Monday, February 11, 2013

Fluff and Crunch, AKA the Second Greatest Lie in Gaming

Most of us gamers have grown up with the DnD conception of Fluff'n'Crunch: the "story of the game" and "mechanics of the game". Thanks to the greatest lie in RP'ing (one game can do it all), story is usually set against crunch, as if these two don't entirely cooperate. And, to be honest, after playing years and years of such games, I find them to be quite boring. They don't do it for me, at all. And, from what I can tell, they usually don't do it for a lot of adults, either.

As an example of this, I recently formed a new gaming group at my college so I could try out all my weird indy games that most people have never heard about. I decided to start them out on Misspent Youth, just to see what would happen. All these people have had some pretty extensive experience of 4th edition Dungeons and Dragons and some Pathfinder. I threw this game, where you don't even roll until there's an open conflict, at them, y'know what they did? After a short amount of hemming and hawing and "I don't know what to do because nothing is there to hold my hand anymore" they BLOSSOMED. It was an amazing thing to watch! They realized that the rules were made to enforce a particular type of story, and that the rules made the story and if they just relied on the rules a story would naturally come of it. And boy, has it ever! I'll be posting what they were up to in my review of Misspent Youth (to be written after they're done with the game) but, suffice to say, we're crafting a tragedy centered around the loss of innocence and the hardening that happens when anger is a key emotion in personal development. These people actually like the rules (not something you'll hear typical non-DM players say!) and are thrilled every week to play this game! Fluff and Crunch have morphed into something entirely new: an honest to God game, which requires strategy, thought, and heart. Like all great games do.

How do games like Misspent Youth, Burning Wheel, My Life with Master, Dogs in the Vineyard, etc. do this? It's actually pretty simple. They work like sports games, which:

  • Set up a winner-loser paradigm.
  • Give the means to win.
  • Deny any other method by means of penalty.
  • Give a few exceptions to shake things up. 
Let's take basketball for instance. To win you have to have more points than your opponents at the end of time. You do this by throwing a ball into the opposing team's basket. You may not "travel" with the ball, but must instead bounce it from the ground back into your hand along each step. The only real exception to the dribbling rule is that you can take a few extra steps when doing a "lay up", thus encouraging movement even more. 

We'll pair up baskeball with Burning Wheel. You and your opponent(s) set up a victory condition of your own, and then you try and pick out the "best" moves you can, based around what your opponent will do. You then play these moves out in rock-paper-scissor fashion, one at a time, and resolve them. The loser is the one who gets to zero first, and the winner is whoever is left with the highest points standing. Some conflicts, like Fight! are pretty simple: the loser is unconscious, and the winner is not. In the Duel of Wits it's someone has lost the argument and the other player has won. 

Soccer's an even better instance. The win condition's the same as basketball: score more points by the time your time's up. You do this by bouncing the ball into the goal past the guardian. You may use any part of your body, but not your hands. Only the guardian, the "goalie", may use his hands, but he can't leave the goal if he wishes to do so (once he leaves the goal the goalie must not use his hands). 

And let's pair this up with Misspent Youth, shall we? The conflict is based around a chart with whole positive numbers from 2-12 showing on the sheet. The Authority gets to claim numbers, starting with 7 in the second round. The players roll 2d6 each round, try to land on a number they rolled and hoping to avoid the numbers the Authority has claimed. If they win, they get what they want, and the Authority doesn't. If they lose, they can either opt to lose the conflict or sell out a personality trait and make it darker. The game ends when one player has entirely sold out, and he gets a really bad ending. The players win the overall conflict if they managed to dismantle most of the Authority before one player loses.

And what I find even funnier is that the sports teams these people follow have stories associated around them, just like with RPGs! I mean, sports movies are nothing less than the entire culture remembering a really great game and the people within it. Entire families are sometimes founded on the mythology that a team makes. I mean, what's really the difference between the nerds and the jocks? Physical vs. mental focus, really. There's nothing really all that different. Both "groups" are obsessed about something, lay down their lives for it, and practically live for it. It's just a mental/physical divide.

Basketball, soccer, bowling, fencing, boxing, all of these sports work because they're inherently competitive, and hack into our nature to be the best we can be. Like it or not, this stuff is hardwired into our brains, and so when someone proposes such an asinine thing as "fluff vs. mechanics" the average person is turned off, for the simple reason that they haven't been hardwired to respond to such a thing as "no winner or loser". It is a basic fact in this life that there are winners and losers, that there is a hierarchy. Without a hierarchy built in, all is chaos, all is boring, all is communist. Or, in gaming terms, all is modern DnD, where no one is a loser and so therefore no one's a winner. 

I say let's get rid of our inner communist and go back to being human. Bring back victory and good rules to RPGs!


  1. I don't know. The problem with these kinds of games is that they trade a lot of player agency away in the very random nature of the rolls. There is a certain elegance to "roll and rp the consequences", but I also like being able to build a character, or challenge my players built constructions. As many times as I'm challenging them to RP, I'm also challenging the decisions they made in character design.

    I don't play D&D much at all though, because I find the "choices" in modern D&D are rarely meaningful. There are a lot of good middle ground games between D&D and DitV. Then again, I've always pushed the limits with my games, and have a very narrative push in them.

  2. You are totally right, most games these days, even RPGs, really are not that inherently difficult. For example, Dragon Age 2 is a typically 'fun' game, the first time through, laden with apparent choices, but no matter how badly you frack up, someone will eventually 'win' and the player knows that.

    The same thing can apply to a lot of DnD games because people have come to recognize that eventually, they will 'win' and accomplish what they want most of the time and thus they get bored, losing the real challenge that makes the game fun. Therefore, I think you are absolutely right to impose real consequences to their characters when they fail (and not just when they do something RIDICOLOUSLY stupid, but when the numbers add up and the situation goes wrong, the character dies), thus making a victory much sweeter, should it arise.