Everything I ever learned about marketing I learned from Dungeons and Dragons

Ian Lurie

I did it again! I wrote another post about Dungeons & Dragons and marketing: Marketers aren’t storytellers. They’re worldbuilders.

I gave a talk today at Emerging Media Conference about marketing and Dungeons & Dragons. I’m hoping to have it as a video pretty soon, but for now, I took a big chunk of it and turned it into a blog post. This is basically a transcript, so it may not make total sense at times. I’ve also included the too:

I’ve always tried hard to make things ‘fit’. I see people act a certain way, I figure there has to be a reason. Something in us explains why we hate public restrooms, or crumple up straw wrappers, or hate people who stand too close in line. Something makes it make sense.

It might even be an irrational reason. But there’s gotta be something. I pick and pick and pick at things until either they bleed to death, become necrotic and fall off, or I understand what makes ‘em tick, all the time certain that I’ll find something.

Yeah. And folks wonder why I’m a Jew who believes in Karma, animism and the spaghetti monster.

So I became a marketer. I figured that one place where I could put this drive to make things fit was in marketing. Marketing has to make sense, right? (cough)

I wanted to create a ‘system’ – a set of rules – that took advantage of how it all fits together, and turn that into my Magical Marketing Method.

For years I chased all sorts of random ideas around. I went from reading David Ogilvy to John Caples to Dan Kennedy. I studied JFK, Ayn Rand and Thoreau. I tested all sorts of theories about marketing, society and how people communicate.

You know what? Nothing ‘fits’. It sucks, but there’s no principle, or law, or system you can make up and apply that’ll just make marketing and communications work.

The problem, as it turns out, is that we’re basically well-educated monkeys, not computers. So we tend to do random stuff.

You’d think I would’ve understood that by the time I was 27, but it didn’t. Reality set for me: You can’t create The Great Marketing System, because humans aren’t systematic.

That got me depressed for a little while. Maybe 8 years.

Then, a few years ago, it hit me:

It’s not about creating rules for marketing. It’s not about finding “a new paradigm”.

It’s about finding human impulses that are already there and honestly appealing to them.

This all hit me in a flash while I was playing Dungeons and Dragons.

In case you don’t know what Dungeons and Dragons is: Basically, you get some dice, some paper and pencil, a rulebook and a few friends, and you run around in an imaginary world, smiting and pillaging.

Level 32 Nerd

I know. You’re already freaked out at the idea that I’m even more of a nerd than you thought. But wait! There’s more!

I’ve played this game for 31 years.

That’s a lot of notches in the old sword belt, lemme tell you.

I’d love to tell you I play because I love the opportunity to play a character in an adventure, live the drama and do stuff in a fictional world that’s impossible in a real one.

But that’s utter bunk.

I like to slay monsters, take their treasure, and talk about how we all came THIS CLOSE to dying afterward.

When I realized that – that was the lightbulb. Those are basic human impulses: Defeat something bad; get a reward; tell the tale. They fit – they’ve been there all along. They’re visceral. And they translate to effectiveness in all human communications, including marketing.

That’s what I want to show you: How you can give your communications efforts more power if you help your audience slay monsters, take their stuff, and then tell the story after.

Let’s break this down:

Everyone loves to slay monsters

standing behind me

Now that I’ve come come out of the nerd closet, you may as well know more:

I’ve played with the same group of people for nearly 20 years. We usually play good guys, but occasionally in D&D my friends and I used to try to play evil characters for a while. We thought it’d be fun – it felt kinda, you know, dirty.

It sucked. It just isn’t that much fun.

Even in games like World of Warcraft, when you TRY to play an evil character, you end up ‘good’ from your perspective. The nastiest, gooiest, drippiest bad guys you can play, as it turns out, are just… misunderstood.

Did you cheer for the Emperor? For Darth Vader?

Of course you didn’t. You cheered for Luke Skywalker. And Darth Vader, when it turned out that, in spite of the whole destroying planets and wiping out the Jedi thing, he was actually a good guy, too.

Even the TERMINATOR turns into a good guy.

It’s because we can’t handle rooting for a bad guy. It doesn’t compute. It’ll shock my friends to hear me say this, since it sounds downright optimistic, but: Most want the bad guy to lose. The folks who don’t, but still believe the bad guys are bad, I’d suggest, are the sociopaths.

If you can give people a chance to do that – to beat up the bad guy, rout evil, whatever – you’ve given them a kind of currency that sticks with them. They remember you for it.

I’ve blogged for 10 years. I’m not saying that to brag. I’m trying to lend a sense of scale when I say that I’ve only written one blog post that made it to the front page of Digg. Ever.

Know what it was? How to destroy a plagiarist’s blog. It made it to Digg, onto Cracked and has 28 root domains linking to it. It got 50,000 clicks from StumbleUpon. 105 comments.

Why? All my other posts were better thought-out, better written and had better teaching content. Frankly, it kind of pisses me off that the one thing I ever wrote that got the Digg treatment involved pasting pictures of poop onto other people’s sites. It’s simple: I’d just shown a lot of people how to slay monsters (plagiarists), and everyone loves to slay the monster. Of course they loved it.

The tendency to monster slaying is already at work in marketing. It has been for a while: Anyone remember the ads Alaska Airlines did in the 1980s? A whole series of funny ads talking about how other airlines abuse you, but Alaska doesn’t.

Alaska said “We are not the monsters – the other airlines are, though. Fly us and you slay the monster. Or at least deny it a meal.”

It works in politics: Republicans have held a decided advantage over the last 40 years. Why? They have a clear bad guy: Big Government Waste. It’s their monster.

reps dems seats won

Democrats try to take a nuanced approach: They will say “Well, we oppose wasteful programs like such and such. Here’s a spreadsheet explaining it all.” It’s hard to vote for someone who promises to create better spreadsheets. It’s easy to vote for someone who Opposes Big Government Waste.

That’s why Democrats only take over when everyone’s sick of the Republicans.

Everyone wants to slay a monster. I mean this figuratively, of course. And you can’t just demonize people and things. You have to point out what’s already there.

Help your audience Defeat Evil, and they love you for it. They remember it as if you’ve given them something precious – and you have, because you’ve helped fulfill a part of our brains we’ve had since we could bang rocks together.

Everyone loves getting stuff

You know the most common 4 words a D&D player asks?

What. Do. We. Get.?

Look at all this stuff

After a fight. At the end of a gaming session. After pizza arrives. Doesn’t matter. We want our stuff.

So does everyone else.

‘Stuff’ doesn’t have to be something material. It can be almost anything. And, if you get stuff because you beat up the bad guys, you realllly feel good about it.

In D&D, ’stuff’ means gold and magic items.

I did a calculation. I’ve played an average of 211 hours of D&D per year for 31 years. That’s 4 hours/week, or, if you really want to get picky, 34 minutes a day. Or, a total of 6136 hours of D&D.

Hey, it beats watching American Idol, OK?

On average I’ve earned 1 gp (that’s a gold piece, for you posers out there) per hour. That’s 6136 gold pieces. Assume they’re each 1/3 of an ounce. (Sadly, there are people out there who’ve figured this out.) Current gold price is around $1300 an ounce.

That means I’ve earned $2,650,000. W00T!!!!

That ignores all the magic items, of course. Assume I got one really cool sword or the equivalent per 40 hours of gaming. Subtract out any cursed items (those suck) and we’ll say one cool item every 50 hours. So I’ve accumulated 122 swords, wands, etc. that I can sell for even more.

So, I’m rich. Filthy, stinking rich.

But I’m not. It’s all make-believe. I can’t even sell it on eBay.

Yet I still get a little thrill every time we find something on an adventure. I’m 42 years old, and I still like finding make-believe shiny things in make-believe chests.

Is this about ‘social capital’? Maybe. But I have the social skills and drive of a feral chipmunk. And most people can’t spell ‘capital’. So I really doubt that social capital is what got me addicted to make-believe loot, or that it alone gets folks onto Facebook, etc..

There’s something more visceral at work: Everyone likes getting stuff. Even make-believe stuff. That’s the pleasure thing Jesse Schell talked about yesterday or, as I call it, the warm tinglies..

Remember the guy who saved up the Pepsi points for a Harrier jump jet? He’s the freak in all this. Did you know he ended up suing Pepsi? He did. He sued Pepsi because they didn’t give him a Harrier after he bought $700k worth of Pepsi.

Harrier park office

The judge ruled against him: “No objective person could reasonably have concluded that the commercial actually offered consumers a Harrier jet”.

Translation: You. Are. A. Loon. A. Tick.

The guy who did want it was either crazy or hungry for attention. Most people bought Pepsi and looked at the points they got, but never collected anything at all. And that was enough for them.

The judge understood this: No one should expect to win a Harrier. They should expect to get stuff in the form of points, which may or may not lead to other stuff.

Everyone likes to get stuff. And, if you can give them stuff while they stick it to the bad guys, even better:

Toyota’s Prius – which I own, by the way, so it worked on me – is a pretty dicey proposition as a money-saver. The car costs around $30k. I could get a similarly-equipped non-hybrid for about $20k. Am I going to save $10k in gas?

No. What I’m going to do is burn less oil. I get to watch the little mileage thingy and cheer when I break 50 mpg. That is my stuff. And I get to take a chunk out of Exxon’s profits. That just increases the warm tinglies: SCREW YOU Exxon. Your janitors may make more than I do, but I just stuck it to you, big-time.

The Prius targets the exact people who WOULD do the same analysis I just did. And we buy them anyway.

Toyota is giving me stuff and letting me participate in the slaying of a monster: oil companies. No one likes an oil company. Not even the oil company’s mom likes the oil company. It’s not even real (come on) and it still works on me.

You know the only car Toyota sells that posted gains over 2009? The Prius. In spite of all the sudden acceleration insanity. It’s also the only car that let people get stuff (by burning less gas) and figuratively slay the monster by slapping oil companies around. Even though it really doesn’t.

Everyone likes to get stuff. Everyone’s always liked getting stuff, and that doesn’t have to be tangible.

Give something to your audience – even warm tingles, and they’re one step closer to being happy customers. Give them something and let them beat the bad guy, and they’re yours for life.

Tell the tale

You’d think that, when all of us aging gamers with kids and jobs and lives sit down to play D&D, we’d get right to the game. None of us can spend a 10-hour day gaming any more. You know what we spend 1/2 our time doing?

Telling stories of previous crazy exploits. You know – the exploits that never happened, where you earned treasure you can’t use, against villains that don’t exist. That time you were facing utter doom and the only way you could survive was to roll a 20 AND YOU DID.

tell the tale

And, since we’ve known each other at least 10+ years, we’ve heard them all before. We were there when every story happened!!!! But we keep telling them anyway.

We love to tell the tale. Turns out, normal people (can I call them muggles? I’ve always wanted to do that) do too.

Seth Godin wrote a great book that sold a bazillion copies called All Marketers Are Liars. In it, he talked about the value of telling a powerful (true) story about your brand.

That’s an awesome first step. But if you really want to win, give your customers a tale to tell, and put them in it.

You get the idea. Everyone wants to have stories to tell.

If they’re in the stories, they tell them better.

And more often.

This storytelling/folklore is the best part of the whole equation, because your audience loves you for making them part of the story, and they help you get the word out at the same time.

If beating the bad guys and taking their stuff is the incentive that gets people involved with you, then telling stories is how you can get existing customers to indoctrinate new people into the club and keep them there.

How many people here run businesses that live and die on referrals?

What’s a referral?

Uh-huh. It’s someone telling others how smart they were to choose you. They’re telling the tale of how they conquered the Great Black Beast of Q1 Sales Goals.

Did Google do any marketing when they launched? No? Then how did anyone hear about them?

I’ll tell you how: Nerd A found something really cool that no one else could find. She went around telling everyone else about this massively cool piece of information she found. When her worshipful nerd admirers asked her ‘how did you find that?!’ she said ‘Oh, using this Google thing’.

“I Googled you.”

They’ve become a freaking verb you can use to tell stories. Egads.

One of the greatest print ads ever literally puts you into a story:

john caples ad

This ad by John Caples is written in the first person. It puts you in the place of this person, wowing your friends with your newfound piano prowess. It’s telling you what it’ll feel like to tell the tale.

Everyone wants to tell the tale. Particularly a tale of how they slew the monster and took the monster’s stuff.

You have to make it so that they can.

When it all goes wrong

You can take this all as some kind of cynical message – a sneaky way to trick people and ‘get ahead’. I don’t, though.

You can try to manipulate people around these impulses. But that’s when it all goes horribly wrong.

Know who Joe McCarthy is? He built up anti-Communist hysteria and set of a series of hearings in front of the House on Unamerican Activities Committee (HUAC). He was a bastard. He ruined lives by making up a monster’the American Communist Party was about as threatening to the US then as it is now.

Know what? He pushed too far, and he got found out. And the backlash destroyed him and his career.

So try to manipulate if you really want to, but remember: The more you try to scam society’s psyche, the bigger the backlash when they figure it out.

The end

There you go. Ian’s Three Principles of D&D Marketing. Help your audience:

Slay monsters
Take their treasure
Tell the tale

Learn how marketers appeal to these basic impulses, and you can help grow your business and get your message out.

To me, though, this is about a lot more than marketing. This is about communications.

Communications drive the really big stuff we accomplish:

We wouldn’t have gone to the moon except that: JFK promised us stuff (the achievement); we had a monster to slay (the Soviet space program); there was a great tale to tell.

Big things people never would’ve tried without leadership that knew how to frame the challenges for society or for themselves.

That’s what this is really about: Helping people find what motivates them, and then delivering it. And by doing that, making us all a little cooler.

Or nerdier, as the case may be.

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  1. Just when I thought I couldn’t love this blog more – you Nerd out on me. I love this and will be sharing this with my nerd community – NerdNYC.com. Thanks.

  2. I’ll admit. I first clicked the link because I had no idea where you were going with this. I’ve played AD&D and Vampire the Masquerade for going on 15 years. I started when I was about 13.
    You did a great job putting the pieces together between the two. I honestly thought in the beginning there was no way, but you make excellent points!
    What makes a RPG great is the story and pay-off. You get your players emotionally invested in what they’re trying to accomplish, and the goal is to make them feel like it was worth it in the end. Story telling is a huge part of any RPG, and without your storyteller, it will fail.
    Marketing is the same way, and I never really thought about that before today. Good job!
    A fellow RPG geek

  3. Ian,
    What a great post, seriously. You had be chuckling, but the points are well taken.
    One of my favorite memories about this game was tucked inside the back of the book. Roughly paraphrased from memory: It’s not the letter of the rules, but the spirit of the game that matters.
    Obviously, you get it. Shared experiences are powerful, as long as they don’t get muddled in any make believe rules.
    All my best,

  4. Yup, same here. My “corporate website” is a blog, my “company” is a glorified hobby wherein I get to charge people to draw henna pictures on them, and my approach to marketing is pretty much about that low-key also. But I loves me my D&D.
    And, curse you, you’ve got me thinking about how to apply this approach to my henna “bidnit” (I just can’t take myself seriously enough to call it a business).
    Now, let me tell you about this 7th-level thief I like to play…

  5. Ian, Wonderful post – it drew me in to read the whole thing (pretty good considering my typical attention span).
    Here and throughout your blog you prove a point that I learned from a Dale Carnegie course way too many years ago; that sharing your personal story is one of the most powerful ways to connect with your audience. Makes me wish I had learned to play D&D – I’d have more stories :).

  6. hot diggity damn πŸ˜€ You beat me! Do you remember when i told you i was thinking about a very nerdy guest post ? It was the same theme πŸ˜€
    Here is the proof: me and my first D&D set (italian edition)
    Obviously the pen&paper Roleplaying games were an amazing training field for creativity and it’s not so hard to understand why are so close to internet marketing: we learned to create amazing and unique content in order to satisfy our players… sound familiar, isnt’it ? πŸ˜‰
    Well, now i have to rethink by guest post on a different paradigm… Dibs on the cooking theme!
    ps: For you rpg-geeks, you have to watch “The gamers” and “The gamers 2:dorkness rising” by the “Dead gentlemen”

  7. Hey
    Great post, informative, fun and with a generous sprinkling of geek dust. I would plagiarise it, but you would probably destroy my blog πŸ˜‰
    Tweet the video link if you can.

  8. @gareth Write the gaming one!!!! There’s always more we can get out of that area. I actually think that pencil & paper gaming is one of the best educations you can have for any form of creative career. It forces you to BE creative.

  9. So, would you say that the best SEO is, in general, chaotic-good? I’m thinking it must be, since anything else on the “good” spectrum would be a detectable pattern, and we all know how much the search engines abhor those. πŸ˜‰

  10. Great article. But I do want to point out one thing. MCcarthy was not involved technically with HUAC…He was a Senator and his accusations were taken up by the Tydings Committee I think at first then other senate commitees until he finally came to his end.

  11. I agree but sometimes you can replace treasure by princess :Enter the castle, slain the big dragon and save the princess -Super Mario Bros-.
    Anyways, depend the person he can put emphasis in some part of the process, for example an engineer will focus in how to slain a dragon (and increasing the efficiency in 30%), an account will focus in slan a dragon then profit and a politician will put all their rank in tell the tale, even when the “slayed dragon” was a turkey and it was during the dinner.

  12. Finally a post about marketing that I can relate to. Thank you for writing a nerdy post that connects the dots for us dragon slayers … although I have to say my biggest achievement was saving a dragon from the rest of my party and forcing our DM to totally rethink the story line(long story).
    I think the lesson from that is that sometimes if you do the unexpected it forces people to rethink their strategy resulting in even bigger rewards.
    It’s like watching your 5 year old wobble his new bike toward the one hole in the path. You know he is going to hit it, fall and hurt himself, you know you can’t get to him in time to save him, you don’t want to watch but you can’t drag your eyes away .. and suddenly he lifts the front handlebars (having watched older kids do this trick) and sails over the hole to land safely on the other side. It was so unexpected you clap and cheer, run and get the video camera to recreate the scene for posterity .. and of course tell everyone you ever meet about your amazing boy.
    Relate that to your new product .. your visitors buy it because they are compelled to do so by the laws of “I have more stuff than you” or “if I don’t get this stuff now the price will go up, and I know I will end up getting it anyway”. They open their shiny new “stuff” and hey presto there is something unexpected and wonderful, and they simply have to go out and tell the world.

  13. I think it’s funny how people say, “Oh, I think back to when I used to play D&D and see how I could apply that to being in Sales!” Only for me, I think back to when I used to be in Sales and see how I could have applied D&D (which I still play)! Or even think about how I could apply the lessons I supposedly learned while in Sales to my current D&D.
    Great blog-post and the pics really work for your theme.

  14. This is the post that convinced me to subscribe to your RSS feed. Nothing like a good brand ambassador to truly promote a product or service.
    Understanding what makes people tick is the most important thing anyone of us can learn.

  15. Very nice article!
    I actually headed to wikipedia to learn more about Joe McArthy and found that he doesn’t have a connection to HUAC hearings:
    “McCarthy’s hearings are often incorrectly conflated with the hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). (…) HUAC was a House committee, and as such had no formal connection with McCarthy, who served in the Senate.” (from wikipedia)

  16. It would be especially appropriate were this post to be your second post to make it to Digg’s front page — this being a post that told a story about how you wrote a post about how defeating bad guys and telling the story is the way to connect with people…

  17. As a former D&D player and current Savage Worlds DM, I like the breakdown of needs. As a psychology student to boot, it kind of fits into Henry Murray’s Psychogenic needs theory and it’s 3 main needs: Power, Achievement and Affiliation. Power is sticking it to the baddy, achievement is getting the stuff and affiliation is using the stories to create social bonds and talk about your achievements (which is kind of their goal). My players still don’t forget the time one of them got to jump on a crane and shoot upside down swinging on it or sleep with Ringo Starr (yes, this happened)
    For me, the best part of a D&D game was when a plan came together…when you thoroughly outsmarted the villain by having a trick up your sleeve that almost no one accounted for with a clever manipulation of something you got a long time ago. Going in and beating stuff up through sheer force was okay, but it’s having that advantage that’s the real fun. It’s that feeling that really is pushing me to be an entrepreneur– that I can outsmart a problem that’s been plaguing people for a long time by using current ideas and reworking them to a solution.
    Anyways, I love this post and I hope we can get in touch, Ian.

  18. A friend linked to this post this morning and I read it on my Android, then I went back and looked it up again, just to be sure I liked it as much as I thought I did. Yep. I did. The principles here don’t just apply to marketing.
    I was thinking of them in terms of writing blog posts. Slay the dragon, loot the treasure, tell the story. I write politics on one site, happiness and family topics on another, and mental health and customer service on a third, and in all of those fields, giving someone a problem to solve, a reward for solving it, and a story to pass on strikes me as a good way to structure a 1000-2000 word bit.
    Thank you very much for this. And keep on rolling!

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