Fluff, Crunch: Why Gamism?

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.

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11 thoughts on “Fluff, Crunch: Why Gamism?

  1. Actually, the closest thing I have seen to crunch role-playing without the fluff would be something like Warhammer’s ‘Space Hulk’. You lay out board tiles and miniatures according to the rules and work out the battle. With that description, you could almost make a computer game out of it. But there’s more. Beyond the tactics and the dice, beyond the crunch entirely, there is the human factor. Who interprets firing arcs? Who determines cover? Who decides how vicious the Gene Stealers are? People. These things are actually the tiniest but evident bits of fluff. Then you add to that the noble imperial terminators and the alien gene stealers. On top of that, you have the whole background of the Warhammer 40,000 universe (which opens up to a whole new set of miniatures and settings).

    One type of Gamist play most people overlook when comparing it to crunch is politics. Whether clan meetings in Vampire: the Masquerade or the court intrigues of 1001 Nights, you are facing a challenge of other players in a purely fluff fashion. But that’s not what you’re discussing here. My suggestion is you drop the gamism label and just talk about your ideas of crunch and fluff.

    Y’see, I love your basic point how much better crunch is when you add the fluff, even in crunch-based play. It really supports your thesis that all role-playing games contain measures of both.

    Keep up the good work!

    Fang Langford

    See my new centralized blog site: scattershotgames.com

  2. I find that games like Arkham Horror and Betrayal at House on the Hill add just enough color (fluff sounds so derogatory to me) to really enrich the crunchy boardgaming experience. Arkham Horror is not just packed with elegantly designed crunch, it’s colored in such a way that encourages a level of immersion that is rare in board games. I actually feel more immersed playing a game like than than I often do playing a boardless RPG where “immersion” potential is arguably higher. For the record, I hate the whole “immersion” wonk when applied to RPGs. The whole discussion of it just makes me groan. However, in a board gaming context, I find it innocuous and even highly desirable. I could probably figure out why that is, but I’m not in the mood for further self-reflection today.

    Good convo, tho. Keep ’em coming.

  3. Rob says:

    I posted some thoughts about the need for narrative, description, “fluff”, to keep the crunch of rules from getting boring, on my blog (must be some meme-virus going around).

    I agree re Dave that “fluff” does sound a bit “light”.

    In terms of making crunch of gamism more interesting there is a scale from “it’s more interesting to defeat an ogre than to defeat a series of stat #’s”, “it’s more interesting to defeat a vicious looking ogre like this one (show picture or cool graphic in online game), “it’s more interesting to defeat the ogre in a fight which is described in terms that evoke action cinema”, “it’s more interesting to defeat an ogre where this accomplishes some plot goal such as find proof the cardinal is paying the ogres to stir up trouble”, to “it’s more interesting to defeat the ogre and incorporate this into narrative development for the character, who now has an independent sense of self worth and can set aside the nagging doubts planted by their father’s scorn for the child whose paternity he doubts.”

  4. Willow says:

    Those are good points, but I think those are all Simulationism-aimed techniques, not really focusing on making any Gamism more fulfilling. No cartharsis at that table, please.

    I’m not talking about interesting fights. I’m talking about fulfilling fights.

  5. Rob says:

    Do you mean “it’s more interesting to defeat an ogre when it showed how bad-ass a large creature with reach and combat reflexes is [d20] and it made players step up and show their effective designs be it tumble skill, ranged weapon use, ‘tank design’ ability to go toe to toe” – these things all requiring that rules crunch provide these opportunities?

    I agree the “more interestings” are all into simulation (given you include or ignore narrativism for this purposes) except for the Plot Point coupon award of “find out about cardinal’s shenanigans”, this being of the “save the princess” sort of added item where like having met princess etc., having crossed paths with cardinal before makes it all more interesting.

    I admit I’m a bit puzzled, in that all “fluff” is somewhat “non-pure-gamist” at end of day (that was really my point, that once you start with princess you’re on the low end of the dial that goes to other settings).

    The Princess as fluff that also translates into “if saved future +2 bonus on all interactions with court officials and chance of social test rolls to gain information or other advantages in some future conflicts through connection, usuable once a season” is very “marginal fluff enchancing gamism” if set out as a “card” as in a Magic TG Game or Boardgame “Princess [picture, flavour text], [mechanical benefit]” but in a tabletop RPG players tend to “imagine more”.

  6. Willow says:

    Ok, Rob, I think I didn’t really make my idea clear enough-

    Basically, for the kind of play I’m talking about, what’s interesting isn’t what happens if you win (which are pretty much all of your examples)- what’s interesting is what happens if you lose.

    A good gamist encounter is one where success and failure are both on the table, and only the gamesmanship of the players will turn the tide towards victory. And what happens if they fail? Character death, or losing your playing piece, can actually be pretty boring, and isn’t that effective in showing people that it’s been brought. The princess being held over a vat of lava? That will ratchet up the tension, especially if there have been interactions with the princess in the past, and the possibility of them in the future.

    You can give the ogre all the feats you want, and you can give saving the princess all the mechanical bennies you like, and make the crunch as complex as you care to. That’s all fine and good, and may make the game play more complex, and if you’re into that sort of thing, is probably good. However, it probably won’t do that much to heighten the tension of play, which is where the fluff does an admirable job.

  7. Rob says:

    Ah, *lightbulb*, now I see where you’re going – thanks for explaining.

  8. This may or may not be related, but I’m kind of amused/intrigued by the concept of “Mechanical Failure translates into Narrative Success with Negative Consequence” sort of thing. So, instead of whiffing, you succeed, but in a way that is ultimately nonbeneficial. Am I making sense? I am too tired to think of an example just now, but I probably could if asked.

    Again, this may be a total tangent. Feel free not to pursue it.

  9. Rob says:

    The success with negative consequence fits into some of the techniques in In a Wicked Age.

    We’re fighting over who gets the magic ring, I state I grab it but you say “no way” so off we go and we roll, if I win I grabbed it and have advantage, if I lose, then I grabbed it sure, but you pushed me into wall and are still smashing my hand against wall to make me let go (and the fight goes on).

    The fight can end with me losing (mechanically being weakened in system terms) but still holding the ring, lying on the ground curled around it and whimpering.

  10. obenmir says:

    I think the easiest way to encapsulate this is that, regardless of the result, which is decided by character action, GM action, and the mechanics of the game, there has to be a palpable consequence to the event, with noticeable effects on the world dynamics for any possible conclusion.

    In Rob’s example, the ring is either going to end up in your hand or the enemy’s hand. If you get the ring, it adds to your potential in the world, and thereby anyone you are allied with, shifting the dynamic from what it was before the fight. If the enemy gets the ring, then the world dynamic shifts likewise, giving the enemy and his allies increased potential in the world.

    Here, World = Campaign Setting. Dynamic = balance of power and relationships between players, NPCs, and major organizations in the Campaign.

    In this post, I like how “fluff” was approached. However, while “fluff” is expressed differently than “crunch”, it should be rigid enough so that Players (and even the GM) cannot dispel it with a simple wave of the hand. If it is a “Kingdom at Stake” as you mentioned, it had better remain so until forces (Players or NPCs) do something reasonable to change that.

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