Friday, February 26, 2010

Crunch And Fluff In Dungeons And Dragons

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.


Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

I first learned term crunchy from FUDGE community. It's never meant simply rules or mechanics to me. It means gritty, realistic, lots of number crunching rules. Rolemaster -> crunchy, all the add ons to make FUDGE more granular -> crunchy.

In your examples of various settings needing various rules. Only a crunchy game would need all those. A (very) non-crunchy game would handle all that with "resolution" mechanic say, d6 highest roll wins.

btw crunchy had negative connotations in that community. implying complex, heavy, fiddly rules.

But given your sources the definitions you state are probably the more widely held ones. Tis a shame cause they're not very useful.

Kiltedyaksman said...

I use the term crunch but have never used the term fluff in the manner you describe. One needs to take the Internet patio philosophers with a grain of salt.

Rusty said...

The examples you cite in the post are how I have understood these two terms and why I have avoided using them. I completely agree with you that rules should support the setting.

Timeshadows said...

In the '80's the terms in common parlance in my region were:

* Chrome: The stuff not necessary to run the game

* Chassis: The framework of the rules.

The truth is that with the rise of generic systems the need for chassis to inherently support chrome was lost and a new understanding (for right or wrong) that one could have elegance in chassis as well as meticulously-crafted chrome/setting/milieu was found to be (equally) true.
--Games like HERO System, GURPS, and the slew that came afterwards (TWERPS, BESM, ACTION, etc.) all went with their various biases towards either rules-light or comprehensive.

I think your crusade is a bit quixotic, but I don't mean to deny your fundamental right to oppose terminology you don't care for.


Rognar said...

I think we may be in slight disagreement on exactly what the term "fluff" means in common usage. I don't think it is synonomous with setting, although it is a subset. Let me use your example of a far future setting. The basis for such a setting involves space travel, advanced technology, alien lifeforms. These ideas serve as the foundation of the setting and, of course, the crunchy part of the game has to incorporate rules for them. Where the term "fluff" comes into play, at as far as I understand it, are the minute details of the setting. In the aforementioned far future setting, these would include descriptions of planets, governments, important individuals and organizations, timelines, etc. All this stuff is interchangeable within the general framework of a far future campaign setting. I basically think of fluff as all the setting information that could be completely discarded or changed and not, in any way, effect how the game is played.

Zak Sabbath said...

I BEYOND agree with you.

the difference between and RPG and a wargame is that in an RPG, nothing is fluff--anything might end up killing you.

John W said...

I 100% agree. I just think those terms are useless and childish, and using the words verisimilitude and granularity in reference to RPG games just makes a person sound like a pseudo-intellectual windbag.

Excellent post.

JB said...

"It is my position that – in a role-playing game – rules are designed to serve the setting, and not the reverse."

Sorry, I disagree...or I should say, I disagree that this is ALWAYS the case. I would say certain games...for example, Dogs in the Vineyard and My Life With Master...the setting is truly secondary to the game mechanics, which are designed to do something specific (i.e. tell a certain type of story).

Look at Ron Edward's Sorcerer. The setting can very wildly from game-to-game and session-to-session, but its the rule mechanics (Kickers, Bangs, and the interaction of Demons and Humanity) that are the important part. The setting in these games serve the rules...rules designed to bring a specific type of catharsis to the players.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...

Bah, language has use. It shouldn't be ignored cause of erroneous preconceptions of what you imagine it makes people sound like.

RPGs covers a huge area from almost board games like latest WHFRP or Heroquest all the way to cooperative storytelling wankfests. And there are several other axis.

If you want to discuss that range or RPGs within it you need to use words. If you think such discussions are crap attack the philosophical meta discussions, not the language.

Victor Raymond said...

Norman - that's what he's done, and I'm not sure you noticed. If you're going to debate semantics (and semantics are important) then make sure to recognize the actual argument. I think the problem you're having is that you disagree about the subtext of each word. When you say "erroneous" you miss the fact that there is more than one valid interpretation of that subtext.

"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."

This is valid. Quite valid.

Norman J. Harman Jr. said...


Yeah, I see. Not all comments are related to, directed at the main article. Some are in response to other comments.

I'm ambivalent to Paladin's issue. My first post was just pointing out different game "groups" have different understandings as to the meanings of those words. I deferred to Paladin's being the more in common. It was meant as a "hey did ya know?" not an argument against.

2nd post was in response to perceived anti-intellectualism which I can't help but get pissed off over. I should of addressed it better, sorry. [To be clear this time it was in response to comment containing "...useless and childish, and using the words verisimilitude and granularity..."]

Aaron E. Steele said...

JB: rather than being divorced from setting, the rules for Dogs In The Vinyard and My Life With Master, are fully informed by, and masterfully integrated with, the setting.

The two games you cite are, in fact, a perfect example of setting dictating rules.

Aaron E. Steele said...

Norman: I have no issues with people using the terms "rules and setting". I think those are very useful terms, when describing features of a game. Just not a fan of using the terms crunch and fluff.

Yes, some people may use the term "crunchy" to negatively refer to a too-mechanically-intensive game. But I find that it is "fluffy" that is used most often as term of derision. People, using crunchy, typically do so in a positive way, ie. you should buy this game because it includes lots of crunch.

Aaron E. Steele said...

I should explain that my double-barrelled blast at the terms 'crunch and fluff' are unrelated to the blogs of my cherished fellow-travellers in the D&D blogosphere ... instead prompted by on-going nonsense on the forums of the 8,000 lb. gorilla in the corner.

As they say, brevity is the soul of wit. Crunch and fluff is a convenient and clever turn-of-phrase, that packs a lot of information in a small package. My problem is that 'crunch and fluff' carries with it some unpleasant baggage.

If I unintentionally offended anyone, please accept my apologies!

Aaron E. Steele said...

Timeshadows: you're right, of course. The 'universal mechanics' systems attempted to divorce rules from setting. Did they succeed?

I saw an image recently, of the full collection of GURPS setting books, and was astounded by its breadth. Do the setting books include rules not found in the basic GURPS rulebook? If so, I think you can reasonably argue that the attempt at creating a universal rule-set, applicable across all game genres, failed. If so, that supports my thesis that rules depend on setting.

As for the terms chrome and chassis, those are more palatable than crunch and fluff, but still bring with them certain value judgements. Chrome (while desirable and attractive) is not necessary for a car-function, while a Chassis is.

What i'm arguing here is that it is setting which provides purpose, meaning and context to the game. The related rules simply provide the emulator for that setting. Without the setting, the game becomes a series of (ultimately) meaningless die-rolls.

Yes, the emulator is important. If the emulator fails to emulate the setting, then the game lacks (no, don't make me say the word!) versimilitude.

But if a game lacks setting, it becomes a mere mathematical excercize, or a non-profitable night in Las Vegas.

You know me, always up for a little tilting at windmills!

Aaron E. Steele said...

Rognar: so you're saying that in common usage, there are three defined parts to a role-playing game: basis, rules and setting?

While, I havn't encountered those distinctions before, I will poke around the interwebs, as my original research was, admittedly, somewhat cursory.

Having said that, I think you will find that, even when separating out the 'hard' setting from 'soft' setting, soft setting still affects the sorts of rules required.

Timeshadows said...

@Paladin: I'll let you determine the success or failure of GURPS and other Universal systems, based upon your own criteria.
--Moreover, if 'winning' the 'argument' is important, then I am comfortable ceding the metal battlefield of this, or any other hobby-field related skirmish, as I deal with more important and real battles for both a living and out of personal/historical interest. :D

I am not especially concerned with labels of any sort and so whether some use Fluff/Chrome and Crunch/Chassis in ways that go beyond my understanding of them, it is not injurious to my own bull-headedness, nor my enjoyment of system-analysis.
--However, I can see your arguments, and while I can also see how one could care, I just cannot invest that kind of emotional energy.

Finally to the topic itself: Does a game's setting need to be reflected in the rules for it to be a good game. My reply: No. It is possible for a game to have very jarring and ill-suited rules that still contain great setting material, AND vice-versa. I've often admired systems and flushed the entire setting down the conceptual toilet, using the rules framework for something else...although I haven't done so in a number of years because I am far more interested in my RPGs, however unreasonable that may be of me. ;D

Fluff makes me think of Marshmallow Fluff, which is anything but insubstantial. Instead, it is a morass of sweet delight that one can suffocate in, much like a lovingly detailed setting. :D

So, make yourself some yummy snax, and enjoy your games. :P :D

Oh, and I won 'teh internetz' by having you use verisimilitude.
--Lol. ;D :)


Aaron E. Steele said...

That you did. Peace right back at you.


Rognar said...

I don't know is anyone has described this sort of structure, but it seems self-evident to me. I actually like your "hard" and "soft" setting terminology. I think the trend in more recent editions of D&D/Pathfinder, for example, is to make the game more modular. If you look at the Pathfinder Bestiary, you will note in the stat blocks special abilities that are simply named, such as "blindsense" or "scent", without any accompanying description. These abilities are defined in the back of the book, of course, but by giving them a set definition in the first monster book, they can simply be plugged into new monsters in later releases without making any changes to the rules for those abilities. I see this design philosophy in other aspects of the game as well (polymorph spells, combat maneuvers). This way, you can keep adding new "soft" setting to the game without any need to fiddle with the rules.

Aaron E. Steele said...

I wonder if any-one has ever coined the term "meta-setting" to refer to the basic setting/theme of a game.

We're probably talking past each other here, as i'm referring more to the meta-setting defining the types of rules required.

For example, a science fiction game, without faster-than-light travel, will not need rules for travel between the stars, while a traveller-esque, star-spanning imperium setting will. Those are the sort of "setting determines rules" considerations I am referring to. As another example, you would have no need for starship combat rules in a medieval fantasy game!

The actual 'game-play' setting features (names of people you met, the role-playing "atmosphere" of the game, the name of the standard exchange unit) are, I agree, largely or wholly immaterial to the rules.

Unknown said...

"Crunch" makes me think of stepping on a bug. (Yuck.)
"Fluff" makes me think of cotton candy. (Yum.)
I guess everyone has different connotations for different words. :)
Then again, that kind of equates to my views on role-playing systems: the "fluff" is the most enjoyable part to me, while the "crunch" is less enjoyable but necessary.