Cliche, Combat, Fellowship, Anarchy, Enigma

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in Books, skmurphy

S. John Ross wrote a great short essay on “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design” (that I first read in “Things We Think About Games” by Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball) that suggested these elements were critical for creating a commercially successful RPG. I think they are also a good way to think about building a successful technology business.

Cliche, Combat, Fellowship, Anarchy, and Enigma
Are Lessons For Startups

Cliché: The value of cliché – the use of stock imagery and other familiar elements – is accessibility and mutual understanding.
S. John Ross in “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design

Startups have limited resources, certainly compared to more well established firms that they find themselves competing with. They need to focus their innovative efforts on a very few areas and features for maximum effect. They need to leverage existing technology and standards, talk in terms that prospects will easily understand, and work from the familiar except for a handful of key areas where they are trying to differentiate their offering.

Combat: Nothing’s very dramatic (or funny, or scary) without some kind of conflict.
S. John Ross in “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design

In the Innovator’s DNA, Clayton Christen outlines two fundamental attitudes that underpin any innovation:

  • A willingness to challenge the status quo.
  • A willingness to take risks

You have to take risks and work to obsolete one or more aspects of the status quo in a technology startup.

Fellowship: RPGs are an ensemble medium; the core experience is that of a fellowship of PCs cooperating (more or less) toward a common goal.
S. John Ross in “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design

I think a team is essential to success in a technology startup, it’s just too difficult for one person to have all of the skills and experience necessary to provide a compelling product. I think fellowship is a better word than teamwork for the relationships that founders need to maintain to thrive.

Anarchy: In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that’s a feature that thrives on anarchy.
S. John Ross in “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design

While you shouldn’t break all of the rules you have to be willing to break some of the rules that established firms are following if you want to differentiate yourself. The trick is to break rules in a way that creates novel differentiated value.

Enigma: The quality of enigma is – inevitably – the most elusive of these elements. In literal terms, it means any quality of the game-world that the Game Master is presumed to understand on a level the players never can.
S. John Ross in “Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design

There are mysteries about technology and customers needs that entrepreneurs have to penetrate to succeed. But if you teach a point where you believe that no mysteries remain then you are at the more risk than when you knew you were ignorant.


I used  “Seven Things I learned from World of WarCraft” by John August (another essay from “Things We Think About Games” by Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball) as a point of departure for “Focus Needs Buffers and Free Time

The TV Tropes wiki (Danger Will Robinson! this is a site you can lose several hours browsing if you are not careful) is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction. We need a similar catalog of useful cliches for technology startups.

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