28 Oct

5 Tips on Writing Flavor Texts for Games

Themed writingBorg the Terrible lifted his stupendous sword and cleaved the fiendish knight in half.
“Argh,” he growled!

What game uses this flavor text? If you’re anything like me the answer is: “hopefully no one I’ll ever play”. Ok, so I made it up to be bad on purpose. But that’s mostly because I don’t want to single out any specific game. That wouldn’t be fair, as some great games have some terrible flavor texts and even games with generally good flavor texts manage an epic fail now and again. So for the duration of this post I’ll only post examples of flavor texts I like and make up examples of bad one. But enough with the disclaimers.

Good flavor texts deliver one key thing which rules can’t: emotion. Rules need to be clear, concise, understandable and ordered. Flavor texts do away with all of the above.

Humor

Humor is the standard fare of flavor texts. It’s not applicable in all games, but even horror or war gamers often appreciate a bit of irony.

When it comes to humor the Magic the Gathering Amazon flavor texts shine. Take a look at the following examples:

“Day 31: I finally succeeded in my time reversal experiment!
“Day 30: I might have a problem here.”
Journal of the Prime Izmagnus

That’s a classic reversal of expectations. “Finally” and “succeeded” carry positive connotations but are capped by “problem”. Not much new here.

But look at the context: You’ve got the implicit information of the days going backwards, which is based on our assumption that what’s written below is written later. That’s yet another reversal of expectations, a very culture specific one.

Ib Halfheart - Magic the GatheringIb Halfheart, Goblin Tactician:
“Everybody but me—CHARGE!”

We expect warriors to be courageous, and leaders even mores. That’s part of our cultural view of war as a noble thing dating back to the age of Chivalry. The above flavor text wouldn’t have worked as humor in a society where the ideal would be for smart cowards to send stupid schmucks to die.

Lava Axe:
A strict upgrade over the cinder hatchet.

A straight pun. If you know your target audience (and WOTC does) it’s pretty easy to do good ones.

Note that both of the first examples are more or less non-sequiturs. That’s when the punch line is something coming out of left field that you wouldn’t expect from the lead up.

There’s a theory that all humor consists of a setup followed by a cognitive dissonance. Having seen six-year-olds shouting “poop” and laughing like crazy I’m not sure that I agree, but it’s a good place to start.

Ps. for some people, myself included, writing humor is hard. If you don’t have it, don’t sweat it. Go for something else.

Distant Mountains

Mountains in summer landscapeThis one is straight out of Tolkien, where he adds sketched content on the borders of what he’s fleshing out. They key here is “sketched” – the reader doesn’t get much information. To sum it up with Tolkien’s own words:
J.R.R.Tolkien wrote:

“Why didnt you tell the story of the civilizations in the distant mountains you named in passing in your books?” , “I could tell you about those distant mountains, except then I would have to create distant mountains for those distant mountains.”

As long as the reader feels that there’s more world that hasn’t been described that “emptiness” will lead to the feeling that the world is much larger than what you’re seeing. Using distant mountains leads the reader to ask questions and since those questions don’t have answers the readers, quite involuntarily, will start to fill in the blanks and make up stories on their own.

You can create distant mountains by reusing a name or theme. Take a look at the Icatian cards, for example Icatian Infantry:

“Valiant Icatia was the last of the Sarpadian empires to fall. Its faithful soldiers defended their cities to the very end.”
—Sarpadian Empires, vol. VI

Although they had long been concerned about the Order of the Ebon Hand, the Icatians faced an even greater threat from Goblin and Orcish raiders.

“Never Surrender”
—Motto carved into a fragment of an Icatian wall

The Icatian army easily repelled early surprise attacks by the Orcs on border towns like Montford.

Each flavor text gives a piece of the puzzle but none give any answers to what actually happens to Icata. You’ve got a fierce army (never surrender), mention of Orcs and attacks, mention of names (Sarpian, Montford). Lots of distant mountains.

Recurring Figures

The Icatian forces are an example of this as well. We give parts of the story with each flavor text but if those texts stand alone they need to give their entire punch themselves. And then you’re relegated to either humor or melodrama.

But if you connect the distant mountains by something you can build many flavor texts into a complex tapestry. Note that I’m not saying “whole”. The flavor texts will still be distant mountains. But connect enough of them together and you get shapes, outlines, that strengthen each other.

In Medias Res

Sword swallowerIn medias res means “in the midst of things”. Basically it’s a way of starting a story that begins right, smack dab in the heat of the action. It’s the cowboy that gets shot at, the adulterers that hear the door opening, the bank robber grabbing at the cash register.

This is opposed to an exposition opening, where the story starts slow and takes off, letting readers get a feeling for the characters before anything major happens.

In a longer story, starting in medias res means that you’ll need loads of infodump or flashbacks to get the readers up to speed on what’s going on but since flavor texts aren’t expected to be inclusive you can get away with only writing the in medias res part.

Melodrama

Melodrama is when a writer or director puts the characters in danger in order to appeal to the emotions. If you read old style pulp novels they’re rife with melodrama.

Writing melodrama usually means that you’ve got a static set of characters, sort of like a soap opera where nothing ever changes. But since flavor texts aren’t character driven (i.e. there’s no character arc or development in most flavor texts, unless you count full blown stories as flavor) you can use the same set of characters and pump up the melodrama:

  1. Borg the Terrible faces the Great Dragon and chops it to pieces.
  2. Borg the Terrible finds the vampire who controlled the dragon and throws it into the acid.
  3. Borg the Terrible confronts the lich that the vampire has turned into.

And so on. You can also combine melodrama with humor and chop off the action (simply imply it in the next episode):

  1. Borg the Terrible confronts the Great Dragon and says something heroic.
  2. A somewhat singed Borg the Terrible finds the vampire inside the dragon and says something scaldingly sarcastic.
  3. A pale, smoking Borg the Terrible enocounters the lich and bitches like a beaten baby.

Flash fiction

Ok, this isn’t really flavor text, or perhaps on the border between flavor texts and flavor stories, but read up on flash fiction. Most, if not all, advice give to writers of flash fiction apply to flavor texts as well. Combine it with distant mountains and recurring figures and you’ve got a very solid base on which to paint your world.

Pulp fiction

Old pulp style novels, with their overblown imagery can be another source of inspiration, especially if you’re writing for a sword and sorcery game. Take out all the exposition and boil down the pulp to the raw action.

But do try to tone down the adverbs.

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