Testing, Testing, 1,2,3….
I write tests as part of my job, and in reading Chris Simms’ article over on Critical Hits that provided examples for how to (possibly) make a good submission to WotC I have been reminded how my job makes me see tests.
Having to write tests means having to think about them quite a bit and analyse how they are working and what they are for, and looking for details in them that are in truth applicable to a wide range of things, including gaming.
Then in thinking about the fact I hadn’t gotten enough done here this week it occured to me that there are lessons to be learnt from good assessment practice for writing and running a good game.
Be Sure What You Want
One of the first things about creating a good test is to understand the purpose of that test. You need to know what information you want the person being assessed to reveal to you. A simple (if absurd) example is if your test is about algebra then asking the students to “What is a tree?” is a bad idea.
Well this works with the process of designing your games as well.
The style of game you want should suggest the elements of the game mechanics you can use (with some luck) to you, and if it doesn’t movies (etc) of that style should provide inspiration for you to draw on to select those elements.
Some thoughts are:
- Action Adventure: Skill Challenges, and set piece combats where the narative sets the PCs chasing.
- Survival Horror: Hard and harder combats where the narative puts the PCs being chased.
- War Stories: Lots of quests (aka Missions). Sill challenges. Run together encounters with high numbers of lower level enemies.
- Epic Quest: Skill challenges, set piece combats. A narative that says “do X before Y”
Be Sure You Are Using the Right Tool
Once you have the goal of the assessment task you then need to choose the right type of task to learn what you want from the person you are assessing. Sometimes an oral is the right thing, sometimes an essay, sometimes a multichoice test, etc. Choosing the right sort of assessment instrument is critical to getting the desired information.
So in gaming this relates to choosing the structure of the campaign, and its level. The level of the campaign is probably the easiest thing to think about, and much like the style will suggest game elements, the narative of your campaign will suggest levels for the characters and a structure. The 3 tiers of 4E help a great deal with choosing the level of the campaign, heroic games are intended to be “local issues”, paragon campaigns are “national issues” and epic campaigns are “world issues”. Just looking at those and the story you want to tell should make it fairly clear what levels to choose for the campaign. What 4E doesn’t make clear through its mechanics is how to structure the campaign, though both DMGs have advice on how to do this.
Before talking more about structure there are two important concepts with level. Firstly it is possible to have a campaign that slowly builds from 1st level until the characters realise more and more that the scope of the threat is not just their home villages and so they must rise up beyond their boundries and strive ever higher, thus having your campaign cross every tier. The second most important thing to realise is you don’t need to play through every level earning every XP. If your campaign is just about the heroic tier it might be better to start the characters at level 4, and only have enough experience in the campaign to get to level 8, than to try and make the campaign cross from level 1 to level 10. Going from level 4 to 8 is between 30 and 50 encounters – there is plenty of scope for a big story in 30-50 encounters. So if that will make a better story do that.
Now there are a lot of ways to structure a campaign, but there are 3 most of us are familiar with, and using those familiar elements is a good way of shorthanding the campaign for the players so they know what is going on. The basic three are:
- Ongoing Series: Episode 1 is the start, and the story develops sequentially through to episode 24. One of the most obvious TV examples of this is 24, but even midday TV dramas follow this premise.
- Episodic Series: Each episode happens, and it may or may not relate to the ones that happened on either side, except that the characters were the same. The early seasons of ST:tNG were like this, and many many other TV shows are exactly like this, but for the last 10-15 years that has been changing so that this mode is less common. Still you can develop a campaign in this structure just fine.
- Plotted Episodes: Each episode happens, and the main thrust of the episode is not necassarily tied to the ones on either side of it, but some plot elements tie to the underlying plots. Babylon 5 really exemplified this approach to a campaign, and since then many other shows have adopted this strategy to the point where it is the standard approach now.
Personally I’m partial to the last option. It means that if I read a module in Dungeon or somewhere else and I want to use it its really easy to drop it into the game. Have something background happen revolving around NPCs, toss in some relevant rumours, use a cut scene, and it has context to the real plot even if it has basically nothing to do with the plot. It also means that if I have ideas for say a 6 adventures where each is a couple of sessions worth of play I don’t need to worry to much about the levels of the players if I want to play from 1st through to 30th – I can “fill in” without having to “make it up”
Be Sure You Are Asking Relevant Questions
Some readers might well be familiar with criteria sheets for assessment, these are things that spell out what the marker will use to assign the grade for the task. Recently these have started to become specific to individual questions in tests where I work, and that means each question is graded and some are considered to only be of a certain standard (eg “this is a B question” – so the best grade you get is a B).
This is important for getting into the details of a campaign, now we are starting to come down to the nuts and bolts of what to do in the campaign. Before I continue I need to admit that I’m a strong believer in “level when its right”, rather than “earn every experience point” – we play fortnightly, and we manage 1 maybe 2 encounters in a session, if I followed the “xp rules” they would miss out on a lot of the fun of the game.
So that out of the way the “questions” of a campaign are the encounters – each encounter should (hopefully) be doing something and have a logical spot in the campaign (even if the players never see it). Not every encounter needs to be “critical” or “plot driven” they just need to make sense to the story of the campaign. Keeping an eye out for “well we need X xp so…” style encounters is a good way to make sure your story doesn’t get lost in the game.
A good example of this is the “dungeon crawl”; its a popular motiff of DnD but lets be honest how much of it really matters to your game? Unless the answer is “everything” consider changing most of it into a skill challenge, or just handwaving it away so that you can get into the important parts of it.
This is done all the time in movies. The hero learns they need to go to X place, the movie shows them leaving, then it shows the key moments of the trip – they find a clue, they have a fight, they meet a stranger, they arrive at the destination. You can use this in your games as well. Even when its a dungeon they are exploring – does every room matter? Probably not, so you can get rid of most of them – this is actually one of the powerful features of the “Dungeon Delve” product and format – every room matters. Now as a DM you can “add space” between those rooms if you want to, by adding more flavour text to describe the extra space – but you only need the meat the 3 encounters provide to tell the actual story. Think of each one as a “scene” (or a question) and everything else as “filler” that would end up on the cutting room floor.
Just remember that this doesn’t mean everything has to matter to your plot, what it means is everything should make sense when you have all the information. (Of course sometimes that sense might be just “its fun”).
Tests are about finding out what we know and what we can do and good ones are pertinent to both the person setting the test and the person taking it. This idea is useful in looing at a campaign and developing it, from the details of individual encounters, to the meta-campaign concepts like how your campaign is structured and so on. We all play for fun, and so the only question we need an A for is “Is it fun?”, the hard part is making the right decisions to get that A answer for the campaign – but when you are getting it right like that you will want to plan your game, and your players will want to be there to play.
The hardest part is not to get discouraged because the results are not what you hoped – just remember that happens to everyone and the trick is to keep looking for new ideas on how to make it better.