Behind the Screen: Coordinating Playtesting…

2008 March 23
by Dante

I received some very interesting feedback regarding my recent post on prestige classes, so I’d like to take a further look at playtesting of new campaign elements.

My own background

In the sake of full disclosure, I have to admit that aside from a few Dungeon Master directed forays into extending or modifying existing prestige classes I haven’t done a lot of class creation. What I have done, however, is take an lesson from my former DM and create very tailored magic items as thematic elements to augment the storyline of my campaign.

Usually these items have very special features that emulate some of the progession abilities found in the Weapons of Legacy sourcebook (we did not have anything of the sort back then) and involved a very precarious balance between “useful and neat” and “way overpowered” that we often struggle with as Dungeon Masters.

Thinking about the comments that were left on Friday regarding the difficulty of balancing without extensive playtesting and the very real concerns about an individual player unbalancing a party made me start thinking about my own playtesting processes (or lack thereof).

A few things I like

When I would create these weapons or items for my players, I would usually tie them to some sort of uncertain providence, or make their magical auras indistinct. Add in a splash of roleplaying with the person performing the identify (it always takes someone skilled to identify an item of this power), or some archaic notes found in a ledger alongside the item and you’ve got a pretty good recipe for Room To Fudge Things.

Now before the tirades start, I don’t usually fudge things all that much. However, if the situation arises where the character wielding the new item is unbalanced I have an “out” for adjusting things slightly so they are not quite so overwhelming.

This is usually accompanied by an out-of-game discussion with the player and if the fix is going to remain in place. I tend to remunerate the player in some other way to keep them happy, but in general this has been a good way to tweak things on the fly.

Also, I have a general rule to adjust campaign elements slowly, and I tend to lean toward the “nothing permanent” rule. This rule simply dictates that it is best not to introduce new (DM-created) campaign elements that are permanent and can’t easily be removed from circulation. For me, it is always comforting to know that you’re one disjunction spell away from removing your new item problem if it happens, and people are generally a lot less upset about losing an item than they are a character.

Disjuncting a character is often messy. I wouldn’t recommend that.

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