This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007.
A column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
If you really want to understand the culture we live in, read a few introductory books on marketing.
I can already hear some of you screaming in desperate agony at this suggestion. And believe me, I feel your pain. However, those who feel a sense of hostility toward the pervasive influence of sales techniques on public discourse, are well advised to learn a few basics of marketing-think, purely as a self-defense mechanism. Arm yourself against the horde, as it were.
I personally have to admit to a profound ambivalence toward the worldview of the marketing expert. On one hand, I make my living in a creative endeavor and want to see my work, and that of others, appreciated for its merits, on a shining plane of incandescent purity. Or something like that. On the other side of the equation, I look around and see a host of colleagues expending time, effort and cash attempting to sell games without the benefit of the marketing principles they’ll need to find an audience. For more on this syndrome, see Pitches and Misses.
Like it or not, marketing principles work because they identify elements of communication that truly grab an audience’s attention, and linger in memory afterward. This may cause us to recoil in horror as we’re being bombarded with product advertising that doesn’t even apply to us, or watching mildly attentive voters fed misleading messages by political parties we dislike.
However, as game masters, our goals are oddly similar to those of the advertising maven. We aim to capture our players’ attention in the first place, and to leave them with vivid memories of their experiences in our games.
The most powerful idea in all of marketing is the unique selling point. Simply put, it tells advertisers that they have to emphasize the element of their product that makes it different from all of its competitors. Without a unique selling point, nobody has a reason to pay attention to whatever it is you’re offering.
This idea has applications way beyond the promotion of soaps and condiments. Employ it to make your games stand out from the pack. To sell a successful new product, it must have a unique selling point built into it. As you set out to create the ultimate roleplaying series, why not begin with a list of factors that make it different from others of its kind?
Before you start, remember that these differences have to be seen as positive by your players. You’re looking for cool, distinctive elements that make your Vampire, or Dying Earth, or D&D game different from all of the others your players have played before, or will play in the future. Be careful not to make it a point of negative difference, which removes from the core game its distinctive and attractive elements. A Vampire game in which none of the players get to be paragons of gothic cool will likely be regarded as different in a bad way. Likewise a Dying Earth game that advances a sentimental morality, or a D&D campaign stripped of its compulsive power accumulation.
This is not to say that no group will ever accept a revisionist version of a popular game. Unlike advertisers, you have the advantage of knowing your target audience on a one-to-one basis. Maybe your crowd is enthusiastically experimental enough to push the boundaries of a popular game to the breaking point. More likely, though, they’ll accept your tweaks to the elements they like with feigned tolerance, slowly losing interest over time.
High-concept games, in which the players are presented with a group identity from the outset, make for fine selling points. Always build a default activity into the group concept. Ideally, this is a further refining of your chosen game’s default activity.
For example, the Dying Earth roleplaying game provides three related default activities, depending on the power level around which you choose to base the game. In a Cugel-level (low-level) game, the default activity is:
You are a group of ne’er-do-wells wandering about swindling, getting swindled, and otherwise falling into picaresque trouble.
Your high-concept elaboration of this might be:
You are a group of wandering ne’er-do-wells who will inherit a huge fortune if you find the most gullible person in the Dying Earth, as judged by the daihak Crondowel.
Thus you’ve kept the selling points of the original game, while adding a level of specific detail that immediately tells your players what’s expected of their characters. If the campaign goes well, and they look back on it fondly, they’ll remember that narrative hook. “That wasn’t any old Dying Earth game. It was the one where we were searching for the world’s most gullible person.”
Games with extremely simple default activities can become distinctive through fairly straightforward elaborations. A D&D game might be made distinctive by focusing one’s dungeon looting activities on a single type of enemy, whether that be evil elves, extradimensional horrors, or mind-reading conspirators.
The more experience a group has with a given game and setting, the more open they may be to twists and variants on the basic formula. If you’ve all been playing Call of Cthulhu for a decade, you may be sufficiently steeped in the mythos to enjoy a game where you are not occult investigators hunting down the worshippers of impossibly alien gods, but a group of cultists engaging in reprisals against an organization of occult investigators.
Supplement your high concept with more modest stylistic cues. I often choose a certain naming convention, which applies to PCs and gamemaster characters alike. In one recent game the characters all had metynomous names expressing essential character traits, as you find in Restoration drama and Dickens novels. In the game after that, the main characters all sported pseudonyms based on local street names. For an upcoming game set in a standard fantasy world, the NPCs will all have English names.
Other cues might include always having an art reference for major NPCs, drawn from real paintings of a particular period. You might choose a theme song and play that at the beginning of the campaign’s first few episodes.
All of these techniques reinforce the same core idea: this isn’t just any old game you’re playing. Your players will never get another chance to play another one exactly like it.