Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Spreading the brand name

Although I have no delusions about growing the old-school movement into the multi-million dollar mainstream, I still love the idea of finding new (or tried and true) ways of expanding the hobby.

What made the original D&D game so damn popular in the early/mid eighties? I'm sure some would say it was a perfect storm of something new, different (and even rebellious in some circles), and the internet wasn't around to whisk away most kids' attention.

However, I seem to remember that if there was something I was into, D&D was able to worm its way into the medium (or product) and place its ads in front of my curious eyes.

- Posters at the local book store (when there were still local book stores). Check.
- Tons of cheesy, yet freaking awesome, cartoon ads in all the comics I bought. Check.
- Groups of kids at my middle and high schools for rpg play. Yep.
- Dungeons & Dragons candy. Perfect. One of the easiest ways to reach the young boy demographic, especially with a kick-ass dragon pic on its cover.
- Action figures! Silly for (most) adults, sure. But when I was 11 years-old and out looking at G.I. Joes and Marvel's Secret Wars figures, the D&D figures looked cool to me.
- Board games! Remember Dungeon! and the D&D Labyrinth Game from Mattel? Not only did they help spread the brand name, they were actually fun.
- The AD&D coloring book. A giant coloring book with a stripped down D&D game within. As a kid, I loved this, but the art in it was the key. Plus, it was placed with all the other activity/coloring books and it was bigger than most of the others.
- Animated cartoon. Want to get the product in front of young kids? 'Nuff said.

I know there are a few other example that are escaping me at the moment, and even if I could remember, many of the hobby publishers absolutely do not have the resources for most, if any, of the promotional techniques mentioned.

Most agree that the best way to promote the game is to play and talk about it. Play, play, play and invite as many newbies from the office as possible. Most likely, those noobs have kids. With my limited time and resources, this is what I do and have been fairly successful at it.

Beyond that, if resources were available, what do you think would be the best way to promote, say, Labyrinth Lord (for example).

Let's say that the Labyrinth Lord Society decided to do a fund raiser to promote the game. What would be the best possible use of the funds? It would seem simple enough to sponsor some type of game play at the library or local book/gaming store, but that will only attract people already into rpgs. I'm thinking about different ways to spread the brand name.

- Comic book ads?
- Parenting magazine ads? This can promote to older non-rpg players the benefits of rpgs (reading, writing, critical thinking skills), and the bonus is that most clones are free to download - try before you buy.
- Ads in "men's" magazines? Not necessarily porn mags, but stuff like Maxim or genre mags like Fangoria. Most of these readers are either parents or uncles, and for the genre crowd who might be ex-players, it never hurts to scratch that nostalgia itch. Plus, it might get them back into the game!
- Sponsorships for kid-related events! Get those Labyrinth Lord banners over a big city's Zoobalee function, or school sporting event, or movie marathon, or whatever. Sponsorships gets your name into printed programs, t-shirts, and event signs.
- Free giveaways. Not PDFs, but hard copies. God bless Free RPG Day, but how do we get it into the hands of non-players? When I was in a band, we would spring for a ton of tapes (before CDs were readily available), set them in the area record stores with a big "Take One" sign next to them. At our gigs, we sold our demos for $1. Within a year, most of the area kids knew our songs and word spread about us pretty quickly, even to those not usually interested in metal. Could something similar work for rpgs?

These are just a few pie in the sky ideas to spread the brand name. If enough resources were available for small-scale promotion, what ideas would you have?


  1. Excellent ideas there, Lawrence. My contribution extends to buying an AD&D t-shirt and wearing it out and about. So far, no takers. I have a limited social circle, not being good at making or keeping friends, so recruiting on that front is a poor prospect. My posters at the library keep being taken down (not sure by who). And did I mention that I work from home?

    As for suggestions as to what I'd do if money were no object (haha)- I'd get a PR guy or a personal agent and tell them "Get me maximum airtime/exposure for this game. I want to see it everywhere. I want celebrities endorsing it (Vin Diesel, yeah), I want people who've never heard of RPGs saying "What's this?"

    In the same way that a new fashion or social meme suddenly filters right through the population, it'd be great to get an RPG meme out there and working for us. Joe The Lawyer was talking a while back about the tipping point at which a new phenomenon suddenly becomes cool - how do we get that without certain grognards suggesting that we've sold out and gone all commercial and heavy?


  2. Well, I didn't mean to leave the impression that money was no object, which is why I stated "small scale" promotion. :)

    Maybe like a slick magazine ad or several event sponsorships or something of the like.

    I'm not worried about the idea of selling out because the clones are! There will definitely be elements within hobby publishing that will try to write for the masses (not that I am against this at ALL, but if someone wants to define selling out, I would say that it is writing something you are absolutely against or not into just for the $$$).

    But no matter how popular a game like Labyrinth Lord can get through various promotional venues, because the game is so open, there will be enough "underground" stuff to go with the fluff.

  3. Kids are a good target, since Old School is fairly easy to play. But with kids, you're competing with video games - its a tough sell.

  4. The merchandising of the D&D brand came only after the actual game sales took off. I would rather think that it was the political and cultural influences of the time, which tended toward the fantastic and heroic, which underlie the appeal of the D&D role-playing game. Kids wanted to be emulate their cultural heroes and D&D managed to tap into that suppressed desire. An OSR revival today needs to be viral and it needs to tap into a preexisting cultural moods. In short, what do kids what to BE today and how can rpgs provide that outlet. I believe movies like Kick-Ass and Defendor are indicative of such undercurrents.

  5. I remember those great (and more often than not cheesy) D&D ads from the 70's and early 80's. What I really liked where the ads for games in Dragon magazine and such...much more underground, in-industry stuff that got my imagination fired up with just a touch of text and a simple black and white drawing.