Crunch, Fluff, and Game Cassarole
Though some great game designers, such as Monte Cook and Jonathan Tweet, have already weighed in on this, I’m still going to stick my neck out and discuss the question of fluff “vs.” crunch. I have a pretty strong opinion on why these terms are useful, and understanding how players react to them as separate elements is useful. And, since I’m mostly working on Pathfinder products at the moment, I’m going to use that game when I want to illustrate a point.
It is very often the case that crunch and fluff should compliment each other. But in some cases they can (and should) be presented separately, or at least with different emphasis.
Imagine if a sourcebook presented a new group, the Lady’s Sewing Circle. Officially and publicly a collection of high-society women who gather to work on textile projects and share their skills with one another while socializing, it’s also secretly a dangerous and cunning band of assassins who wield considerable political power. Outside the order, no one is sure exactly why enemies of “the Circle” tend to die in unfortunate accidents – theories include the ladies being witches who curse their enemies and/or that they use influence with their husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons to hire assassins to do their dirty work. But what is well known is that those who find their actions strongly denounced by the Circle must change their attitude, or prepare for an unfortunate end.
The members of the LSC all secretly worship The Weaver, a goddess represented by a spider with a loom and silver sheers. The Weaver is largely unknown by those outsider the Circle, and it is her power that allows the LSC to maintain its secrets.
Now, that’s all “fluff.” There are no games rules presented there, though a lot are hinted at. A GM can certainly see some ways the Sewing Circle can be used… but he’s also left with a lot of questions. Are the ladies actually all trained assassins? Are any of them really witches? Or are they clerics? If their influence is known but not the nature of their methods, how do they keep that a secret? What power of the Weaver prevents other people from using spies, magic, or bribery to learn of the LSC’s true nature? And, how “unknown” is the Weaver? Is there a higher-than-normal DC for Knowledge (religion) checks to identify her, her symbols, and the details of her worship? The fluff is useful, but even if a GM loved it he might feel unprepared to use it in a game. He has no objection to the general story elements, but needs some rules to support them. If he wants to discuss this issue with others, saying he thought the group needed more crunch is a quick, shorthand way to describe his complaint.
On the flip side, let’s say a book offered the following feat:
Your god protects its secrets, and some of yours, with a magic cloak of obscurity.
Prerequisite: Worship a god that grants the “trickery” domain.
Benefit: You gain SR 15 + level against magic effects that attempt to determine what god you worship, and any details of that worship. Additionally, the DC of any Knowledge (religion) check made to identify symbols, rituals, and elements of your worship is 5 higher than normal.
Now, that’s an odd feat, but it meets the basic “crunch” rules elements. However, if it exists entirely on its own, a GM can’t be sure exactly what it covers. If you worship an evil god and carry his holy symbol (a baby’s heart impaled on a rusty spike), does taking Shadowy Cult let you wander through town with impunity? The crunch is pretty clear, but there’s no story context on what the feat is supposed to do. It needs more “fluff.”
The obvious answer here is that the LSC and Shadowy Cult should be presented together, to complement each other. The feat’s crunch explains how the LSC maintain their secret, and the LSC’s fluff tells the GM exactly how the feat is supposed to be used.
But that doesn’t mean fluff always needs more crunch, or crunch always means more fluff.
If, instead of the Lady’s Sewing Circle, the sourcebook had presented the Iron Harrowers — a mercenary fighting company that is designed to act as “typical” fighters-for-hire — no new crunch may be needed. Pathfinder already supports money and stabbing things just fine. In fact, new rules designed for the Iron Harrowers might be detrimental and distracting – if they are supposed to be typical they shouldn’t have unique rules. Even worse if they include rules to really explain and justify a mercenary economy, that crunch may cause problems. The economy of the Pathfinder RPG is very loose. GMs have either come to accept (and possibly even appreciate) that, or have found another solution. Having more in-depth crunch about money for *just* the Iron Harrowers forces the first group of GMs to deal with similar questions about other groups, and forces the second group to somehow adapt Harrower crunch to their other economy crunch.
Similarly, many basic rules don’t need any specific fluff to support them, even though they help define what narrative will develop out of gameplay. The rules for making attack roles are universal in Pathfinder, and aside from some examples don’t have connected fluff. This is good, because if the fluff is too tightly linked to such a generic rule, it may cause confusion. If ever example of sword attacks all refer to the Swordsmen of Albenisle, readers may wonder if no one else is suppose to make attack rolls.
Similarly, many players and GMs are looking for different kinds of things from sourcebooks. Some would love nothing more than fluff-heavy examples of guilds, cities, NPC motivations, taverns, wilderness areas, kingdoms, histories, and all the other story elements that make up a campaign world. They may have no interest at all in new rules to go with those fluff elements (and when the intent is to create such fluff-heavy books, it’s important to know when you should include the rare exception like the LSC’s Shadowy Cultist feat, when you should rewrite the LSC so it doesn’t need new crunch, and when to exclude it entirely).
By the same token, many GMs already have the campaign world they want to run, and find long lists of descriptions boring and useless. They prefer new spells, feats, archetypes, classes, magic items, equipment, and the other crunchy rules-bits that can then be used to support or alter the fluff elements they are already using.
These are legitimate preferences of play style, and even if a game designer doesn’t subscribe to either of those extremes, having some terminology like crunch and fluff, and understanding when and why players might prefer one over the other, is useful to creating popular and useful game materials.