“Sell me this pen”: Sales techniques in RPGs

I finally got around to watching The Wolf of Wall Street a couple of days ago, and as expected, I loved it. A big part of my job is selling, so I have a soft spot when sales techniques are portrayed in modern media.

Anyway, I was pondering the movie this morning and I got to thinking that “sales” might apply to a GM’s techniques in an RPG as well. After all, you’re trying to get your players to buy in to the idea of a fantastic world, right? The payoff is you all have a good time. If the pitch goes badly, you’re less likely to (if you like) close the sale – the players will get less interested in the game.

So once I started thinking about this a few other tips from Wolf of Wall Street, Mad Men, and other portrayals of sales in TV and film came to mind.

Sell me this (mithril) pen (of slaying)
So those of you who’ve seen the movie will likely remember this part. For those that don’t, there’s a scene early on where one of the characters hands a pen to another and asks him to “sell me this pen”. The second one asks the first a question: “hey, can you write something down for me?” To sell something, he suggests, you generate urgency.

Generating urgency – that’s something you need to do in RPGs, definitely. Granted, you’re talking about imaginary urgency: the (fictional) princess will be sacrificed to the (fictional) dragon, if the players do nothing. But the process still works. Highlight what the players don’t have right now, and what they need to do to get it. Supply and demand, my friend.

“It’s Toasted”.
In season one of Mad men, the protagonist (Don Draper) has to come up with an ad campaign for Lucky Strikes cigarettes, which have recently been proven to be bad for your health. This health crisis in the cigarette industry, Draper realises, provides a perfect sales opportunity. They can say anything they like – even something that applies to all cigarettes, like they’re toasted – and people will latch onto that in place of the health issues.

In an RPG, it’s all fictional. You can say the princess has been captured by a dragon, a nest of orcs, or the 13th duke of Wimbourne – functionally, it’s all words. But by presenting it in the right way – by focusing on the atmosphere and getting players invested in what’s missing in their lives that they need (see above) you can say anything you like and the players will believe you. That’s the game!

Coffee is for closers!
Sometimes, you’ll get players who don’t get invested no matter what. They keep checking their phone, or stopping out, or they’re just not focused on the table. It can’t be helped. It’s a pain, but it goes both ways – coffee is for closers, as stated by Alec Baldwin in Glengarry Glen Ross (nsfw). In other words, if you want the reward (both the fictional treasure and the real-life entertainment) you have to invest in what’s happening at the table.

The first to talk loses.
This isn’t directly related to the points above, but worth mentioning anyway. At another point in Wolf of Wall Street, the main character says, after giving a sales pitch, “the first to talk loses”. As a GM, you need to give a sales pitch too – the opening spiel of where the characters are (and what trouble they’re in – create urgency, remember?)

If you do any prep, focus on this opening spiel – your pitch. Not just the content, but the way you present it. Be snappy; sometimes only a sentence or two is enough. Once you’ve given it, let the players talk first. If you talk first, you run the risk of giving them too much information, or giving away something you shouldn’t.

Go out there and sell!
Hopefully these points have got you thinking about your next sales pitch. Got any other ideas of inspiration from sales pitches or marketing? Let me know, or leave me a note on Google+.