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Don’t Define with the Negative

One thing I see often from writers is that they’ll start talking about something that they’re passionate about…by talking about what it isn’t.

Let’s not call out anyone I’ve worked with[1], and instead take some old Mythender text (pulled out of my head):

Mythender is not a game about going from zero to hero, or a mystery about finding the gods to End. It’s a game about thunder and lightning across the landscape, striking fear into myth and mortals alike.

This is Bad Text. Why? Hey, I’m glad you asked!

  • It wastes the reader’s time.
  • It’s insulting to the reader. Remember this mantra: assume your reader is smart.
  • If your reader happens to like what you’re negating, you’re distancing yourself from your reader, even if he or she would also like what you actually mean to talk about.

If you do this, don’t be surprised if some readers stop after that first sentence and don’t get to the second, where the actual meat of your idea lives.

Now, I see this happen because people find their old explanations run up against the misconceptions of people playtesting, and the designers have to say “no, it’s not like X.” So, the gut reaction to lead with that is there. I totally see that, and if I hadn’t edited it out of many manuscripts, I would probably still do it.[2]

When that happens, resist the urge. Go with describing your idea in the positive. Maybe people will still get the wrong idea initially, but that’s what more text is for, to refine and to inspire someone down the same path you’re thinking. And if not, if people still get misconceptions, ask yourself: is that really so bad that your game’s text inspires ideas in someone else?

(Sometimes it is, if the idea really does entirely clash. People who want to turn Mythender into the zero-to-hero game will Fuck It Up, period. That game just won’t be fun, and will completely miss the point. On the other hand, for at least a year, people asked me if they could play mythic creatures as Mythenders. I kept saying “no,” until one day I said “fuck it, the idea really doesn’t break anything” and did some mental judo to make that idea instead flow. So, know where your breaking points really are, and loosen up elsewise.)

Here’s what my text above should have said[3]:

Mythender is a game about thunder and lightning across the landscape, striking fear into myth and mortals alike.

Notice how I didn’t try to work in “not a game about going from zero to hero, or a mystery about finding the gods to End”? Yeah, that goes to one of the many things I’ve learned from journalism, “show, don’t tell.” (I’d show[4] you how I do it, but that’d involve showing off a barely-written GM chapter.)

Don’t define with the Negative. The Positive is a stronger ally.

– Ryan[5]

[1] Though Paul Tevis & I talked about this regarding A Penny For My Thoughts on Master Plan #50: Text Presentation.

[2] Want to be a better writer? Be a hard-ass editor, and watch for the things you do that you call out in others. Oh, also, fucking write. Butt-in-chair, people.

[3] Of course, what I say today is much, much better.

[4] Ironic!

[5] I read on Paul Tevis’ blog a commenter asking for him to stop doing footnotes, and referencing having to stop reading Rob Donoghue’s blog because of that. Point of note: footnotes are where I get to be a bit tongue-in-cheek and, frankly, are one of the little joys I get writing these posts. So they’ll stay here. :)

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3 Responses to Don’t Define with the Negative

  1. Codrus says:

    Agreed 100%. Great post!

    I get turned off by a lot of ‘indie’ games because the text spends a lot slamming other games or game ideas. Semi-related: An author telling me how awesome his or her game/campaign/players/etc. are). If you need to do either of those things, limit it to the designers notes.

    Tell me what your game is about. Teach me how to play your game well. Point out important pitfalls. Don’t be a smug asshole. :)

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      I get that not just with indie games, but with a lot of first-time game publishers out there. Sometimes you see “This game isn’t D&D” and I want to say “No shit, I can read the fucking cover. It’s almost like I bought it for a reason.” And then I’m insulted and consider the twenty other books I bought at GenCon. :)

      – Ryan

    • codrus says:

      I should clarify: not all indie games do this, and I’m not an indie hater. But extreme negativity definitely puts me off from buying a game. If your game concepts are good, you don’t need to bash everyone else to make me see it.

      Thinking of it as a symptom of first-time publishers is an interesting slant on it — developers trying to establish their street cred. Although I can think of some designers with lengthy credits who keep doing it, so it isn’t a perfect fit.