Monarch Flavor Text – Part 2: Only Time Will Tell

Hey all, we’re doing a truncated preamble today. This is part two of the series; Part 1 lives here. Last time I focused on underutilized design space for getting more flavor text on cards and the issue of what we lose by introducing a ton of new characters without fleshing out the heroes that are most familiar to people. I’ll touch on those issues when they arise in these cards, but the larger argument about that issue is in the previous piece.

The thing that piques my interest here is the attribution. “Grand Magister, the Radiant” is a weird title. Normally there would be a name in there somewhere like “Grand Magister Aurora, the Radiant” or “That Guy Bob, the Adequate”. The fact that we don’t have a normal name is at least somewhat intriguing as to who or what “the Radiant” is. The quote itself is sort in that stock fantasy mold I talked about last time. So, the card is fine, though much of the interest depends on ol’ “the Radiant” being a significant character we see again.

Yet another new character introduction, I am somewhat unclear on this one. At first I assumed Merlen was a male character who is not the person depicted on the card (as I noted when I talked about it in my dating article), but after some more Googling, “Merlen” is maybe a unisex name? It’s unclear to me. In any case, I feel like this was supposed to be a visual joke in the vein of “give him a hand” with art of someone’s hand getting cut off or something, but the art here doesn’t really sell it as a visual gag (it’s a good piece of art the abstract though – I’ve still got my playmat of it despite definitely not needing any more playmats). We’ll touch on this more later, but when your joke is somewhat dependent on a visual gag, the art really needs to hold up it’s end. For instance if we took Alpha Rampage:

We could make this sort of joke with something like “Rhinar preferred to take a hands off approach to the Solana problem.” Is it going to get guffaws? No, but it at least makes sense.

After all the very similar Solana flavor text, it’s quite refreshing to get to a character that has a distinct voice. This one works. It’s a perfectly serviceable quip. I’m also operating on the theory that Amira is the illusionist on Spears of Surreality, which, if true, makes it seem more likely that she’s not a throw away one line character, which makes me a bit more invested in her. Also, and this is a minor quibble about a supper common application of flavor text across a variety of games, but I find it weird when there’s a quote citing the depicted character but it’s hard to figure out who the they are talking to. Like the Solana characters are presumably talking to their comrades-in-arms even if said comrades aren’t on the card, but who is Amira talking to? The giant tentacle abomination?

Again, we’re drowning in new characters here. Like Enigma Chimera’s Amira Surana, Danu Ashenguard is also taunting a foe, and, like in the Koth and Chandra examples from last time, we can still distinguish between these two characters easily based on tone. Amira’s line is sarcastic while Danu’s trails off and bespeaks a mocking and aloof attitude. Again, they’re little things because we’re only dealing with a small amount of text, but they each have distinct personality. Danu seems like she is probably severe and brooding maybe marked by a sadistic streak, while Amira is probably even more fun especially when she’s not fighting eldritch horrors.

Note: So, in writing this I realize that I skipped Spill Blood on the dating article. This is one of those cases where it’s challenging to identify a character’s gender due to armor (which is good – less boobplate for people wearing plate armor, please). But “Danu” is an Irish goddess, and looking at the card art blown up, I do think Danu is a woman. If you desperately needed queer dating advice on her, I’m going to provisionally put her in the Valda Brightaxe, “likes wanton violence a little too much, so best to avoid” camp.

I assume this is supposed to be a joke or quip. Now, this sort of flavor text could be characterization if we had any singular character doing it consistently. With context, we could be like “Oh, Harland is always making weak jokes.” Like, a guy going around reanimating corpses who thinks he’s funny but is just whiffing all his jokes is itself a potentially funny situation. A second Harland quote on a different card would go a long way towards establishing this as characterization of him versus an attempt at a joke delivered via the proxy of a random side character. Thinking back to my argument for less reminder text in the previous article, if LSS dropped the reminder text from rares, a card like Endless Maw would be a great candidate for a weak Harland joke. (Obviously, in a future set you conclude the Harland bad joke cycle with him dying horribly in flavor text mid-joke).

Finally, because everyone loves humor being explained at length, part of the failing here is that, if we are to read this as a joke, it’s really a joke that depends on a sight gag and the art isn’t playing ball here. “Boneyard” is in the name and we can see a tombstone, so some level of exhuming is taking place, I guess? But the gag really wants art that is more on the nose. If the titular marauder was literally coming out of the ground (with maybe a shovel blade down in the background), it would play better with the flavor text. It’s still a sort of groan-inducing joke, but that’s a valid genre of joke, and this could work in that capacity. Essentially, it’s the Illuminate issue again.

Remember how reminder text ate all of the Light Illusionist cards? Well it did the same thing to Shadow Runeblade, so here we are on the general Shadow cards. This is one of those ones, like Tome, where I’m at least interested because the flavor text prompts questions. Who is Nestus? Is Nestus someone seeing the horrible flesh abominations destroying people and lamenting humanity’s state, or is Nestus a horrible flesh abomination being glib? If it’s the latter, that’s conceptually funnier than literally any of the joke cards we’ve looked at, and now I kind of really want that to be the case.

I think I’m extra partial to this one because the art is so evocative, but I do also think this is a good use of flavor text. It references “Ancients,” and Rouse the Ancients is a card in this very set. Taken together we can get an idea of what an “Ancient” is, which contextualizes the challenge one might face in getting their blood. And, significantly, you can connect pieces from cards in the set without needing to go online and read supplementary documents. This is the exact sort of interconnectedness that FAB needs much more of. Finding pieces of the story within a set that fit together is cool, and it rewards your players for paying attention. Reading Blood Tribute and then seeing Rouse the Ancients (which is probably the order most people would encounter them given their relative rarity) gives a very nice experience of “what’s an ‘Ancient’?” followed by “Ohhh, damn!” when you realize how big they are, which then prompts you to revisit Ersebet’s exclamation to contemplate the scope of what she’s talking about.

So I’m reserving judgement on this one pending additional character development of Harold Honeysett. I think you can read it as either an independent joke or a quote designed to paint Harold as this sort of exasperated explorer – maybe a naturalist or an anthropologist or something. The first scenario is… fine, I guess – it’s a better version of telling a joke via a throw-away character than Boneyard Marauder was. However, much like the failed comic necromancer, I find the idea of a hypothetical David Attenborough-by-way-of-Solana guy trying to explain to someone in a pub just how dumb the brutes truly are and getting flustered in the process to be conceptually funny.

This one is solid largely because the art and flavor text are working together in a productive way. On first pass, Kirigami’s question seems like it’s legitimately musing on the possibilities of the future. However, when we look at the art we can see that the panels behind her all depict death or otherwise tragic outcomes for many of our original heroes. This shifts the question from curious to ominous. It all works together to create a cohesive feeling of foreboding even if the question itself would be innocuous in a different context. Also, there’s the added bonus of the screens tying into characters we’re already familiar with. This helps to make Kirigami an new character that we are interested in because she’s introduced with this mysterious connection to established characters we already care about. She connect to the world that we already know.

We just talked about this one on Blood Tribute, so I won’t repeat those elements. Beyond working with Tribute, Rouse teases one additional piece of lore for the game “the veil is waning” which is the inciting event for the return of the Ancients. I preface this with my traditional note that I am not a lore expert, but while this card initially makes me think Aria, the most notable “veil” in Rathe is, I assume, the veil of mists that shroud Misteria. The first sentence in the Misteria section of the lore book is literally, “behind a veil of mist lies a hidden world, tucked amongst the mountain ranges of Misteria.”

As an aside (because it wouldn’t be one of my articles without an abundance of them) I feel like there is an initial urge to ding this naming convention (“oh the place covered in mists is called ‘Misteria’”) but this is 100% how real world places get named all the damn time, and it’s a thing fantasy settings usually mess up by just throwing a bunch of gibberish conlang crap together until they’ve filled out a map. So I actually appreciate the name.

I can’t tell if we’re supposed to read this as a sick burn or if we’re just trying to establish that Jackdaw is fucking insufferable. If it was supposed to be a funny zing, I hate it, like a lot. If it was supposed to make me hate Jackdaw, then it legitimately did a good job of that because it only took one line. That sounds really sarcastic, but it’s at least mostly serious. Making characters that people hate is actually a really useful skill, you’ve failed in developing a character when people don’t care about your characters one way or another, but if they’re feeling strong emotions in any direction, you’re probably onto something. Now, when dealing with hateable characters, you want to be intentional about it; you should be building them with some purpose. Jackdaw is hateable because he’s annoying not because he’s a villain who merced a beloved character, so the payoff isn’t really a comeuppance, but I could conceive of a payoff for this as a sort of gag, where we get like 2-3 cards of Jackdaw shit talking people across sets, then a final card with a brute ripping him in half or something.

However, the wrinkle here is that, unlike Honeysett, Jackdaw does have previous flavor text. So we want to see if his characterization is consistent.

So yeah, he just kind of talks like that, huh. While he isn’t as annoying on Trap, I stand by my previous statement: I hope he dies. However, that cements this as a case where we have to suspend judgement on how effective the flavor text is because I’m not sure if we’re supposed to be eye-rollingly annoyed by Jackdaw or think he’s cool. Given that this is his second flavor text, I think there are decent odds that we’ll see him again, so maybe we’ll have a better idea then.

This one seems like a sort of lore fragment. Since the Demonastery and Solana get the bulk of Monarch’s attention, the generics do some work to tie in or tease things in the other regions. This is presumably hinting at events in Misteria in an upcoming set, which pairs with my speculation on Rouse the Ancients. It’s another wait and see, but it does raise some interesting question about whether Misteria will be one of the regions associated with Tales of Aria (I’m assuming this is another two talent set, and Aria will be one of the featured regions –I know, real big-brained theory there). Misteria and Aria are kind of an interesting set of juxtapositions because they both seem to exist as these weird shrouded areas, but I don’t see an immediate oppositional connection like with Solana and the Demonastery.

This is another world building one that mostly just gets us to ask questions. Namely “what is íArathael?” Similar to Seek Horizon, it’s not doing a lot on its own, but rather hints at future narrative events or reveals. To me, this would have been a really great opportunity to do a progression of flavor text across pitch values. Imagine if each successive version had a different line that told us more, each building up íArathael. If LSS wanted to get really spicy, they could do three slightly different progressive arts across the pitch values as well with the rupture in the earth growing more pronounced and maybe that shadowy boi creeping into the foreground more.

Great art, confusing flavor text. So, we’re going deep on word nerdery here. The core issue is that there are too many abstract otherworlds in this card and we lack the context to unpack what’s being said. We have both “beyond” and “the other side” and it’s unclear to me how these differ or are connected. Neither is capitalized, so they don’t seem like they’re discreet physical/spiritual places.  Both “beyond” as in “the great beyond” and “the other side” are real world idioms for death, but if you sub that into the quote it essentially says “we can see into the realm of the dead, but we can’t shape what we see there”. It falls apart a bit with the idea of “shaping” because we don’t have enough understanding of these spaces to know why “we can see [there] but we cannot shape the visions we see” would make sense. Why would you assume you could shape visions that you’re seeing?

Additionally, the emphasis on “we” is odd. “Even we” implies that the “we” has some aptitude that would lead us to expect that the speaker could accomplish this feat and the fact that they can’t is notable. For instance, if Bravo was like “that outfit it too gaudy, even I couldn’t pull it off” we’d be like, “fuck, that must be a really over-the-top outfit!” But because we have no idea who Vidya Willowmere is and what group constitutes “we” the emphasis is totally wasted on us. Like I said, that’s a lot of analysis for a single sentence, but it’s impressively messy for one line. This strikes me as potentially a case where LSS internally has a much more developed idea of all these things but didn’t pause to realize that people reading the cards don’t know the necessary information to make sense of it.

I’m pretty sure this is a Princess Mononoke reference to Lady Eboshi’s “Cut off a wolf’s head and it still has the power to bite” quote. I’m fine with references, though this one is a bit odd – in that I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing with it. In Princess Mononoke, Eboshi gives that caution early on in the film and the payoff involves a severed wolf’s head biting off her arm in the final act to which she gets a wry “told you so” (spoilers for a movie from 1997, I guess).  If Adrenaline Rush is depicting the new character Sanni, then she’s way more of a visual parallel to San than Eboshi, but perhaps that’s trying to read too much into it. It may just be a big pile of references to a really good movie with nothing deeper going on.

There’s no attribution so this time we actually know that this is intended as a joke. I assume it’s a riff on “if you’ve got it, flaunt it,” but honestly, if that was the intent, just use the actual phrase that people already know. It’s way punchier than what we’ve got here and it’s a better gag because it’s a cleaner presentation. I know it’s ironic coming from me of all people, but this is unnecessarily wordy.

I’m going to assume this is a reference to some real-world thing I lack the knowledge of. If it’s not, it’s totally nonsensical. Googling got me nothing, and the only thing that comes to mind (probably because I was just talking about Princess Mononoke) is Okkoto’s blind charge at the end of the movie where he leads the humans dressed in the skins of his dead boars to the Great Forest Spirit yelling “Forward, my warriors! Forward to the pool of the Forest Spirit!” as he crashes through the woods and ‘leads the way,’ as it were. It’s definitely a stretch, because I think if you’re going for that joke you give the wottonhog Okkoto’s coloring and/or blindness, but I’m trying to come up with a scenario where this makes some kind of sense.

The sentiment here is fine as generic bit of world building, Solana good and noble, we get it. I just can’t tell if this is a typo of “villagers” or a sloppy synecdoche. Note: I had a very long explanation of why this doesn’t work as written, but then I realized I just blew two chunky paragraphs on Rise Above, and I’m getting dangerously close to teaching composition course here, which is something I’ve historically done only when someone is paying me for it.

I don’t know about a cultist, but I’d wish for, like, at least one line of flavor text quoting Chane so that people had a sense of his character beyond second string cenobite, rather than a throwaway unfunny joke.

Peter Jackson called; he wants his lazy “Dwarves are short” jokes back.

Graveyards sure do be like that.

Is This A Joke To You?

As I’ve said throughout this piece, I find CCGs to be a poor medium for punchline-style jokes. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a card that is funny enough to elicit an actual laugh. That said, I get that people like joke text and there is an audience for it, but I think the successful jokes tend to fall into a few broad camps. You have your sort of groan-inducing puns and dad jokes –Magic’s Werebear is kind of infamous in this category:

It gets an “ugh” reaction, and that is precisely what it’s trying to achieve. I mean, I don’t personally go in for dad jokes and puns, but I respect that some people love them, and I think these sorts of cards are hits with their target audience and also generally memorable. Werebear might not be my thing, but I think it’s a success. Then you also have your jokes that are more conceptually funny than laugh out loud funny. By this I mean they’re creating a broader narrative that’s humorous as you fill in the gaps as opposed to trying to be outright funny via selling a punchline. These are cards where you have to sort of paint in the setting and imagine a bit of setting and narrative to end up at an amusing end. Smash with Big Tree, as discussed above, would be an example in FAB. Magic has stuff like Canyon Minotaur.

You also have jokes in service of developing a character –this is how Jaya Ballard became a fan-favorite Magic character long before she actually ever appeared as a card.

These are usually more quips than structured jokes. They aren’t laugh-out-loud funny or anything, but they help characterize the person who is being quoted – the vast majority of FAB quips fall flat for me because the vast majority of FAB characters don’t get enough lines to build them up. Jaya, meanwhile, got ten cards of flavor text in Ice Age alone, the first set she was referenced in, and continued to get more quotes for over twenty years.

I would say that, overall, I feel like LSS’s use of jokes has been pretty poor to date. Aside from the conceptual jokes that rely on charitable readings of new characters, we get lazy stuff like Minnowism. Then there are other times where the joke is not only not particularly funny but it totally wrecks the mood on a card – the prime example is one I’ve discussed before, but to trot it back out, Consuming Volition is a spectacular piece of art, like on my short list of favorite pieces in FAB. It’s a mash-up of several different literary tropes in a way that produces an interesting synthesis. I think I called it something like “’La Belle Dame sans Merci’ by way of H. P. Lovecraft,” but it’s not an entirely novel concept LOVE DEATH + ROBOTS’s “Beyond the Aquila Rift” and the Alastair Reynolds short story of the same name are takes on this conceit, for instance.

In any case, it’s this great evocative piece of art that they totally kneecaped with a dumb joke. The visual storytelling was haunting and disturbing and then, almost as if they’re scared of doing something weighty, they make a joke to dissipate the mood that was being crafted. This is maybe me being overly critical, but I really can’t convey how much I hate the inclusion of that flavor text. Turning back from this digression, I will give the standard “humor is subjective” disclaimer. It’s entirely possible that what I’m identifying as bad jokes are slaying among some demographics… of people with bad taste (zing!).

The Actual Issue

Alright, all joking aside (Do you see!? This kind of humor is cringe!), I’m going to loop back to end of the previous piece. The amount of new characters introduced with a single line of text that never show up again in the set is staggering. In fact, the majority of flavor text introduces a new character that has precisely one line and for whom we have no additional knowledge of nor context for. I assume this is LSS trying to build out the world of Rathe, but it’s a bad instinct of fantasy writers generally (including plenty of well-known ones) to act as though “world building” is done by throwing a wiki’s worth of random names and places at your readers to make the setting feel big. When that’s all you’re doing, nothing really lands since we don’t have a sense of relative importance, and our engagement with everything is shallow. Do any of the quoted characters matter for future story lines? If so, why aren’t we giving them a little space to breath and trimming some of the throwaways.

We’re nearly two years and four sets into the game, and if your engagement with the characters is driven by the actual cards, you really don’t have much of an idea about who these people are beyond generic tropes. Very few of them have a single quote, and yet we’re spending lines on random side characters spouting generic good guy/bad guy dialogue and making short jokes. Not every card needs to be laser-focused on developing your main characters and your big narrative, but some of them definitely do. It feels like the way that flavor text is being used as it pertains to the narrative, is frequently an inversion of the way you’d traditionally go about telling a story. Normally, you’d center the key story beats and big characters where the bulk of your audience will see them and then pack the deep lore and tiny details into the extra-curricular reading. Meanwhile, FAB primarily gives you minutia and then sends you off to look elsewhere if you want to figure out what the main characters are like as people or what’s going on in the larger narrative, which is such a weird choice.

LSS has definitely spent time thinking about these characters and the larger story. For those of you who have never read the lore content on the main site, go here pick an adult hero (or Ira) and then click the “Story” button. They’ve all got one to three stories. Pick your fave and then find out what their deal actually is – maybe you’ll find out that a character is actually more interesting than you initially thought (Azelea), or you’ll reaffirm your strongly held belief that someone would be exactly as fun to hang out and get drunk with as you assumed (Dash). Ask around the community and maybe someone will hook you up with bootleg scans of the lore book. Actually, if you work at LSS and are reading this, A.) I hope this isn’t coming off as too mean, but more importantly B.) Go find whoever is in charge of this sort of thing, and poke them until they make a digital version available to the community – people can’t deep dive your characters and story if it’s impossible for them to read the biggest single source of lore without laying out hundreds of dollars. Yes, I know snippets of it already appear on the site, but just let people read the damn book. I know you wanted us all to go see it in stores, but there was a global pandemic).

ANYWAY, flavor text. Flavor text can do a lot to enhance the non-gameplay aspects of a game, which help to build a more complete product. Good flavor text helped build Netrunner into what was, in my opinion, the high water mark for the melding of mechanics, theme, and narrative in a CCG. FAB has largely achieved the cohesive blending of theme and mechanics – a game of FAB feels like a knock-down, drag-out fight in a way that Magic has never felt like a duel between planeswalkers. Improving how narrative elements are integrated into the game itself, especially via flavor text, could work to further elevate Flesh and Blood as an experience.

*Header Image – Sonata Arcanix – by Saad Irfan

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