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…