This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007. 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Last summer’s Origins convention in Columbus, Ohio gave me a platform for an eye-opening experience, and not an especially pleasant one, at that. It made me want to sharpen my own game as a designer and self-promoter, and to urge my colleagues to do the same.

As part of the con’s seminar track, I rounded up some of my fellow guests of honor for an event called Gaming Gurus Pick the Goods. Designer extraordinaire Jonathan Tweet, GenCon honcho Peter Adkison and supreme muskrat purveyor John Kovalic and I crawled the dealer’s hall looking for new, cool products to plug during a subsequent seminar.

We were looking for new and newish releases, so our recommendations had to be based on a quick initial impression. We didn’t have time to play games in detail and winkle out their hidden flaws. If a product caught the fancy of any expedition member, it won a spot on the pile. This is the lowest possible bar for product evaluation. Even so, we were devoting more concentrated energy to the hunt for hidden gems than any right-minded person would in a dealer’s room of that size.

I was shocked by what we encountered. At booth after booth, we had to wade through lazy, confused, indifferent and just plain non-existent product pitches. We presented ourselves at each dealer’s tables with way more energy and eagerness than most wary buyers. We didn’t need to be drawn in; we were serving ourselves up on a silver platter. Granted, some booth staffers knew us as industry types and may have figured an actual cash sale was not in the offing. Still, it was positively gobsmacking to ask the question “What have you got that’s new and w wonderful?” and hear, “Ehh, not much,” or, even more devastating, “Oh, the same old junk.”

Other bloodcurdling non-replies included “I really don’t know, I’m just working the booth,” and the time-honored, “I’m the girlfriend, you’ll have to ask him.” (A few weeks later Jonathan, Kenneth Hite and I repeated the event at GenCon; you really don’t want to hear the worst pitch from that event.)

Except for a small handful of well-staffed companies, most game manufacturers couldn’t run booths without volunteer labor, whether those roped in are friends, freelance creators, fans, or significant others. What our little adventure inadvertently highlighted was that most don’t take the time to provide even a minimal level of briefing to their conscripts before leaving them exposed to the teeming public. Projecting a welcoming persona does not necessarily come naturally to members of our glorious geek tribe. Many of us are alternately aloof or overly voluble, and either have a hard time speaking up, or of staying on point.

Anybody with any responsibility for running a booth at a show should be terrified that their booth staff, whether employees or volunteers, is giving the public dispiriting answers like the above. My hair stood on end. It made me question my own booth-weaseling skills, and whether I’ve become complacent after having been, in my early years, an energetic and successful pitchman.

Any booth runner, before every show, positively must, must, must, gather his volunteers together for a meeting. If they’re roleplayers, by golly, make ‘em roleplay. Run them through a scenario in which they pitch the product to you, the quasi-interested customer. Make sure they know what they need to about each product. Don’t let anyone work your booth till you can pull them aside and hone their spiel. Nobody wants an over-eager lunatic leaping into the aisle to corral unwilling participants, but you do need someone who can, once prompted, infuse the customer with the same enthusiasm about the product that led you to produce it in the first place. Do what any booth runner for any real industry trade show would do — give them a script! You don’t want them to robotically parrot it, but they need to know the bullet points.

That’s the second deadly, and far more common, sin we saw out there in the dealer’s hall that day. When prompted, most booth denizens were indeed able to reach for their newest, coolest thing — but almost none of them were able to quickly encapsulate its basic hook.

The successful marketing of any product starts with a unique selling point. What is it about this item that makes somebody want to buy it, instead of something like it? A unique selling point should be a quick, punchy sentence laden with both promise and information. Twenty-five words or less, preferably less.

We heard a lot of answers that didn’t at all resemble selling points. We were told that a certain book had a cult following because it was very popular in a particular country in the eighties. Sometimes the pitchman would flip through the rules book to his favorite game mechanic and then begin to describe it in detail — as he would if he were teaching the game, but devoid of all context. Or we would be told how incredibly great and different a product was, with the exact nature of this difference remaining elusive.

On several occasions I tried repeatedly to wrest a selling point from a struggling pitchman. With a roleplaying game there are lots of ways to phrase the question: “What do the characters actually do in the game world?” “I’m a GM; how do I convince my players to try this?” “How does this differ from D&D?” Or the blatant: “Tell me about it in 25 words or less.”

In some cases it was clear that there was a hook, and the booth guy hadn’t been properly prepared to supply it. Far grimmer was the realization that many of the books, cards, and playing boards strewn out on the tables had been envisioned, playtested, invested in, manufactured and brought to market without a valid, unique reason for being. The products had no immediately gripping points of distinction from the established games already dominating their respective categories.

The time to compose the 25-word encapsulation of your hook is not when you show up at the convention where your big product is due (gods of printing and courier services willing) for release. It’s about three minutes after you first conceive the desire to create and market the thing.

A handful of folks passed our test with flying colors. Their products immediately wound up on our plug piles. If you ever want to see how it’s done, try and get Alderac kingpin John Zinser to demo his company’s latest game for you. He’s a man who knows why you want to buy his game.

The impulse to create a game is a pure and beautiful thing, but if you want to sell it to other people (and spend money to do it) mere desire is not enough. We of the geek tribe adore elaboration and surface detail. We love to tinker and fix things. We may dig a particular game except for one apparently broken element. Though valid, most of these impulses should lead to the creation of a web page, not an expensively published game.

If you’re a civilian — that is, a gamer who quite sensibly wants only to play games and never design or publish them — you may be wondering why you should care about this at all. Maybe you shouldn’t. You certainly don’t owe anything to the folks who staff their booths with well-meaning but ineffectual volunteers, or who blow wads of dough on ill-conceived publishing ventures.

The value of a game to you, however, is directly related to your ability to find other people to play it with. The best way to predict whether a new game will yield a ready crop of fellow players is to ask the tough question: what’s the hook? What is it about this game that makes it different? Is the hook appealing enough to repay my investment of time and money?

Forget the health of the industry, or the financial well-being of new manufacturers. If we all get just a wee tougher about this, the games will get better.