Making Horror, Selling Dread

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 onePeople 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!

24 thoughts on “Making Horror, Selling Dread”

      1. I, too, would subscribe for scenarios. I really love Dread, and I’d absolutely schedule a regular Dread night around the arrival of the new scenario in my inbox!

  1. You say that “90% of people just want to show up and consume content.” If that’s true, I fail to see how a scenario is going to solve the problem.

    Seems to me that roleplaying is an activity that, by definition, requires creative contribution at the table. If you want a certain type of meaningful rpg experience, then you have to contribute. Otherwise, we are right back to pre-packaged D&D modules, which are, for many, not going to cut it. They are “toys” that fail to escape the mental concept of a board game. If you want to sell roleplaying games that play like boardgames, then scenarios, and box sets, and the like could work. If you want to sell roleplaying games that are about creative collaboration, then I’m not sure I see how pre-packaged scenarios are going to get you there. I guess my issue is that, if you want rpgs that play like board games, well, then, we already have board games.

    Rpgs are fundamentally different, and, while I agree that specific situations are easier for non-roleplayers to engage with, players have to learn to create scenes on their own, else roleplaying will seem rather empty. I think a better structure is concise and repetitious structure that players can learn to feel comfortable with quickly — so that they can ultimately learn to participate actively and creatively. Like you, I find that rpg marketing is failing. But I’m not interested in changing the activity of roleplaying to make is more marketable.

    1. Tim,

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I probably need to write a second post unpacking what I mean on this front, because your analogy to board games is a) very helpful and b) not actually my position. I don’t want to make RPGs more like board games, if for no other reason than that board games have the SAME problem as RPGs. It takes someone fairly dedicated to learn the rules to a new game, teach them to other people, get everyone to show up, tell people when it’s their turn, etcetera. The difference is that board games generally have better instructional design, in that they teach you to play THIS game that’s in front of you and not some general class of games that includes the one you happen to be playing. They also don’t ask you to make up the content of the game at the same time that you’re learning the rules. Even so, learning a new board game is a huge barrier for many groups that don’t have someone willing to take a leadership role.

      I think we also differ in that I believe not all “creative contribution” is equally hard. Playing a character is relatively easy for people to get their heads around, while creating a character is harder, and creating a situation or scenario harder yet. The farther you get from “Let’s pretend you’re this person” and the more unstructured the activity, the more overwhelming it is for people to learn.

      Finally, I wouldn’t characterize what I’ve described as a marketing issue. It’s a question of how we teach people to play. Right now, the choices are basically a) apprenticeship or b) really, really poorly designed texts. I just don’t think we’ll ever reach people on a mass scale if we aren’t willing to do better at teaching them. Start people with materials they can actually grasp and learn from, and some of them will want to move on; others never will, but we have to support them too if we want to have any kind of mass audience.

      Hmm, maybe this is two posts, because I haven’t even touched on what good scenario design for creative collaboration looks like. You are probably imagining that I mean some old-school module with boxed text that says “Read this to your players.” I don’t, but I think working out what I do mean may be something of a process.

      1. A propos the scenario design:
        Do you think the suggested changes (i.e. rules introduced only when needed) can be achieved without reverting to a pre-scripted storyline?

        1. Let me answer a slightly different question: I think it’s extremely hard to apply rules to an abstract and general situation. Some rules of some games can easily be tied to non-pre-scripted specifics, but some can’t. The problem is that any rule that’s invoked by narrative circumstance is going to need to be tied to a specific narrative moment if you’re not going to put the burden of figuring it out when it applies on the novice group. That says pre-scripted, or at least semi-scripted, to me.

          I can think of some games where narrative circumstances almost never causes rules to come into play (I actually want to say Fiasco, but I’d want to glance at the rules again before saying for sure). Those you can probably teach effectively from a book or kit without scenario scripting.

  2. Notably, Jess, the “how would I do it” is very very similar to the Fiasco model, sans the upsells.

    The basic Fiasco book has four (replayable) scenarios. Additional scenarios are released regularly. If you want to write your own scenario/playbook, there isn’t any guide, per se, but their construction is pretty obvious.

      1. I’ve introduced Fiasco to a couple different groups of non-gamers before, and it has gone well every time. (Part of that is likely because I’m actively selecting players that I think will be receptive, but still.)

        My pitch could probably be better, but it goes something like this: “It’s like the campfire game of taking turns telling the story [people get worried looks on their faces], but there is a simple rules framework that makes it easy to figure out what to say [worried looks calmed], and by the time we’re done, the story usually ends up like a Coen Brothers movie.” I then usually list a few movies that I know people in the group like, and they’re up for it.

        I try to model everything before I ask someone else to do it, so I always take the first turn. I also remove any decisions that they have no context for making, like picking the playset. By the time we’re 2 or 3 turns in, people get what’s going on and don’t need any hand-holding.

        Of course, this works because I read the book 3 times before playing the game, and originally had a group that was willing to fumble through the darkness as we figured out how to make it work. The right way to learn any game is to have someone who knows it teach it to you, but that doesn’t seem to be the point of your article.

        1. James, my point is that if we’re ever going to reach a larger audience with role-playing games, we can’t depend on having someone like you in every group – someone willing to read the rules three times beforehand, someone who understands how to teach through modeling and anchored instruction, someone willing to take on many of the game decisions.

          You sound awesome, but you do not scale.

  3. Interesting. Dread is one of the RPGs I’ve had the best luck with introing non-gamers to RPGs. Admittedly biased because it’s one of my go-to games when I want to intro non-gamers, but I’ve certainly tried lots of others, mostly with lesser success.

    “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”

    Interesting. Except for the laminated character cards, I’d argue that all of that is already in the book. But I can definitely see what you mean that wading through the book to find it is problematical, even difficult. It would certainly be easy enough to pull out the first scenario, create the character cheatsheets/stand-ups, and package it with the quickstart rules (freely available on the website), which pretty much consist of a player rules summary, host checklist, and “all the rules you need”.

    1. Yup, you’re right on – I’m not arguing that the content has to change, only the pedagogy. (At least not for Dread. Other games, more so.)

  4. I used to have similar problems selling my games to my own target audience, anime and manga fans. I had to ask myself the same questions you asked here. The answers:

    – To anime and manga fans the terms “rpg”, “role playing game” and even just “game” were too closely associated to video games to be useful. Finding new terminology and new comparisons became key.

    – Books actually are an ideal medium for my target audience, but it has to be the right book. Short games (16-60 pages) in small packages (8 x 5 books) containing easy to learn games, complete with instructional manga that would allow a new player to get all the basic rules in just 3 -4 easy to read comic pages… that was the key.

    – Making sure my game books looked like something my target audience would want to pick up and buy was hugely important. A mistake that almost every game that tries to court a new audience makes is producing an rpg that looks like an rpg. The sad fact is that if your target audience wanted to play an rpg they would have done so by now. For whatever reason your target audience has stayed away from rpgs, and designing a product that looks lie one will do nothing to attract Them. You’re absolutely right about dread. Convincing horror fans that Dread is a game is a bit of a stretch. it doesn’t come in a box with a board or as a deck of cards, and it won’t fit in an XBOX. Any game that’s seeking a new audience needs to conform to that audience’s expectations.

    – Accessibility is huge. I found that I had a very narrow window to convince anime and manga fans that they would like my games,a nd that meant making them as accessible as possible. As I said before, adding in instructional manga helped hugely. In just 30 seconds of reading a potential player can learn everything they need to play. That reading can happen right at the booth, right in the store or right on the website. That reading creates both understanding and a sense of ownership. It’s much easier to sell someone a game that they already know how to play.

    – Ready made characters and scenarios are much more appealing to my target audience than tool boxes or games that promise unlimited options and customization. Anime and manga fans rarely ask if they can make their own characters. Instead,they easily gravitate toward well known character types, and will happily add in their own details. The original version of my game Panty Explosion came with an extensive character generation system that my target audience found confusing and boring. The new version of the game comes with pre-made character cards representing popular archetypes from anime and manga, the kind of characters that my target audience not only knows well but can instinctively identify with and enjoy.

    – I learned very quickly that my target audience doesn’t want to play a game that requires them to meet up once a week for months and months. Anime and manga fans prefer games that last just 1-3 hours. Some like to lay the same game over and over, introducing it to new friends and trying something different each time. Others might play a series of loosely connected one shot games, but the idea of an ongoing campaign is a hard sell for most of these players. I re-designed my games to perform in 1-3 hours.

    So the response has been pretty good so far. Some anime and manga fans just don’t get it. They come to cons for other stuff, and the idea of sitting down with sme friends and creating a story together is just way too off their radar. Other fans totally get it. their eyes light up when we describe what our products are, or when they read the instructional manga in one of our books.

    So yeah, I knew who my audience was from the start, but it took a lot of work to produce the kind of products they’ll actually buy and play.


  5. Here’s me talking about my take on the Entry Game, which is also a shameless update for the game’s kickstarter. I really want to see some of these games circulating around: I think they’ll be very useful!

    1. Um, SO AWESOME. As you know I backed you, and it was for exactly this reason. I think we need more role-playing games that don’t require a ton of work to play!

  6. Thanks for posting this. It’s definitely given me something to think about. I’ve been pondering Lady Blackbird recently. Would it be something similar to what you’re discussing? A fixed scenario (at the beginning, anyway) that gets right into things. Simple rules quickly explained on the character sheet. Updates and a DIY pack could be something further on.

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