Writing Flavor Text for the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Flavor text is a critical storytelling tool in the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, but we don't have room for a lot of it. In an RPG book, you can pontificate for pages on the cleverness of your plot, but in a card game, you've got a few lines at best to say what you need to say. Thankfully, we've got a lot of brilliant writers. I write some of the game's flavor text, with much more written by Brian Campbell, Wes Schneider, Jessica Price, and Rob McCreary, among others. I'll talk about mine, and maybe some of the other folks will chime in down the road. Here are some principles I use.

Principle 1: Set 'Em Up, Knock 'Em Down

When I have a limited amount of space, there's no trick more trustworthy than setting up a concept in your mind and then inverting it immediately thereafter. Here are three one-liners from role cards, from the Skull & Shackles Character Add-On Deck, Sorcerer Class Deck, and Wizard Class Deck.

Those are immensely satisfying to me, because the language bends to create alternate meanings. It can take a long time to make one of those work, but they're worth the effort.

Principle 2: Cross-Reference Like Mad

The big ol' dragon turtle Hirgenzosk is one of the most fearsome opponents in the card game. Henchmen don't generally get flavor text, though. But we want to make sure you know just how big Hirgy is. For that I circled back to him in Skull & Shackles Adventure Deck 3: Tempest Rising. Release the Kraken!

A couple things are happening here. First, now you know how big Hirgenzosk really is. Second, you know there's a wise fellow called the Master of the Gales, and you might want to meet him. He'll be waiting for you in Skull & Shackles Adventure Deck 6: From Hell's Heart.

Principle 3: Threaten the Reader

Some people think the highest goal of flavor text is making people laugh. I think the highest goal is to make people squirm. Here are a couple of different approaches to that, from the Skull & Shackles Base Set and Skull & Shackles Adventure Deck 2: Raiders of the Fever Sea.

Jirelle is a lot more subtle here than Seltyiel, but both are taking control away from you. The Thresher even attempts to intimidate you by suggesting you're losing something in the process of reading the card. It all works. After all, a little aggression never hurt anyone. Well, except for all the times it did.

Principle 4: Punch It, Chewie!

In the Class Decks, we introduced a bunch of characters who are not exactly the folks we want over for dinner. Necromancers, gamblers, and other reprobates are now available for play. The not-nicest of this crew are the aforementioned necromancer Darago from the Wizard Class Deck, and Wrathack, a half-orc angel-killer from the Ranger Class Deck.

That last line matters a ton. A punchline is crucial to exiting a card with the reader liking you. It's the reason you can have nice things.

Principle 5: When All Else Fails, Be a Goblin

I seem to have a natural aptitude for writing doggerel. My novel The Maze of Games* is filled with it, I write spell limericks and parody songs, and, every now and then, I get to be a goblin. Here's the retail promo card Goblin Weidling.

If you aspire to anything in life, make it getting paid to write things like that.

Mike Selinker
Pathfinder ACG Lead Designer

*Developed by Gaby, edited by Tanis. Because they're the best.

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Tags: Class Decks Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Skull & Shackles

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Pathfinder Card Game Subscriber

Thanks for the insight. And Gaby and Tanis indeed are the best.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Designer

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I can pick 'em.


Pathfinder Card Game, Class Deck Subscriber

But can you choose 'em?

I wonder how much temporal considerations play into the writing of good flavor text. Language is currently so rapidly evolving that dictionaries get dozens of new words a year. Phrases and memes flow in and out; in 50 years from now, will we use the phrase "can't have nice things" anymore or will something else supplant it? 10 years? Much of the flavor text examples in the examples you show don't really use words that are associated with a particular time period.

(This isn't true in the case of Skulls and Shackles in general; much of the language is derived from the Age of Piracy but that's probably a deliberate choice, as most of the pop culture language we have for Pirates is derived from that era.)

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Designer

We try hard to make things evergreen for that very reason.

That said, if we ever write the blog called "Extremely Esoteric Pop Culture References in the Pathfinder ACG," (1) you might be impressed at the lengths we will go to for a joke, and (2) Vic might kill me.

Lantern Lodge

1 person marked this as a favorite.

In 1917, Lord Fisher sent Winston Churchill a letter with what is the first document use of OMG, used well before it became a shorthand chat/text staple. Google "OMG Churchill".

Temporal considerations are less important than contextual ones. The phase "...is why can't have nice things" (or some variant thereof) has been around since at least 1990 when Paula Poundstone used it in an HBO comedy special.

Since we all understand the meaning of the individual words in the phrase "...is why we can't have nice things" it is then incumbent on the context the phrase is used to establish it's meaning. In the example of Wrathack, we're presented with a character who is smart, violent, and evangelical in her belief that good things suck. Life is pain. Might makes right. Better to be the owner of the booted foot than the neck. Wrathack has no place in a civil society. She barely has a place in a sociopathic one. With this sort of set up (very very grimdark) a soupçon of levity doesn't relieve the tension, it ratchets it up.

It's the self-deprecating joke before you get your @$$ kicked. It's the whistling past the cemetery. When Wrathack shows up, bad things are going to happen. May as well get a laugh out of it before the screaming starts.

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game Designer

Exactly so.


This is greatness. Thanks for the insight.


Reminds me of my years of being a copywriter. Function in every word.

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