Thoughts on Advice Text

Clearly, “Thoughts on…” is starting to be a thing I do. Best to keep it up.

I was talking with Elizabeth Shoemaker recently, a quick chat about Blowback (which I mentioned previously that I’ll be editing). We were talking about hit points and why her game doesn’t have them, and the implications of what she does with character consequence and death and the like. Our talk turned, as it often will with me, to advice text.

See, I have this passion…

(No, that’s not strongly enough said. But those who know me well and those who are creative can fill in the proper–or improper?–expletives.)

…for advice text. Paul Tevis & I have talked about that at length, particularly on Master Plan episode 50 where we talk about our working together on A Penny For My Thoughts. In any case, Elizabeth said to me:[1]

Most of my GM advice boils down to “Don’t be a dick.”

There was a bit more to that, and a conversation, but to spare you, dear reader, from having to read a conversation you cannot take part in, the high points where thus:

Assume most people don’t want to be dicks. Thus, telling them “don’t be a dick” is as beneficial as reminding them to breathe.

Assume those who do want to be dicks don’t care about being chided. Thus, telling them “don’t be a dick” will fall on deaf ears. (If I may mix the text and vocal metaphors.)

For our assumed dickishless population, they only have two ways of knowing if going to cross a line and “be a dick”: though experience having crossed it before, or through forewarning. It’s cause-and-effect; wanting to avoid an effect means knowing, whether first-hand or by being told, the causes.

If your game gives them tools they are unfamiliar with[2] then without guidance they may not know where that line is until after they cross it. So, focus not on chiding the reader for being a potential dick, but on articulating an understanding of how your tools are used, how to cross and to keep from crossing various lines of dickishness.

In fact, consider striking “don’t be a dick” from your authorial vocabulary (unless you’re Wil Fucking Wheaton, of course). It doesn’t help, not in this arena. Just tell people how your tools might be used and might be abused, things to watch out for, a sense of “X action with my funky mechanic tends to make Y happen,” and you’ll go a long way to helping people avoid being unintentional dicks. Relying on “don’t be a dick” to explain yourself is a crutch, not an aide.

Finally, consider that that phrase is in fact poison. It’s a value judgement. Not everyone plays the same. What you consider dickish me and my play group may not. By helping us understand your game and where one can push, you’ll help those who play like you and those who play differently. But “don’t be a dick” can also make your reader turn against you, as for some that is attacking language. And, believe it or not, the reader has the last word in any conversation between you and your book. So if your language attacks, you lose. Every time. So share an understanding of your tools, not a judgment on play.

Anyway, those were my thoughts on the subject from earlier today, a bit expanded since this is a blog post and not IM.

– Ryan

[1] Repeated with permission.

[2] Hint to most indie designers: you probably are, since that’s one thing we pride ourselves on


5 Responses to Thoughts on Advice Text

  1. Ron Blessing says:

    In fact, most dicks don’t know they’re dicks. Most times they’ll think “don’t be a dick” obviously applies to someone else. Dickishness is in the eye of the beholder (that reads dirtier than it’s meant).

  2. Rob Donoghue says:

    If you haven’t read ‘Switch’ by Origins, you are getting an earful.

    Short form, it’s got large swaths about Fundamental Attribution Error that speaks right to this. “Don’t be a dick” is not just flawed, it’s _useless_ – it offers no direction, no clarity of action. It is soft, squishy and subjective, and is exactly the opposite of what you want to urge people to do. It’s far more useful to say something as trivial (yet specific) as “Thank the person who brought snacks” than it will ever be to tell someone not to be a dick.

    -Rob D.

  3. Ryan Macklin says:

    Ron: Well said. (Also, well implied. *grin*)

    Rob: Switch is on my list already, based on prior tweets of yours.

    What you’ve both said are things I implied, but didn’t outright state. In future conversation, I’ll remedy that.

    – Ryan

  4. Elizabeth says:

    All it took were re-wording two instances of “if you do this, it’s not nice” to “if you do this, the game will be boring” and voila! Problem solved. :)

  5. Matthew D. Gandy says:

    Oh, look, it comes down to language choices again! This is my shocked face.