Critique: “Be” Advice
When I read advice text — player or GM advice in RPGs, blog post with advice, lectures, etc. — one thing routinely happens that the advice tells you to “be” something and doesn’t back up enough of what that means. To illustrate, I’m going to use Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe.
- Yeah, three years ago I was a rabid cockbite about this book. File that under “actions I regret.”
- His recent works, A Taste for Murder and the just-released Cthulhu Dark (which is free), are brilliant and worth checking out.
- If you’ve absorbed improv jargon and technique by being around story gamers, it’s a good collection of thoughts.
The Issue: “Be” Advice
From page 6 of Play Unsafe, Graham talks about “being average”:
- People who are clued in enough to understand how to do what’s being talked about nod in agreement, and proclaim this to be good advice.
- People who aren’t clued in enough to understand how to do what’s being talked about experience frustration at the book for being unclear or shame with themselves for not getting what is so obvious to the writer.
The core of that is whether or not the reader has the skill you’re talking about — and when you talk about “be” advice, you’re saying “employ this skill.” The author almost always has that skill, and hopefully has it well, so this tends to be natural. Paul Tevis did this quite a bit in drafts of A Penny for my Thoughts, which I’ll talk about in a moment.
Why “Be” Advice is Useful
I’m not saying this form of advice is a crime. There are two places where “be” advice is really useful: when you’re reminding people who already have the skill, and when you’re giving permission to experiment.
We did some of this in Penny:
What this ends up doing is reminding people that being specific is good, and gives permission to do that for those who feel like they need it. Now, folks like me and many of my readers likely don’t need the permission (though the reminder is still handy), but we’re writing to a larger audience.
And even if we today don’t need permission, I recall a time a few years ago when reading something like this would have felt like I had that permission to experiment with a technique. Permission is about table social contract, after all. But that’s probably a bigger topic. Just trust me; it exists and is impacted with such advice text.
How to Make This Better: “Do”
Look at any time you’re telling someone to “be” something. (Especially the dreaded “be creative.” Man, do I want to punch that advice in the face whenever I encounter it.) Ask yourself the following:
- Are you happy talking only to people who possess the skill you’re talking about? If so, don’t change anything. (This, by the way, is not a passive-aggressive question. A lot of one-page or super-short RPGs assume they’re talking to at least one person who possesses skills. Graham’s Cthulhu Dark says “roleplay your fear,” and it doesn’t need to say more because of its intent and target audience.)
- Do you want to give your reader the tools to develop this skill? If so, read on.
For each point, come up with three simple actions — either specific actions or examples of the “do” in action — that back up this “be” advice. If you can’t do that, you might not actually understand what you’re talking about enough to write on it. Enough to do it intuitively, yes, but not enough to convey that to another human being. Especially via text.
Once you have three, work those into your text. Editing will reveal if you have one (or even two) “do” elements too many, or if you need to add one. But start with those three things. In the case of Penny’s Be Specific above, we have one in example-form. In Be Brief, there’s none. I’d probably add something today like “Keep it under twelve words,” but Paul might disagree.
Important: Examples of not employing the advice aren’t “do,” because it doesn’t give the reader a tool to work with, nothing to use to learn a skill. It can be good supporting text, though don’t lead with that.
Maybe there’s a degree to which the complexity of the skill needs more or less “do” support. Maybe Be Brief in Penny doesn’t need anything, and Be Specific needs only one thing. Play Unsafe’s Be Average, though, is in my mind far more complex, enough to where maybe even three “dos” aren’t enough. But that’s what the revision process is for. Start with three.
Exercise for the reader: Can you come up with three actionable items for “Be Average”? Share them in the comments!
A Litmus Test on “Be” Advice
Does it seem hard to come up with “do” advice for something you’re writing “be” advice for? Then that means your “be” advice needs “do” advice to back it up. If it’s hard for you to grasp some elements, imagine how hard it is for someone without that skill.
“Be” conveys why something is important and reminds people to do it.
“Do” tells people who have yet to master a skill how to do it.
Be a great instructor. Do both.
 And not just because I’m trying to avoid hyperbole in written form.
 For all I know, we actually discussed that back then. It wouldn’t surprise me.
 Leading with counters and don’ts will be a future critique. Man alive, it will be.
 Yes, this is also critiquing Penny, to a degree. That’ll get a couple of its own posts later.