Here’s a fun fact. Think back to the FFG-official Android: Netrunner Rules of Play document. It’s 36 pages long, and it teaches you everything you need to know to play your first couple games of Netrunner. It teaches a new player the basic rules, wows them with some of the best art from the core set, and gives them instructions on how to shuffle up cards from the core set and start taking clicks.
But something comes before all that. What is the first thing in the Rules of Play document?
It’s available as a pdf. You can google it to this day. If you do, you might be surprised to find the same thing that I did.
The first text inside the Android: Netrunner Rules of Play is not a table of contents. It’s not an explanation of what the game is. It’s not even an explanation of the Living Card Game model — though that’s on the first page as well. If you’re learning to play Netrunner through the Rules of Play document, the first text you’ll naturally encounter is a two-paragraph italicized creative intro like the blurb on the back of a book.
“Over the course of 18 hours, the runners hit Jinteki, Haas-Bioroid, and Weyland Consortium with DOS attacks, datatheft, and a truly vulgar piece of cyber-vandalism. These attacks cost each megacorp millions upon millions of credits….”
I bring this up to illustrate a point: the written lore of Netrunner under both FFG and NISEI is a fascinating, multi-pronged, shockingly pervasive entity. It exists in every part of the game, from the official rules documents to officially published side novels to side games with the same characters but completely orthogonal play mechanics. Netrunner’s lore is everywhere.
But you can scroll through an article to find the scoops. You can toss a lore insert into the trash. You can skip past the first page of the Rules of Play and ignore the pages near the end where they introduce the corps and the runners. You can refuse to buy a single novel and refuse every invitation to play New Angeles you get.
You can’t get rid of the flavor text on a card without getting rid of the card. I’m willing to wager that, for many players, the flavor text and the art of Netrunner are the primary way they consume the story, grow invested in the characters, and grasp the stakes of the conflicts Netrunner depicts. Every piece of flavor text is a chance to help someone get Netrunner.
Flavor text is not an afterthought — it’s arguably the most important way that Netrunner tells its story.
Some flavor text tells the story perfectly. Think of Punitive Counterstrike, whose “Corporations are people, too,” makes a great Bond one-liner before you flatline the runner. Picture Rototurret, which practically begs you to celebrate sniping an unprepared breaker with a Whrrrrr! Consider great character distillations like Reflection’s “I’m on a need-to-know basis. I need to know everything,” or lines that sell the awesome power of an ice like Ashigaru’s “The way past is to go a different way.”
Some flavor text does not. Most of the flavor text that falls in this category is simply uninteresting or reads like lines plucked out of Worlds of Android.
But some of it… some of the bad flavor text in Netrunner drives you crazy.
These power rankings are devoted to that maddening category. To all the pieces of Netrunner flavor text that could have been amazing — that should have been amazing — but ended up terrible because they didn’t know when to stop. The ones that should have been slam dunks, but instead ended up with a torn ACL and a basketball bouncing out of the stadium and into oncoming traffic. The flavor text ruined by doing too much.
A note before I start this ranking. Although this is not the largest category in Netrunner flavor text, it is still a large category. I went through every single card in Netrunner, looked at its flavor text, and only wrote it down in my list of candidates if my visceral reaction was at least an “oh, fuck you”.
My list of candidates had twenty-seven cards. If your personal worst offender doesn’t show up in these power rankings, it’s not because you’re wrong — it’s because a top 10 only has 10 slots.
#10 – False Lead
It didn’t look like the headquarters of a multi-billion cred company. Probably because it wasn’t.
We begin the top 10 with one of the themes you’ll see repeated several times in this list: flavor text with an abject, petrifying terror that the audience won’t get the joke. Really? This neutral 3/1, whose art shows an empty warehouse? A card I’m better off forfeiting than keeping in my score area? A card that is literally called False Lead? Not the headquarters of a multi-billion cred company? I never would have guessed. I’m so glad False Lead made sure I knew.
Rating: 2/10. Good comedians trust their jokes.
#9 – Clyde Van Rite
“You have two choices: do what I asked, or make me ask again. It’s your choice, but if I have to ask again, it will go badly for you.”
This line is what happens when someone with deeply entrenched imposter syndrome half-watches two Jason Statham movies while they’re stoned, then goes to work the next day and tries to stand up to the UPS delivery guy. Which, honestly, is fantastic character work, but god damn do I hate the character.
Rating: 1.5/10. Fuck you, Clyde. Jason Statham is only good in ensemble casts.
#8 – GRNDL: Power Unleashed
Geostrategic Research and Neothermal Development Laboratories
You might be confused seeing GRNDL on this list. To most, this flavor text probably seems either inoffensive — most ID flavor text ranges from meh to oh that’s kinda cool — or pretty slick — it’s a plausible acronym with a self-aware literary reference.
However, this flavor text has one gaping flaw: it proves, definitively, that the ID’s acronym really should be GRANDL, which ruins the ID even worse than the printed rules text does.
This flavor text has been saved from infamy by the attached ID being unplayable for over half a decade. But I’m here to tell you the truth, and the truth is: if GRNDL — or should I say GRANDL — had been relevant all the way through Worlds 2016, this would be as hated as any other flavor text in Netrunner.
Rating: 1.5/10. That’s not an earthquake caused by geothermal fracking, it’s just you shuddering at the cold hard truth.
#7 – Decoy
“I get the feeling that this is the wrong place, Frank.”
“What makes you say that, D?”
Not only does this violate the rules of good flavor text, it violates the rules of snappy dialogue.
About dialogue, Sol Stein said that “Dialogue is a lean language in which every word counts.” I guess we decided to skip the sirloin with Decoy.
About writing, Isabel Allende said to “Write what should not be forgotten.” I wish I could forget those last two lines.
Rating: 1/10. As if all that weren’t enough, that’s pretty sexist, D.
#6 – Feedback Filter
It still hurts, a bit, the first time. The second time, you feel nothing at all. But don’t push your luck.
Now look. I’m a reasonable guy. I can forgive a lot of errors in flavor text. Most of them are trying to do something great, and they just get tripped up with extra words, over-explaining, or redundant dialogue. Those mistakes can be corrected, and if they were, I would probably like the resulting flavor text. In some cases, I might even love it.
But Feedback Filter? Feedback Filter I’m not sure I can forgive.
Look, Feedback Filter, I know it has a negative expected value. But it’s my choice if I put Push Your Luck in my deck, and my choice alone.
Rating: 0/10. Leave the deckbuilding advice to stimhack dot com articles, buddy.
#5 – Sundew
As beautiful as it is dangerous. And it’s plenty dangerous.
There is a rule of writing as old as it is well-known. A rule cited in every writing textbook, MFA workshop, New York Times book review, and YouTube video about anime series you’ve never heard of. A rule so fundamental some consider it a cliche, but all who ignore it do so at their own risk.
That rule is: show, don’t tell.
Let the art speak, Sundew. It says what you’re trying to say so much better than a second sentence ever could. As beautiful as it is dangerous could have been an all-time great flavor text.
Rating: -1/10. This is as low as I can physically force myself to rate anything with Sundew’s art on it.
#4 – Blue Level Clearance
Blue-one level clearance doesn’t exist. And if it did exist, you wouldn’t be cleared to know about it.
This one may seem like a head-scratcher at first. Sure, this is a great flavor text made terrible by running way past the punchline. But is it really this bad? Is it really worse than Sundew?
The thing is, the sins of Blue Level Clearance don’t just affect Blue Level Clearance. Blue Level Clearance has a family. Consider Green Level Clearance’s flavor text:
Green-two clearance is the highest level of security a corp can gain access to. Legally, anyway.
Is this the best flavor text in the Netrunner universe? No.
Is it perfectly serviceable, possibly even good? Sure.
Is it retroactively ruined by Blue Level Clearance? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes.
Rating: -2/10. There’s a reason we were never allowed to go here.
#3 – Sacrificial Construct
The life expectancy of a jacked construct is about that of a mayfly. In other words, short.
Here we have the darker, edgier cousin of over-explaining the joke: over-explaining the idiom.
Sacrificial Construct vs. False Lead is a great illustration of how over-explaining the idiom can be worse. When you pummel a joke to death, at least there was a chuckle in there somewhere. When you do the same thing with an idiom, there’s nothing but the sound of the punches landing. It’s gruesome, and you can’t look away, because there’s nothing else to distract you.
Rating: -2.5/10. My tolerance for this flavor text lasted about as long as a mayfly.
#2 – Blacklist
Officially, there is no blacklist. That would be illegal. Unofficially, there is a list, and being on it can ruin a career.
Blacklist may be the first card you thought of when you saw the title of this article. It’s the classic example of flavor text that is perfect — that somehow communicates plot-relevant information, cyberpunk-defining themes, and the wry, mirthless humor that seeing cyberpunk in the 21st century can inspire, all in less than a dozen words — and then tumbles to the depths of the trash heap in the span of a single sentence. The second half of Blacklist’s flavor text manages to ruin the joke, the social commentary, and even the art, all at once. I feel personally insulted by Blacklist’s flavor text and what it clearly thinks about my intelligence, and you should feel personally insulted too.
There’s not much else to say. Blacklist was perfect, until it wasn’t. The worlds of Netrunner are lessened by the mistake.
And yet, it’s still not the top of this list.
Rating: -5/10. You deserved better, Blacklist. We all deserved better.
#1 – Susanoo-no-Mikoto
Certain areas of cyberspace are dominated by a single digital entity. Runners call them ‘gods’, and only a miracle can save those foolish enough to enter their domain.
I’ll admit: I tend to like funny flavor text more than other types. But when you run across a well-done expository flavor text — when it really makes you feel like you’re there, in cyberspace — nothing sends chills down the spine quite like it.
That’s why Susanoo-no-Mikoto is the biggest disappointment in Netrunner flavor text to me.
Imagine cracking Honor and Profit open. You’ve seen The Future Perfect or Mushin No Shin, and your brain is going a thousand miles per hour trying to figure out the best way to use them. You’ve seen Komainu and Pup, and you’re mentally slotting them in lists already.
Then you flip to Susanoo-no-Mikoto. The art catches you by surprise, so you take a closer look at the card.
You see the rez cost. It raises an eyebrow.
You see the strength. It raises another.
You see the printed subroutine. Your mouth gapes open in surprise.
Then your eyes drift downward, and you see this flavor text:
Certain areas of cyberspace are dominated by a single digital entity. Runners call them ‘gods.’
If you aren’t already hooked on Netrunner, you are now.
We could have had that experience, and we didn’t.
Rating: -10/10. This had the highest potential, and it fell so short. This is some straight up Greek Tragedy shit.
Honorable Mentions and Miscellanea
Several cards weren’t quite egregious enough to make the list, but they’re still interesting to discuss in at least a couple ways, so I’ll briefly run through them.
In the public consciousness, there’s a hard line between corp and runner. In the real world, things are a little more porous. The corp need the best hackers to run their networks, and some of the best hackers are ex-runners who like the idea of a regular paycheck. But sometimes things run the other way, and someone on the inside makes something like this.
Ice Carver is notable among my list of 27 candidates forhaving the largest raw amount of bad text: 42 words. Normally, that would qualify it for a top 10. Sadly, the flavor text that results after you cut down to the first two sentences just isn’t that strong.
“Hey, listen, I’m not asking you to do anything dangerous. Just let me into the building. And tell me which room has the weakest security. And please don’t say ‘the bathroom’ again.”
If Netrunner were a text-only medium, Inside Job’s flavor text would be great. In fact, it might be able to get away with doing even more — why not heighten the tension, extend the joke, and separate the last “again” into its own sentence? But Netrunner is not a text-only medium, and Inside Job’s final twist is brutally outdone by the toilet in the art. Not your fault, flavor text — you’ll get ‘em next time.
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.
-Samuel Taylor Coleridge
We get it, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, you do opium.
The digital equivalent of a fly on the wall.
Bug’s flavor text was perfectly inoffensive until 2018, when it was forever ruined by Bug having zero interactions whatsoever — much less a direct mechanical correspondence with — the card Fly on the Wall.
“If I had to describe the bugs in one word, it would be ‘****ing annoying.'” -Whizzard
Some might ask why Burke Bugs is not on this list. Burke Bugs is not ruined by doing too much, it only works because it does too much. Burke Bugs may in fact be the single best piece of comedic flavor text in Netrunner.
(sub.) End the game.
At first glance, this seems like a classic case of doing too much. But consider the following: a single judge call for this card — even one solitary time someone pops a Batty while up by 1 point and tries to claim they won on points — is an unforgivable waste of humanity’s time. “Just kidding” isn’t a mistake, it’s a public service.
Irv Robbins, cofounder of the ice cream megachain Baskin & Robbins, once proclaimed that “Not everyone likes all our flavors, but each flavor is someone’s favorite.” With all the respect due to Irv, that attitude wouldn’t fly in Netrunner flavor text. The stakes are simply too high.
One thought I’ll leave you with, though: I looked through every single Netrunner card when I made this power rankings. I pored through every piece of cardboard you can sleeve up and take to a tournament today, as well as the ones that have been banned, rotated, or otherwise removed from play. And while I found twenty-seven that elicited a reaction strong enough to get me banned from network television, I found something else.
Not a single one of these infuriating flavor texts belonged on cards printed by NISEI.
If Netrunner flavor text is the future, then the future, my friends, is now. We live in an age of unparalleled opportunity for Netrunner creative, with suitably long flavor texts the wind beneath our wings.
Until System Gateway comes out, at least. If they reprint Blacklist… do edits to flavor text count as functional errata?