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?

– Ryan

(Apparently I wrote something similar to this nearly two years ago.)


12 Responses to How to Poorly Demo a Game

  1. Dave T. Game says:

    Man, “be utterly aware of your time” is my rule for anything at a convention, period. Just don’t waste people’s time! I don’t need to sit there for an hour as you introduce every character sheet and why you came up with them: just let us pick so we can actually play. You’re there to be helpful, not force others to listen to you talk. (See also: panels.)

    One more for your list, which I’m sure many people would think totally obvious but is surprising how much it gets messed up: “be a fan of the game you’re demoing.” This is an outcrop of “don’t change the damn rules” but I’ve been in multiple games where the GM tells us up front that he’s only running it to get free swag, and he prefers game X, and will be changing the game to be more like game X. NO. At the very least, you are allowed to _like multiple things_ and talk, after the game, about what the game you ran does, and what other games do, and compare and contrast in a helpful way.

  2. Blackcoat says:

    We talked about this already, but its relevant so I’ll drop this here too: my demoer of that game (not the same as yours) was awesome, and yet, when I brought up my “meh” on the game in question, people dumped it on him. And told me that I should try again, with the demoer you had.

  3. Blackcoat says:

    Others (both involved with the game, and not) said that my demoer was the reason that I was meh, because he wasn’t very good. In fact, it was a mix of the game itself, and the table was five friends, and then me.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ah, okay. I misread that as bringing up the issue during the game, rather than talking about it afterward.

      Not that I was there to know exactly how it was worded or treated, but there’s something about passing the buck in that matter that bothers me. I’m not against “oh, well, how about we get you into another demo with someone else” as I am the dumping factor. Sometimes I wonder if that means the criticism isn’t being genuinely listened to.

      – Ryan

  4. Blackcoat says:

    I was going to write a longer post, re: my horrible demo experience, but it turns out that you and the commenters in the linked article covered most of them.

  5. Eva says:

    One of the most frustrating demos I’ve ever done was of a card game where they were pitting the people demoing against each other regardless of skill and mostly not helping them to learn at all. So I guess “in GM-less game, don’t abandon your players and assume they’re all good if some of them know the game.” I was very not good and suffered through that demo with no idea what I was doing and little help from my opponent.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Ouch. Totally. I’d broaden that to any game, not just GM-less ones, but that’s spot on.

      – Ryan

  6. Ryan Macklin says:

    Another thing I thought of (which was another issue this past weekend): walk in with a structure in mind. Don’t rely on those you’re running the demo for to fill in the structure of the demo and the various motivations out of the ether. At minimum, start with “You guys are here to do a particular thing.”

    – Ryan

  7. Arashinomoui says:

    I’ve vented at length about this in my own blog after a particularly disastrous attempt to play Eclipse Phase – How to Run a Convention Game From Someone Who Sucks At Running Convention Games:

    Key Item #1: Know the Rules – With a convention game, you can’t guarantee everyone is going to know the rules, or even if they know the basics, whether they will know the exceptions to the rules. This means you must be on top of the rules, and if you are modifying them to be easier to run in the module, you need to announce that up front.

    The Eclipse Phase GM failed to do that – he didn’t know and didn’t like the combat rules for an adventure that was advertised as combat heavy. These things do not work well together.

    Key Item #2: Know the Module/Adventure – I had a poor time of it at the game because the module was poorly designed (it was apparently an unadvertised beta test) and the guy running it hadn’t gotten it with enough lead time to know it properly. Now you can, sometimes, get away with either knowing the module, or having a well written module but not both, but having neither dooms you to failure.

    If you are going to be using pre-generated characters make sure they fit the theme of the game, nothing is worse than being the team of bio-engineered sex slave in the middle of the fifteenth fire fight of the night or the grumpy mercenary forced to deal with subtle politicians. Well it can be fun, but it requires lots of thought and planning to integrate properly.

    Bonus Item #3: Sell your Adventure Correctly – Labeling the game provides certain expectations of themes and tropes that are going to be used. Now you can either play to the themes, which is highly suggested, by me, for a short 4 hour game, or you can try to be cute and play against type. But once again, if you are going to do the latter in a 4 hour game, you need to be very, very sure of what you are doing.

  8. Bruce Harlick says:

    Know what you’re demoing. By that I mean, what makes your game stand out? What are its key differentiators? What makes it cool? Your demo should hit those. You do not need to run a complete story in your demo. You should give the players a real taste of what makes the game fantastic so that they’ll run to the dealer’s room and buy it.

    I think doing a demo is very different from running a 4-hour (or longer) game at a con. A demo should be short and show off the cool. A sign-up game should be a complete adventure.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I think that much of this translates into a four-hour game. And you have to be ready for your four-hour game to effectively be a demo for someone new.

      In the case that prompted this post, it was a two-hour signup, which ideally is a great space for trying out a game without committing a huge about of time in a single stretch — at least when that time has many other things vying for it at a convention.

      – Ryan