How to Poorly Demo a Game
Today, Lillian Cohen-Moore wrote on her Geek’s Dream Girl column about good and bad game demos. It’s worth reading, and I want to build on that. If you’re doing any of the following, you’re un-selling the game:
- Don’t shit-talk someone else’s game. It doesn’t matter if it’s in print or not. This is a small community, and you could be giving the demo to someone who was involved with the game. Or worse, you could be giving the demo to a fan of that game — and fans get more defensive about that sort of thing than creators do.
- Don’t refer to media or other games without asking if people are familiar with them. If you’re constantly dropping “Third Edition” without saying what game you’re talking about, you’re assuming that the people at the table have the same familiarity with games that you do. That’s damning, because this could very well be someone’s first time playing a game like what you’re running.
- Don’t use language like “obviously” in your demo. These things aren’t actually obvious to the people you’re playing with, so doing that actually distances you from the audience and shows that you aren’t considering them and their needs. Maybe for some it’s a verbal tic, but it’s one you need to clamp down on if that’s a problem.
- Be utterly aware of your time. In a two-hour demo I played, around 40 minutes was dedicated to the setting’s back story, 40 minutes to making a character, and then 40 minutes to actually play the game. In the last 40 minutes, half of it was wasted by a total lack of direction. I only played in half of an encounter before I had to leave because I only had two hours to play.
- If your demo is scheduled for a certain amount of time, don’t go over it. And certainly don’t start by saying “this demo will likely go over time,” because that tells me that you don’t have a good handle on demoing the game, or possibly on demoing in general. On one hand, and least you’re honest about your failing here, but on the other it tells me that you don’t value my time or my commitments.
- Don’t get off on beating the people you’re demoing for. Long ago, I had to deal with this when a dudebro demoing the old (and pretty awesome) History Channel game Anachronism. They didn’t have a good sense of who to hire for demo people, so the one I got was stoked to beat me in the demo. The game intrigued me enough to get past that demo, so I bought into it. But I can’t say the same for the friend who wanted to get me into Warhammer 40K many years ago — he built a small army for me and took delight in his relative mastery of the rules to crush me, so I have never since bothered with Warhammer 40K. (Though I love some of the ancillary games.)
- Don’t change the damned rules. A friend was telling me about how a demo dude changed the initiative rules to a game because he didn’t care for them. Surprise, surprise, the demo fell down flat. There are some exceptions to this, but they’re usually with stating a caveat like “because this is a demo and we have limited time, I’m going to do X.”
- Don’t talk about past games, your home game, and so on. Just don’t. I do sometimes use my past games as examples, such as saying “here are some possible High Concept and Trouble aspects” and rattling off what I can remember from the past, since that’s faster than making something up on the fly, but I don’t celebrate those moments in front of people who haven’t any context (or, frankly, and give-a-damn) about them.
That’s an incomplete list, but if you’re demoing, look at those and see if you’re doing any of them. The demo that Lillian mentioned did six of the things above all in one sitting; the only reason I’m not writing off the game is because I work in this business, and can separate shitty game from shitty person demoing it. That said, I have a negative emotional context about it now, and that’ll carry through the next time I give the game a try.
What other problems have you encountered?