Playtesting the Stench 2By Paul Baldowski
The playtest of my adventure module took a slide out into left field last night, as we lost two players and gained three to the vagaries of the real world. I think, under the circumstances, I managed to get it back on track under the pretext that one of the players not in attendance owed money, favours or anything else besides to the three newcomers. One, a Priest of Norn, had a warrant on Paraxis the Humble, our resident charlatan, which came just after an arrest warrant delivered by a messenger from the city. The upshot, Paraxis had an attempt made on his life, then ended up in jail with a serious bolt wound to the chest.
The remaining characters met up, agreed that making some money investigating the local mine might prove mutually beneficial, and didn’t account for the disappearance of the mystic Dahlia (whose player didn’t attend this week). After a brief chat with the miners and a vision of doom from the Priest of Norn, the party set off into the mine. With pit pony Derek taking the lead, the characters went seeking hidden threats in the mine.
I hobbled the playtest by not settling on a dice rolling mechanic. After one system last week, I tried another this week – rolling matching dice – but it didn’t sit well or gel with the group. Indeed, it became something of a focus for amusement that each dice roll might have quite an unpredictable outcome given the vagueness of the system. The mechanic didn’t suck, as such, but without much more consideration and substance, I can’t possibly pursue it. In the end, I felt I had hindered progress from a mechanical angle, as I have written the adventure as generic and systemless. I sought to associate a system with the game for the sake of the playtest, but I seem to have made a rod for my own back as a result.
On the upside, I can see that I need to do more work in the mine section of the adventure. How can I convey exploration of the interior to the characters with a greater sense of structure, but without turning it into a dungeon. In practice, I can only create structure by defining points of focus along the route, otherwise it becomes an interminable traipse through an endless complex of pitch black corridors. I can’t quite see myself managing that without the experience getting really boring. I don’t want it to feel like passage, room, passage, room, etc. However, this might just be my hang-up. Having watched a few YouTube videos of people exploring old mines, they feel just like that – long stretches of claustrophobic corridor punctuated by chambers, shaft collars and caverns that momentarily engage, excite, challenge or threaten.
By the time the exploration occurred, I had lost control. The amusement about the system-free dice rolling worked against me – and I’m at fault for that. Lesson to self – if you must GM something, make sure you know what it is before you get started, or state the intent of a system-free evening. I don’t think the playtest would have suffered from making it more of a Fiasco-style event, something purely story-driven, as that would have given me the same feedback on the adventure itself. A valuable lesson learnt that you really can go into a session too unprepared even with your own material.