What It's Like to Debut a New Game at ProtoTO

Something exciting happened this weekend: I held the first public play-test of a new game I’m working on! Tales from the Great Isles is a tabletop RPG about characters forging their own destiny in a dangerous fantasy world. It’s a game about telling stories: every character is created with a unique archetype and players decide how their stories progress and—eventually—conclude. I previewed it Saturday at ProtoTO, a play-testing convention in Toronto that brings tabletop designers together to test games still in development.

So what exactly is Tales from the Great Isles?

It’s a role-playing game, where one player plays the storyteller and the others create characters and play through a story they help create. Unlike many tabletop RPGs, the goal isn’t to slay monsters, find treasure, or save the world: the goal is to tell a great story.

Because of this, characters aren’t based on typical classes that focus on how you fight or your profession. Instead, they are made from archetypes: story seeds and backgrounds that can produce a range of diverse characters using simple prompts and questions. Here are some of the archetypes I tested this weekend:

  • The Rose has left a life of luxury who must reconcile their new destiny with their past.

  • The Lion is a displaced leader who must return to their people before it’s too late.

  • The Beast has a monster raging within them, and must find a way to control it.

  • The Lantern sees things others cannot, and must decipher their visions before they come true.

The game uses the same simple mechanics found in Apocalypse World and Dungeon World, which involves rolling two six-sided dice and adding to it based on your character’s strengths. But instead of rolling when your character does something specific (like swinging a sword or picking a lock), you roll at key story moments. Once you’ve played through a few serious internal conflicts spread out over several sessions, your character retires. They might walk away a changed person with a new life ahead of them, or their own weaknesses could lead to a tragic conclusion. Once they’re gone, you create a new character, ready to play through a different story.

The Playtest

This weekend, we tried creating characters and playing through a few scenes. We had an amazing time and the players had ideas that I would never have thought of on my own. The biggest thrill was seeing how far they stretched their characters with only a few prompts: we had an undead gang leader, back to exact revenge on those that betrayed him; a half-demon trying to track down the truth about her father’s magical experiments; a former idol of aesthetic worship, abruptly dethroned and left to fend for themselves; and a former acolyte with a demon whispering in their ear they can’t get rid of. My goal was to give people the tools to create compelling characters that were full of drama and story potential, and that was an undeniable success.

Presenting my game in public for the first time was daunting, but I’m glad I did it. I have a lot of fears and anxieties around going to events where almost everyone’s a complete stranger. But I’m grateful I fought the fear and pushed through. I am left with tons of ideas and suggestions, and I discovered what my game’s strongest points are and what makes it special. Playtesting and prototyping is the most essential step in a game’s early design, and I can’t recommend events like this enough. On top of the valuable feedback, you get to meet other developers, connect with the community, and practice your pitching skills. It was exhausting, but also thrilling, insightful, and totally worth it. (Thanks to Ray, Debbie, Eric and Jace for giving my game a try and making this weekend so great!)

My next goals involve making this project available for others to test and review, after I’ve implemented a bit of the feedback I received. If you’re curious for more information or want to playtest the game yourself, let me know! For updates, make sure you sign up for my newsletter.

In the meantime, what are your most memorable stories and characters? Have you ever had an amazing story develop from an RPG character you've played? I'd love to hear about it!

ProtoTO is an annual tabletop game playtesting event in Toronto organized by Pam Walls.