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Soapbox: About the Industry

Eigentesting

by Sandy Antunes
Oct 09,2003

 

Eigentesting

by Sandy Antunes

I just got a gig to write an adventure. Such calls are somewhat rare, simply because adventure books don't sell (relative to, say, settings or clan books or rules). In this case, it's with a clueful publisher who want a free PDF adventure to provide via their website, in support of their newly launched D20 book/setting.

The reason I call this clueful is not just because they hired me. In fact, they almost didn't hire me-- I lost out on the first call because I took a whopping 12 hours from 'call' to 'pitch'-- and that should give insight into how competitive freelancing can be.

Fortunately, they decided an extra PDF is always handy. Hence the clueful part. For perhaps a hundred bucks, they get a support product allowing players to instantly use their sourcebook, as well as something which increases interest in their product. And, it's also a justification for marketing and press releases, "New Free Adventure on our Site!".

Compare that with what that same price would purchase in ad space-- let's see... one sixteenth of a page in Dragon for just 1 issue? Suddenly, paying writers for an item that doesn't have a direct dollar return is a surprisingly cost-effective marketing decision.

In fact, I hope other publishers take note. Not just because I'd love more adventure-writing work, but because it's very smart behavior.

In any case, the original call had a 2-week deadline. My 'second chance' netted me a 4-week deadline. Now, the extra two weeks normally would be irrelevant for writing-- an adventure generally is two night's work (one to write, one to fact-check and rewrite). But what that two extra weeks buys, is testing.

See, my gaming group meets every 2 weeks. And I hate publishing adventures that haven't been actually, you know, _played_. There are 4 kinds of testing through playing.

Blind Testing: The gold standard of game rules testing, covered in an earlier column. Basically, you write it and hand it off to someone else to read-then-run for a bunch of players you've never met. This gives the best feedback on how the sucker will actually go after publication. And the guest GM and players serve as 'editors' as well, making for a much more robust product.

Con Games: You write it, run it at a Con a half dozen times, then look for a place to publish it. Solid, because you get a lot of feedback, but suffers the bias that, hey, since you wrote it you're not going to make the mistakes or misreads that a non-authorial GM will. However, a good editor can work wonders in remedying this.

Playtested (Spec) Games: You write a pitch, it gets accepted, you write it and then you quickly try to get your gaming group to playtest it before final rewrite. A good, solid effort, worth doing for any adventure (even though the pay is so low). And you can feel confident, handing it off to the editor, that at least it's somewhat player-worthy.

Eigentesting: Unable to actually run the game, you sit with a friend (and perhaps a few beers) and let your friend run through all the possible ways your adventure could be fubar'd by players. You pray the editor a) will not notice this hasn't actually survived players and b) will silently patch any holes or flaws.

While game rulesets should _always_ go through Blind Testing, a stand-alone adventure usually can be handled with simple Con or Playtesting. Frankly, Eigentesting is inadequate, though common. And I shudder to think some people might write in a total vacuum-- just write, submit, move on. Ugh.

But in all cases, note the mention of an editor. A good editor is indispensible. (A bad editor is disposable. No editor is either a) an abomination or b) standard for web columns like this one). Extra eyes are necessary, and in many ways an editor is an extension of the playtesting aspect. They remove all the bad stuff the writer puts in, while keeping all the good stuff. A perfect world.

Back to playtesting, though. While I argue it is required, we are debating the methods and level of effort. And here comes a bit-- what if you write an adventure for your home group, then decide to publish it? With few adventure writing gigs, the odds of lucking into someone asking for exactly your adventure, under that same setting and rules set, are fairly low.

Mutation is the saving grace of testing. If you write a great adventure for, say, Call of Cthulhu, then hear a call for Deadlands adventures, all is not lost. Often the same adventure can be translated to a different ruleset without extensive additional testing.

Yes, more testing under the new rules and in light of the modifications would be nice. But pragmatically, with adventurers paying 3 cents a word or less, this would be the one area with a mix of Playtesting and Eigentesting isn't necessarily a catastrophe waiting to happen.

As it happens, for this gig, I made a pitch and am writing the adventure from scratch for the desired setting and the desired rules set. We'll run it through our group-- in itself an interesting experience. It seems we'll have a 12-year old GM with the author simply sitting as a player. Which, if you think about it, is a nice compromise between "blind testing" and "playtesting". All the ease of a playtest with the usual house group, but with the advantage that the GM isn't the author.

In a roundabout way, I hope this column has suggested both the necessity of and the means to engage in playtesting of adventures. Given that the column wasn't itself tested, we'll see how it hit the mark. Any failure of this column, therefore, simply supports my thesis that testing (and editing) should never be neglected!

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What do you think?

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All Soapboxes

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  • Murphy's Law for Adventure Writers by Sandy Antunes, 07nov03
  • Eigentesting by Sandy Antunes, 09oct03
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  • June 2, 1997 "Dirty Laundry" (copyright and slander on the net)
  • May 2, 1997 "Communications Breakdown" (company and player schisms)
  • April 2, 1997 "The Quick and the Dead" (dying companies versus new ideas)
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  • January 2, 1997 "Fits and Starts" (web presences, print runs, live roleplaying)
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  • November 1, 1996 "Best of Times, Worst of Times" (on rumors, survival, and larps)
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  • Our reason for existence

    Other columns at RPGnet

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