From late 2009 until early 2012 I produced a podcast called Designer vs. Reality, putting out 38 episodes by the end. The premise of the podcast was that it was actual play (i.e. a recording of people actually playing a roleplaying game) of RPGs that were still in the design/development process. The kind of game design that I advocate is one of hard-headed empiricism: it’s easy for a designer to think their game works one way inside their head, but the only way to know how it actually works is to get it to the table and see. Then, you use observation of play to guide tweaks to the game until it achieves the desired result. It was my perception at the time that there was a lot of “mysticism” associated with the design process, and I felt it would be valuable for the community to start looking at game design, development, and playtesting as something we could consider objectively, and that we could develop good techniques and methodologies for how to playtest well. Additionally, I was listening to a lot of writing advice at the time and heard several writers say that they learned a lot of stuff by engaging with flawed in-progress stories that they never would have picked up from reading only finished, edited work, and I thought something analogous ought to apply to game design: many of the podcasts of the time were trying to showcase and popularize games, so one that tried to expose the guts would be a valuable addition.
I knew that most people have limited experience with testing (and many people’s first instincts about testing tend to be well-intentioned but misguided), but I felt that I had some things to say about testing that I learned in my engineering career where my job was to help find bugs in microprocessor designs. Being a listener of AP podcasts, and believing that there’s no substitute for concrete examples, I figured that producing my own AP podcast that showcased warts-and-all playtesting would be a good starting point for conversations about game design. It was also my hope that by rolemodeling playtesting games I could encourage more people to want to playtest, either with me (I was playing via Skype at the time) or on their own, increasing the amount of RPG playtesting that was happening in the world. While I started with a burst of enthusiasm it eventually become emotionally unsustainable for me and the show pod-faded (i.e. I stopped producing episodes without an explicit and intentional end-point).
The initial episodes of the show were some very rough play sessions of my game Final Hour of a Storied Age with one of my regular Skype groups at the time (the game itself was rough at the time, and there were some social incompatibilities in the group that eventually led to it dissolving). Then I managed to find some other game designers on a game design forum who were willing to engage in online mutual playtesting where we’d each be playtesters in each others’ games, and that led to a lot of sessions. Eventually the group ran out of inventory we wanted to playtest (the games either needed external testing rather than internal with-the-designer testing, or the designer was insufficiently invested in revising the game based on what they learned from one test to make another one worthwhile, plus we weren’t designing a lot of new games). We ran one external beta test series of another designer’s game, but without the motivation from mutualism we didn’t have a burning desire to continue a regular sessions and we amicably allowed the group to wind down. I tried to recruit some other groups, and also featured some recordings from my regular non-playtesting group playing a game that happened to be in beta at the time, but without the regular sessions to generate the content the prospect of doing the playtesting and producing the podcast was taking more emotional energy out of me than I was getting back from the process and I had to stop. Here are some of the reasons I couldn’t continue:
Editing a podcast is work
Doing the audio-editing on a podcast is work. It’s work I don’t particularly hate, and sometime even enjoyed to an extent, but I didn’t enjoy it intrinsically enough to do it without it serving some external purpose. When it became clear to me that it was unrealistic to hope that I’d get the audience response I wanted I had a hard time maintaining motivation to do the audio editing.
Evangelizing an AP Podcast became exhausting
Actual Play Podcasts are a niche medium. When I’d try to drum up listeners for the show I’d rarely encounter enthusiasm or even open-mindedness. By far the most common reaction was “oh my God, that must be sooooooo booooooooring…”. Hearing that from seemingly every other person ground me down. The obligations of politeness always prevented me from retorting the way I’d like to, which was to note that the only basis people who haven’t listened to AP would have for speculating would be by projecting from their own gaming experience, which would be an indication that their own play was pretty lackluster. Of course, the other big misconception is that many people imagine that you give your undivided focused attention to the audio, as if it’s the 1940s and you’re all gathered around for a radio show, when the reality of podcasts is that people use them as supplements to other activities, e.g. I listen to them when I take long walks. Some games are indeed boring to listen to in AP format, but there seems to be a pretty strong correlation between those games and games I don’t enjoy playing, so I don’t blame the medium. Regardless, facing the same blanket resistance to the show’s concept over and over and over again was emotionally rough for me, especially when I felt I needed to self-censor my desire to correct people’s misconceptions (I know that you can’t lecture someone into liking something).
The Cult of the Designer
I didn’t get a lot of buzz for my show, but some of the conversations that did happen highlighted the prospect of listening to people “playtest with the designer” as the best thing about the show, as if this should be some special treat. Personally, I think that if you get a “truer” experience by playing a game with the designer it’s a symptom that the designer hasn’t done a very good job with the game text. We don’t expect to have a unique and special experience when an automotive engineer is driving a car. The entire point of my podcast was to try to remove the personalities and mysticism from the process of playtesting so the games themselves could be laid bare to be observed objectively, not to be a vehicle for fanclub-building and treating designers as gurus or VIPs. Seeing that I was unintentionally feeding into the dysfunctional Cult of the Designer meme in the indie scene made me deeply ambivalent about putting out more shows.
Couldn’t find a way to get trusted content from others
The one common thread in all of my episodes was that I was either playing or GMing in every session. This was because those were the session recordings I had access to. Even though it wasn’t an intentional plan, it had the effect of making me a central focus of the show. I didn’t want the show to be “listen to Dan playtest”, but I couldn’t figure out a way to get other people to generate content that I wanted to feature. I couldn’t offer a blanket “send me your recordings and I’ll edit them into a podcast” because I wasn’t interested in featuring all styles of games (e.g. I find games in which you aren’t expected to follow the rules to be utterly useless from a game design or playtesting POV and wouldn’t want to waste my time with them, but I couldn’t figure out a non-rude way to say that) and I didn’t want to have to deal with any awkward conversations where I might need to say “no” after someone submitted a recording. Unfortunately there weren’t any good rallying points for the kinds of games or game design I was interested in so I couldn’t connect with many like-minded people. As a result the only content I had to work with was stuff I generated it myself.
Not enough conversations
It had been my hope when I started the podcast that I could get a “best of both worlds” effect by appealing to both AP podcast fans and game design fans, having both groups listen and engage in conversation. AP fans would be able to bring their breadth of experience, e.g. picking up on patterns or emotional cues that they recognized from listening to a lot of play, and design fans would engage with the nuts and bolts of how the games were (or weren’t) working. I think the audience was more like the intersection of those sets rather than the union: not a lot of people cared about the show, so there wasn’t critical mass to have self-sustaining conversations. The conversations that did happen tended to be people talking directly to me. My hope had been that the conversations would develop some energy of their own rather than being carried on my shoulders as host, and my self-consciousness about not wanting to “dominate” conversations made some of these interactions anxiety-inducing for me.
When we ran out of internal content that needed playtesting I figured I would try to be a positive force in the community and offer to playtest other people’s stuff, so I posted on a forum asking for games in need of playtesting. Unfortunately a lot of people buy into the conventional wisdom of needing to “sell” their games to potential playtesters so it immediately became labor-intensive to try to separate the wheat from the chaff and the actual design information from the sales pitch (if the game didn’t do anything new from a game design POV but was just “roll + attribute vs. target number as the GM railroads you through a plot” there was nothing that could be gained by playtesting it or podcasting about it). It also left me with a general antipathy toward all the “shills” who weren’t actually interested in real playtesting but just wanted more cheerleaders for their game. It was probably unfair of me to tar everyone with the negativity caused by the bad apples, but it’s an understandable emotional reaction, and the feeling that my generosity was being taken advantage of was more weight than I could realistically carry.
I can’t stand organizing sessions
I have some social anxiety issues, and I find initiating a conversation with someone extremely aversive. I am also much more of a “big picture” than “detail oriented” person, I find it emotionally exhausting to need to keep track of lots of details. Therefore trying to wrangle groups of people to show up at particular places at particular times is one of the things I particularly hate doing. When my recurring session trailed off I figured I could build up some new contacts in the community and find other people to play with, but the emotional drain of trying to set up the play sessions was too much for me.