The Second Fury of Gruumsh
Playtesting can be used for any number of things, from seeing exactly how tough the monsters you’ve created actually are, testing new powers and feats you’ve invented, approximating damage inflicting on the players over the course of a session, and so forth.
You can run a playtest alone or with a couple of players. Running it alone is better for keeping things secret since fewer people know about it, and you can run the scenarios you expect to play out. Running a playtest with players can spoil the surprise, though you can always play with people other than your main party, such as a sibling or spouse who isn’t in the game. At the same time, players tend to do and try unexpected things, such as luring your Crimson Slime creature into the 3×3 acid pit trap you set up, and your slime’s miserable athletics score will basically ensure it gets melted to a puddle of goo, all because you put the trap’s perception DC too low or didn’t set a 300lbs weight limit for triggering the trap. No one is better at finding the flaws in your battles and dungeons better than other players, so you can fix them right away. Or you can keep them and see if your main group is as smart as your playtester, then insult them when they turn out not to be (joking).
One of my most memorable playtest moments was in the hayday of 3rd edition D&D. Looking up creatures with a challenge rating of 5 (CR 5 (at least, I think it was 5)), I ran across two separate creatures I could implement. One was an elephant, and his stats seemed fairly reasonable. Then I saw that a hydra was the same challenge rating (I can’t remember how many heads it had, but somewhere between 3-6). That didn’t really seem like an equal challenge, so I had a friend play the hydra while I played the elephant. I’m pretty sure that by the end the hydra had lost something like 10% of its health (after regeneration) and the elephant was, of course, totally dead. I ended up not implementing either since the elephant was a wuss and the hydra was the walking embodiment of Sham’brolah, god of all hyrdas, the template from which all hydras were created. I wasn’t that intent on killing my players’ party just yet.
Not playtesting can also also lead to issues. One of the heroes in my campaign, “Lord” Adgronius Zeon, has it written in his bio that he has slain two white dragons single-handedly. For a bit of fun, I had one of my players take control of Lord Zeon during that first battle, but grossly underestimated the strength of a player 7 levels above a solo opponent, especially when they fight that creature without any underlings with that opponent or anything else to weaken them first. In the end, Zeon did technically take enough damage to kill him, but he had enough temporary hitpoints, attacks that restored HP, and special items to down the dragon without even falling into the realm of ‘bloodied,’ and didn’t even expend a single healing surge. So a single Paladin, hero though he be, made my level 17 adult Dragon look like a bitch because I didn’t give it a proper playtest. But hey, at least the player enjoyed beating the crap out of that Dragon.
In the end, however, I understand that playtesting is incredibly time consuming and sometimes you just don’t want to do it. It isn’t strictly necessary and, while I do think it is helpful, I don’t really encourage it all that much because I don’t like telling people to do things I am not up to doing myself. Besides, whenever it looks like something may be easier or more difficult than you intended, you can always secretly alter it behind the DM screen.
Just as a note, in case my players read this: no, I am not altering things behind the DM screen. I promised that if you were going to die, I would let you die. To everyone else reading this, I’ll tell you that I have actually paused a game and freely admitted to my players that I totally overestimated their strength and, if I rolled out the next encounter without reducing the enemy’s numbers, they would die. Not might. Would. It was guaranteed: they were nearly out of healing surges, had used all their daily abilities, had eaten most of their encounters, and were not given a chance to rest from the last encounter. They would have been totally screwed. The last encounter was supposed to be the four player characters plus the three NPC characters assisting them vs. a solo creature and three elites that could easily dish out twenty damage apiece, enough to kill a player in one round of combat if they all landed attacks. I admitted the screw up and requested permission to alter the encounter to give them a better chance. They agreed, so I altered it. Instead of three elites, I had nine standard enemies accompany the solo. Nine may not sound better, but they had about a 20% lower chance to hit, 10% higher chance to be struck, didn’t have special area of effect or status effect abilities like the elites did, and had only 400 total health between them compared to the 600 health the elites had. Two people were still almost killed, including the tank (who was out of healing surges, and I am not sure if the books cover how reviving players without healing surges works), but in the end there were no casualties. Had I used my original plan, I would have had to close this wiki down for good by now.
So yeah, maybe I should have playtested that one.