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Button Kin Blog

More Play Tests More Problems

Feb 16, 2024

I didn't know how to spell "February" until I was in my late twenties. I went through a whole run of the education system, even completed the optional bachelors degree bonus content, and no one ever mentioned that I was spelling it "Febuary". Is my handwriting that bad, or did the eyes of my educators skip over the word, subconsciously unwilling to engage with the penultimate month of winter? Both? I think both.

Onward, to the game stuff!

Dungeons and Flagons! I was astonished this month when a person unknown to me chose to run a game of Drama Llamas at my local gaming weekend, Dungeons and Flagons. It's the first time this has happened with one of my games and I am beyond chuffed. If the mystery GM is reading: it means a lot that you did that, please do reach out and let me know how it went.

Caltrop Kaiju! Midlifegamergeek.com picked up a copy of my monstrous puzzle game at a convention recently and wrote a very thoughtful review. Short version: they liked it!

Solo But Not Alone 4! My perennially popular bee-based game Bumbling is available as part of a bundle of excellent solo games, the proceeds from which will all go to Take This, a nonprofit with the mission of destigmatising mental health issues and providing educational resources to the gaming community. There's still three weeks left to support this excellent cause which is close to home for so many of us, myself included. It's been fun to see new people discovering the game through the bundle, some even taking the time to share their play experience - which of course I always love to see!

Development Diary: Jude's World, Part 6

Last time I shared three problems I was having with my in-development solo, tarot-based TTRPG about a plucky preteen protagonist struggling to reunite their warring parents. This month let's talk about how I solved those problems and discovered a bunch more in the process. Because hey, that's play testing!

The first problem I had with my previous draft was that I didn't feel that I knew enough about my protagonist to be invested in them before I started writing their journal. I decided to expand the relationship building mechanic I'd created to flesh out their parents' love story - a tarot spread with questions tied to each position - to instead cover the history of the whole family unit. I swapped out some of the questions about Mika and Jamie (Jude's parents) for some about Jude's early childhood. I still might change a couple of the questions or rephrase them, but on my next play through I felt much more at home with Jude's perspective and personality without losing too much of the attachment that I'd previously found myself developing towards their parents' relationship. Which is good, since the latter is something we spend the game digging into.

The second problem I had was that I didn't feel like there was enough "structure" around the storylines I had for Jude, which were intended to balance the Traps and provide Jude with perspective and character growth. This was related to a third problem I had, which was that storylines didn't really connect with anything else mechanically in the game. As well as being harder and less fun to engage with than the Traps they were highly skippable.

I solved both of these by switching out the four-part storyline arcs I spent so long on in my first draft (sigh) for one-liner "Changes" tied to each major arcana in the standard tarot deck. Going through a Change gives Jude boost to a new stat: Teen. Mechanically a high Teen score will make Jude's Traps more reliably successful. Narratively I think this makes sense. In theory the more you mature the better you understand the human heart. Changes range from moving schools to having your first crush, to attending your first protest. They're a mixture of good and bad milestones intended to create drama that is focussed on Jude, rather than drama that's all about their parents.

I've completed my fourth play test now and I'm really pleased with these alterations. I feel like some magic is starting to happen. Of course now there's a new batch of things to think about.

Problem 1: Marking Scars can get heavy fast

When Jude sets up a Trap for their parents and it fails on a roll of the dice, we mark a Scar. Narratively this means that their parents leave the situation less pleased with each other than before and Jude discovers something concerning about their relationship. This is all good and intentional, but what Jude finds out is up to the player, and it can be tempting to go heavy right away.

In my last play through Jude ended up inviting one of their parents' exes to a party in an attempt to make the other jealous (what can I say? The cards made me do it.) This backfired spectacularly and resulted in marking a Scar. I found myself written into a corner where it made most sense for Jude to discover a history of sexual jealousy, perhaps even adultery in their parents' relationship. This was only the second Trap of the game and, if I'd played on, I still wonder how I could've squared this knowledge with Jude's continued efforts to bring these two back together. This needs a little softening.

I want to try wrapping a heart to heart with one or both of Jude's parents into these moments. Something to provide a little closure and context from those characters' perspectives. I think this will be a good course correct for the tone and it's in keeping with the tropes of the teen media this game draws a lot from.

Problem 2: Every single thing is high stakes

The Traps are dramatic. They're balanced by big Changes in Jude's life. Where's the episode where Jude goes to the cinema with their friends? Where are the sleep overs? Heck, where's the never ending boredom I remember from pre-teendom? I'm thinking of adding some kind of hijinks table for some in-between diary entries to round out all the drama.

Problem 3: So. Many. Prompts.

Every mechanic in this game - the Traps, the Changes, you name it - generates at least one prompt for a diary entry. Right now the prompt generation phase and the writing phase are a bit jumbled up. The flow of play isn't right yet and I'm conscious that there's currently a lot to hold in one's head between diary entries. And if I, the person most intimately familiar with the rules of this game, am feeling that then I can only imagine the tangle a new player could get into. I need some kind of system to help players hold on to Jude's various life events until they're ready to write about them. The good news is I love organising things. The bad news is I'm stumped for the minute about how to go about this. I don't want to get that structure wrong and add yet more complexity, but it definitely needs... something. The clouds will part at some point, I'm sure.

So, there you have it. Things to work on for play test five. After which my ambition is to start showing the game to more people. Games can only grow so much confined inside one skull. Like trees. Or goldfish. Help me nourish a mighty koi! If you're interested in being a play tester go ahead and contact me through any of my socials or by email at [email protected].

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