I don’t think that any game designers underrate the value of playtesting. I want to tell you some of the improvements that I’ve been able to make to Lonely Courage as a result of playtesting
Round 1 - testing the concept
The basic core rules for A Cool and Lonely Courage were conceived in 15 minutes on a night flight leaving Boston, and written up within the next few days. The main elements of the design felt strong and cohesive, and I ran the idea past gaming friends whose opinions I trust (Kevin, Betsy, Diana) and they all told me that it seemed like an idea worth pursuing.
So I wrote things up in more detail, and did a lot of research into the subject of the women spies who worked for the SOE (my main sources at the time are all listed in the bibliography of the game, and I’d recommend them to anyone who is interested in the game or the subject matter).
My first test was with an old friend who has been playing table top RPGs for decades, and has an amazing fund of knowledge about world war 2. He had never played a ‘story game’ before, but was willing to give it a try! Together we played the two person version of the game. As the cards unfolded his character was a happy-go-lucky cockney girl whose life was filled with love and success, but eventually sacrificed her life so that my character would go free. My character had a bad run of cards and found herself surrounded by the death of people for which she got the blame - although one of the people who hated her originally gradually grew into being a true friend - but then the new friend died in prison. The game is designed to be emotional and tragic, and come the end we had both.
What I Learned
The central concept worked beautifully. Taking notes of the cards allowed me to write up the two stories afterwards which was nice too. The very first chapter which we played was “recruitment” and we flagged that up as the the most difficult one to do something interesting with, and so that chapter was removed from the game.
Round 2 - Metatopia 2018
I wrote things up in more detail, and Kevin suggested that Metatopia would be an excellent opportunity to test the game with a wider range of people. He had previous experience of Metatopia playtests (especially the hi-test where they arrange a table of designers to test your game and give feedback) and told me that it had been invaluable for him in identifying and solving problems with Swords of the Serpentine. Happily transatlantic flights were not too expensive in November, so I booked my place and arranged for four tests of the game.
Because there are only 2 hour slots at Metatopia, we used a combination of role-play and narrative chapters, and we only played the integration, mission, interlude and capture chapters, and then the conclusion and memories.
I acted as a facilitator rather than a player, introducing and explaining the game and each chapter, reading the historical examples and taking down notes.
What I Learned
Well, I wanted a game that could tell emotional stories, and it turns out that it can really pack a punch! By the Saturday evening after three games I literally had to go and find somewhere quiet to sit down and process my feelings; I had been on an emotional roller coaster.
There were some clear take-aways in terms of improving things though.
After the first game, I realised that it was important to help the players get a better ‘feel’ for their characters, and I introduced the idea of writing down a ‘strength’ and a ‘weakness’ for their characters alongside their name. I also noticed that there was a natural desire for the players to bring their characters together, whereas a lot of the drama emerges from the loneliness and danger the characters face independently. I realised that I needed to reinforce that the chapters are all flashbacks; the characters are together in prison telling each other their stories through these flashbacks.
Originally there was an ‘Interrogation’ chapter which came after ‘Capture’. I didn’t run this at Metatopia because I wasn’t happy how it went in my initial test… it puts players in a position which is uncomfortable whichever side of the table they were. After some discussion I decided to change that last chapter to ‘Prison’, which gives a wider range of story opportunities, and suggesting that interrogation can be referred to but is best left ‘off screen’ as it were.
As supporting characters are introduced and placed on the table we made a point of laying them out in front of the appropriate player; a simple point but it made it easier to see who can be re-introduced in subsequent chapters. Stephen Dewey (a master of including physicality in his games) suggested that when a supporting character dies the player can tear that persons index card in two, and that added an extra bite to the process of the death of a supporting character.
We noticed that if a supporting character or characters die early, a player can end up with nobody in their supporting character cast list, so I introduced the idea that whenever a supporting character dies, an additional supporting character is introduced - someone who is affected by that death in one way or another - whether a friend, a relative or perhaps even the soldier that killed them.
I also found that although I had given two historical examples for each of the chapters (associated with two out of the four suits of cards) it would have been useful to have an example for every one of the suits for each chapter. If it’s hard for me to find real life examples, it is hard for people to come up with their own! So it was back to the books and research for me there.
Round 3 - Public Playtest Part 1
The third round was a public playtest, something which I’d never been able to arrange before with earlier games, but reaching out to those people who had played at Metatopia, and in the Metatopia fans group on facebook, I had a number of people who were pleased to offer to run some playtests for me.
By mid-January I had a useful number of reports back from the playtests. Which things people liked, where it was a little bit harder. Generally the feedback was very positive though, which was a delight.
Particular credit goes to Diana, who recorded her first playtest group and allowed me to sit in via Google Hangouts video in the second. Being able to observe people playing was so incredibly useful. I ended up with a page of notes just from watching people, before the chance for direct feedback from them at the end. One of the groups was relatively new to RPGs in general and story games in particular which gave some particular insights.
What I Learned
I noticed that the Training and Arrival chapters were the weakest ones - particularly because it tended to involve interaction with supporting characters who were unlikely to appear again, partly because there was less inherent drama in those situations.
I also noticed that people were finding it hard to define their characters up front in a way that would fit in well with the game as it develops. There was a tendency to either not understand what the roles of the SOE really were, or to make decisions up front which coloured each subsequent chapter and often made it difficult to work out what to do that fits in with the pre-conceived notions.
It seemed to me that it should be possible to kill two birds with one stone. Improve the character creation step and remove the two worst-performing chapters so that the game proper starts with the real meat of the game in France.
So I removed the first two chapters (goodbye all the associated research! Killing your darlings and all that!) and I expanded the character creation so that it asks a series of questions for the players (and gives some bullet point lists for ideas which are genre-appropriate and could be used directly or at least steer people into thinking about things which are genre appropriate). These include questions like ‘how is it you can speak French perfectly’, ‘Why did you accept the offer to join the SOE’, ‘What strength did you discover during training’ and ‘what weakness was revealed during training’. It ends with your pilot wishing you best of luck by your french code name as he drops you off and you choose the code name you want.
Some of the players occasionally struggled to come up with an appropriate scene for a given combination of chapter and suit, so I decided to provide an list of optional ‘scene prompts’, with 5 or 6 appropriate suggestions for every combination of card suit and chapter.
Additionally some of the players occasionally struggled to come up with an appropriate attitude or motivation for one of the supporting characters (especially people who were relatively new to story games). There was an additional idea about having a deck of cards with NPCs and associated motivations but while working on that I was concerned that it would be too easy to end up with attitudes which were at odds with the kind of scene that was being played. Then I had the idea of having motivations which were inspired by the scene card which had been played. The suit already tells you the kind of scene which you are playing for a particular chapter (love, success, misfortune or death). The value of that card (evens, odds, each face card and ace) then gives an optional, suggested supporting character motivation which is in line with the general theme of that scene.
Round 4 - Public Playtest Part 2
As I write this, playtest document revisions with the changes and additions after Round 3 have been sent out to all playtesters. Once Part 2 has been completed I will update this post with details arising from it!
 Kevin Kulp - Game designer and shiftwork consultant: Twitter: @KevinKulp, Swords of the Serpentine
 Betsy Rosenblatt - Game designer and law professor: Twitter: @221Betsy
 Diana Gamet - Game designer and music educator: Twitter: @dianagamet, www.dianagamet.com
 Stephen Dewey - Game designer: Twitter @shiftyginger, Cavalry Games