Fluff, Crunch: A Case Study

So, I’ve been talking about the interactions of crunch and fluff in roleplaying games, and I wanted to do a look at the design influences of one of the most notable games on the market- that’s right, Dungeons and Dragons.

As we know, D&D evolved from Chainmail- a fantasy wargame, with Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson’s houserules for character driven play. These early days of D&D were still very tied to wargaming- the game was essentially a wargame with evolving nascent roleplaying bits. So you’ve got a game that is crunch-based, and the fluff is evolving to fill a void.

I’m not going to linger here on 1st ed D&D, Advanced D&D, and various “X Color Box” editions, because frankly, I wasn’t born yet, so it was difficult for me to roleplay. But it’s my understanding that what started as a crunchy dungeon crawl wargame evolved with character bits, and an emergent property of wanting to play your character.

Second edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons was my first roleplaying game. Here, we see a lot of fluff driven play- there is a push for gaming to drive towards character interaction, and setting exploration- the success of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms are an outgrowth of this. We also see a lot of Fluff-driven Crunch: the strongest example of this I can think of is Kits. Kits were basically a subclass, so you’d have Jester or Acrobat as a Thief Kit, or Cavalier as a Paladin Kit, or Elven Blademage as a Elf Fighter/Mage Kit. These tended not to be designed for mechanical differentiation, but rather to reinforce the themes and roles of a kit, and tended to be highly unbalanced and wonky in crunch applications- but who cares, when the fluff comes first?

We can see pockets of Crunch-focused game design (The highly controversial Skills and Powers: Combat and Tactics, trying to make the game more of a tactical combat game, with nary a word about roleplaying) amid a greater sea of Fluff-focused play (most of my modules from this time are full of advice and applications that break the game rules for the sake of replicating a setting assumption.) If you go through these books, you’ll find rules that stick out like sore thumbs, and simply don’t interact very well. (I wonder how much of this stuff was playtested. One thing about fluff-based rules is that you can convince yourself you don’t have to playtest the crunch, because it’s only there to backup the fluff.)

With third edition, we saw a dedicated attempt to clean up this mess. The game was very much crunch-driven, with the focus on balanced play, and game mechanics that result of that. There was a dedicated, global playtesting drive, to get people other than just the in-house people playing games.

Of course, not all was well with 3rd edition. The first few supplement books were awful, with a number of prestige classes based on the idea first, then with the game mechanics wrapped around it. You frequently saw a vast difference in power level between classes here. Some were great, some were awful. I wonder how much playtesting had been done. Around the time of 3.5, WotC decided they needed Developers, not just writers and designers, to keep an eye on the state of the rules, and make sure that things didn’t get out of hand. (How well they succeeded is in the eye of the beholder.) This is a definite, concrete move towards strength of crunch-based design.

Looking towards 4th edition, I’m seeing some interesting trends. First, is that design is largely crunch based. We’re seeing a lot of setting conceits coming out of ways to make the dungeoneering more seamless. Lots of playtesting has been done, with the goal of making the gameplay easy, balanced, and fun. We’re seeing game balance as a design priority. These are all good things- and speak of a crunch-based design methodology.

Something I think is cool though, we’re seeing some fluff-based crunch microcosms, interacting seamlessly with a larger crunch-based directive. What I mean by this is mechanics (saving throw or action point bonuses for humans) based on a fluff directive (“humans should be like action heroes”) yet having a keen eye kept on them for game balance. You can have fluff guide design and the rules and the mechanics, but someone is making sure it doesn’t get out of hand. I think this is great.

So, what’s the point of this?

It’s not that fluff-driven games are bad- but if your game is fluff-driven, you should be very aware of that, and make sure your players are too. Don’t cling to ‘realism’ or ‘setting emulation’ as exuses if your game is getting overwieldy, and GM fiat is the rule rather than the exception.

Big companies with lots of writers and designers are going to have a much harder time achieving clarity of focus. I think it can be done, but you have to be conscious about trying to achieve it.

And the real point behind me writing these essays? I want to run D&D 4th Edition, I’m excited about running it, and I want people to be excited about playing it- but I’d like that to be true for any kind of Crunch-based gaming. This is me advocating crunch-based play, and for people to think twice before they snidely compare ‘roll-play’ and ‘role-play’- both crunch and fluff have something to offer.


5 thoughts on “Fluff, Crunch: A Case Study

  1. I’ve always found the “roll” vs “role” forced dichotomy lame and divisive.

    I typically steer away from crunchy games, both because they tend to take more time and because they tend to have a higher learning curve. But I wonder if part of the reason I’ve shied away from them is because the ones I’ve encountered so far have been unfulfilling, by and large.

    From what I’ve seen of 4E, it still looks crunchier than I’d want to play regularly…. but I’m playing Reign right now and finding it decent, so maybe it’s just a lingering bias on my part.

    I’d certainly be willing to give it a con-one-shot to see.

  2. Willow says:

    My most ridiculous encounter with someone using the phrase “roll-playing” was after a game of Hackmaster, where they chided me for being a munchkin. Yeah…

    Reign is some sweetness. Greg Stolze knows what he’s doing with his crunch, though I would hardly call Reign that high on the crunch spectrum. The games I recommend most for having crunch (and knowing what they’re doing with it) iis Savage Worlds.

    However, 4E looks like ease of play is a huge design goal, whereas it really wasn’t before. (They talk about the difficulty of scaling monsters, and the huge length of most monster statblocks. The previews for 4E are very short and sweet.)

  3. HackMaster was designed by and for and of the Munchkins, fools! I know cuz i played with those guys a couple times back in the day. Not HM itself, it was 3.5 Kalamar I think, but still. Nice buncha folks, anyway.

    Reign is ok so far. The setting has some stuff that I think is just weirdness for weirdness’ sake, but I can live with that. The system isn’t bad, except that the base success percentage curve for the dice pools is ridiculously steep. I think it would have been easy to fix that simply by including single widths, which would have severely mitigated the whiff factor- which is my #1 pet peeve for any system. More than a 25% whiff ratio is simply not acceptable to me. But that’s clearly my own issue, since nearly all games have at least that much, thereby forcing the players to improvise means by which to compensate, like the “mechanical fail = narrative success + complications” thing I mentioned in the last post.

  4. Brian says:

    Interesting. I would say that 3e was the friendliest version of D&D to verisimilitude. Its wide-open character creation allowed you to play anything and banished most of the old game-isms that had plagued D&D since the beginning. That, of course, is a matter of balancing fluff and crunch. I see 4e as verisimilitude unfriendly with its per-day and per-encounter abilities and extremely game-ist rewards system. That said, it looks, right now, to be far more stable than 3e, which also has its benefits for verisimilitude.

    – Brian

  5. […] the books more ‘readable.’ I’m hoping that will mean there will be more ‘fluff‘ in the rule books, since that’s what’s been most useful to my campaign crafting […]

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