Playtest Serendipity & Triumph!

This past weekend I attended my first BigBadCon in Walnut Creek, CA, and while there I finally got the opportunity to introduce my game The Box to some seasoned story gamers for the first time. Until now I've only playtested with board game design groups and personal friends, so this was a great experience to actually get my game in front of its intended audience for the first time. It went better than I even imagined, and one particular experience was especially gratifying as a designer.

The game is about a group of people who discover a box, open it, and try to figure out the true nature or purpose of what they find inside. It is GMless and operates much like a worldbuilding game but you're all building a single object instead of a sprawling universe. My latest addition to the design is a system where each player is periodically and secretly recording their character's feelings toward the discovery on a -4 to 4 scale (-4 is complete revulsion and 4 is abject worship of The Object). This information is then aggregated in the final stage of the game, and based on the feelings of the characters throughout the game it points you to one of 64 possible Conclusion Themes to help you build the end of your story and decide on the ultimate nature or purpose of The Object you found. I spent a lot of time trying to come up with conclusion themes that would align with the characters' expectations and desires about how the story would end based on their emotion scores throughout the game.

In one playthrough this past weekend, the players used a pre-set Scenario I'd written about a group of android asteroid miners who discover a strange box in an asteroid cavern they are excavating. The players did some really cool things with this scenario. They came up with and built on the back stories for their characters in interesting ways - one was an android designed for house cleaning tasks that had been repurposed for offworld mining, but still had some appendages and systems that came in handy while exploring this discovery. Another was an older model android who was not quite as intelligent or advanced as the other two, he was called "Gramps" and was grumpy and fun. Another had belonged to a cynical human artist/programmer whose goal was to prove that he could program a machine to create works indistinguishable from human artists. This detail played heavily into the arc of the story, as you'll see.

In the course of the game they unlock and open this strange hexagonal-prism container, revealing a complex unfolding bio-machine that eventually encloses the group and takes them to a faraway location. Throughout the discovery they got some clues hinting that this new machine - which was made of all kinds of cobbled together lab-grown living tissue - was made by the same designer as the one who made the artist android. The Object scanned its android discoverers and they could feel parts of their code being modified.

Once they completed the description, we moved onto the Conclusion stage where the characters feelings toward The Object are aggregated and the Conclusion Theme is determined from these scores. This is always a tense moment for me as the designer because if the Conclusion Theme arrived at feels random or a poor fit for the story, then the players might feel as though they've built up all of this description and plot to an unsatisfying ending. It could easily ruin the experience if it goes wrong. We went through the process and I looked up the corresponding Conclusion Theme based on the character's feelings throughout the game and it was:

Instruction - A lesson is taught, or a task explained. A learning, explaining, and sequencing process.

They were totally blown away by this serendipity, as was I! One of the main rules of the game is that you aren't allowed to establish the ultimate nature or purpose of The Object until the end, but everyone had been hinting toward a certain conclusion the whole time, and then the game echoed that conclusion back to them through this totally separate process that is impossible to rig or predict.

It was such a gratifying moment as a designer to have built this system and have it satisfy the players expectations and imaginations so fully. In the end, the players decided - based on the conclusion theme - that the human who built this object had a vision that androids could help humanity reach a new level of being, and created this bio-mechanical device that could transform the androids who discovered it into beings with free will and incredible powers of understanding. They stayed incubated in this object for some time, having their hardware and software reworked to have the capacity for this new understanding, and then returned to Earth unrecognizably different from their original form. They are greeted as aliens, and these "aliens" (who were actually originally created by humans) then teach humanity new ways of being and understanding, ushering in a new age for humankind!

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