Play testing a game is likely the hardest part of game design. You take all your ideas, work and creativity and put it all out to lie on a cold hard slab in front of people you don’t know. As a designer we all fear our play test will turn into some bizarre scene out of CSI:GenCon where we get ritually cut apart by our critical players and then someone makes an ironic joke about how bad the game was before the theme music rolls and some idiot puts on a pair of shades.
In reality this is generally pretty far from the truth. Most of the time, especially at welcoming environments like Dreamation players are there to see the raw idea, to play around in the sandbox of our dreams and hopefully enjoy their time. These early sandboxes don’t have as many rules as a final product, which means they almost always offer more creative solutions and sometimes those lead to better ideas that ultimately end up shaping the design.
The problem is how to pull the experiences the players liked out from the game. Post game most people are emotionally exhausted and while this can be a hard time to pry intellectual mechanical discussion about the game, it’s not a horrible time to ask people how they feel. Roses and Thorns is about prompting the exhausted players for an emotional response, “What made you feel good?” and “What made you feel bad?”.
I like to think Roses & Thorns isn’t about “What mechanic didn’t you like?” or “Why do you hate my dice stacking/stepping thing so much?”. Roses and Thorns is about striking at the raw emotional nerve of the player experience and demanding a response.
The process is pretty simple, go around your table and ask each player to describe a part of the game that made them feel happy. This could be a scene, a player interaction or a specific event. The Play Tester’s job here is to take good notes and to tie the emotional response to the underlying structure of the game. As a Tester I don’t write “Bob enjoyed the Teamwork in the shootout where everyone communicated” I write “Bob enjoyed the Teamwork that came from mechanic x/y or fiction x/y”. As a tester you are essentially tagging player emotional response to specific components of your game.
Then come the Thorns, hey we all hate this but it is arguably the most important part. Go around the table and ask each player to describe a part of the game that made them feel sad/bad? At this point I usually make the ironic joke and put on sunglasses so they can’t see my tears.
At this stage, we as Testers are tagging negative emotional response and correlating it to the game. If everyone felt frustrated in a certain scene take note of it. As a Tester, what was going on in that scene? Was this when you used that specific negotiation move? Maybe this is what needs some work.
The point of Roses and Thorns or at least my take on this method is to not ask people to “fix my game” but to ask “how it made them feel”.