Pilot episodes: Great for testing mechanics and new settings

I've used pilot episodes as a GM, been part of them as a player, and have generally liked the way they turned out. The idea is pretty straightforward, and it's a lot like running a convention game for your players. When the GM wants to try out a new system mechanic, or run a different kind of game, they put together a 1-2 session 'episode' with pre-made characters and a self-contained plot.

When it works, everyone is happy. The GM gets to 'field test' whatever shiny new thing they are interested in and the players get a quick introduction to it (and the chance to comment) without putting a whole lot of energy into new character or risking their existing ones.

Here are some things that I've found help make it work:

1) Concrete goals
As the GM, you should have a short list of what you want to accomplish with the pilot episode. Once you have the list, design the adventure around it. If you want to test out your new combat system, make sure the adventure has plenty of opportunities for the PCs to shoot people and blow things up. If you're introducing the PCs to a new game or setting that you're really excited about, pull out all the stops and let them see (and interact with, and use) as much of the awesomeness as you can fit into 6-10 hours of gaming.

The caveat is that although prioritizing is good, the pilot episode will still need to be fun for the players. Some players might be fine with a combat system test that is just a bunch of pre-fab characters and a battle arena with some interesting terrain. But if your players like games with interesting characters and the opportunity to influence the story, you're better off giving them those things even if the story isn't what you put most of your work into. What they think of one part of the game will influence their opinions of the rest, so if they think the premise is silly, they are less likely to get excited about the mechanical innovations.

2) Keep it simple but engaging
While the episode needs to be interesting, it also needs to function with very minimal backstory. Have a <2 sentence pitch for the setting  that gives the players an easy handle on things ("You are going to play deniable operators in a war-torn and conspiracy ridden galaxy"). Keep the subplots to a minimum. Minimize the in-game time that needs to be spent on mundane things. You might love having NPCs haggle with your PCs over the price of gear, but now is not the time.

Having said that, if you are introducing a new setting or game, this is a great time to give the players a dramatic view of the main themes or conflicts. If the main game is going to be about a fantasy setting that gets hit by the zombie apocalypse, the pilot episode is a great time to play through the outbreak itself with disposable characters. The pilot also works well as a way to foreshadow the main antagonist - the PCs in the pilot episode could even be working for (or with) the villain.  

3) Mid-power PCs
Personally, I'm a fan of letting the players test drive relatively powerful PCs, especially if the pilot uses a new system. It lets them use a bunch of powers or abilities during the episode that beginning PCs are unlikely to have, and gives them one more cool thing to look forward to once they make their actual characters. And as a GM, sometimes its fun to sit back and let your players go to town with really powerful characters, and not have to worry about power creep and finding an even bigger challenge for the next session.

4) Flexible system testing
Given unlimited time, the most accurate way to playtest system modifications would be to make individual changes, and test each one in a carefully controlled experiment before moving one. No one has unlimited time. If you have 10 different modifications you want to try, try as many as you can coherently use in the same episode (obviously, 2 or more orthogonal combat systems can cause problems).

I tend to tweak variables throughout the pilot episode - if cover isn't as effective as I wanted it to be, I talk to the players and increase the amount of protection that cover provides. If PCs are dropping like flies during combat (and this is an undesired result), alter variables as needed to fix it. This is also a good time to get player feedback on the rules. Probably, the new rules will be a little confusing (especially if you are playing Calvinball with them during the episode). A more useful thing to focus on is what players think of the results: Are there too few tactical options? Is combat too deadly? Is the new magic system hideously overpowered? The best case scenario is that one or more of your players can provide constructive feedback over the course of the session to iron out mechanical problems and test alternatives. 

5) Go with what works and drop what doesn't
One of the main benefits of a pilot episode is that you can usually get a sense of whether your players like the idea, before you've put too many weekends into building an entire gameworld around it. Maybe running a super-gritty campaign where the PCs are infantry in WW2 sounded like a great idea, but it becomes clear that the players aren't having as much fun rolling dice to recover from trench-foot or watching their characters succumb to dysentery as you thought they would. Or maybe they run with it, and together you all decide to make the game more 'Catch-22' than 'Saving Private Ryan.'

Because at the end of the day, it's all about having fun. 

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