2005-08-11 : Selling Rules

This comes out of a conversation I had with an old friend this week, just a little throwaway thing he said that stuck in my mind.

Let's imagine a gaming group with a) a long, good history of fun together, b) a particular, honed, skillful, fun way of playing, and c) a general interest in theory, stylistic growth, and having more and/or different fun together. What they're doing now is a whole lot of fun, and they see other people having different fun and they want to maybe have that fun too. They want all the kinds of fun.

This is an awesome group to be in.

Okay, now let's consider two kinds of rules, relative to this group. Both kinds of rules deliver fun play, no question. But kind one: rules compatible with their current (honed, skillful, fun) way of playing. And kind two: rules incompatible with their current way of playing.

Here's what might happen. Here's what I see happening! Not just with this one friend of mine's group, but with Jonas about Immersion, and with an Israeli roleplayer's remarks about Dogs (link to come), and with my own group a little... It seems to be a thing.

The group looks at rules of kind one. "Hey!" they say. "Those rules are compatible with the way we play! Cool! We don't need them, we're already doing that!" And they're right.

The group looks at rules of kind two. "Yikes," they say. "Those rules aren't compatible with the way we play, we can't use those." So they don't.


Now, this isn't about the group at all - be it my friend's group, the Nordic scene, the Israeli scene, my own group, whatever. This group is having fun. It's an awesome group. Whether they adopt either kind of rules or whatever isn't a concern a'tall. At some point they're going to decide whether they want the new kind of fun badly enough to play the new way, and if they do they do and if they don't they don't, and either way they'll be happy in their lives.

No, it's about the designer, it's about me. They'll be happy either way, but I've got a lot invested. I want to have a serious conversation about roleplaying with them, and nothing can make that possible but comparable experience - comparable technical experience, experience of techniques. But I'm caught 22!

I guess all I can really do is make the conversation enticing and make the new fun even more enticing, and hope.

Hey, in the new open house, did you notice? Overwhelmingly, people who've played Forge games list Forge games among the most fun they've had. Just sayin'.

1. On 2005-08-11, Nir Shiffer said:

Hey, in the new open house, did you notice? Overwhelmingly, people who've played Forge games list Forge games among the most fun they've had. Just sayin'.

Yeah, but there aren't that many of them, all in all. It makes me wonder, from comparable experiences, how many people saw the Forge games and gave up.

And if that's your definition of compatible, then you forgot one more category: rules complementary to the way they play. "We don't do that right now, but we could".


2. On 2005-08-11, Vincent said:

Hey Nir, I swear it's not about the group. You don't have to explain yourself to me.


3. On 2005-08-11, JasonN said:

Sounds like a lot of your selling, V, might occur at Cons.

What other venues?

Online forums and mailing lists are well and good (and crucially serve other functions not on topic here), but you're already preaching to the choir at that point.

Ok, sure, but what you *really* want is to have nearly anyone who reads the rules be able to sell 'em, too.

I remember reading Nobilis a few years ago.  Liked it so much, I talked with Rebecca and set up the Nobilist.  I read the book 3 times, and thought it was the bees knees.

...But to this day, I've never been able to explain it to people, let alone get them excited about running.  Now, I'm not blaming RSB for my own failings, but the number of other people on the Nobilist who had the same problem: HUGE.

Compare this to DitV.  I pitched it to my group and they were like, "Yeah!"  Did the forums help?  Knowing there was an active designer out there explaining things, and a community of people doing stuff with the game?  Hell yes.

But I was ready to pitch the game to my group after my first reading of the rules, *alone*.  I don't know how much higher you can set the bar for yourself as a designer than that.


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This makes...
TLR go "How can someone not get Nobilis? Clearly, they're not worth gaming with if they don't. ;)"

4. On 2005-08-11, Nir Shiffer said:

Oh, no, I really didn't think it was. It's just that... well, we have basically the exact same situation, with the ISRP taking the place of the Forge. Almost everyone who plays ISRP games (a terrible term, even worse then Forge games, though I suppose just as valid) says they're the most fun he ever had, but how many are we talking about?

In my case I actually have numbers. We estimate that around 10% of the local roleplayer population play the ISRP games to one degree or another. That's around 1,000 people. We further estimate (and this is where our numbers get a lot more accurate) that more then half of them are playing primarily ISRP games.

All in all our numbers are pretty good, but they could be a lot better, and we'd like to get them there. Any ideas what your numbers are like?

As for explanations - I don't think I have to answer to you, and I don't think I'm being insulted or anything of the sort. We're all friends here. But I do want to have that conversation about roleplaying, and since we come from different backgrounds it means that I'm going to have to explain myself to you a little and you're going to have to explain yourself to me. At least professionally :)


5. On 2005-08-11, Vincent said:

Jason: I can sell rules day in day out and three times on Fridays to people who aren't having fun already. That's mostly what happens. I'm like, PTA = awesome! or MLwM = the creepy! or Universalis = fun for you! and they're like, I buy it now! That's pretty much what GenCon's like for me and all of us.

I'm talking about a different thing though, I'm talking about selling Nir here or my friend's group or Jonas or whomever on unfamiliar ways to play, when the ways they already have are working for them. Not selling for money - most of 'em already buy our games, and if they don't that's cool too - but selling them on actually giving it a try.

Nir: I have no idea how many people play Forge games, but like I say, that's not really what I'm getting at.

Hey, if you like, please link to your LiveJournal posts. They're really interesting.

Also, have you read this of mine? Adventures In... It's links to writeups of my group's Ars Magica game. I like to think they're worth some cred in the "stripping away mechanics" department. You might have to get past a certain amount of in-game depravity to get to the good stuff, look out.


6. On 2005-08-11, Brand_Robins said:

Then there is what happens with my groups:

You have awesome groups of honed, skillful players who have occasional clashes because we've all got, um... strong... personalities who are aware there are other kinds of fun but don't have a lot of language for it.

Then there comes along this one ass who reads the Forge all the time and gets all these words, getting most of them only half right, and explains them all to the rest of the groups. They all like many of the concepts, hate some of the concepts, and aren't sure about the others. However, they all like the ass, and decide to let him try some of this zany stuff.

Sometimes it bombs like Grand Theft Auto at a convention of Baptist Ministers, sometimes it goes over very well. The groups start to work through issues and get a new style worked out, that isn't quite their old style but isn't quite a "Forge" style either. They, however, are happy.

Then the ass buys Dogs in the Vineyard and wants to do yet more new things. The group is hesitant, but as they trust the ass....

The point being, sell to the ass*. If we can find ways to sell to the person in a group who is most adventerous, or disconent, or willing to try something new, or just spastic like me, and give them tools that they can use to convince others and give them solid play experiences under the new paradigm, then I think we have a way to crack the good group that just doesn't play that way.

Of course, this requires a well designed game with a very clear and well stated goal—but then that should be in mind anyway, no?

*In case it is not clear, I am the ass.


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This reminds...
BR of Mike Mearls just did a bit about marketing to GMs

This makes...
AA go "I'm totally that ass too"*
JBR go "Marketing to the Game Master"*

*click in for more

7. On 2005-08-11, Vincent said:

Sell to the ass. Yeah. That's a take-home message we can all use.


8. On 2005-08-11, Clinton R. Nixon said:

Sell to the ass? That's what I'm trying to do with my new cover.

Brand, I think you have us all giggling too much to continue. I hope not, because this is an awesome conversation, but, man, that's funny.


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This makes...
BT go "No, Clinton, that is 'selling the ass'"

9. On 2005-08-11, Adam Dray said:

"Overwhelmingly, people who've played Forge games list Forge games among the most fun they've had."

And lots of Cyberpunk, too. I want to understand that better!


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This makes...
Chris go "Cyberpunk!"*
VB go "Cyberpunk 1 was slick."*
BL go "Cyberpunk is great"*

*click in for more

10. On 2005-08-11, Nir Shiffer said:

Vincent: I haven't read it, and that's too bad because it sounds like exactly the kind of debate I would have loved to get in on. I want to read all the references first, so I'll get back to you on that.

I wanted to have the post about Framworks up before posting the links, but that now looks like it might be delayed a bit, so let's do this now:

Hello everyone, I'm Nir and I am a member of the Israeli Roleplaying Society. The ISRP has, over the last ten years, developed an "indy" scene parallel to- but distinctly different from that of the Forge. I've been thinking that it'd be interesting to share some of what we've come up with, because as far as I can tell it's distinctly different then most of what the Forge has come up with.

The problem with that, of course, is that it's all in Hebrew. Getting Dogs earlier this week pushed me to start writing, and so far I don't intend to stop. Below are links to some of the things I've written so far - it's all in preliminary stages, and it still needs a lot of polish and streamlining. But ideas are there, and that might be interesting to some. Feel free to come in, comment, ask questions, poke with a stick etc.

* My musings on Dogs, which got this whole thing started
* An overview of extreme consensus-driven gaming, code named Gorodinia
* Some elaboration on conflicts in Gorodinia, because someone asked

There are the things I intend to write, but I also have this tendency of writing things people ask for. If there's something you want, try me.


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This makes...
XP go "Sounds a lot like..."*

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11. On 2005-08-11, Nir Shiffer said:

Oh, and I should point out I almost didn't make it though that last comment becuase sell to the ass had me rolling on the floor. That was hysterical.


12. On 2005-08-11, Brand_Robins said:


Fascinating stuff, man. I'll comment once I've had time to digest.

And here is where I take a bow for selling to the ass. Of course, I bow backwards—away from the audience.


13. On 2005-08-11, xenopulse said:

Cracked me up, too, Brand :) And it's useful advice at that. I think we all know one of those asses (and often just need to look into the mirror to find him/her).

As for how to sell the game, let me repeat myself here: Make people read Actual Play posts. Good ones. Where the group totally rocks the house by playing the game balls to the walls.

It doesn't matter if you're having o.k. fun the way you do things—when you read one of those puppies, you're like, "I got my weed, but I want that CRACK over there!"

That goes along with pointing out that not all RP is the same stuff. It's not "Soccer with a cube-shaped ball," it can be a different sport altogether.


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This reminds...
Shiffe of Under duress!

This makes...
JCL go "read actual play posts?"*
Shiffe go "Under duress!"*
BR go "Paka's actual play sold me on Dogs"
XP go "For me it was Solamasa/Kit's"
Neel go "Paka could sell me on Synnibar"

*click in for more

14. On 2005-08-12, Merten said:

This Nordic scene-er thinks you hit a nerve, there. In a good way; reading Nir's first post and the first point there - that's pretty much where I come from. Granted, I haven't seen Dogs in the Vineyard yet, but based on quick reading of Dust Devils and some other Indie-games, I have a problem with them.

I dig the ideas and settings, but I dislike the rules. There's nothing exactly wrong with the rules - just that I dislike rules in general. And as most of the games feel like they've been designed on top of the rules (as opposed to, on top of the setting), I find it kind of hard to be compatible with the game.

Personally, I tend to think it's more my own problem than the designers problem, though. I'll try to elaborate this in near future.


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This makes...
NInJ go "A game is composed of rules."*
Merten go "Agreed, in a way"*
BL go "I think that for our present purposes, we can consider any method of communication between players, formal or informal,"

*click in for more

15. On 2005-08-12, xenopulse said:

Maybe this could be its own post... but as someone who's been playing freeform for ten years, I've recently discovered the potential power of rules. They can take me out of my comfort zone. They can challenge me to make tough decisions I could easily avoid without them. They can inspire me to address things in other ways than I'm used to, and create twists and turns that lead me down interesting paths I wouldn't have chosen on my own.


16. On 2005-08-13, TonyI said:

You need to tell us players where the fun is. You can't just write a book which has rules for a fun game, it needs to tell us specifically what are the fun parts in your game and how your game brings us there. Not as an advertising blurb, but as honest commentary on the process of playing your game.

It would be smooth to print a book of bare rules and sit back and wait for the reports to come in of how a group "got" what your marvellous game is all about. You know the fun is in there, and when we've played it we'll find it too right? But as you've described, people who are already having fun won't persist in searching for the Easter Eggs of fun hidden in a new ruleset. I've got a box full of games full of Easter Eggs I'll never find. Some of them are Forge games. Sometimes on the Forge I'll see a designer talk and give hints about those Easter Eggs and I kick myself over how much fun it sounds. But I should be kicking them, they should have written about it in the game that I bought off them and tried to run.

You need to tell us where the fun is up front, so we know we're playing the game to have that kind of fun. You need to describe for us the real life emotions, thoughts and exchanges that you're expecting to happen inside and between players because that's where the fun is in playing a roleplaying game right? All that needs to be in your rule book, and it needs to be splattered all the way through the rule book not just at the end in an appendix or at the beginning in an introduction. How else are we going to know what and where the fun is?

Ron Edward's gamism essay told me where the fun was. Carefully listed for me what I could be feeling, and what I could be saying, and the way I could be treating other real life people while playing a roleplaying game. It described mysterious dirty things I'd dimly felt before while playing but had felt ashamed of and never acknowledged as "the fun". I went out and bought some games and enlisted people and we went searching for those Easter Eggs in the rules. We knew what we were looking for this time, someone had finally told us what to look for, and that's how we found the fun.

Some of us will stay say "I didn't get it". Different tastes right? But at least there'll be less who can say "I couldn't find it."


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This makes...
JonasK go "Very nicely put."
MH go "Yes!"

17. On 2005-08-13, Chris said:


I don't think you have to market -too much- to the adventurous guy- he or she is always looking at new stuff, trying to see what is out there.  What you need to market to is to have enough "bridge" to make the rest of the group say, "Hey, that sounds interesting, let's try it out!".  And with it, as Tony says, it's got to be explicit about what the fun is, and what makes it different than anything else out there.

There's plenty of naysayers who hear a little about Riddle of Steel or Burning Wheel and go, "I could do that with D20/HARP/Rolemaster", but they're missing what the real coolness of it is.

Part of it is a distinctive Core Story, setting hooks (because, well, people who recognize that system matters usually don't have a hard time trying new games...), and flashy imagery to sell it.


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This makes...
BR go "Yep. You have to give the ass enough to sell it to his group"

18. On 2005-08-17, Jonas Barka said:

Interesting article.

In general I feel the same way as Merten (no surprise), but that is not really the point here.

The problem when exposed to a new way to play is to know if it will be fun if you give it a fair chance or if it just isn't your cup of tea. And if it got the potential to be fun will it be fun enough to warrant working thru the initial problems?

I can play any game once but if I get the feeling "this isn't as fun as I can have playing something else" how do I know if I should continue trying. I do not want to miss out on something that will eventually get fantastic but neither do I want to waste time on less-fun.

The main mistake (in my opinion) when trying to sell "Forge" games is to adopt the "You have been doing it wrong all the time and I know the one true way. You just imagine having fun!" attitude, that pops up more often than not. Gaming groups that do belive they have fun already will conclude that their fun is so different that a Forge game could never work for them. With this attitude you could reach out to the not-fun-yet crowd but never the already-fun majority.


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This makes...
Merten go "No suprises here, either"*

*click in for more

19. On 2005-08-22, Sven said:

This Nordic scener will play Dogs tomorrow. Trust me, afterwards I will tell the world of my opinions.


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