Playtesting is a luxury every designer wishes for more of—more time, more tables, more reports. You might not see it, but designers crave good feedback to make the final game better.
So what can you do to be a better playtester? In my years as both a playtester and playtest coordinator for many Kobold Press publications, I have found that a good playtest report hits four notes well:
it is considerate, it is appropriate, it is useful, and it is focused.
No one of these elements is more important than the others, and all of them together provide a report in sweet harmony. But what does each aspect mean?
When feedback is considerate, it takes into account that what you’re working with and reading was written by another human being who loves this game as much as you do. They love the game enough that they dedicated the time and mental energy to craft a manuscript, put it in front of complete strangers, and ask for feedback.
That is an immense emotional and mental risk, and one worth your kindness in return. When you review a playtest manuscript, presume the author did not mean anything malicious. And if you notice something which merits correction or clarification, act from a belief that it was unintentional. It almost always was.
When feedback is appropriate, it means you comment on and playtest what the designers asked you to evaluate. This might seem straightforward, but generally, you’re not asked to review grammar or style, or even presentation. Sure, there are times you might be. However, if you’re asked how particular spells work at the table, and you mentioned how you don’t like ice spells or hate enchantments, neither of those things are feedback as much as they are opinions about the material.
While playtests certainly consider opinions, opinions are less useful than mechanical, quantitative feedback. Strive to give feedback that explains why you arrived at a conclusion using the material you’ve been asked to test, and stays within the requested scope.
When feedback is useful, it is specific. It highlights places where a mechanic is unclear, it highlights how an ability is limited in game play, and it identifies where something has potential for excessive or under use. Useful feedback explains in detail why you found something to be good or fun in play, or why you found something hindered effective play. Useful feedback explains how an encounter enabled a particular mechanic, it shows how an encounter has a bottleneck, or it demonstrates an oversight of detail the designer needs to address. It never just says “meh,” or “this isn’t my jam.”
Finally, when feedback is focused, it remains dedicated to identifying problems. The playtester is not tasked with finding answers to the problems they bring up. That’s the designer’s job to accomplish through revisions. We want designers to find new answers for the complications you discover.
Additionally, we don’t want you to get derailed with a particular hiccup in the manuscript, but stay focused on testing all the materials. If you find an issue that halts play, please identify it and document it clearly. Decide how to continue with some kind of “hot fix” and then keep playing—never just quit. Explain the preventive measure you used to keep playing, because it might help identify what was lacking or required better explanation.
Playtesters Are Invaluable
And with all of this, know your efforts are supremely appreciated. Whether that is a cheer on Twitter, a credit line in a published product, or a post on a website, every playtested project is so much better due to the efforts of people like you. Thank you and your groups, and thank you for the time you’re willing to invest in playing and writing your reports. You are very often the spark that helps us put the proverbial lightning in a bottle.