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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.

Disclaimer:

  • 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”:

Graham is telling you good advice here. However, as with pretty much every form of “be” advice, he’s not telling you how to do it. This creates one of two situations:

  • 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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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.[4] 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.

– Ryan

[1] And not just because I’m trying to avoid hyperbole in written form.

[2] For all I know, we actually discussed that back then. It wouldn’t surprise me.

[3] Leading with counters and don’ts will be a future critique. Man alive, it will be.

[4] Yes, this is also critiquing Penny, to a degree. That’ll get a couple of its own posts later.

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13 Responses to Critique: “Be” Advice

  1. Graham says:

    I’ll wager there aren’t three “Do…” comments that can capture all the nuances of “Be average”.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Graham,

      Capture nuances? Certainly not. Help someone begin to learn the skill? I think so.

      I think nuance comes with mastery. I could be wrong there. But I don’t know if the role of “Do” bits is that. Maybe it is. Depends on intent.

      I’ll admit, I intentionally picked a hard “be” topic. I certainly can’t off the top of my head think of three Dos that aren’t example-form.

      Now that I think about it, example-form is do-by-emulation and instruction-form is, uh, do-by-intstruction. It might be that do-by-emulation is easier to work with here. (Again, maybe. I won’t pretend I’m an expert on this, just someone with thoughts.)

      Thanks for your comment, and book, Graham.

      – Ryan

    • Graham says:

      DO check yourself, when you think you’re being awesome. Perhaps you’ve had your moment in the spotlight and you need to take a step back? When you suddenly realise How Awesome You Are, just take a moment. Help someone else be Awesome.

      DO relax. You don’t need to try hard all the time. Breathe.

      DO stop worrying. Everyone’s here to play, so just play. Not every game has to be the Best Game Ever.

      But see how my three are different from Ken’s three, below? That idea of “Be Average” says different things to us. Sometimes, it’s more interesting not to explain.

      I mean, here’s the thing. Play Unsafe is written in a rather mystical style. If I’m writing a game, I’m much more specific. And then I’d agree that you should tell people specifically what to do.

      But for Play Unsafe, I think the broad ideas work better.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Graham,

      I think there are other ways to “be mystical,” and some of them stronger. But then, I’m a bit socratic. I didn’t want to spend time telling people what I thought three Dos were. It’s better to ask and see the conclusions people draw on their own.

      Still, I stand by the critique. And maybe add to the end:
      “These are only three ways of achieving Average. Try it. You will likely find more the very first time you do.” And leave space for the reader to write in their own discoveries.

      (But then, I’ve spent the last few years off and on studying influence techniques. Right now, that’s what my conclusions draw. A couple years from now, I’ll have some other idea of how to do this.)

      – Ryan

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Graham,

      To be clear, the “maybe add” is now me going from critiquing to hacking. Because that’s what my brain does. I do see the intent of what you’re doing with the original text, though.

      – Ryan

  2. Kenneth Hite says:

    Three for Be Average:

    DO play to stereotypes of your character’s class, species, history, etc. Cliches are only cliches from the outside. From the inside, they’re archetypes. Time enough to have the elf who hates trees when you’ve played six or seven treehuggers first.

    DO aim to support another player’s agenda. Sidekicks, straight men (or comic foils), Dr Watsons, best friends are always average, and focusing on someone else’s play gives you a way to get away from obsessing about your own.

    DO respond rapidly. Overthinking is not just a way to leave average behind, it’s a way to slow the game up for everyone, to over-invest a moment with significance it almost certainly doesn’t have, and to look like a gonif when all your pondering produces nothing more than a soliloquy followed by “I roll to hit.” Roll to hit, then respond in the moment: “Take that, orken scum!” or “I hate these guys.” Your first response may not always be the best possible response, but it’s most likely to be the average response.

    That was three in about four minutes. It’s not that hard, Ryan.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Thanks, Ken! Good stuff.

      That was three in about four minutes. It’s not that hard, Ryan.
      For your brain, sure. So, tell me three ways that someone then can Be Kenneth Hite. ;)

      – Ryan

  3. Paul Tevis says:

    In my software circles, we’ve appropriated the notion of Shu-Ha-Ri from martial arts. One interpretation is that before you know how to be, you must do.

  4. Brand Robins says:

    I once saw a tongue and cheek article on how to pick up at a bar that was brought suddenly to mind by this post.

    The article went something like this:

    Be Attractive
    Don’t Be Unattractive
    Be Interesting
    Don’t Be Uninteresting
    Be Sexy
    Don’t Be Unsexy

    Next to every “Be” was a picture of a male model. Next to every “Don’t be” was a little shiny blob that acted like a mirror.

    Be them, don’t be you!

    Hilarious article. And its also what happens when “Be” text goes wrong.

    Now as for which is first, do or be, let us turn not to the Buddha but to Cab Calloway who said it best when he sang “Do-be-do-be-do.”

  5. Jason says:

    Brand’s comment brought this post to mind again, I think there are some good things that “be” advice can do, particularly with respect to your internal emotional/mental state:

    Be Calm. Be Excited. Be Outraged. Be Open To New Ideas. Be Dedicated To Your Plan. Or whatever.

    • Ryan Macklin says:

      Jason,

      Still not buying it. Here’s some actionable stuff:

      Be Calm
      * Breathe when someone says something on the Internet you don’t like
      * Walk way from the keyboard for a few moments

      Be Excited
      * Show an engaging and enthused expression on your face and through your voice
      * Find something to engage in. State that.

      etc.

      Be without Do only helps those who know how to Be.

      Also: Be Actionable. #icmf :)

      – Ryan

  6. This is the sound of me nodding emphatically after having read the book. It really zinged on the conciseness of the ideas being offered but fell short on implementation examples. I wrote a short review on Goodreads talking about this. http://t.co/ud56DiH

    Strangely the book knows how to do examples: the section on playing Status is great and full of actual Do advice I can, well, do. But then there’s the Be X parts that left me saying, how! I wanna paste the examples listed here to my book before giving it someone else to read.

    @Graham: I see how you wanted to “be mystical” but it only got in the way of delivering your great ideas better. Strangely, I think the text works more as an audio transcript; I could totally hear you speaking the text to me in my mind. Audiobook, maybe?

  7. Björn says:

    You want three examples for Be Average?

    Do not try to impress the players or gamemaster, find your place and fill it straight. If you do so, you will see that this place can filled on a unique and awesome way: Your way.

    Do: Have the guts to make an normal adventure, for example (in a fantasy-setting) bring back the daughter of the major, which has been abducted by an evil sorcerer.
    If i try to make “the special plot” its mostly complicated, and nobody understands what to do ;)

    Do: Read the Rules and take your Rule Guide with you. Dont try to be the awesome master, who has every rule memorized in his head. Every time i tried it, i had headaches and problems to be concentrated.

    Greetings, Björn