Monday, November 22, 2010

An Open Letter to Podcasters Who Accept Sponsorships

Repetition is not your friend. A certain amount of repetition, particularly of a sponsor's motto or tag line, helps establish product identity in the minds of listeners, but there's a point at which this repetition becomes counter productive. You don't want your listeners to cringe when they hear the beginning of a commercial because they've already heard it a dozen times or more.

Some of you may have read an article about how advertisements that are annoying are actually more effective. This can be true for establishing name recognition for a new product or business, or for reinforcing it in an older product like laundry detergent where a customer has to make a purchase decision while looking at a wall full of similar products in a super market. Chances are if you're running a gaming podcast that your advertisers aren't selling products that you buy in the super market.

There's a point at which repetitive advertising actually starts to have a negative effect. Either it actively causes customers to associate "don't like" with your sponsor, or else they simply stop listening to the podcast due to the repetition (perhaps as a contributing rather than a primary factor), at which point they hear neither you nor your sponsors.

So what's too much repetition? For starters, if you simply read or ad-lib a short script you're probably OK. The natural variation in tone between readings can help to mitigate the negative aspects of repetition, even if the words are exactly the same. This assumes that it is truly a short script. Under fifteen seconds is ideal, over thirty is generally unacceptable. If you want to run an infomercial for your sponsor do it once, not every episode.

If you pre-record your ads then for the sake of both your listeners and your sponsors change them every once in a while! How often you do so can vary, but one hard and fast rule is that if a date is mentioned in the ad, and it's past that date, then you should change the ad! That's the most obvious subset of a larger rule: if the ad is inaccurate, then change the ad!

Two examples from podcasts that will remain nameless:

1) An advertisement for a piece of software that was to undergo an update in a few months began running on a podcast. That same ad was still running a year after the updates had been made, but the ad still referred to those updates in the future tense.

2) An advertisement for a podcast that aired for quite some time on another podcast. It mentioned the hosts of the show. The ad was still running well over a year after one of the hosts had left the show and been replaced.

In the latter case the ad was created by the sponsor, so it may have been the case that they asked for a new spot and never received it, but they may have simply never bothered to ask.

Here's another rule of thumb: if you're mocking your own ads, then it's probably time to change them. Doubly so if you're mocking them on the show!

A tip for those who like pre-recording their ads: If you really want to pre-record your ads, and don't want to have to come back and change them very often, then record more than one at a time. Record two or three for one sponsor and then alternate them between shows. Having to listen to the same ad every second or third episode is far more tolerable than every episode. If you podcast frequently, once a week or more, then consider not just rotating ads, but rotating sponsors. Of course, you need multiple sponsors for this to work, and it has to be a part of whatever contract you have with your sponsors, but it can be extremely effective at reducing the negative effects of repetition.

So where do I get off offering this advice? Mostly just as an interested consumer, but I do actually have some limited experience writing ad copy for radio professionally, and received some equally limited education on the subject back in my college days. Take that for what it's worth.

I also want to say that I realize that podcasters do this for the love of their hobby and of podcasting, and that for the most part it costs them money out of their own pocket to do it, even with sponsors. I appreciate their efforts. I offer this advice both with the hope of making their shows better and to help their sponsors get better value for their sponsorship.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Adventure in the age of Napoleon

I am a big fan of both the Aubrey-Maturin novels and the Hornblower novels. These tales of naval adventure set in the Napoleonic era are great stories on their own, and have provided at least partial inspiration for such things as Star Trek and the Honor Harrington science fiction novels. While I never finished the series, I also enjoyed the adventures of Richard Sharpe, a fictional soldier in the British Army during the Napoleonic wars.

The Napoleonic period has provided the inspiration for numerous adventure stories over the years, and I've often thought about trying to run a roleplaying game set in the period, but despite running across a few systems that were either designed for doing so or could easily be adapted to it, I never really found one that I felt could do it justice, until now.

The problem with previous attempts is that they tended to be traditional simulationist RPGs. The games modeled combat well, but the genre of Napoleonic fiction isn't really about the combat, but about the characters. It can be fun to read about weathering the cape or engaging in a tense duel of sailing skills followed by the crash of broadsides, but actually rolling dice to simulate such things tends to be a rather dry experience in most cases.

Neil Gow seems to recognize this, because for the most part he has abandoned simulation in favor of storytelling. In his twin games Duty & Honour and Beat to Quarters he has adopted a system that is more similar to Fiasco than it is to Runequest. Most actions are resolved by either a single test or a short series of tests using standard playing cards. Win or lose, the players then get to narrate what actually happened based on the results of the test. The flip of the cards simply provide a framework around which to build the fiction.

That fiction starts with the building of characters. Players create a concept for their character, deciding what role they want to play in their regiment or aboard their ship, then they pick a nationality, religion and social station appropriate to their chosen role and concept. Finally they generate a number of life experiences that have defined their characters.

This step is similar to that found in games using the Fate system, but with an element of randomness. Card draws determine what kind of mechanical advancements the character gains from the experience, but it's up to the player to define the specifics and narrate the fiction surrounding the experience.

Midway through this step (after the players have generated their pre-recruitment life experiences) the group as a whole creates their regiment or ship. As part of this they define some of the NPC members of the regiment or ship, including their attitudes towards the players.

Then the players generate their post-recruitment life experiences. Once this is done the players have characters with a history that ties them into the setting and it's time to start the first mission.

Missions are what drive the game, and there are two types. The first is the military or naval mission. This mission is designed by the GM and usually takes the form of the official orders that the regiment or ship receives. The GM sets the reward for success and the consequence for failure, as well as the difficulty involved in completing the mission. The group as a whole seeks to accomplish this mission.

The other type of mission is the player mission. Each player designs their own mission that they will attempt to accomplish at the same time that the group works to complete the military or naval mission. Players set their own rewards and have a say in the difficulty level based on the reward they pick, but the GM still has a say on difficulty and determines the penalty for failure.

In our first game the naval mission was to carry orders from England to the Admiral in charge of the Mediterranean Fleet. The reward would be increased reputation with the Admiral, and failure would be a loss of a single naval reputation each player had, representing the shame incurred in being unable to complete such a mission. I decided that the party would need to successfully overcome four obstacles, called tests, on their way to accomplish the mission (the first part of determining difficulty), and that if they failed to overcome more than two tests along the way, that their entire mission would fail as the orders would have arrived too late to make a difference (this is the deadline, and is the other half of determining difficulty).

Each player then designed their own personal mission. As an example, one of the players decided that they wanted to increase their wealth through gambling. The reward of a wealth increase determined the number of obstacles that had to be overcome, in this case four. As GM, I then decided that any more than two failures would mean that the character had lost his stake money, and would result in a decrease in wealth.

None of the tests were determined ahead of time, although some of them could have been. Instead I simply made them up on the fly. They began by having problems with the weather, and while successfully overcoming them, they were forced to put into Gibraltar to restock on some necessary supplies. Unable to convince the supply clerks at Gibraltar to part with all that the ship needed, the ship was forced to head to the coast of Africa to seek the last of their supplies. They found their supplies, but then had to avoid a Barbary corsair on their way to deliver the orders to the Admiral.

The resulting story was satisfying all around and really seemed to capture the feel of the Napoleonic fiction I'm used to, even though I was playing with a group of players that largely hadn't experienced the genre aside from maybe watching the Master & Commander movie from a few years ago. I don't think that a more simulationist style game would have been able to do that.

I should also point out that fans of the game have already started doing hacks of the system for other genres, including other historical periods and science fiction. Like Fiasco, it appears to be a very hackable system.

If you're interested in the game there's basically three ways of getting it right now (that I'm aware of), the first is getting a pdf from If you want a hardcopy you have two choices. You can order direct from Omnihedron Games, but they are based in England. The other option is to get it through the Lulu print on demand service. For now those appear to be the only options, although I would love to see the game get wider distribution.