“Have you forgotten something?”
The great work is finished. You have crossed the t’s and dotted the i’s, filled out the copyright notice in the legal appendix, designated your open game content, delineated your product identity, approved the final layout. You have paid a few hundred bucks out of your pockets for artwork, including an eye-catching cover, which has your name plastered on it. Inside, you have credited your layout guy, your editor, two profferaders, a cartographer, the cover artist and multiple interior artists, and even added a special thanks section for the Kickstarter backers after the dedication. You have an ISBN, and you know you need a separate one for print and PDF. You may have trademarked something along the way just to make sure.
“Have you forgotten something?”
|Daddy faces the music
If you are in the majority of old-school writers and publishers, you have forgotten something very important: you have not credited your playtesters. In fact, I have done a little investigation, and I have here in my hand a list of 90 products without giving credit that were made by well-known members of the Old School Renaissance, who nevertheless are still working and shaping discourse on the Internet. Of course, you can rest comfortably. While no one serious would forget to credit their cover artist, and only the most heinous would decide to remove author credit (TSR, our own little Evil Empire, tried to pull that trick in the 1990s with their fiction writers by using “house pseudonyms”, but even the low-grade suckers who worked for them rebelled against that), leaving playtesters uncredited has long and noble traditions in this hobby. Many of the classics never had them listed, and here’s the rub: they are still good stuff.
However. Returning to play-oriented and play-informed game supplements has been one of the major promises of old-school gaming, and that casts things in a different light. By the fans, for the fans, from gaming group to gaming group. Here, the role of playtesting and giving everyone due credit becomes more than a simple act of courtesy. I would like to argue that it is, or at least it should be part of our ethos, our mission statement. In a hobbyist subculture that embraces amateur effort and the DIY spirit, shared creativity should recognise its contributors. It is only proper to give credit to those who played a part in realising a game project.
There are important practical concerns, too. Playtesting an adventure is an essential step of the design process. Yes, this sounds stupid in a hobby about games. And yet, the trust of gamers has been abused again and again by designers who do not game regularly, if at all, resulting in adventures which don’t work as interactive entertainment, which have terrible structural or balance issues, or which have decent ideas but are so inaccessibly written that they are cumbersome to use at the table. Playtesting is a certificate of authenticity which tells us that someone somewhere has run the module and someone somewhere has played them, and presumably had fun with it. It tells us the module is functional. My submission policy for my RPG, Swords & Magic was based on two simple, hard criteria: the author should be willing to put his or her name on the cover ( “Do I take responsibility for this thing I have written?”), and it would have to come from actual play with full tester credits (players and their characters). No playtesting, no publication.
In theory, there are many experienced GMs who could design an adventure and go straight to the presses while bypassing the testing process, and still deliver something functional and fun. Why not? After all, if it is the same thing we would run for our home group with confidence, is there a difference? There is no clear answer. Sometimes playtesting doesn’t change an adventure all that much, it just confirms it works fine and it is ready for publication. However, the confirmation is still an important part of quality assurance. Without that step, we only have an educated guess about the adventure’s viability. Much more often, playtesting is tremendously useful in turning a raw adventure into a polished final version. Maybe it still doesn’t change things fundamentally. But it can help highlight encounters which don’t work as expected (or work, but in unexpected ways!), text which is hard to interpret in play, details which are insufficient or overdone, and so on. Adventures also have a tendency of growing in depth and complexity as they are played, as the players discover connections and pursue courses of action the GM had never thought of. Incorporating some of these emergent elements can make the difference between safe mediocrity and something truly excellent. And that contribution belongs to our players – our co-designers. Of course, in an ideal world, an adventure should also be tested with multiple gaming groups, and should be GMed by someone else than the original designer. In a well-functioning game industry, this is what I’d expect the pros to do. Sadly, most of us do not have that luxury (although it is one of the reasons I like going to conventions) – and one group is usually okay.
|Why you should give credit
What about the List, then? What about the List? I will not publish the full thing – for reasons I will go into shortly – but I did my research and some of the results are pretty interesting. My research was based on my current collection of old-school adventure modules (excluding those I don’t have presently at home in either print or PDF). I only considered adventures which were released as “full”, standalone products, whether commercially or for free. Adventures published in fanzines weren’t counted. I counted hex-crawls (bottom-up setting material) and mini-settings which could be directly used at the table among the adventures, but not pure setting material or rules (although if anything, those two should see even more testing than adventures – it was with a sinking feeling that I realised a well-regarded old-school designer didn’t credit any playtesters in his RPGs). I also restricted my investigation to the modern old-school scene, starting from 2006 with the early OSRIC modules and Rob Kuntz’s Pied Piper Publishing, and finishing with early 2017 (one product). My sample is obviously skewed by including only products I actually had an interest in picking up, but otherwise includes a fair variety of stuff from random internet finds to some really professionally made adventures with relatively high circulation numbers.
This meant a sample of 131 adventures, of which 90 (69%) did not credit their playtesters, and only 41 (
19% 31%) which did.
Let’s face it: these numbers are not good. It costs nothing, it sure does not
take up much space (if you can squeeze in that extra monster description, you
can squeeze in your list of friends who had gone through your module), but for
all the lack of good excuses, people still don’t do it. In truth, there are
only two genuinely good reasons for leaving those names off: one, if someone
doesn’t want to be associated with the module (oh boy!), or if they would
prefer not to be listed out of concerns for their privacy or professional
reputation. In this case, it is still common courtesy to thank those testers
anonymously, or in a general sense (“thanks to all the people who have played
this module on Convention X”).
Does this mean those OSR people don’t game, or does that mean they just don’t have a habit of crediting their playtesters? Fortunately, the situation is slightly better than the numbers would suggest. There is no reason to suggest we are facing an omission out of malice – I know some publishers who don’t usually credit playtesters (although tellingly, there are invariably exceptions to that rule in long product lines), but who are otherwise ethical and well-respected actors. They may never have thought it was important, or they may have missed it once and fallen into comfortable routines. Some people are simply inconsistent, listing testers in one product and missing them in another. Likewise, I am certain some adventures which don’t have playtester credits have in fact been tested, sometimes very thoroughly (there are also some which I have good reasons to suspect have never seen a single minute of actual play). But I believe without a doubt that those non-gaming gamers are also out there, silently plotting their nefarious, never-played adventure scenarios.
In the absence of naming the List’s great offenders (you know who you are) and the innocent bystanders who have meant no harm, I would rather try something different: I will mention a selection of people who have consistently and fairly given people playtesting
- Rob Kuntz, often in anecdotal form, and with detailed play information (too bad he has stiffed publishers and freelance artists alike).
- Zak Smith (although not in Maze if the Blue Medusa)
- Chris Kutalik
- Daniel J. Bishop
The good examples are out there, and they should be easy to follow. It is a small issue, but there is tremendous room for improvement. Which is to say: let’s make that small act of courtesy into a natural one.