On Thursday 21st and Friday 22nd May I did two big playtests, to run through Acts 1 to 3 and try to find out how well certain mechanics worked throughout Acts 2 and 3.
-The passage of time. Act 2 and 3 are divided into Days, which are divided into morning, midday and night.
Morning is a time for discussion and planning what needs to be done, as well as negotiating with the other group.
Midday is the time to formalise your decisions by standing at the required location. E.g. if you want to go fishing, pour some diesel into the engine and stand on the fishing boat.
Night is when the audience goes back to their group’s “home” (Eilanders:Café, Vastelanders:Boat or Pier) and discuss within their group, as well as having the chance to eat something.
I wanted to test how this passage of time worked. I directed it by simply shouting out whether it was day or night, and dimming the lights in the classroom.
It worked fairly well, as far as providing for a way to progress actions further.
On the first playtest it became clear that the passage of time had to be MUCH clearer. I decided on Friday to hang up big posters with how many days had passed on the wall, and more actively spoke out the time of day and what the audience could do at that time.
“It’s becoming dark, it’s now night. Perhaps it’s time for you all to have something to eat
-Testing how well the general mechanics of “I want to work on this so I’ll stand there” and “pour this in this” worked. The physical actions to symbolise actually working on something such as repairing a door handle or painting a stone. Whatever.
On Thursday the playtesters enjoyed this physical means, though it needed to be clearer and more refined. On Friday I concluded that I needed to explicitly state that the audience was allowed to pick up anything and use it as they wished.
The biggest problem I came across on Thursday was as follows:
There was very little conflict between the two groups. Why?
After a lot of talking with the playtesters I concluded eventually that this had two main reasons:
The groups were too small. There was no room for effective peer pressure.
Both groups had a common threat: starvation. The game mechanics told that the best way to solve this threat was through co-operation. Considering that most people when offered a ruleset, will follow that ruleset instrinsically, this was a problem.
I had to find a way to either have two different threats, have two ways of reaching a solution, or have a differing goal for both or one of the groups.
At the last minute, on Friday, I decided that this would be the scenario:
The Vastelanders have to leave some of their loved ones behind on the mainland. Their boat is not big enough to bring everyone, and each of the characters of the Vastelanders have a loved one they have to leave behind. Their mission is to travel to the Eiland, procure 16 Litres of Diesel and some food, and travel back to the Vasteland to pick up the rest of their group.
I tried this scenario on Friday (when I also had much more playtesters, so peer pressure!), and it worked exceptionally well. The Vastelanders had a mission to strive for, which meant that everyone’s survival was jeopardised. I also changed the mechanics slightly so that the Eilanders could feasibly survive on their own, but not with too many Vastelanders in their midst.
I stumbled across one more problem with that scenario/mission on Friday, however. The Vastelanders eventually managed to steal some Diesel and sail off to the Vasteland (leaving their Journalist behind, who eventually committed suicide. Actually, he had a rehearsal to get to).
Of course, the people they left behind couldn’t possibly come along, as they didn’t exist as players. So I quickly decided on a haphazard solution: Everyone they left behind isn’t there anymore. They’re dead, rescued, or made off on their own.
That solved the problem!
Another point I noticed on Thursday that was problematic, was that there was too much focus on the mechanics, which meant that the playtesters, instead of playing the ruleset through the context of their characters, played it through the context of wanting to “win”.
Some solutions, of which some I tried out on Friday were:
-Game Master (me) explains the audience that their characters are them.
-Actors more actively speak to audience as their own characters.
-The characters have more functionality within the mechanics. The Fisherman fishes much better than others.
-Put namecards on the audience.
-Give characters names.
-Use more extreme, clearcut opinions.
-Characters have more negative traits: Mourning, a broken leg, alcoholic, being old.
Some more conclusions and solutions from Thursday:
-The Burgemeester’s character had to be less exaggerated.
-The Kapitein’s character had to be more defined and consistent.
-The Game Master should not be a Veerman (Ferryman) anymore. I should be present as a Game Master only. I was scared that this would break immersion, but on Friday I was proven wrong. The audience really needed a “game system” which can react personally on their emergent actions.
On Friday I did some quick editing of the mechanics, characters, and script.
My conclusions on Friday:
-Use a cheatsheet on the back of the character cards.
-Have different ways to fish, and devise mechanics beforehand to prepare. For example, fishing off the Pier.
-Use sound to indicate times of day.
-Physical interactions were great! More of those!
-Characters should be shorter, more easy to read, less text. Ernst-Jan van Melle, one of the playtesters and my classmate and friend, offered to help me with that. He’s good at Dutching. I’m not.
-In Act 1, there was a good suggestion: to let the audience spend more time looking at the locations and the mechanics that were physically explained there.
One way we could do that would be in Act 1 to have the Burgemeester lead the players around to the locations associated with their characters or things that needed fixing.
-The GM should be allowed to explain and clarify rules.
-The Leaders should facilitate more and hold back on giving their own suggestions as to solutions to problems.
At the discussion afterward, I had some interesting reactions.
I tried to ask what the playtesters thought the underlying theme was. One association was immediately “refugees in the mediterranean”! YES!
Another was that this was a LoTR-esque fantasy setting, which I hope to solve with clearer visual design.
Another reaction came from Robert, one of the playtesters. He said that the discussions revolving around crunching numbers to see whether we would survive, was boring and frustrating. This drove him to steal the Diesel as a Vastelander. He explained that although the whole experience was frustrating and somewhat negative, it didn’t lie in the game itself, but with the actions and behaviours of the rest of the audience. This is a good sort of frustration in my opinion. The experience need not be enjoyable or “fun” if it illustrates the negative predicament either group is in well.
Here are the films of both playtests: