Choosing the Right System for Sentencing Day

How do you choose a system for your game that best supports the story you want to tell?

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Sentencing Day character sheets: First draft as a Questlandia hack

When we first designed the mechanics for Questlandia, I’d been playing around with a bunch of existing systems, and none of them were doing quite what I wanted. When I expressed my frustration to my partner Evan (who co-designed the game), he said, “What do you want the story to feel like? Start with feel and go from there.”

I realized that I’d been working backwards. I’d started with dice hoping to stumble on the right feel for the game, instead of starting with feelings, and letting feeling and tone guide me to the right system. I stopped thinking about dice, and took a step back to list out some “feely” things I was hoping for:

  • Shared ownership over world creation.
  • No straight losses. Similarly, no attempting the same thing twice in the same way.
  • Even on a loss, it might be possible for a character to accomplish their goal—but at a high price.
  • No straight successes. Something awful or unexpected will always happen.

If you’ve played Questlandia, you’ve hopefully seen the mechanics reflect that emotional experience.You’ll often come away from a scene with one or two victories. However, no matter how awesome things go, the opposition dice will always push through at least one negative result.

The system can be nicely summed up by one of my favorite lines from the movie Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog:

“I say successful in that I achieved my objective. It was less successful in that I inadvertently introduced my arch-nemesis to the girl of my dreams, and now he’s taking her out on dates, and they’re probably going to french kiss or something.”

So, you obtained the wonderflonium and can finally construct your freeze ray? That’s great, but…

It’s not a perfect system, but it matches the tone of the game, and I’m still pretty happy with it!

Hacking Questlandia for Sentencing Day

When Brian Van Slyke and I first began working on Sentencing Day, a game that explores an extreme version of the school-to-prison pipeline, we started with a hacked version of Questlandia’s system, which made a lot of sense for a few reasons:

  • It’s a system I know intimately and feel comfortable hacking.
  • It allows for no straight successes. Something bad will always happen.
  • It features dramatic escalation followed by collapse, which seemed perfect for setting a corrupt prison conspiracy in motion—and watching a bunch of teenagers bring it to the ground.

We did a few playtests using Questlandia’s core resolution system. The first was super fun, the second was good but bumpy, and the final playtest was awkward and awful. Based on those playtests, this is where I saw Questlandia’s system failing:

Wrong pace for campaign. The system was designed for a one or two-shot game. Sentencing Day is begging to be a campaign game, and the action was rising too quickly.

Slow resolution. Questlandia’s resolution system is slow. This is fine for a one-shot but gets tiring over time.

Conflict resolution. Questlandia uses a system that resolves big conflicts. Sentencing Day is a game of small conflicts that scale as you learn more about your world. In Sentencing Day, you don’t always need to learn multiple outcomes as a result of this scene. Did you agree to pay for the keg, or didn’t you? That’s all we need to know.

Guided facilitation. GMless wasn’t working. It’s a game that requires deep character immersion and, I think, a lot of external social guidance. Players were jumping straight from the role of panicked D-student to fascist security guard and various other NPCs. It was jarring and hard to fully embody characters.

Sentencing Day deals with specific real-world social issues directly, while Questlandia lets the players invent the social ills of their world. Those social issues often run parallel to ours, but exploring systemic racism in an amoeba city in the clouds is easier than confronting racism in our own culture. Playing a racist amoeba is easier than playing a racist you, and this game can’t push people to go there without a GM. Even if it could push players to go there alone, I’d want a facilitator at the table to separate racist in-game characters from racist players. Yeah, it sucks. But it happens.

Hacking Apocalypse World for Sentencing Day

After doing a few playtests using Questlandia’s core system, it was time to try something new. I’d just finished a campaign of Monsterhearts, a game powered by the Apocalypse World system, and I was appreciating some of the things that system did. Some of my favorite parts, that I felt like Sentencing Day could really benefit from:

Stat categories tailored for the fiction of the world, and not too many of them! The stats, and the basic moves paired with those stats, tell you about the types of things this game encourages you to do. Monsterhearts is bubbling over with teenage sexuality and angst, and the stats and moves support those themes. In Night Witches, an Apocalypse-powered game about Soviet airwomen in WWII, you’re working with stats like Guts, Luck, and Medals. Those, along with your Skill stat, encourage players to attempt risky maneuvers in the name of their country—and sometimes in the name of love.

Special character moves. Special character moves build on and personalize the basic moves. In Monsterhearts, the werewolf has an advanced move called Spirit Armor, which reduces harm when basked in moonlight. The witch has an advanced move called Transgressive Magic, which lets you add +1 to spell casting when your ritual transgresses the community’s sexual or moral standards. The bonuses you get for using these moves encourage you to engage with them, and by engaging with these moves, the fiction bends to the whim of the game.

When we decided to try an Apocalypse-powered version of Sentencing Day, we started by brainstorming moves we’d feel excited to see in the game. After writing down a long list of moves that matched our characters and our world, we grouped the moves into a few different categories. Those broad categories eventually turned into our stats, each stat category received a few basic moves, and anything that didn’t fit got axed or became a special, character-specific move.

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Our final stat categories were Nerve, Heart, and Favor. Bullshit was my favorite basic move, and I hope it has a place in the new game.

We then ran several different playtests of the game—all of which went better than the first Questlandia-powered playtests. But, even as a huge fan of Apocalypse-powered games, I could see that these playtests weren’t creating the types of stories we really wanted to tell.

So, what was it about PbtA (Powered by the Apocalypse) that didn’t sit well with Sentencing Day?

The stats and moves on each player’s character sheet spelled out what kind of actions could potentially happen in this game, and the type of person your character could potentially become. That was perfect in Monsterhearts, so why wasn’t it working for us?

Sentencing Day tells a story about a group of teenagers slowly coming to terms with how messed up their world is and then quickly deciding to act on it, when there’s almost no time left! That kind of story relies on a few mechanics:

Small, subtle moves at first. Characters should be sneaking, peeking, researching, stumbling on information accidentally, and generally falling in line while frantically trying to figure out what to do with the information they’ve learned.

In PbtA, both characters might have a basic move under their Nerve stat called Lash Out. One thing that we were seeing in playtests, that was impacting both the pace of the game and the feel of the story, was that players were using moves like Lash Out way too early for their character. If you’ve spent your entire life getting stomped on by your society, you are absolutely going to lash out by the end of this game. And when you do lash out, it will be glorious. But you can’t lash out yet—it’s not time! But it’s not fair to say that if the move is right there on someone’s character sheet.

A strong, guided sense of pace. In a few weeks, every character in this game will be sent to jail. In the meantime, we’ve got to make sure this mystery unfolds to the beat of a satisfying rhythm. Uncover the conspiracy too soon and the answers feel unsatisfying. Uncover it too late and your work feels futile.

Systemic unfairness. I need a game that says, “Some characters can always succeed at this thing, and some characters can almost never, ever succeed at this thing.” If a D student pulls out a gun in school, they’ll be facing life in prison. If an A student pulls out a gun in school, they’ll get a slap on the wrist for a bad case of affluenza. We don’t want a game that even hints at the idea that both of these characters can accomplish things in the same way.

Player character versus player character. Okay, so the A student can bring a gun to school. That’s fine, but it’s also kind of predictable and boring. I want the A student to be a tool of the establishment. I don’t want them to be the first person to lash out against it. If they do lash out, I want them lashing out against the wrong person—like the D student, whom society has told them is holding them and everyone else back from success!

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An A student…bringing a gun to school! Too shocking!

And I want the D student to be hopelessly lashing out, trying to fight the establishment in all the wrong ways because this world will punish them no matter what.

I want to pit PCs against each other in a way that feels satisfying for everyone at the table, and I want players to be able to deeply separate the initial cluelessness of their characters from the final story arc of their characters.

What’s Next?

Character sheets from PbtA Sentencing Day.
Character sheets from PbtA Sentencing Day.

Despite the fact that this new version of Sentencing Day didn’t work as I’d hoped, I’m glad we tried an Apocalypse-powered version of the game! It allowed us to send out a solid playable draft, to answer a lot of questions about the world, and to identify places where the story was really singing—and places where the system was holding the story back.

Could the game be made to work as a PbtA hack? Of course! But why fight against the narrative limitations of a system when you can find one that really sings? We’ll be throwing out a lot in this next revision, but there are a number of PbtA things I think we’ll keep:

  • Conditions. Conditions are great! A list of predetermined conditions doesn’t feel right for this game, but I think characters should gain positive and negative conditions as a result of their scenes. Conditions for all!
  • Special character moves. Advanced moves, custom moves, special moves, whatever you want to call them. These custom character moves won’t be used in conjunction with 2d6s, but they’re helpful for quickly getting to know your character, and they allow different characters to do different things!

Now that we’ve had a chance to playtest the game in two different systems, I feel like I have a better idea than ever what type of system is needed to tell this story. Whatever that system is, I hope it:

  • Establishes a pace that lets a mystery unfold slowly at first, and then quickly as Sentencing Day approaches.
  • Doesn’t simply give consequences for, say, punching a teacher, but communicates that even trying to punch a teacher breaks with the fiction of this world.
  • Uses dice as bargaining resources, and everyone starts out with access to different resources.
  • Has success and failure outcomes that yield unique and unpredictable results.

Rather than rolling two dice in every conflict, I can imagine characters making ethical compromises and answering challenging questions to bargain for the dice they need. I can also imagine returning to a system that grants the opposition a big pile o’ dice. Being able to visualize your resources stacked against the resources of those in power feels right for this game.

And to drive home the point that you can’t just lash out and punch a teacher in the face in your first scene, I want there to be high rewards for waiting. Players should feel like they’re painfully biding their time, uncovering secrets and nurturing their own source of power before finally giving the establishment a big “fuck you.”

Whatever system we come up with will be a loving hybrid of the things we feel excited about from the games we adore. I’m not sure exactly what that will look like, but I’ll know it when I see it.

A Guide to Awesome Playtests

Wooden game pieces and cards on a table, with out-of-focus person in the background.

What makes for an all-around great playtest?

Inspired by our Metatopia critique panel (co-run with Joshua A.C. Newman and Rachel E.S. Walton), I’ve compiled some thoughts about playtesting below. The first section is about how to be an awesome playtester. The second section is about how to run an awesome playtest.

I hope these guidelines will serve as a useful jumping-off point in your future games!

How to Be an Awesome Playtester!

1. Bring your best self.
Before the playtest, assess whether you’re physically and emotionally up for the task. If you’re hungry, tired, sick, or having a bad day, try to fulfill your own needs before coming to the table. If you need to skip the playtest, skip it!

2. Ask what kind of feedback would be helpful.
If you don’t know what type of feedback a designer is looking for, just ask! Once you have that answer, cater your feedback accordingly. If a designer is just hoping to playtest mechanics, avoid giving feedback about tone. If a designer wants to know if the game feels scary enough, limit your feedback to the spook factor.

3. Monitor your mood.
Remember that playtests can be mentally demanding, and they’re not always fun. If you’re feeling tense or impatient, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this isn’t a finished game. If this really isn’t the game for you, it’s okay to leave.

4. Save feedback until the end.
Take notes as you play, and wait until the end of the game to share your feedback. It’s important to play through the whole game to get a sense of scope, and stopping every few minutes for critique will ruin the flow.

With that said, it’s important to ask for clarification when something is unclear. Questions like, “Wait, what am I supposed to do during this turn?” or “How do I decide which card to put down?” are valuable to a designer.

5. Play the game, but don’t try to design it.
Do not give rule suggestions unless asked for them. Your design solution may be something the designer has already tried, and even if it isn’t, these conversations can quickly slow a playtest to a halt. It’s okay to say that a certain mechanic felt clunky or confusing to you, but leave it to the designer to fix it.

6. Play the game as it’s meant to be played.
Don’t try to root out the edge cases, fractures, and loopholes. Don’t act adversarial or obtuse in order to test the game. Play it straight.

Let yourself get swept away! A designer needs to see when and where you’re having fun just as much as they need to see when and where you’re struggling. Your sincere engagement with the game will be enormously helpful to the designer.

7. Start and end with something positive.
After the game ends, begin your feedback with something positive. This sets a good tone for the entire table and shows the designer you appreciate their efforts. Don’t let broken mechanics get in the way of your appreciation of the game’s goals, themes, presentation, or setting.

8. Speak to your own experience.
After the game, say what you thought was awesome, what felt like it needed work, and what you found confusing. Speak for yourself, and never argue against someone else’s experience of the game.

Don’t speak to the experience of an imagined player, meaning don’t try to find rules that might be confusing, or that someone might find boring. If they worked for you, that’s what the designer needs to see.

9. Be specific.
Specific, qualitative feedback is always more useful than general feedback. “The rules are good but still need work” isn’t very actionable. Try to figure out exactly what was working or not working for you. Did character creation feel too slow to you? At what point did it feel slow? What were your expectations about the speed? What happened as a result of the slowdown?

10. Be considerate.
Make sure to ask about what’s okay to photograph and what isn’t, and make sure everyone’s okay with where you’ll be sharing photos. This goes for audio and video recording as well. If you can, silence your phone and keep it stashed away.

Be good to the people around you, don’t interrupt, and remember that someone has put a lot of time and hard work into this game.

How to Run an Awesome Playtest!

1. Bring your best self.
Are you stressed? Tired? Anxious from staying up all night rewriting rules? Playtesters will be looking to you to set the tone, so muster up your enthusiasm! If you’re sick or exhausted, you’re not going to get what you need out of this playtest. Reschedule and try again soon!

Disparaging your own work is a surefire way to set the wrong tone. Remember that this is a playtest; it’s not a glossy, finished product and the people at the table are here to offer you support. Players need to feel like you’re up to the task and able to accept critique, so present your game with confidence!

2. Offer snacks and breaks.
If you can, bring sustaining snacks and water. A grumpy playtester is sometimes just a hungry playtester. If you know who’s coming to the game, ask about dietary needs in advance. If you’re playing with strangers, avoid bringing major allergens (like peanuts) into a small room.

Even if you’re on a tight schedule, everyone needs stretch breaks and pee breaks. Let playtesters know you’ll be breaking at the 1 or 2 hour mark, and make sure folks feel comfortable leaving the room if they need a break in-between.

3. Say what kind of feedback would be helpful.
Think ahead about the type of feedback you’re looking for and write down some questions for playtesters. It’s okay to ask for as much or as little as you want in the way of brainstorming, critique, or suggestions. If you’re not ready for heavy critique, you can say, “Just tell me what’s working!” If you want to test a specific mechanic, make sure playtesters know that that’s the focus.

You don’t have to use every bit of feedback, and some feedback might be wrong for your game. If someone says your horror game should be played for laughs, you can thank them for the suggestion and move on. You don’t need to defend your game or entertain conversations you don’t want to have.

4. Observe reactions.
Watch what players are doing, the choices they’re making, and how they’re responding to the rules. Carefully observing where people are laughing and delighted, or where they’re bored or uncertain, is some of the most valuable feedback you can get.

In-depth, analytical feedback is great, but if you’re paying close attention, you can get a lot of what you need from observation.

5. Keep the game flowing.
It’s okay to accept questions when things are confusing, but save longer feedback conversations until the end. Feel free to redirect the focus if you see a quick question turning into a critique.

6. Recognize overlapping feedback.
It can be overwhelming to run a playtest for the first time. You’ll get hit with a wall of feedback, and you may wonder how you’re possibly going to incorporate it all into the game. The answer? DON’T! It’s important to playtest multiple times to learn where feedback overlaps, and to find themes in the type of feedback you’re getting. If ten different playtesters loved the ridiculous monsters, you don’t want to throw them out for the one person who thought they were too over the top.

There’s no such thing as a universal audience, so don’t try to make a game that will be universally adored.

7. Monitor your responses.
In general, it’s best not to respond to critique. Just say “thank you” and write it down to consider later. Don’t let yourself get defensive about your game. You don’t need to explain your intentions.

Be careful of questions from playtesters like “Why do you think we need another zombie game?” These can sidetrack the conversation and may leave other players in the room behind. It’s okay to redirect back to the kind of feedback that will be useful to you. These are conversations you can have one-on-one later if you’re interested, but they usually don’t belong in a playtest.

8. Invite a buddy.
If you’re feeling nervous about your playtest, invite a non-player buddy who can monitor the table, refill the snack bowl, and offer support as needed. If you want to focus on running the game instead of feverishly taking notes, ask your friend to write down player comments and reactions throughout the game.

9. Remember, you’re in control.
If a playtest is going in the wrong direction, you can pause the game and talk to players about refocusing or changing course. You also have the power to end the playtest early. It may feel disappointing, but there’s valuable information in watching things go wrong, and it’s okay to return to the drawing board.

10. Follow up.
If players are excited to try the next iteration of the game, get out your calendars and schedule the next playtest before anyone leaves the room. It’s much harder to schedule after the fact by phone or email, so strike while the iron is hot to ensure a second (or third!) playtest. Make sure people have a way to contact you if they have feedback they’d like to share later, or if they’d like to talk one-on-one.

And finally, remember to give your playtesters a big THANK YOU!

For other great playtest resources, check out:

Want a printer-friendly version of this guide to share at your next playtest? Here’s a link to a downloadable PDF (Dropbox).

Thanks to Evan Rowland, Moyra Turkington, Rebecca Slitt, Sarah Richardson, Rachel E.S. Walton, Joshua A.C. Newman, J Li, and Marshall Miller for awesome input and thoughtful suggestions.