Should we really get rid of the fluff? This is a valid question since fluff, in the form discussed in the previous entry, does a lot of things for a lot of people. For the past couple of weeks I’ve been writing and re-writing a sort of practical article to follow the points I raised in the previous one. I found, however, that I kept running into a problematic spot. There was a question that kept coming to mind: How can I address fluff in a less than positive light (as I was trying to do) while at the same time aknowledge that there’s a kind of gaming that uses it and that works fine as it is?
My plan is to take a step back and try to look at the forest. Examine the reasons this apparent dislike of fluff exists in the first place to pinpoint what are the effects that we’re trying to avoid, and to see if these effects are even problematic or not for different styles of gaming.
Let’s get Dense
Roleplaying for me is about a form of exchange. It’s about building a text by a double movement of reacting to input and producing input in a repeated fashion. I consider this movement as choice, and this is the reason you will read me (all over certain sites) saying how for me roleplaying is all about choice. I’m trying to keep things simple here; so far I’ve just said that for me roleplaying is about a number of decisions that build on the others that came before them.
Of course you will find that the kind of choices to be made are pretty narrow (or really huge, however you decide to look at it) in reality. This is because there is a limiting framework for choices that comes from a group of contents that is shared in a bigger or lesser degree. Genre of the game in but one of this contents or elements, roles around the group (as in what is each player expected to do -including a GM if there is one-) are also examples of this framework.
Mechanics also work at the choice level. Usually they will either work before choice (which is usually what I mean by ‘being a framework for’) or at some point during the choice. On the first case we have some dissociative mechanics that could tell you (for example): the next is a heroic scene that includes failure for the leads… go. On the second case we can find action resolution mechanics: you produce certain text but the mechanic produces a number of the elements of choice (that is, you decide that you’ll try to climb the ladder but you don’t decide how successful you were at doing so.)
In most games there is a combination of freeform decision + mechanical input in the process of choice (although there are games that are totally freeform, and there are games where you’re limited to choosing which mechanic you wish to use.) This is perfectly fine. Or it might not be for you, but the point is that it’s up to you.
The Domino Effect
Now let’s say that whenever you make a choice there are both mechanical and non-mechanical elements that actually form the “finished product” sort of speak. What I want you to focus on is that each choice builds from the choices made before. Some definitions to keep things clear:
choice: choice is the combination of mechanical and non-mechanical elements that result in new text being pushed forward. Choice comes from story and it always framed by story.
text: text is the result of choice. Is the shared input that is pushed into the social arena of the game and that creates an effect (whether important or minimall is not relevant) on story.
story: this is the mental coherent product of your experience to text. There is no thing such as perceiving text “as it is”, each person builds a different meaning of it depending on a number of variables. The important thing is that the story happens on each players mind, and it’s not exactly what you say or what you talk about at the table. However, for all practical purposes we will pretend that whatever differences might there be between personal stories are not important enough for all practical purposes and if they are, we assume that they will come to fore (and be dealt with) eventually.
For all practical purposes, we can consider the movement in this direction:
story -> choice -> text -> story -> etc…
Of course, as I previously mentioned there are a number (usually much bigger than we think) of often unspoken elements that frame this whole shebang. I’ll just name them “stuff” to remind us that we’re here to make a point and that maybe we don’t want to post a mental masturbation on an RPG blog.
stuff (story -> choice -> text -> story -> etc…)
Again, what I want you to focus on is that choice is the result of story (of whatever elements and associations is made of) and choice is the driving force of roleplaying.
The problem with fluff
It’s time to take a look at the big picture. The problem with fluff, for me, is at the level of stuff. Fluff is irrelevant, or rather is hierarchy is lower than other elements inside the game and thus it is less important than them. This, in itself, is not a problem at all!
Consider a tabletop wargame or even a computer RTS. In both camps you will usually have a sturdy set of rules, in these cases the idea is to achieve enjoyment through challenging the players on the tactical level. To accomplish this objective usually great care is given to the balance of the different elements, to the variety of ways to accomplish game objectives etc, etc… You will also find that, in modern times, a great deal of care is taken on ensuring that these games have an interesting background and story, that the different elements are coherent and they interact well with this universe as a whole.
However, if something needs to break I’ll bet that the story, background and flavor is the one breaking. Why? Not because there is a sort of essential inferiority in them, but just because they’re less relevant (or less important) to achieving the kind of game, the kind of experience and the kind of fun that was the objective in the first place. And you will also find that most times, this is no big deal! Astonishing.
The reason is in the stuff. There is a certain level of shared awareness for the answer to the question “What’s important here?” that’s more easily shared in these environments. The problem with fluff appears when there are unresolved issues at the level of stuff.
If there is not a certain level of clarity at the level of stuff about what is the hierarchy of elements that compose play, the results can be highly detrimental for the objective of the game… which I assume is having fun (in a particular way.)
Why is this? Think about it. This hierarchy is what decides how choice is handled, what elements are more important and what elements are less important. Since at almost no point will the several elements match in a sort of divine harmony this information is highly useful for all the players involved. If there’s no clarity the choice might be founded in ideas that just don’t hold true for the rest of the people involved. The issue here is that a lot of times the text can be quite similar. And even if it’s not, since story does equal text, there is the probability of a divergence that grows unnoticed until a clash occurs.
Most likely this was one of the reasons that battlemats are so useful. Battlemats are based on a very reduced set of rules (if some of you have played freeform roleplaying, this point will be most evident) that handle combat. These are complemented by a visual aid that can help players pinpoint exactly what’s going on.
The problem is that with roleplaying games, we’re also assuming that this battlemat and these minis are only representing some other thing that’s happening some other place (which is usually our imagination and not the kitchen table.) Since the rules obviously do not directly represent this other thing in other place (if they did there would be no point) there is a big big need for a clear hierarchy for when (not if, but when) discrepancies occur.
The question now is not “what’s fluff?” but rather “what is fluff for you?” For me the ‘crunch’ has always been the ‘fluff’. This did not mean that I did not use mechanics (of a wide variety), it meant that the mechanics (or rules or whatever) where the first to break whenever there was a clash. For me, the mechanics were always functional: they allowed me to better (easier, more efficient or more interestingly) tell a story. If this didn’t happen (at any particular momment) the mechanics were gently shut down until the issue was resolved.
Funny thing is, it worked… and I know first hand that the exact opposite can work as well. So get rid of the fluff! Don’t feel guilty about it, it’s there for a reason. You will find that most times you won’t have a problem with the interaction of the different elements that compose play, but somewhere along the line you’re bound to have some issues (regardless of rule system.) So get a clear picture of where you are, and make sure the communication channels are open and you’ll sail through the rough spots in no time.