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Labyrinth Break My Game

A shot looking down at a table with papers strewn about it. An adult male (Duffy Austin) stands as he talks to an adult male playtester who is laughing. They are to the left of the photo. To the right are an adult male and adult female who are sitting at the table.
Me running Alter Arms for playtesters during Break My game at Labyrinth Games & Puzzles.
(Photo Courtesy of Labyrinth)

This past weekend I visited Labyrinth Games & Puzzles in Washington, D.C. for a couple of playtests as a part of Break My Game, an organization that sets up public playtests for tabletop game developers.

I had two playtests with three people each. The first had two adult males and one teenage male while the second had two adult males and one adult female. Each session took about two hours for the players to complete the scenarios.

WHAT’S NEW?

UPDATED CHARACTER SHEETS

For this session, I updated the character sheets to match the suggestions proposed during my last playtest at JohnCon. I moved the Arms Name labelS to the top of the sheet in order to hopefully make clear that each column at the top of the sheet represents details about a character when they're in that Form(A).

UPDATED ARCHETYPES

Between JohnCon and this playtest, I was able to run another playtest with a group that is taking their characters through a larger campaign, instead of a series of one-shot games. They had not played  the game since I had introduced Experience into the mechanics, and noticed that it was difficult to accumulate Experience as a result of their characters losing it from taking too much Drama and Crashing. Basically, they couldn't improve their characters because it was too easy to have their progress taken away.

This was due to Archetypes - the means by which players are able to lower their Drama, and effectively heal their characters - still operating based on rules set during an earlier version of the game. Before, players Advanced their characters by using their Archetypes to lower their characters' Drama after they had transformed into their current highest-level form. This meant that players were able to improve their characters by healing them. Because of this, the rules for Archetypes, the means by which players heal their characters, were designed so that it was pretty difficult to heal, with the intention being that once they had done this and Advanced, players might feel like their accomplishment was earned.

With the introduction of Experience as the sole means by which players can Advance their characters, the rules for Archetypes no longer work in the grand scheme of the game. They hindered players from Advancing their characters to the point of frustration. To fix this, I changed the rules for Archetypes so that they made it easier for players to heal, thereby staying in the game and not easily losing their accumulated experience (B).

WHAT HAPPENED?

I ran two different scenarios for the playtests. The first was a straightforward encounter where players took the role of pregenerated characters who were contractors for the in-setting gig company Switchboard. Customers post jobs through an app on their phone that requires the services of Alters and their super powers. In this instance, the player characters had to protect an armored car that was transporting artifacts as it traveled from a museum to an airport.

The three players had to deal with two opponents and a group of minor enemies (these mooks essentially act as a single unit, but with the ability to engage all player characters at once due to the fact that the group can divide its attention). The players managed to avoid a conflict with the mooks by leaving the scene in the armored car before the opponents were ready to attack. They were then pursued by two individual opponents where were a higher level than they were, and the three player characters fought them in and around the armored car while it was in motion. 

Two players Advanced while the third did not prioritize it, instead focusing on roleplaying, and as a result did Crash. The other two did Advance their characters. They never had to use their Archetypes to heal, but they also were not constantly engaged with their opponents like the third player who did Crash did. 

For the second session, I ran a scenario where the player characters, still working for Switchboard, were called upon to deal investigate a haunting at a wealthy family estate. This is the same scenario that I ran at previous conventions like JohnCon

During their investigation, they ended up having to deal with a group of mooks and two opponents who were much stronger than they were.

I observed that at no point did characters Crash, but the one who came closest did make use of an Archetype in order to heal their character and avert their defeat. All players managed to Advance and worked together to defeat their opponent.

WHAT WAS THE FEEDBACK?

Feedback was very positive, with no comments made regarding the actual mechanics of the game.

What feedback I was given was in regards to the explanation of rules and layout of the character sheets. 

RULE BRIEFING

At the beginning of each playtest, I give a rundown of the rules and double check to ensure that players are comfortable with the them. I also include a cheat sheet for player reference. I must admit that this cheatsheet is very cluttered though, and could be difficult to interpret for players who want to get into the game as quickly as possible. I have this instructional session semi-formalized, but players notified me that there were still some parts they weren't clear on. I believe the best way to remedy this is to formalize a script to teach players the game. This could help clear up the confusion players may have during gameplay sessions, and therefore allow me to get more refined feedback regarding the system, if there is still stuff that needs to be changed.

CHARACTER SHEET LABELS

A picture of the old Alter Arms character sheet where the label 'Vectors' has a '1' next to it, the label 'Archetypes' has a '2' next to it, and the label 'Powers' has a '3' next to it.
The character sheet from the most recent playtest
The updated version of the Alter Arms character sheet featuring the label 'Action Vectors' with a '1' next to it, 'Archetype Moves' with a '2' next to it, and 'Power Moves' with a '3' next to it.
The character sheet I will use in my next playtest, based on feedback from this most recent game.

One of the players is a user experience/interface designer friend of mine who gave me some feedback on my character sheets that I think I am going to incorporate.

The main takeaway I had was that the labels for the Vectors, Archetypes, and Powers sections of the character sheets can make it difficult to determine what they are for. These three sections are used to determine the majority of a character's actions. Vectors are the three attributes that are used to determine if a player's actions are successful, Archetypes are used to lower character's Drama and gain experience, and Powers are special actions that players can take on their turns. They are the three general actions that players can take during their turn: use a Vector to take an action, perform an Archetype Move, or perform a Power Move.

If players have to search their character sheets to determine what they can do with it, and be left uncertain, then its not good design. After discussing this with my friend, I believe a possible solution to this might be to change these labels. 
  • Vectors become Action Vectors(1)
  • Archetypes become Archetype Moves(2)
  • Powers become Power Moves(3)
I hope this could help alleviate some degree of confusion, at least for players who are unfamiliar to the system, let alone have not seen an rpg character sheet before. The latter group does include several playtesters I've had in the past, and based on their positive response, I believe is a good audience to court from a business perspective.

Another observation made was that the boxes at the top of the character sheets that contain information regarding a character's different forms can be hard to decipher. 

Currently, the box contains information regarding which form this is, what dice is used when in that form, what Type that form is, and what Trappings are associated with that Form. 

Players haven't had any trouble determining what dice to use when in a form, but information regarding Type has caused some confusion. Types are a group of categories that every Form a player takes has one of. These types have relationships between them, which can make an attack by one character in a form of one Type against a character of another Type more effective than it would be normally. This is represented by an attacking player making two dice rolls for the Move, and choosing the one they want to use. My friend's observation was that, at a glance, that the letters for the different Types don't convey what they mean, and in fact, he believed that the M and B, which stand for Myth and Bio, actually were meant to represent the Action Vectors Might and Brains. 

This makes me recall a panel I attended about accessibility in gaming, which was held at Metatopia, a tabletop game developers' conference. It was mentioned by the panelist that when names begin with the same letter, it can be difficult for some people to tell the difference between them. My friend's observation makes me believe I should possibly change the names of the Types in order to make it more discernable. I am going to change:
  • The Action Vector Brains becomes Wits
  • The Type Myth becomes Lore

CHARACTER SHEET LABELS

A box with a label above it that says '1st Arms Name:' with a blank line underneath it. Below is a box that has lines of centered text. the first says 'Dice: d6', below that is 'Trappings:' underlined, after a wide area of space, there are four symbols with letters in them lined up horizontally. The first is an inverted triangle with a 'B' in it, next is a square with a 'T' in it, then a circle with a 'L' in it, and finally a stylized explosion with a 'F' in it.
The box at the top of every column denoting details about different Forms on the character sheet. These changes will appear on the character sheets used during the next game, and are based on the changes mentioned below.

I also am going to change the layout of the box to at the top of each column to make it more legible: 
  • Move the label for which number Arms it is to put it with the Arms Name label
  • Label the spot for Trappings
  • Put all the Type symbols together at the bottom of the page in a horizontal line so they take up less space
  • redesign the Type symbols so they are unique shapes: an inverted triangle for Bio, a square for Tech, a circle for Lore, and a stylized impact symbol for Fight

WHAT'S NEXT?

I am going to work on updating the character sheets as detailed above, and will use them in future tests to see how players feel with them. I will also make a formalized script for future playtest introductions. 

I believe I am close to finalizing the rules, which will lead into me next sending them out to be reviewed by editors and other game masters to see how they feel running it.

This is in addition to narrative posts I hope to publish in the future.




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