty or incomplete. The game needs to function independently of you.
Games Do Fall Flat. Even if you think it has been masterfully thought out, when it gets in front of a table it could all fall flat, because you are not perfect, your thoughts are not perfect. That's okay. Move on.
From my perspective the most valid aspect of a ttrpg is how it exists at the table, as in, how it will actually work for 90% of its existence. If it only works for you, and your group—that's great! But don't bother publishing it.
Different People Enjoy Things Differently
With all of that said, I'm all for people who want to collect ttrpgs just as art objects that can occupy their shelves and inspire them to think interesting things, because at the end of the day that's all the medium does for any of us, even in play—inspires us to explore interesting thoughts. Whatever form that takes is valid. I won't bespoil anybody's fun.
On the design side, is there merit to creating a ttrpg whole-cloth, unapologetic of its actual play reality, releasing it as an auteur work without regard? Sure. But even Hunter S. Thompson didn't think people should be writing novels like Hunter S. Thompson does.
Alternatives to Shorten Design Time
Still, I'm empathetic to the fact that for a small ttrpg House it appears like these numbers and timelines just do not work. So, can we shorten that publication cycle? Well, basing this on my magazine publishing experience I can think of a few short-cuts:
Full-time Staff. If your ttrpg publishing house has a full-time publisher, writer, editor, and an art department of at least two people (art director, illustrator, graphic designer, page layout artist...so, two people taking on a combination of those roles) then you can do the whole thing in about a month or two, excluding playtesting. You have your staff working on multiple rotating titles of different price points and page counts, and yeah—that works. But...this is a cottage industry. Staff would be a wonderful luxury. Kudos to you if you have staff. You're winning.
Pretend Development Time Does Not Exist: Beyond playtesting what fumbles up any timetable is that good ideas aren't always easy to come by, so it make take the developer several months to nail a good idea no matter who they are. What some Houses will do is to not pay their developer or count their time, usually because the developer is also the publisher. Sure, you can really shorten the timeline if you pretend you didn't spend 5 years making notes on and refining it into something worthwhile.
Absorbed Roles: This is probably the most common lie for development time in the ttrpg space, where one person is publisher, developer, editor, and basically everything they can be, and then they treat that as a single role for the purposes of counting their time. It's mischievous, and while there's a fair claim that this is the only way the indie ttrpg space works at all, as someone working under the traditional publishing model I think that works out along a model of self-fulfilling poverty, but, that's a discussion for another post
Lean on a House System, or a Borrowed System (OSR/SRD). No wonder a "house system" is so common—like Modiphius' 2d20, or One-Roll, or PbtA, because presumably you don't have to worry about the fundamentals not working at the table, just the details. I imagine (but have not verified this at all) that many ttrpg publishers who consider playtest superfluous may be operating from the basis that OSR (by extension) is ttrpgs. I can see someone having a low opinion of playtesting if they think all games are just one game.
Those aren't great options if what you're trying to do is broaden the possibilities of what can be achieved in the ttrpg medium, and you want to see it thrive as an industry, but here we are.
But, "Elitist"? Really? My Own Bias & Conclusions
I've been perhaps too generous in exploring an analysis that says playtesting maybe just isn't part of everyone's publishing model, but it's a jump to say it is elitist. That implies that any ttrpg publishing house who playtests has privilege in the publishing space. Oh yes, I say sarcastically, we fat cats with one staff and four freelancers who save pennies from our day job to launch a Kickstarter. Preposterous.
I can understand wanting to shorten development time, but...you still need to do the work necessary to make a complete product. You wouldn't publish anything without editing. You wouldn't publish without layout. Why are you publishing without playtesting?
As far as I can determine, the kind of publishers who want to skip playtesting are either very narrow in what they consider a ttrpg (and so play it safe with rules structures), or simply do not care about the reality of what happens at the table post-publication, either out of a false sense of auteur-ship, ignorance, or a combination of both. Or—in the most charitable way I can think of this—they feel the ttrpg market is so doomed against small publishers that they must "publish or perish", even if the game is not verified or complete.
I really do not think the market is quite so grim. Coming from a traditional publishing model the very idea that you can exist without seed money is a blessing. There are more possibilities open now than doors closed, but that's a subject for another time.
Am I being elitist myself in wanting to uphold a more traditional publishing model? Have I simply taken someone's careless comment too far? Your comments on this post are are welcome, because, unlike the publishing houses who find playtesting elitist, I think there is great value in outside opinion.
Keep on fighting, James Kerr
Radio James Games