Get Rid of the Fluff

18 09 2008

Fluff has bad nutritional values. It’s not surprising to hear a lot of people claiming that they “don’t like books with a lot of fluff” or that “that kind of gameplay is too fluffy” simply because they have been experiencing this kind of nourishment and sometimes assume that everything non-mechanical (something which is also defined rather poorly -some other time though-) is by definition fluff.

I disagree (read: you’re wrong.)

Join me in this first trek into the territory of gaming evil as I try to sweep the fluff out of our gameplay. Also, I’d like to say ‘hello!’ to the readers coming here from the RPG Bloggers Network, I hope that you have a good time reading the articles in this site. As always comments and critiques are more than welcome!

Poking the Monkey

I’d like to start this journey (of furious bloody battle) with a territory that will be familiar to a lot of you out there. It’s also fast and easy to use the wonderful Dungeons and Dragons 4th Ed. to illustrate the points that I’d like to make, so for now open your PHB or simply follow me into this quote.

The Lance of Faith power reads something like this…

“A brilliant ray of light sears your foe with golden radiance. Sparkles
of light linger around the target, guiding your ally’s attack.”

A while back, a lot of nifty people have voiced the nifty feelings they got from 4ed because it enabled them to re-shape this (meager and terribly insufficient) flavor text into something else, which gave them the ability to suit the lead’s exploits to his history/personality/whatever. I used to comment on such ideas with a very good hearted “Hey great idea… but be careful” based mostly on the fact that they were talking about changing fluff (painfully easy because of its very nature) which is akin to making the abnormally huge mastiff that lives next door wear a pink cowboy hat… it makes you say “Oh! what a cute little puppy!” but doesn’t prevent you from screaming like a madman when he rips your arm off.

Of course I try not to live inside a hole of my own digging most of the time, so I know that there were a lot of good suggestions regarding what kind of mechanics could be tweaked and what kind of bonus could be given. I see this as very valuable and rest assured that I’ll be applying this in my next D&D session. The thing is, that I’d only consider doing something like that with my D&D game because it’s practically (read: actually) a boardgame with 4ed rules (which by the way handle this very well.) A lot of people (some of them work at Wizards of the Coast) seem to either want to play a cowboy hatted boardgame with salad dressing or just fail to see the complexity in the (meager and insufficient) flavor text for Lance of Faith.

Dissecting the Beast

Let’s take a moment to analyze the possibilities of Lance of Faith, shall we? We will do so by looking at the very definition found a few paragraphs above.

“A brilliant ray of light sears your foe with golden radiance. Sparkles
of light linger around the target, guiding your ally’s attack.”

First, the effect of your summoned ray (beam?) of light is to sear your foe. Looking at the dictionary we have a couple of interesting definitions for the word: a) to dry up, to wither b) to scorch or burn the surface of c) to brand or cauterize with a hot iron d) to make callous or unfeeling; harden pr e) to cause to quail or feel humiliated.

I’m going to assume that the guys that made the PHB are actually talking about “to scorch or burn the surface of.” Even then, the possible uses of this power are very interesting. So far we know that the deity has given the cleric a free ride with the usage of both directed heat and light, although the intensity of both might be more or less regulated. I’m sure you’ll notice you can do a lot with these two elements, examples follow:

light: use as a source of light in otherwise dark environment (the obvious), use as a glamour if the lance can actually be shaped as a lance (which is not indicated but possible), blinding enemies, pointing at something from a distance (think laser pointer), add some miraculous backing to your persuasion/intimidation attempts (by careful use of the light as FX)…

heat: boil liquid (if able to be sustained indefinitely), heating an object (to force the person holding it to drop it), heating yourself or someone else (if it’s possible to control the degree and duration of the heat), accelerate certain chemical reactions), activate particularly sensitive mechanisms (a nice way to avoid the “pull the lever” effect, and free to use for some clerics)…

These are just minor examples (and I haven’t even talked about the fact that it’s actually ‘radiant’ light and heat, which could serve to create more options) but they should give you an idea of all the interesting things that can be done by starting from a very bare bones description. We’re not finished however, now to the more whimsical part of the description:

“(…) Sparkles of light linger around the target, guiding your ally’s attack.”

Now this is more interesting because it’s not so evident. First of all we have sparkles of light that linger around the target, that should tie in very well with our light usage before, but can also give us more uses since the light is now independent of the cleric sustaining the lance or not. The fact that this light is somewhat magical and can make someone more accurate is much more interesting.

How does the light guide the attack? Does it show what part of the body is less defended? Does it make the lead more proficient at doing the physical action? Does it provide some “clarity of mind” or other psychological advantage? Does it bother the enemy in some way, making him lower his defenses? Also to think about: Does the favored character notice the effect immediately? What if the character is of a different belief than the god providing the boon? If this is a perceptual effect, could it be used by blind characters? If so, can it be used to fight while blinded? Also, since hitting the enemy is just an accuracy based physical action… What other uses can this power have? Can I use it to better pick a lock or (in modern times) better cut the cable that will (hopefully) defuse the bomb? If it tells about weak points, can I use it to learn about defects in armor and weaponry? What about objects like doors or walls (certainly a great use for an architect)? And if you want to be a little more esoterical, Could I use it to learn about weakpoints in plans or billing reports?

Fluff Again?!

Saw all those questions? They are completely and utterly irrelevant… why you may ask (I hope you’re asking)? Because it’s fluff we’re dealing with. It’s the same kind of narrative stuffing you’d had if every time you played chess you pretended you were an army general in World War II. Regardless of how coool it could be, I’m sure you wouldn’t call it a roleplaying game.

(pause to let the angry people stop screaming.)

While that was an exaggeration used to illustrate the point, I feel that this issue (and the rather problematic complications of it for something that calls itself a roleplaying game) is more often than not not taken into account while looking at the powers/magic/abilities/whatever for the characters in D&D 4ed. The way the game has been designed, each of these is an encapsulated “press the button” kind of effect that has been placed there to be used while killing stuff. This would not be an issue if all you did was kill stuff (which pretty much sums my boardgamey D&D game) but I assume that you’re not. And EVEN if all you did was kill stuff, the system still breaks down, just look at the list above: why can’t I blind an enemy with the light? why can’t I heat their dagger to make them drop it? why can’t I use it as a torch if I don’t have a mage that throws cantrips even in his sleep?

This is not merely a problem with Dungeons and Dragons but that particular game serves as an excellent example. Fluff is irrelevant, and that’s why it’s so easy to do whatever you want with it. But whatever you do it doesn’t really matter… IF it stays being fluff.

But it doesn’t have to…

See you on the next part of the series.



12 responses

18 09 2008

Heh… I love this! It’s the things you discuss here that put the RP in RPG for me.

Very much looking forward to part two.

– Brian

18 09 2008

Excellent! I can’t wait to see where this is going.

18 09 2008

Nice post. I’m so busy lately – its nice to have actually ‘wasted my time’ reading something that made me chuckle. Bravo! This fluff concept can also be applied to statblocks as a whole – see my post on doing away with the fluff and making monsters into anything you want.

18 09 2008

Aren’t most of these so called “role playing games” just fancified dice games? I mean, playing Dogs In the Vineyard is basically just rolling dice while pretending to be a Mormon Cowboy.

Don’t all meta-game things like rules, character sheets, dice, miniatures, a GM, scenery descriptions etc. pretty much automatically make whatever you’re doing NOT a real role playing game? Doesn’t real roleplaying consist of immersing yourself in a role, and speaking in character to other people also pretending to be something they aren’t?

Why do I have to roll dice? If I accurately describe how I swing my sword, can’t the GM just imagine how the monster would react, what it’s armor is like, and KNOW whether or not I hit?

18 09 2008

Welcome and thank you very much for the compliment. I’m glad that you found the article entertaining, I will make sure to have the second part ready as fast as possible.

It’s a pleasure to have you here lass, I’m glad you liked the piece… and I see you using that word again! =D

My pleasure to contribute to your good times lad =) Also thank you very much for the link, I really enjoyed the article (although I felt like I was being talked down to when reading “Saying Yes it’s a Skill” I’m sure that the article has been very helpful to a lot of new GMs.)

Thank you for the compliments and I hope to see you around.


I mean, playing Dogs In the Vineyard is basically just rolling dice while pretending to be a Mormon Cowboy.

And who wants to pretend to be as Mormon Cowboy anyways?! Just kidding. I did gloss over Dogs in the Vineyard a while ago and I felt like there was just too many dice being thrown around for no particular point. I do get the intention of the author at trying to get a system that’s actually entertaining by itself but I think the result was less than stellar.

I’m a big supporter of diceless games, although I do play with dice as well. Specially because I tend to use them not to do action resolution (although I might do that if the people I play with are not comfortable with diceless) but for dissociative mechanics that can help us shape the course of the story in random ways. For more information you might want to see “The Why Method” (to see what I do with this seemingly random results) and “The Mythic RPG” for an idea of how dice can be used in less intrusive ways to add randomness at a higher level (make sure to check the “Game Master Emulator”).

In any case I agree with you, although I can certainly see people playing RPGs without pretending to be their characters (much like a writer doesn’t necessarily need to pretend to be their character per se) but actually thinking what they would do and how they would act… in any case I believe it’s more semantics than anything else.

Thank you for commenting, I hope I see you over here again.

19 09 2008

Hello Fred. I completely agree. (Surprise.)

Patriarch917, note how in 3rd edition you can of course use, say, burning hands to scorch and ignite things. Or how in Dogs in the Vineyard your trait “The gun my father used to carry d8+d4” can be used in shooting, as a tool, or if your father was suitably famous, it could have effects related to that. In short, the fiction and the rules, or the crunch and the fluff, if you prefer, are not completely separated entities. 4e powers are supposed to be flavoured as one wills, and this, I feel, is not supposed to significantly alter their mechanical effect.

19 09 2008

I’m glad that we (once again) concur =)

The mechanical reflection of narrative components is a very good step towards eliminating the fluff. However you can have non responsive mechanics (such as a generic martial arts roll for every kind of martial arts move) and still have the same effect (although the handling is different -will talk more in next article-.)

Also right is the comment about Dogs, although I did feel like the game goes a bit too much like “let’s throw dice and roleplay what comes up,” which I feel is just something that ticks me in the wrong way rather than a design problem.

Thank you for the comment,

PS: I hope we can talk on-line one of these days. Good luck with school!

19 09 2008

I’ve got two big problems with your article here:

First, you bely your objectivity in examining the issue by saying things like 4e just being a boardgame, and then proceed to back up your assertion by going out of your way to say things that could still happen. Second, I don’t see why you couldn’t use Lance of Faith to do some of the things you list there. 4e puts a lot of emphasis on saying yes as a DM to creative ideas, and putting that in the hands of the DM to handle (with a few very useful charts) instead of mechanically expressing everything that could be done with the power. It’s also not a case of tossing out the flavor text for a power, it’s changing it to fit the needs of the character and the story, and empowering players and DMs to not be bound by some description.

19 09 2008

Hey, welcome and thanks for commenting! Let’s see if I can address some of the issues you point out.

a) I don’t actually believe in objectivity, but I try to give whatever I look at a fair chance (sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.)

b) The boardgame thing was not a reference to D&D 4ed per se. What I meant is that I’m running a boardgamey kind of D&D with some friends on the weekends. We pretty much only do encounters and have a “out of combat” phase where people can get new stuff, get hints on new locations and things like that. Sorry if I wasn’t too clear.

c) I’m not saying that you can’t use it (“Lance of Faith to do some of the things listed here”). Certainly go ahead and do! I’m saying that from my playing experience and the material that I’ve been reading (which is mostly the PHB for now) I don’t think that this is the direction that the designers wanted for the game (or that certain people are taking for the game.)

d) Actually I don’t want to toss out the flavor text, the title of the article might have been a little deceiving at that, but I’m looking for replacing fluff for actual content (something that I’ll touch on the next entry.)

Let me know if I missed anything or if you have some other thoughts on this!

19 09 2008

a&b go together- the boardgame thing tends to be used as an ad hominem against 4e, but if that’s not the way you’re using it, that makes a lot more sense.

c- As someone who’s done a fair amount of interviewing with the designers, I’d disagree, Mike Mearls especially talks a lot about doing interesting things in combat. It’s also a key piece of the “say yes” design philosophy.

d- I’ll have to check that out.

20 09 2008

Hello again Dave, I’m glad that point a & b clarified some things!

As far as point c goes, thank you for giving me this new information to work with. I think I read an article regarding something that might have been the “say yes” design philosophy (notice all the conditionals)… but I’m not sure so I’ll have to check again. To be honest, what I read left a bit of a sour taste and looked like a glorified re-invention of the wheel (that’s why I’m saying that I must be onto something different.)

Please do note that, jokes and poking aside, I’m not an anti-D&D prophet or anything like that. I’m all for playing a game that’s fun for you, but I’ve also talked about how frustrating some elements of the game were… as they were presented to me, and as I had interpreted them.

Thanks again for commenting.

8 10 2008
Taking your Fluff Back « drop the dice

[…] 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 […]

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