Fluff, Crunch, Gamism, and Simulationism

Ain’t that a mouthful. Let’s get to some provisional definitions. These should be pretty much all you need to understand this post:

When I’m talking about Crunch here, I’m talking about pretty much everything mechanical, rules-oriented, and systematic in a game.

When I’m talking about Fluff here, I’m talking about setting, story, background text, character motivations, and pretty much everything non-mechanical in a game.

When I’m talking about Gamist play, I’m talking about play that focuses on tactical and strategic play, on the thrill of the challenge.

When I’m talking about Simulationist play, I’m talking about play that focuses on Exploration- zooming in on parts of the story, whether that be the characters, the setting, or just what’s going on, and really focusing on ‘being there,’ ‘immersing,’ or doing your best to ‘roleplay’ your character. I’m going to abbreviate this as Sim play, because Simulationist is a mouthful.

(Those with any experience with the Big Model, or desire to learn more about it, should be aware that I’m over-simplifying Simulationism here, for a very specific subset of Sim-oriented play, I’m also talking about system-heavy Gamism- there’s a sort of object-model problem-solving sort of Gamism that I’m not really personally interested in. And that there’s that third type of play (or Creative Agenda) called Narrativism, but that’s really not relevant to this essay.)

First, I posit that for you to have a roleplaying game, you need both Fluff and Crunch. The real question then is how do those two things interact? If one is writing a new game, or gamemastering a game and setting up a session, or being a player and making a character, how does one go about selecting Crunch and Fluff?

In Sim play, the Fluff comes first. The Fluff is what the game is about- playing the characters, immersing in the setting, really being there. (Whether ‘there’ is Glorantha or Greyhawk or Faerun or Long Ago in a Galaxy Far Far Away.) The Crunch is secondary to the Fluff, and should back it up- for example, if you’re playing D&D 3rd Edition, and in the setting, knights in shining armor with magic swords are supposed to be the best, but spiked-chain fighters keep kicking the knight’s butts, you’ve got a problem. According to the Fluff, the knights with swords should win. When the Crunch contradicts the Fluff, suspension of disbelief goes away, and the story goes wrong. When the Crunch backs up the Fluff, and the Sword-Knights of Baltazar have special ass-kicking feats and prestige classes that let them do whatever it is they’re supposed to do, all is right in the world.

For Sim play, ‘balanced’ Crunch accurately reflects and simulates the nature of the genre/setting. ‘Realistic’ systems should behave in a generally believeable fashion; ‘cinematic’ systems should allow for more epic events and play, and if the source material says the Sword-Knights are the baddest dudes around, they need to actually be the baddest dudes around.

(One may ask, “why have Crunch at all in Simulationist play?” This is a good question, worthy of pondering, and one I’m not qualified to answer, but the existence of the question clearly is a driving force between GM-fiat and ‘just make it up’ mechanics. See World of Darkness games for a strong example.)

Now let’s look at Gamism, which is what I’m really interested in here.

Gamism is all about that challenge. In Gamism the Crunch comes first, system is how the challenge is addressed and faced. Play is about kicking ass and taking names. (Perhaps directly, in games where the subject matter deals with physical conflict, or metaphorical kicking ass, in games with a different subject matter.) The Fluff largely provides a backdrop for the conflict.

In contrast with Sim play, in Gamist, ‘balanced’ Crunch is that which provides a wide open tactical arena, with few strictly superior choices. If a certain character build option or play strategy is always superior, then the system isn’t balanced. The Gamist player doesn’t care how sweet the Sword-Knights are supposed to be; they have to play by the same rules as everyone else, and if they aren’t prepared to face the spiked-chain fighter, boo-fricking-hoo. (Next time, buy a seconary ranged weapon.)

The Fluff here, exists in service to the Crunch, backing it up. The question then, is “Why have Fluff at all?” In some cases, the answer is to abandon the Fluff (or mostly abandon it), and then go play a boardgame instead. (Descent, for example, has many of the same trappings as D&D, but it is certainly not a roleplaying game.) But in other situations, the Fluff makes the play stronger.

To be continued…

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4 thoughts on “Fluff, Crunch, Gamism, and Simulationism

  1. This is a really good article.

    But I’m not sure what the point is.

    Both the definitions you give Gamism and Simulationism are inaccurate enough that you aren’t really speaking to the ‘trademarked’ terms. (Trust me, I was on the Forge when ‘the Big Model’ was conceived. Shared Imaginary Space was my idea.) Yet this article is basically trying to describe them. At least superficially.

    Beneath that, I see a couple of very, very important points. They become almost completely obscured by GNS terminology justification and even that sounds somewhat apologetic. I would like to see you delve deeper into these points.

    The points you are making, in essence, are, ‘can you have fluff without the crunch’ and ‘can you have crunch without the fluff’. You sketch out some needs for crunch in fluff-play; crunch that emulates the verisimilitude of the milieu, but then you say you can’t answer. I think if you get rid of the ‘Simulationist’ label, you could discuss this just fine.

    Likewise, you touch upon how fluff gives more interesting context to crunch play (and you don’t really let the label ‘Gamism’ get in your way). In the future, do me and your audience a wonderful thing by just giving us your thoughts without humbling them to Forge theory. (Looking at what you have here, I’m pretty sure you’re bound for a falling out with them eventually, anyway.)

    All that aside….

    I’d like to add to your ideas about fluff-play needing a bit of crunch by suggesting one of the alternate ways dice work. They create information. How many orcs are there? How far did that fly? Did he drown? You could simply fiat over all of that (what people assume freeform is doing), but you know what?

    That all seems arbitrary.

    With a bit of crunch you create suspense; you create a mood of the unknown, of things to be ‘looked into’.

    Way back in ancient history, Steve Jackson Games release the rules engine for GURPS early (probably to make enough money to print GURPS). This was called ‘Man to Man’; it was basically a combat system sharp enough for arena combat between individuals…and nothing else. Truly crunch without the fluff. It was interesting until you got the hang of it. What did you do after that?

    Make up stuff.

    You rightly point out that the addition of fluff to a crunch-based game creates interest, intrigue and importance. I would like to see you go farther into this as well. You ideas are new and interesting; don’t hide them behind someone else’s terminology. Misidentifying their work and hiding yours in it does neither of you good. (You aren’t recruiting for them right and you are drowning out your own ideas.)

    I look forward to reading your blog and have added it to my feed reader. Keep up the good work!

    Fang Langford
    Come see my new centralized blog! scattershotgames.com

  2. Willow says:

    Hey Fang-

    There’s two more posts in the series. The second one just went up- likely while you were composing this comment. The last one should be up in a few days. “The point” might be a little more clear after those.

    Anyway, glad you enjoyed the post! I’m surprised to see this up on Mendel’s Theory Watch blog, since I only wrote it for my own benefit (and some people in my play group), but it’s nice to see that other people find it interesting.

  3. Josh W says:

    Crunch allows you divorce “being there” from “being inside the GM’s head”. I have played rules light games where the laws of the universe were clearly those of my friends personality, to the point at which it feels harsh to disclose them.
    I think the fluff/crunch distinction is created by the violence that RPG systems can do to some GM’s worlds, where their story dynamics and “colour” is just a wrapper on the same old systems, and have no effect on how things actually behave. So players know that the GM’s world is non-essential, it is fluff, and they can cut through to the crunch whenever they want.
    For me the rules of a fictional universe are a fundimental part of being there, rules are the dynamic component of setting, as opposed to it’s pre-player existence. Forms of story structure that are not stable in the games rule system will very quickly fall apart, to the dismay of many people hoping for a specific style of game. Now couple that with the thing above, and it seems like games are designed to break peoples worlds, but actually they can be designed to stretch them in appropriate ways, to take some of the burden of making variety off the GM, as well as showing players where they can leave their stamp. That is one of many reasons that system matters!

  4. […] Fluff, Crunch, Gamism, and Simulationism […]

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