Playtests two and three for Hinterlands: thoughts and next steps. / by Nathan Harrison

Howdy! It's been a little while; two-thirds of a year, give or take. Game design progress has been chugging away for much of that time, in one form or another, and continued work on Hinterlands has been the biggest object of attention.

Two more playtests have happened since September, and I'm working toward more in the future. I've been keeping a log of each playtest on the forums, where there's a dedicated playtest channel. There, you can find my posts for playtest #2 last month, and playtest #3 from just one week ago.

This feels like a transitional point, moving from pure rapid-prototyping toward refining what works. Many, many things still don't, but enough things do work that I'm trying to take those pieces a little bit further ahead, to see what future pitfalls I can save myself from.

As an example, I recently invested in a subscription for Adobe InDesign, instead of relying solely on Google Docs to create play materials. It's a tool with a lot more versatility & depth, though not without its own limitations. (Sharing a raw document, or working on it from any machine, anywhere, is a lot easier done via Google Docs.)

Anyway, I roughed out a version of the Basic Moves and one playbook (The Authority) in InDesign, to a shape that at least in terms of being a laid-out document (i.e., game mechanics notwithstanding) I'd be pretty satisfied to call "finished".

It's still chock-full of placeholder game mechanics and detail (Apocalypse Word: Fallen Empires has been especially useful for having on-theme material I can use while roughing out layouts) but I'm seeing how everything might be arranged, and how much physical space I have to design towards.

Amidst that sort of graphic design work, actual mechanical changes have been issuing forth too. Good games rely so much on solid information flow that it makes sense to have changes in one affect the other.

Each step along the road only reinforces my appreciation for the games that have come before, and the ways in which the solid examples reinforce their agendas from all directions — Apocalypse World and MonsterHearts especially. I've consistently underestimated the difficulty of each subsequent design goal, thinking I've already bit off the hard parts. As should be no surprise, few parts of designing a worthwhile "Powered by the Apocalypse" game are easy!

To any who are inclined to make such a game themselves, I think I've at least been correct so far in how to attack the problem: first, be sure you have a genuine theme you want to explore. In my opinion, only having a genre isn't enough to build a good game using Apocalypse World's framework. (I've seen plenty of basically functional PbtA games that lack this key element.)

If you have the theme you want to explore, develop a clear enough idea of what gameplay should be like that you can give names to the 4 stats you'll use (give or take), and have a half-dozen solid playbook ideas. Before actually designing those, work like hell on your game's Basic Moves, since the bulk of gameplay will be accomplished through the tools those moves provide.

Once the Basic Moves seem at least semi-functional (on a pure mechanics level and in reinforcing your game's theme), turn to the playbooks, so you can start to differentiate the different gameplay goals and methods each will have. Try to rig up at least half of the playbooks with a full suite of starting moves before imagining what advancement might look like (and always always save moves you end up cutting, in case they turn out to fit better someplace else).

When those pieces are all coming along, and probably after a playtest or two, attack the topic of the MC/GM's "playbook", in terms of their agenda, principles, and hard moves. If you're like me, you might think this is a piece of cake, and fine to bang out at some random point. Not so.

Your game is probably angling for an intentional tone, and the MC/GM materials are the best way to communicate that in a direct way to the person who will probably be sharing it with the other players. You'll probably discover things about what you want that you hadn't even realized. And I'd suggest working via a mockup MC/GM sheet at the same time, so you can see exactly how much space you'll have. Communicating well & clearly will prove its importance when you see what you have to work with.

My thinking is that by this point, you'll be iterating on all the previous steps concurrently, with changes in one reinforcing the others. It's my battle plan, at least; the work on concepts like threats & fronts, tending campaign-length play and so on makes sense to come after all of the above are really nearing "done".

Possibly above all, look to the examples that exist, to study and compare what they do; how they do it. What works, and what does not. I've done things as rudimentary as draft tables comparing the stats in every PbtA game I've ever played or read, to see what that can communicate. It's instructive:

Example #1: Hot, Cool, Dark, Volatile
Example #2: Passion, Reason, Might, Luck, Affinity

To my mind, one of those stat lists communicates much more about its game than the other.

This isn't to try and start a discussion on what some games might do wrong, but is instead an invitation to study the texts of other games, and learn from them as much as you can. Enough that you can form opinions about even the finest points of their design, and perhaps decide entirely differently which ones are the best examples.