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How Do You Pitch a New Game to Your Players?

Posted By Martin Ralya On October 17, 2012 @ 1:00 am In Crock Pot | 27 Comments

Over the past few years, it’s become clear to me that I suck at pitching games to my players.

That realization goes hand in hand with another: I’ve muddled my way through this key aspect of being a GM for 20-plus years without ever really knowing what I was doing.

Sometimes I pitch a game and it gets traction right away, and we play it and it’s fun, and unicorns are fucking while an angelic choir sings in the background, but I have no real idea why.

The Rule 34 of GMing

Now, I’m not expecting that to happen every time. And lord knows it doesn’t; I pitch plenty of games that get zero traction, and plenty that get traction but fall apart in actual play. I don’t think there’s a magic ticket to The Land Where Every Game I Pitch Gets Traction And Is Awesome.

What I would like, though, is a better idea of how to pitch games well. I want to at least move the needle — and I bet I’m not the only GM in this situation. (That’s like the Rule 34 of GMing: If you’re having a GMing problem, you’re not the only who’s ever had it.)

Other factors

I recognize that there are almost certainly other factors at work here. For example, right now I want to run old-school D&D, a hex crawl game with true player agency, and I know that’s not what my group wants to play because I’ve asked. So mismatched current interests are a factor, and one that no pitch method can really overcome. (And that’s okay — different strokes, and all that.)

There are other factors along those same lines, too: GMing track record; similarity to the last game we played; personal issues with theme or premise; etc. Some of them are easy to understand and account for, and others aren’t. For the most part, let’s look at pitching games without worrying too much about these.

Secret sauce

My biggest mistake is that I rely on my enthusiasm to carry the day, and that doesn’t always work. It’s the only tool in my shed, though, so I keep coming back to it. (And more often than not it does work on me as a player, which is probably why.) In other words, that is one empty fucking shed.

Setting aside other factors that don’t have anything (or at least much) to do with the actual pitch, then, what’s the best way to pitch a game to your group?

What’s worked for you?

Why does it work?

(And if by chance you do have a magic ticket to the land of unicorns love, please share it!)

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




27 Comments (Open | Close)

27 Comments To "How Do You Pitch a New Game to Your Players?"

#1 Comment By shortymonster On October 17, 2012 @ 2:08 am

Because it starts in a week, and I’ve managed to secure 6 players, this seemed to have worked for me.

http://shortymonster.co.uk/?p=132

#2 Comment By Lugh On October 17, 2012 @ 7:18 am

There are several important tools you can bring to bear.

First, take a hard look at those “other factors” you dismiss above. Don’t just look at them from a go/no-go perspective, but look at them as talking points. If you have a poor GM track record, is there something about this new project that is likely to change that? If one of your players refuses to consider anything that involves vampires, can you reframe or reskin the setting to avoid that?

Second, get a champion in the group before you do a general presentation. Find another player that you can talk to one-on-one and get really excited. Given that your whole group is likely only about six people, if two of you start out on board, that gives you a lot of momentum. Also, the excited player is likely to be more engaged during the character creation and ramp up process, where a lot of games lose steam.

Third, try to leverage online resources. Some companies have some pretty well-done promo materials. This is especially true with the explosion of Kickstarter, where many games now have videos. If that stuff sucked you in, there’s a fair chance it will suck in your group. Also, try reading a few reviews of the game to find key phrases you can lift when selling it. If you aren’t a natural salesman, feel free to cobble together an artificial one to speak for you.

Fourth, make damned sure you actually want to run the game. I’ve made this mistake more than once, in which I sell a game that I want to play. Running it didn’t give me the charge I wanted. So I lost my enthusiasm once we sat down at the table.

#3 Comment By shawnhcorey On October 17, 2012 @ 8:09 am

Know your players. What books do they read? What movies do they go to? What characters do they like to play? Then, highlight the aspects of the game that mess with their preferences. Increase their enthusiasm by showing how their favourite type of character will be part of the game.

#4 Comment By Silveressa On October 17, 2012 @ 8:23 am

One way to help sell a game is to try a short one shot adventure to showcase the setting to your players, and see if it’s actually a setting you’d find enjoyable to run on a weekly (or however often you game) basis.

Some games look great when browsing through the setting material, and seem full of adventure seeds just waiting to be ran, but fall flat once they get underway due to mechanics, genre, or being too generic compared to similar setting out there.

A short adventure or two in the setting can let the game setting sell it self so to speak, and afterward you can have a more productive discussion with your group about the setting, and what they like/dislike about it, (and the rule set if applicable) and have more confidence in your game being a hit before you invest a lot of time/effort into learning the setting and rule inside and out in the hopes of making a positive sale to your players.

Also depending on the setting, (like those based off tv series of movies)you may have plenty of source material to show your players, and help them better grasp the setting and why you think it would be fun to run a game there without the group needing to read dozens of pages of world setting/history.

Even if your game is not based off a popular tv series, there’s still similar movies (or anime) you can watch with your group to give them a better idea of what makes that genre “cool” and building inspiration for the game concept you’re pitching to them.

#5 Comment By BryanB On October 17, 2012 @ 9:30 am

I drag them kicking and screaming into what I want to play, come hell or high water….

No not really.

I like to pick 3 or 4 games that would work for me, toss out a game pitch and see what the reactions are. The game that gets the most interest from the players is usually what I go with. If the interest is spread around several pitches, I just go with the one I want to do the most.

Next Up? The Kingmaker Adventure Path from Paizo. I can already feel that sand between my toes. All hail the sandbox. :)

#6 Comment By SeeleyOne On October 17, 2012 @ 10:21 am

Figure out what made a session that you ran in the past go good or badly. GMing is a learning process, and I don’t consider myself “good” but I have learned a lot from mistakes that I have made or observed from either side of the screen.

Honestly the best bet is to talk to the players, figure out what they DO like, and work together to come up with it. The best gaming groups work together so that everybody has fun. I have seen too many people with the attitude that it is all up to the GM. Sure, many things are, but the world in general need not be. That includes the genre and tone as well. There is a certain style that goes along with it.

I ran a campaign that started off really good. I had the players make vampires (I had come up with my own conversion for the Vampire the Masquerade stuff to GURPS, I didn’t like the official conversion). That was fun for them. However, what I thought was a cool GM trick was not. While I had planned all along was that the Earth would be invaded by aliens. They didn’t know that, and they thought that I was just being weird and changing the game genre in the middle. Had they known from the start that was the plan it would have went better. My original intent was for them to have more “natural” characters, as people tend to make characters that are optimized for perceived needs. Hindsight learned, but just be open about intents and genres.

As for a new game system, well that depends. A lot of people like to claim that system doesn’t matter and that yoy can play any genre with any system. That is not true. Different systems are for different genres and play styles. In D&D you can jump off a cliff and just shrug it off after you take the falling damage (I know, I did it). That is not the case in many other games.

Other factors to new games are what its pros and cons are. What the game mechanics are like. Can you create the character that you want? Is your character as capable as you had intended it to be? Are you TOO capable? My biggest gripe against GURPS is that you can accidentally be more skilled than everyone else in the group just because you have a high intelligence or dexterity. I have often felt bad as I inadvertantly stole the thunder of other PCs. My character’s “hobby” was better that the “specialist skill” of others. What I am trying to say is that the system can indeed matter.

What I would personally suggest is to figure out which game system fits you as a GM, and stick with it. I like to play just about any game, but I much prefer to run Savage Worlds. That naughty Telas has done converted me. I CAN make details matter when they do, but when it comes down to it, they usually don’t.

#7 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 17, 2012 @ 10:36 am

Neat! I’ve never tried teaser fiction before, and I’m more eloquent in print than I am in person. That’s a really good idea.

#8 Comment By randite On October 17, 2012 @ 10:37 am

You’ve got too play to your audience. Talk about how the game will actually be played, what the characters (in a general sense of course) will actually be doing. Your enthusiasm is great for running the game, but doesn’t necessarily get across the joy of playing in the game. Running and playing are two very different things.
Does the system have a unique way of handling thief/rouge style characters? Make sure to mention that to the guy that always plays a sneaky, amoral characters… And don’t forget to mention the violent but strict thieves guild in town that his characters would probably grate against.
Ask the players before-hand, in a general sense, what type of character they may want to play. This should be expressed in very broad terms, i.e. warrior type with a troubled past, cowardly magic-user/scientist/brainy-type with a big heart, suave and debonair man-about-town, etc. Next pitch how great it could be to be that type of character in terns of the setting and system. If anybody said “I don’t know” to the character type question, be prepared to pitch a few examples of character types that you think would be fun to play.
Don’t just wax on about the minutia of the setting or system that you’re really into; let the players know why they should be way into it as well.

#9 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 17, 2012 @ 10:38 am

Finding a group champion is a really cool idea, as is using existing marketing material. Both of those sound like they’d dovetail well with shortymonster’s teaser fiction idea, too.

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 17, 2012 @ 10:40 am

Solid advice. I think willingness to experiment trumps personal interests (IE, I’ll try just about any RPG once whether it sounds appealing to me or not), but this makes a lot of sense.

#11 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 17, 2012 @ 10:42 am

“Play to your players” seems to be a common theme so far, and the more I think about it the more head-slappingly obvious it is why that would work. I guess “marketing weasel” is another hat GMs, myself included, need to learn how to wear well!

#12 Comment By Roxysteve On October 17, 2012 @ 10:57 am

I’d LOVE to play your D&D hex-by-hex exploration game.

I pitch most of my games in a LFGS meetup group, and I’ve found that the system and setting within the system is the key issue with that audience.

For example No-one will play FATE based games in that venue (and by that I mean maybe two people will, including me) unless the setting/hook is screamingly unique. Ditto Call of Cthulhu (BRP). GURPS games have the same eight candidates showing interest time and again, though only five will show on a given date.

Pathfinder will be over-subscribed no matter what the setting. Ditto AD&D. D&D 4E used to be very popular but interest has crashed after the WoC announcement of D&D TNG (not it’s real title but as good as any I’ve heard).

The WoD family has lost traction since the announcement of the dropping of print titles.

I’m pitching mostly Savage Worlds settings these days because I know they will generate interest because they are Savage Worlds based and that is the flavor de jour. Also, PEG aren’t shooting themselves in the foot as some of the other publishers are by making scary announcements that kill sales and interest. The line is stable and they build on established foundations rather than tearing down and redesigning every x years.

Indie games aren’t popular. Dunno why. I’m currently trying to get someone else to run Hot War so I can play, and my weekly demands that everyone think about playing Fiasco!!! are falling on deaf ears (though those that played in my demo of it are talking seriously about a rematch).

I keep an ear to the ground for what people are saying they want to play, then factor in that meetups are the internet and people on the internet are long on talk but 80% of those responding won’t actually grab an oar and start rowing. If I get a head count of three or more, I schedule a game but don’t raise my hopes.

I feel your pain.

#13 Comment By Razjah On October 17, 2012 @ 11:54 am

Martin, go back the the NYNG pitches, a lot of gold to mine there. Also, having a series of articles about how to make a pitch would be really cool- or an article where the gnomes each put in a say. I.E. What is the single most important thing in a pitch: Martin…; Troy…; Don…; Telas… Am I making sense with this?

Back more on topic:
I think the secret to pitches is to know your audience. That is Rule 1. You need to know what they like, don’t like, games played, books and movies, enjoyed. These will allow you to hook them by finding some analogue with something else they enjoy.

Rule 2: simplicity. For the past three years I was the president of my college’s RPG Club. In those years I have seen many potential GMs crash and burn during the pitch because they were not keeping things simple. When talking about Corporation, it is easy to get caught up in all the awesome things the players can do. But when a GM starts talking about heavies and Malenbrach the group can start to get the eye-glazed-over look. Focus on how the agents are superhuman with cybernetics, psychic, and AI capabilities. And licensing to do whatever- like take any car off the street when you need it. (Then stop there with the examples!)

Rule 3: Enthusiasm is a key. If the GM isn’t excited to run this game, why the hell would I be excited to play?

Rule 4: Have an idea of the type of gameplay to pitch to the players. Is it going to be a hex-crawl, courtly intrigue, Epic Journey to stop the Dark Lord, city watch PCs, etc. This is best done by reviewing step 1 and asking questions before hand. Hey guys, I’ve been thinking of running a game in the next few months, do you think a party of city-watch SWAT agents in Sharn would be cool?

Rule 5: When the pitch fails, get feedback about what they didn’t like. This is uncomfortable, but if the group doesn’t like a certain pitch- get the reasons why. Inform them that in giving you this information, the later games can be tailored to match the group’s wants and needs better.

Rule 6: Have openings for player in-put. There are few ways that get a player more interested in a game, from what I have seen, than letting them give input into the game. Burning Wheel does this as a default, but D&D can easily incorporate friends, family members, and rivals into NPCs that the party can turn to for help-or avoid.

Rule 7: Keep the Big Idea as the front. If your pitch is about defeating Suaron, that campaign better damn well be about taking down Sauron. When you make the pitch and give some examples, don’t start to slack off on what the campaign is all about. If there is a Tarrasque woke up- most of what you say about this campaign should involve it. If there are factions trying to gain power by defeating it- fine. But they can’t be the focus if you pitched a game about beating the Tarrasque. If you pitched the game about the different factions trying to control it/defeat it for power- then don’t make it about the PCs going toe-to-toe alone and to simply kill it.

That’s all I have for now. If I have other ideas later today, I will post them up.

#14 Comment By Nojo On October 17, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

For me, the pitch is all about getting players to want to play a game I want to GM.

Example:

My secret mindset: Oh screw what the players want. I’m the GM. Which works great until you move and your devoted players who have gone from system to system with you are gone.

So, I’m the new GM in town, and I want to GM a Gumshoe game that focuses on dark secrets (I’m open to Night’s Black Agents, Trail of Cthulhu, or Ashen Stars).

But I don’t know the gamers here. The first two I meet say “fantasy only.” And by fantasy they mean standard fake 13th century Europe. Oh, and by the way, they don’t want to learn a new system. Pathfinder please.

Think, think, think. Gumshoe + dark secrets + Pathfinder. Well, lookie there, Lorefinder, the Gumshoe rules for Pathfinder. And over there, Freeport! Pirates meet Eldritch Horror.

So the pitch became: Swashbuckling Adventure mixed with Mystery and Intrigue, with a dash of Eldritch Horror.

Now I have more players than I know what to do with.

#15 Comment By Uncle Deadly On October 17, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

This may seem very simple, but have you asked your players what they want?
My group may be a little different, but we generally play 6 to 8 month campaigns with GMs switching after each. As one game starts winding down the next GM will start pitching ideas, usually giving 3 and running the one for which the players have the most enthusiasm.
Also, instead of tailoring the game to your players (though I am a fan of this), tailor the party to your game. My gaming group currently has a waiting list. There are about ten of our extended friends with whom we like gaming. So when I get bee in my bonnet about running a new game, I specifically seek out players that I think will enjoy that style of gaming. I am in the process of starting a Mouse Guard game, and I have been very specific about the players I will ask to play in it.

#16 Comment By Scott Martin On October 17, 2012 @ 1:19 pm

Persistence and keeping on task are important. You did a good job of laying out interesting options, but even better at making sure that slow email replies and scheduling issues didn’t equate to disinterest, just working adult complications.

#17 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 17, 2012 @ 1:21 pm

I think you just wrote a guest article yourself! If you’re interested in submitting it, drop me a line.

#18 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 17, 2012 @ 1:23 pm

We usually do a semi-formal group pitch process when one of our (typically two) ongoing games wraps up. That tends to take the form of each of us bringing things we want to run, and possibly things we want to play, and making the case. I don’t know that we’ve ever started from “What do you want to play?” but that’s a function of having a group of four with three GMS: We don’t have a regular GM.

#19 Comment By Lugh On October 17, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

You have to be very careful with this theme, though. The number one ingredient any successful campaign must have is GM enthusiasm. If the GM is merely consenting to run what the players have voted on, it’s just not going to work. It’s actually less likely to work than a GM brow-beating the players into playing The New Shiny.

Also, don’t go all marketing weasel. These are, presumably, your friends. If you wanted to talk them into trying a new restaurant, would you launch a marketing campaign? Yeah, probably not. Selling a campaign is harder, admittedly. It’s a bigger time commitment, and you need a bigger emotional investment (the players have to be engaged, not just willing to give it a try). But if you’re manipulating them into it, there’s probably a fundamental flaw in your plan.

#20 Comment By 77IM On October 17, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

Run it as a one-shot. Cast the new game as an interesting experiment, not a campaign-long commitment. People are more likely to humor you in short stretches (especially if they are too lazy to GM themselves). Hopefully, you’ll run an awesome and fun game leaving them wanting more.

(Also, has anyone ever ran a one-shot that actually lasted only one session? All my one-shots turn into two- or three-shots.)

#21 Comment By Silveressa On October 17, 2012 @ 11:33 pm

((Also, has anyone ever ran a one-shot that actually lasted only one session? All my one-shots turn into two- or three-shots.)

@77IM:

*Raises hand*

When doing one shot horror games I’ve found it’s often necessary to fit it all into a single session rather then
stretching it out over 2-4 sessions, mostly because the down time between sessions kills the carefully constructed horror atmosphere and you lose the over all tone of the game.

For example, an old one shot one on one horror adventure I did with Rosie. (my significant other.) It was a modern day campaign that involved her char on a Jach Heausteau like diving expedition, coming across a sunken German U boat, and after entry from a busted bottom portion, she along with some her friends/colleague emerged into the dry musky interior and to save oxygen took off their scuba helmets.

Given the nazi’s had all committed suicide rather than suffocate down here I decided to be “nice” and let them have enough air to explore some.

Describing that abandoned musky tomb at the bottom of the Atlantic with powdered dust and a aura of evil was challenging yet devilshy enjoyable.

I had her char jumping at everything by the end of it, to the point of having fired her spear gun into a corpse that sagged and fell out of a char after she passed it.

The real kicker was after she returned to the expedition boat on the surface. What she didn’t realize was all the mummified bodies and sealed in area had given rise to the classic version of “king tuts curse” a fungus infection found in the Egyptian burial tombs which causes extreme hallucinations and probable death for the infected victims (a half dozen divers in this case)

(The previous lengthy adventure part set a perfect tone that would of been ruined were the game to stop,) And so, after a brief disease incubation period, the research boat slowly degenerated into what she was positive was a WWII ship, with undead Nazi’s coming to claim her for violating their resting place.

In reality she was butchering the entire crew, (not that she knew this of course) one of which was her chars fiancee, the doc who had pieced together enough of the situation to realize what was wrong with her, tried to talk her out of it, but was killed because to her char he was a “vile German-speaking Nazi butcher”

After a time the disease ran it’s course (with her the only survivor) and she woke up on the ship all alone in the middle of the Atlantic surrounded by corpses, pieces of corpses, and a mostly ruined and slowly sinking ship transformed into a total slaughter house.

Then end scene, was when she got to the cabin, found the ships security cameras, and was able to see (and hear from her fiancee’s yelled pleas as she bludgeoned him to death with a co2 tank) the exact manner and reason for the crews unfortunate demise..

The whole thing was devilishly hard to orchestrate correctly, and turned into a nearly 9 hour long session, but the final ending when her char realized what she’d done was the perfect horror twist that made it well worth the effort.

#22 Comment By black campbell On October 18, 2012 @ 8:20 am

“Sometimes I pitch a game and it gets traction right away, and we play it and it’s fun, and unicorns are fucking while an angelic choir sings in the background, but I have no real idea why.” …this was, quite possibly, one of the most amusing turns of phrase I’ve read this week.

#23 Comment By black campbell On October 18, 2012 @ 8:31 am

1) Know your players and craft the game to their interests. My latest Battlestar Galactica game is less post-apocalyptic exodus, and more Cold War psychological thriller because that’s what draws the players.

2) Make sure the world or story is interesting to you, or it’ll fold. GM disinterest kills a game fast.

3) Don’t pitch the new hotness until you’ve let it germinate a bit. You might find you love the rules or setting, but can,t quite figure out what you would do…this has been the case with several sci-fi games I like the idea of. I just don’t what I would do in that sandbox.

4) Ask them what they want to do.

#24 Pingback By How to Sell Your Players On a Game « The Black Campbell On October 18, 2012 @ 8:58 am

[...] There was a post by Martin Ralya over on Gnome Stew that caught my attention and spawned this post: How do you pitch your hot new game to your players? Maybe you bought a new game and the rules set is way-cool, or the setting is fascinating, or it was fun when you were at a playtest…either way, you want to run the game and need to get the rest of the group on board. Here are a few dos and don’ts that should help: [...]

#25 Comment By shortymonster On October 20, 2012 @ 4:16 am

I actually started teasing a long time back, just by showing people some inspirational artwork, and talking about the game hook. taking the time to write it down was also a big help for me as it got some vague ideas properly nailed into place.

#26 Comment By brain_cloud On October 20, 2012 @ 9:48 pm

After a successful game, you should have some player trust built up. I have found this tactic to work on a number of occasions:

I have a great idea for a game, but it will work better if you know nothing about the story up front – it will be better as a surprise. I want to use .

Nothing is more tempting than the unknown. As an added bonus, if it works well the first time around, you will be able to do it again.

#27 Comment By Nojo On October 24, 2012 @ 4:30 pm

If you want one shots to last one session, keep the combat down to 3 battles, max. Try some of the free one shots that publishers give away for Free RPG day. Most publishers post them as free pdfs. Those games are run with strangers in game stores, and need to be get done.
If your time is running out and you have too much content left, cut to the chase. If you need an hour to do the last boss fight, that has to start 65 minutes before the end of session. If the players can’t make it to the boss, the boss can make it to the players.


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