Recently, I talked about the interaction between Fluff and Crunch in roleplaying, and I framed the question: “Why have Fluff in Gamist play?”
Savvy readers may have recognized the true question behind the question- “Why Gamist play at all?” After all, if you take the Fluff away (or most of it away), you don’t have a roleplaying game anymore; you have a boardgame or a card game, or some sort of game that may more strongly focus on the tactical elements of play, and arguably, may provide a more satisfying play experience.
So, how does the presence of the Fluff add to the Gamist play experience?
In my opinion, it all comes down to the stakes of the challenge. Because the challenge is what it’s all about.
In a game like Magic, or Shadowfist, or Descent, or Battlelore, what’s at stake is just who wins. (Unless you’re in tournament play, in which case the stakes may be much much higher.) All you get is the bragging rights for a game well played, a battle well fought, and a certain superiority of skill. This is all fun.
However, in a tabletop roleplaying game, the Fluff adds story, background, and consequences, especially in recurring play. In Battlelore, the fate of the kingdom isn’t really at stake (even if you’re playing a scenario with that as ‘background’.) In Dungeons and Dragons, it might be. This adds extra risk and reward- your character can develop connections or fail their relationships, you might achieve a stunning victory over a hated foe, or an agonizing failure. These victories and failures are magnified by Fluff considerations. It’s one thing to save the token representing the Princess in Descent. It’s another to save the princess in D&D, especially if you’ve had previous interactions with her and she’s established as a character, and your victory will color future interacitons with her (or your failure will color interactions with other characters.) Now, more is at stake than just social considerations of victory or loss- something more envisionable is being wagered at the gaming table.
The biggest thing one can wager, of course, is the play of one’s character. A good gamist system won’t simply risk one’s character for no reason. (In 3rd edition, mid-high level D&D made death a temporary setback, though there is the possibility for some permanent character loss.) When character death is on the table, the risks are higher (and the rewards should be higher to compensate). This is a signal to everyone that it is on. Loss here involves an investment of time, mental consideration, and established connections and story-hooks, which are much harder to replace than magic items, gold, or kidnapped princesses.