This is actually the article that was supposed to appear next Monday. I started making some notes for it, and before I knew it, the whole article was written – and I no longer had enough time to finish the article that I had intended to write for today’s post (I got about half-way through it, so it will appear next week)…
I zapped a piece of spam this week that actually had a point of interest lurking underneath the superficial and ill-formed outpouring of semi-sentient garbage that forms the output of 99+% of spambots. This particular collection of semi-random phrases suggested that American Football was big business and that it is responsible for Monday Night parties – and that if that particular entertainment (Monday Night Football) was banned, the parties would go away as well.
Setting aside the fact that in Australia it’s the Friday Night and weekend games that are the tribal gatherings, and some specific Wednesday night matches (I’m referring to the State Of Origin series), which implies that cultural factors have a part to play, there is a point worth discussing in there. I can accept that American Football is big business in the US, that’s irrelevant to the subject I’m going to discuss. No, the subject is cause and effect in a social context, tradition, and the relationship between Marketing and GMing.
Cause And Effect
The first thought that came to me, even as I was verifying that this particular comment offered for consideration here at CM was indeed Spam, was to wonder to what extent the spambot had the relationship between cause and effect back to front. Did these ‘Monday Night Parties’ happen (assuming that they do) because that was when the Game was on – or was the Game scheduled for Monday Nights because that was when there was a pre-existing predilection to party, i.e. engage in tribal social activities?
Which came first, the chicken or the egg? (Well, technically the egg did, since dinosaurs were laying eggs long before there were chickens or birds of any sort, but you get the point).
There is a certain logic to a predilection for social gatherings on a Monday. It’s like capturing a little extra piece of weekend. After a day or more of loafing and social/home activities, the return to work is always a rude reawakening, even if you love your job – assuming that you work a normal 5- or 6- day working week. A little piece of relaxation after that return to stress can better prepare you to face the rest of the week.
A similar logic manifests about Mid-week games, which can act as punctuation to the working week, breaking it into two smaller, more manageable halves.
And of course, Friday nights kick-start the weekend – which (according to this theory) doesn’t start on Saturday, it starts when you down tools on Friday. Or even lunchtime Friday!
That leaves Tuesday and Thursday as the dullest days of the week, with no socially-redeeming value. Which sounds like an excellent reason to schedule something uplifting or entertaining on those days – there is a reason why Tuesday is traditionally ‘the’ night for comedy and light programming on Australian television screens, while Thursday was always good for action-adventure and Cop shows on TV, something that got the pulse going a bit, rejuvenating the viewer after 4 days of hard grind in the vineyard. Thursday was also the night that Sci-Fi on commercial TV always seemed to migrate towards – Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, and the various incarnations of Star Trek all migrated here. Though perhaps that’s because audience numbers are down due to late-night-shopping, which happens on Thursday Nights here in Australia, and these shows were programmed by the local networks to sacrifice themselves in the ratings in preference to anything else – Australian TV has never quite ‘gotten’ sci-fi (sigh).
Monday night football has been tried here many times, and each time it has ultimately failed to match the viewing numbers of Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night games – or those Wednesday specials, for that matter.
It’s a popular belief that marketing can change our minds. It’s not true. Marketing can create a demand for a particular type of product or service; it can position one brand more prominently in the minds of shoppers once that demand has been created; but it can’t actually make up our minds for us. It is limited to creating the conditions under which a product can flourish – and doesn’t always even succeed at that. Remember the New Coke fiasco?
So it is with the question of when to present football games on TV. I find it very hard to believe that a social phenomenon (Monday night football parties) can be created by marketing alone; at best, it can tap into a pre-existing propensity for such activities to occur on that particular night, and advise that scheduling the right product (sports entertainment, in this case) in that timeslot can take advantage of that social propensity. In other words, Monday night football will rate better on Mondays, because of the Monday night parties, not the other way around.
The Power Of Tradition
Once something is established, it becomes habitual amongst the general population fairly quickly. It becomes traditional. The longer it persists, the harder that tradition becomes to break. I feel entirely confident that if Monday Night Football were to go away, the parties would persist – and people would find some other justification for them. If and when those Monday Night games resumed, they would find a ready market for them, re-establishing themselves via the power of tradition.
The In-Game Implications
Any aspect of social behavior that becomes understood, or that we simply become aware of, has implications for an RPG, both internally and externally. Let’s look at the in-game ramifications first.
We often attribute various social activities within a fantasy society to tradition – it’s a nice, neat, short-cut to justification that lets us create the society that we want within the game and move on. The better GMs will give passing thought to the historical precedents that led to that social activity becoming a tradition in the first place. There is usually very little thought given as to the psychological and social reasons for the social practice in question becoming an accepted tradition, and that is shortchanging our understanding of the society that we are creating.
Or, to put it another way, once we understand the reasons why that tradition resonates with the populace in question, those reasons can manifest in other impacts on the society and its inhabitants.
There are a lot of benefits to be accrued from such an approach.
- The society becomes more internally consistent, and hence is more believable.
- It saves the GM work because there is less the GM has to create out of whole cloth.
- It saves the GM work because there is less that the GM has to create in advance.
- It makes GMing easier because there is less for the GM to remember about the society – remember the causes and not the effects.
- It makes the society easier to communicate to the players because the reasons are their own shorthand notation about the society they have encountered.
- It makes the society easier for the players to understand, because it boils the differences within the society down to manifestations of a particular cause.
That’s a lot of benefit from a relatively small investment of skull sweat.
Let’s say we want to create a society for use within a fantasy game. They are to have a tradition of fasting each midwinter’s day before a communal feast when the sun goes down, accompanied by the burning of a dried branch from an aromatic tree.
An imaginative GM will go that far and not much farther – after all, that’s all he needs the PCs to see, and he can explain it simply as a tradition.
An imaginative GM seeking to create a consistent, fleshed out campaign will ask themselves about the historical origins of the tradition, and its theological foundation. Perhaps it is symbolic of the hunger experienced during hunter-gatherer days, and the communal feast celebrates the coming of spring – in which case, the god of spring or spirit of spring should be somehow represented at the feast. This additional bit of description, offered to the players, would let them make sense of the tradition, creating that much more verisimilitude.
But a really good GM will look at why this tradition is important to the locals, because that gives leads and clues to other aspects of the lives of the villagers. Perhaps they are only permitted to celebrate on a few theologically-significant occasions, living grim, grey lives of abstinence and moral purity the rest of the year. Or perhaps there is only enough food for one feast a year, because the rest is preserved in case of famine. Perhaps Winter is seen as some dreadful beast that must be defeated each year by the spirit of spring.
Which suggests the possibility that the beast is real, and – just as each spring is a new one – must be defeated by a stranger. Imagine the PCs surprise, when (after thinking they understood the origins of the feast) they suddenly find themselves the guests of honor, the embodiment of spring, being feted and celebrated – and then learn that the reason is because at Dawn they are expected to go bravely forth and defeat the Monster Of Winter…
A few seconds of thought have not only told us a lot more about how the NPCs of the village will treat the PCs, but how they will act in other ways, and we have derived an adventure to feature this behavior from that explanation. And all because we understand the people more clearly.
The Metagame Implications
Marketing, at its heart, is all about finding out what people want and repackaging what you have to fit that desire. Successful marketing of a product makes that product popular amongst those who consume it. If that’s not directly applicable to GMs selling players on the campaign that they have created, or the adventure that is currently underway, I don’t know what is.
To be a great GM you need to identify what sort of campaign, and what sort of adventures, your players want. Either you incorporate those desires into the game that you are offering, or the players will be unsatisfied. This truth extends throughout the campaign at every level, from the NPCs and enemies that have to be overcome, to the inherent morality of the world, to the ratio of treasure to magic, to the rate at which experience is earned, to the style of the adventures the PCs undertake, to the way the GM handles the rules, to the environment and scheduling of play. Every facet of running a game is encompassed.
Marketing is a two-way process – customers can be led in a particular direction to a certain extent, and so can players. Marketing, in other words, is also about creating a demand and then satisfying that demand. And neither occurs in a vacuum – there is always the power of tradition, which can hinder this process or be harnessed to boost it.
The Marketing Cornucopia
We are surrounded by marketing all the time. Quite often, we do our best to ignore it. This is a major mistake on the part of a GM.
Another way of looking at the above situation is, we are surrounded by opportunities to self-educate ourselves about marketing all the time.
The next time you see a billboard, or a magazine ad, or a TV advert, or a TV show, or a movie, spend a little time thinking about who it is designed to appeal to, how it achieves – or fails to achieve – this appeal, and how you could change it to appeal to a different market segment or audience. When there’s a documentary on marketing and the role it plays in our lives available, such as The Gruen Transfer (later known as Gruen Planet, Gruen Nation, and most recently, Gruen Sweat), watch it. Learn from it. Talk on social media to people who really are marketing gurus or social media pundits. The skills so acquired are surprisingly relevant to the craft of being a good GM.
Some seasons of The Gruen Transfer are available on DVD in Australia from the ABC shop, but these will be region-4 encoded and may not function on DVD players from other countries. They are VERY strongly recommended if you think you can play them. There is also a book (top of the results list from the above link), which will work in any English-speaking location, and a website for you to explore. (You can also find some segments from the show on YouTube, but don’t tell the producers).