5 Things PR Professionals Can Learn From Roleplaying Games

7 Oct

13th Age at PAX 2013Originally posted on the Weber Shandwick Seattle blog.

Over Labor Day weekend I spent fours days at PAX Prime, gaming with dozens of incredibly talented improvisational storytellers. All around me groups of complete strangers were gathering at tables to make up compelling scenarios of greed, betrayal, revenge and redemption. We were playing tabletop roleplaying games–a type of game whose mass popularity peaked in the 1980s with Dungeons & Dragons, and which is experiencing something of a Renaissance today with recent releases such as Numenera, HillfolkDungeon World and 13th Age. Playing these games, you can spend an evening telling great collaborative stories in any genre: whether it’s fantasy, horror, spy thriller, interpersonal drama, or the dark humor of a Coen brothers movie.

It struck me that tabletop roleplaying gamers do as a hobby what we do professionally. They invent rich personas, plan creative multimedia campaigns, engage in real-time collaborative storytelling and make rapid adjustments based on continually changing circumstances.

So grab a handful of dice—here are five best practices that we can learn from tabletop gamers:

#1: Always remember that storytelling is a collaborative process.

I’ve been in game sessions where the Game Master (AKA the GM, the person who plans and runs the game session) saw his players as a passive audience whose job was to sit quietly for hours while he dazzled us with his creative ideas. These sessions were not just dull, they were frustrating. We showed up to participate, to be co-creators of the night’s story. If we’d wanted to watch a performance, we could have gone to the movies.

Similarly, today’s audiences show up to participate in PR and advertising campaigns—either directly, when the campaign is designed for audience collaboration, or by commenting on it through Twitter, Facebook and other social channels. We need to plan for an active audience, which means giving up some control. The extent to which we share narrative control with our audience depends on the campaign. It can range from adapting and modifying the story we’re telling based on their feedback, to simply presenting the audience with brand materials that they can use to tell their own stories.

#2: Know your players, and what they want out of the game. 

Everybody comes to a gaming table for slightly different reasons. Some want to participate creatively, through acting or storytelling. Others want to think through complex and realistic problems. Some don’t care much about the game at all: they just want to hang out with friends, and the game facilitates that. Giving each member of a gaming group a satisfying and entertaining experience requires understanding what motivates each of them—and setting aside some of your own desires and preferences.

Likewise, PR professionals planning a campaign or promotion need to understand their audience’s motivation. Once you know who you’re trying to reach, get your hands on any available research on what motivates that audience. If there’s not enough research out there, do your own. What do they care about? What language and images do they pay attention to, and what causes them to tune out?  What will they, and won’t they, take action on?

And then comes the hard part: pushing your own motivations and tastes aside, and creating something they’ll care about—even if it’s something that wouldn’t speak to you. Unless you happen to precisely match the target audience (and it’s unlikely that your client is trying to reach communications professionals) you need to understand and empathize with your audience in order to engage it.

#3: Deliver the emotional kick. 

Once you understand your gaming group—or the audience you’re trying to reach—you can identify the emotional content of your campaign. Even in business-to-business PR, where you’re inviting your audience to make a rational decision based on data and consensus, there’s still an emotional “kick” that your customer seeks out.

Does your audience want to feel competent and in control? Do they want to feel like a hero to the people they care about? Do they want to feel like their lives and work have greater meaning in the world? Or do they want to have fun with their friends, and your client’s branded photo-hunt sounds like a good way to pass the time? Your campaign, whether it’s run on a gaming table or across multiple media channels, must provide emotional kicks for each type of person you’re trying to reach.

Yes, you must deliver substance. But without the kick, it won’t engage or motivate.

#4: Know the mechanics. 

If you’ve never played Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, the time to learn the rules isn’t when you’re running it for your players. You want to provide them with as seamless and immersive an experience as possible—and pausing for fifteen minutes while you flip through the pages searching for a specific rule shatters that experience. You need to know at least enough to effectively accomplish what you want to do for the evening.

It’s the same with video production, SEO, Web design and the other tools of our 21st-century trade. We like to talk about how any teenager with a smartphone can potentially inspire an audience of millions. But that doesn’t mean we should outsource video work to teenagers with smartphones, or SEO to someone who’s done 15 minutes of online research on it, or Web design to someone who can “probably figure it out along the way.” Yes, expertise requires resources: time, effort and budget. But the results are worth it.

#5: Prepare to be spontaneous. 

Having to improvise in a tabletop game can be scary, whether you’re a GM or a player. But you can prepare for that moment beforehand—and it’s not as hard as it sounds. If you’re a player, you can create a character with a handful of bullet points describing their motivation and personality (“Wants to be part of a family,” “Sworn enemy of the Lich King,” “Can’t resist a wager”) that you can use as a foundation for role playing. As a GM, you can create a ready supply of named people and places for your players to encounter in the course of their adventure.

Because (post)modern PR campaigns are participatory and interactive, odds are good that you’re going to have to do some improvising along the way. Give yourself access to options and resources you can draw upon quickly if you have to make an unexpected turn. This could include everything from a video crew who can be available to shoot something at a moment’s notice, to knowing who has a subscription to a stock photo service. Plan for things to get weird. And when they do, you can act immediately.

If you’re a game enthusiast in the communications industry, what experiences have you brought with you from the table?

Thanks to Robin D. Laws and his eBook Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering for inspiration.

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