It should come as no surprise, to those of you who have been following my blog for some time, that I would dislike the terms “crunch” and “fluff”. Indeed, most will know that i’m also no fan of terms like verisimilitude and granularity, which means i’m either an intellectual lightweight, or trapped in my own pre-Forgian fantasy-land.
My defects aside, there are some very compelling reasons why the terms crunch and fluff need to be retired.
Over at This Way Lies Madness, Willow defines the terms crunch and fluff thusly:
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.
Similarly, the RPG Pundit makes the following observations, regarding crunch and fluff:
"Fluff and crunch" are terms that came into fashion a few years ago, for relatively good reason.
You see, back in the late nineties, the emphasis in RPG products had gone to an extreme end of the spectrum: books with pages and pages of "setting description", sometimes good but often pointless and self-absorbed works by would-be novelists.
The advent of D20 brought a change in philosophy, a reaction to this endless ream of "fluffy" setting description and "flavour". The reaction was to move to making books with more mechanics, more system material, more tables and rules and solid material that gives you concrete game information as opposed to blurry setting information. More feats and prestige classes, less descriptions of "agriculture in the forgotten realms".
So basically, Fluff is setting and ambiance, Crunch is system material and concrete rules.
These days, certain systems (D&D in particular) may have moved too far to the other end of the spectrum, and be suffering from massive overdoses of Crunch. Indeed, the propensity in D&D books to have to have at least 50 new feats and 20 new prestige classes per book (not to mention more spells and magic items) means that there is now a MASSIVE "rules bloat" that makes D&D effectively unplayable if you use all the books.
That is a very serious problem. Whenever you get to the point that you must limit the book selection for the RPG to be something other than utterly broken, you're in trouble.
Both authors capture the commonly accepted meaning of the terms crunch and fluff. In the common parlance, “crunch” is equated to rules, while “fluff” is equated to setting. In fact, many will argue that the terms “crunch and fluff” and “rules and setting” are virtually interchangeable. However, unlike the phrase “rules and setting”, the phrase “crunch and fluff” is not value-neutral. Indeed, the continued use and promotion of those loaded terms is pernicious, as it distorts the relationship between rules and setting, in a role-playing game.
The use of the word crunch, by definition, identifies something that you can “sink your teeth into.” Crunch has substance. Crunch provides both a pleasurable experience and a related sound. Crunch is satisfying. Crunch is real.
The word fluff, on the other hand, describes something that is insubstantial, inconsequential and of little value. When used to describe a conversation, fluff refers to the discussion of trivialities. Fluff is light and airy. Fluff is blown away in the slightest breeze.
Thus, an author, in using the terms crunch and fluff to describe features of a role-playing game, imposes upon the reader specific value judgments, about those distinct features of the game. Since crunch refers to things that are substantial, those indentified game features are implicitly of greater consequence, and value, than those features of a role-playing game referred to as fluff, which, by definition, are trivial.
Here’s my problem with that characterization. It is my position that – in a role-playing game – rules are designed to serve the setting, and not the reverse. I emphasize the connection to role-playing games, when highlighting the supremacy of setting, because, by their very nature, role-playing games differ from strategy battle games.
Role-playing games are largely cooperative, rather than competitive. They allow for virtually unlimited player options, making it well-nigh impossible to create a rule for every situation. They give full rein to breath life into your alter-ego, through characterization, interaction and negotiation with the other participants.
Conversely, strategy battle games are more focused on the rules, because they typically model a very narrow version of reality. They provide only on superficial opportunities to breath life into your character, typically through some mechanical, rules-based advantages, rather than by imbuing your avatar with true personality through characterization.
Let me give you a couple of examples of the setting dictating the rules. If you are employing a Wild West setting, you will need rules for gun-fights, bar-fights, train-robberies, horses and stage-coach chases. If you are employing a far future setting, you will need rules for space-travel. If your setting requires characters to improve as the campaign progresses, you will need rules for skill, or level, acquisition. If your game is set in a medieval fantasy world, you will need melee rules.
Again, it is the setting that defines what rules are needed.
Role-playing games, being open-ended, require rules that are necessarily subordinate to the setting, and the setting is what drives the need for the related rules. Those who truly understand the history of D&D also understand why Rule 0 has existed since the very beginning: because you cannot predict all eventualities, the referee must have the flexibility to create, change or modify the rules, when the setting demands it.
But by characterizing the rules as “crunch” (important) and the setting as “fluff” (trivial), those that employ those terms elevate the importance of rules, and thus accidentally or intentionally pervert the proper relationship between the rules and setting of a role-playing game.