Of testing, deadlines and VTTs

Although I’ve never worked as a MMORPG or other games developer, I have some personal experience of creating pen and paper D&D modules. This has only been for self-publishing on the DMs Guild, with me doing the majority of the work (writing, editing, layout and organising testing) as a hobby activity. So far, the only external deadlines I have had to work to came from community events like the RPG Writer Workshop, so they are as elastic as they need to be based on the free time I have to plug into the project.

As previously noted, I feel I did pretty well on the writing front, 5500 is a good amount to get through. Sadly, as is the norm for me, I prioritised writing over communicating – I barely touched the RPG Writer discord channel this time. In the last two weeks I had a sudden non-creative priority to deal with on top of the day job, so writing slowed to a crawl. Yesterday was the first playtesting session of the new module. We managed nearly 4 hours with some breaks, but I had to call it early as there is a lot I still need to flesh-out.

I like to be organised, so a spreadsheet of edits is my tool of choice. I’ve subdivided tasks into two categories to be able to prioritise them based on whether they’re needed for playtesting or not – once I’ve run my group through the module I’ll then have to do a big round of editing and layout work to bring it to a publication-ready state. I currently have 44 edits, additions or corrects to make, 16 that are more urgent. The playtesting revealed a bit of a glaring “bug” from the end of the last module, so that’s at the top of the list of fixes now. A good number of these are the necessary creations or adaptations of the word processed module to the Fantasy Grounds virtual tabletop (VTT) system that I use to run the game for my group of friends.

Fantasy Grounds as a product is both a great help and a big time sink. It automates a good amount of the rules-adjudicating and the number-crunching, which can be a real boon when running a game. Likewise, it gives the visual focal point for the game and especially for combat via the shared maps to show the relative positions of combatants. Running purely narratively, “theatre of the mind” style isn’t something I’ve attempted for a very, very long time now – I want my battle maps! The downside to this is the prep time. I have to load in all the encounters, coding into the system any unique NPCs myself as part of this. I have to create the maps for locations and said encounters using Dungeon Painter Studio or a similar tool, then load them into Fantasy Grounds and set up the grid and the visibility settings (either the mask or the new line-of-sight system in Fantasy Grounds Unity). For some games I’d just grab the nearest-fit map from a Google Image search, but for a published module I need to create everything to avoid any possible copyright issues. Finally, I transcribe notes or story to stand in for player handouts: such as more detailed story elements (e.g. a letter) or clues.

More prep work

So prepping for playtesting the way we still have to run this, via a VTT session and video call, requires a big up-front time investment *beyond* the actual module writing task itself. It has given me a great respect for those indivduals who do this for real as their work or part of it – all of the major publishers create VTT versions of their published adventures and that must involve a lot of extra effort. I have run a few of these polished products via FG, notably parts 1-3 of the Starfinder Dead Suns adventure path. Not only are all the encounter prepared and set out on the relevant location maps, but all of the text from the modules, the art assets and the tokens are included. It’s another level that I’m not ready to stretch to yet, but it could be possible to run an adventure without even opening the module (paper or PDF) with enough prep in FG.

For now I stick to the pragmatic half-way house, especially since this is effectively a “beta” product with sections still barely out of the outline stage. I use FG for the encounters and the visuals to bring the adventure to life and to make it as easy to understand as possible. The next deadline is for a second playtest session next Saturday, if our schedules align, so I’d best get cracking on that list of 44 edits…

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2 Responses to Of testing, deadlines and VTTs

  1. Pathhos Vignettes says:

    I had a similar realisation during the Storytelling Collective RPG course last month. I play-tested my one shot two weeks ago and got lots of really good feedback for the edits. My problem was that “I’ve had my fun now that the creative work and play has been done. Editing, layout, formatting etc. is still sat there after the deadline has passed. They are looking at me very reproachfully.

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