The brilliant and inimitable Vincent Baker went to a horror convention and tried to sell horror role-playing games – and it didn’t work.
It seems like it should have been the ideal situation. Dread does a remarkably good job of producing a horror-movie aesthetic. Vincent is smart, personable, and experienced at selling games. The place was full of horror fans.
Aha, I said to myself. If Vincent can’t sell Dread to horror fans, something is going on here.
In fact, I think there are four things going on here, and all four are working against Dread becoming accessible to the mainstream.
Before I go on, let me note that I think Dread is a brilliant game; it’s one of only five role-playing games on my student assignment list! For those just joining the conversation, Dread asks you to take the role of a character in a horror movie. You pretend to be that character as you collaboratively invent the movie’s plot with your friends. Whenever things are in doubt, you have to pull a block from a Jenga tower – and when the tower inevitably falls, someone’s character dies. It can be played for nail-biting tension or horrifying despair or even horror-comedy a la Scream.
So what makes selling Dread to horror fans so hard?
1) Use the right metaphor.
When people encounter something new, one strategy they use to understand it is to fit it into an existing mental category. They use what they know about the existing category to set their expectations, and as a point of reference for identifying what’s different.
It sounds like one thing Vincent ran into was a category mismatch. Explaning that Dread was a game led new players to expect they’d be buying something that looked like a game. Instead, what they were offered was a book. At that point, most people walked away.
Broadly speaking, there are two solutions to a category mismatch problem. You can change the metaphor to better fit the product, or you can change the product to better fit the metaphor.
In this case, I think the metaphor is quite good – and as we’ll see below, I think the Dread book as it stands is inaccessible to people outside the role-playing community. That suggests the thing to do is create a new version of Dread, one that looks more like a game.
(Also, step back and look at the book with an outsider’s eyes for a second. It’s 168 pages. Would someone really want to have to read all that before they can have any fun?)
2) Small barriers add up.
I asked myself, Could someone go home from the con and play the game that night? The answer is not easily, and the question revealed a host of barriers to play.
We know even a small barrier can stop people from following through on their intentions. For example, a person asked to donate to a food drive becomes three times as likely to donate if they’re given a map to the food drive location. Looking up the location becomes an opportunity for people to get distracted, drop out, or otherwise fail to take action.
There are some unavoidable barriers to entry in any tabletop role-playing game, most notably the requirement to get a group of people together in one place. But if we want to sell our games to people who aren’t in the role-playing community, we’d better make sure we eliminate all avoidable barriers!
One big barrier is gathering the material necessary to play. In the case of Dread, that means a Jenga set and the printed questionnaires for that night’s scenario. Making people produce their own questionnaires is a big barrier. Ditto asking them to buy a Jenga set elsewhere if they don’t own one. People should be able to buy Jenga on the spot, and pre-printed questionnaires should be part of the game package.
Another barrier is the design of the book itself. In order to extract the information needed for play, you have to become familiar enough with the book to navigate it fluently. The basic block-pulling rules are on page 14, with more rules for the host on page 57, and the scenarios are all the way in the back. The list of what materials you need to play is buried in a paragraph of text near the beginning. This may be fine for experienced role-players, but for novices, it’s poor instructional design.
Finally, even figuring out what to do is a serious challenge. Watch some completely new role-players if you don’t believe me! The hard part isn’t pretending to be a character. It’s figuring out what you’re actually supposed to be doing at any given moment. Checklists for the host would be a huge help, as would cheat-sheets for each player. (Ideally, you print them on the back of folding plastic cards, so players can write their character name on the front and wipe it off later for re-use.)
3) Abstraction is for experts.
In Vincent’s thread, Chris Chinn points out that specific situations are always more engaging than abstract ideas. He’s even more right than he realizes. It’s not just that specific situations are more engaging – they’re also much more useful for people to learn from.
Abstraction works for experts, because experts already have the mental framework to interpret and understand the abstract ideas being presented. They also have a mental bank of examples to draw from, so the abstract ideas very quickly get fleshed out in their minds. Novices have neither a mental framework nor a rich set of prior experiences, so the abstractions remain just that.
The abstraction problem here isn’t just the way the game is sold – it’s with the way the game is written in the first place. Dread does a better job than most role-playing games, because it’s got copious examples. (I particularly like Chapter 3, where the authors actually show you character questionnaires and explain what makes them successful or otherwise.) However, most of the content is about what you might do if certain situations came up. Information is presented in huge chunks of content, and it becomes the players’ job to make the connection to their specific situation. For novice players, that’s enormously difficult.
To sell Dread outside the role-playing community, you’d need to write a separate guidebook that is focused around running one game successfully. Every rules decision should be illustrated with examples from that scenario, and rules should be explicitly referenced from the scenes where they might come up. If it isn’t grounded in immediate experience during play, it probably doesn’t belong.
Scenario books traditionally don’t work inside the role-playing community. This makes sense, because you’re selling (largely) to experts. If you’re trying to sell role-playing games to horror fans, though, scenarios are the way to go – because they’re specific, and learners need specific.
4) We are the 1%.
There’s a very useful rule of thumb when designing any kind of participatory activity: the 90-9-1 rule. 90% of people just want to show up and consume content. 9% will perform some contributions, while only 1% will be truly creatively engaged.
(Yes, it’s possible to shift those numbers with clever design, but Dread doesn’t, so I’m leaving that issue aside.)
To translate this into role-playing terms: 90% of people just want to play. 9% are willing to host or organize a game. 1% will actually design their own scenarios.
I think some trends in the indie world (GM-less games, short-play games) are intended to combat this, but I think they’re largely unsuccessful. That’s because most role-playing games are still designed to be DIY build-a-game kits. This is awesome for the 1% of people who want to build their own scenarios, and it’s even fine for the other 99% of people once they’re already somewhat familiar with role-playing. They learn how to navigate these texts to get what they want out of them.
When it comes to selling to outsiders, though, books designed for the 1% won’t cut it. We have to figure out how to appeal to the 9% and the 90%, too. The 9% means writing great scenarios, so they can host and organize games without much work. The 90%? Well, I’m not sure, but we could start thinking about selling to people with the notion of, “Can you think of someone you’d like to have direct your horror movie?” They don’t have to be personally willing to take a leadership role, as long as they know someone who is.
Taken together, these things suggest that we have to take a radically different approach to selling role-playing games outside the role-playing community.
So how would I do it?
I’d focus on selling the experience of one great Dread game, with optional additions for people who get excited.
When someone was interested in the game based on the demo, I’d offer them the Entry Pack. The Entry Pack is priced cheaply (under $10) and contains everything you need to play one introductory scenario, with an eye toward making it feel like a game.
My vision of the Entry Pack contains the following:
- Six pre-printed character questionnaires
- Six laminated stand-up cards, with space for a character name on the front and a player rules cheat-sheet on the back
- A checklist for the host
- The scenario booklet, with all rules provided only when necessary
If they don’t own a copy of Jenga, or if they don’t have it at the con with them, they can buy a Jenga game on the spot. That way they can play immediately.
Then comes the real money-makers – the upsells.
Upsell #1 is the Subscription Pack, for people who think they might want to do this regularly. For an additional sum of money, you’ll get quarterly scenarios emailed to you, complete with questionnaires. All you have to do is invite some friends over, print, and go. The best part? People in the existing fanbase would probably subscribe to this too.
Upsell #2 is the DIY Pack – also known as “90% of what’s currently in the Dread book.” You could probably just sell the book as it stands. The key is that the book itself is not for everyone; people can play (and make you money!) without ever inventing their own scenario. What the book does is give longevity to something you’ve already decided to buy. It’s a very different framing – and I’d guess it’s something people might pay $20 for.
If I had to sell Dread to horror fans, that’s how I’d do it – though it’d probably help if I were Vincent!