• Crunch vs Fluff: The Argument We’re Doin’ Wrong

    by  • April 20, 2012 • Essays • 9 Comments

    Well vetted dudes are blogging, currently, about dichotomy and stuff. I guess. They keep talking about crunch and fluff. Are they related. Do they matter to one another. Can you make both matter to different types of player.

    So, here’s my thing. I hate the term ‘fluff.’ Just by the term ALONE you’ve dismissed it to a secondary role. There’s totally a time when that was true, sure, but in that time GenCon was in someone’s basement and had six people at it. Times are different now.

    Flavor is a much better word. It better fits what you’re talking about, (mood, theme, setting details, suggestions of play style, all that yummie stuff. Lick that Ravenloft book, you know you wanna.) Flavor is also less of a weighted word, with less baggage attached to it in a negative or positive way. Crunch and flavor, man. Mouth feel as well as taste. It works, it does.

    Plus here’s the other fun thing about it. Flavor and Crunch, it’s pretty reasonable if your play group likes one over the other. Some people don’t care so much for the flavor of a certain sort of BBQ, for example, but love when meat’s burned over a fire. That doesn’t make them right or wrong, any more than someone who just doesn’t like the mouth feel of tapioca, but loves themselves some chocolate. (I may be abusing the metaphor a bit at this point.)

    You can like the crunch of something, but not care for the flavor, or want to change the flavor, or not need the flavor much at all to get what you need out of a game. That doesn’t make you wrong.

    Conversely, you can LOVE the flavor of something, but the crunch doesn’t work for you, so you hack it, or attach the flavor to another sort of crunch. That doesn’t make you wrong.

    It’s easier to see the differences and the connections between the two when you don’t use a dismissive term like fluff and replace it with flavor.



    Filamena is a professional writer and game designer who isn't very good at writing bios. Having written for White Wolf, Catalyst, Green Ronin and a number of smaller table top games, she's been freelancing for several years. Interested in the indie game scene, Filamena also publishes independently with her life partner at Machine Age Productions. She's the mother of two (almost three) kids, an outspoken liberal and pro sex feminist.


    9 Responses to Crunch vs Fluff: The Argument We’re Doin’ Wrong

    1. avatar
      April 20, 2012 at 16:18

      Well said! I’ve also always hated the term fluff; even we people who take it seriously talk about it, its hard to take them serious when ‘fluff’ gets thrown out all the time. I think flavor works much better, and I think I’ll endeavor to promote its use when possible.

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    2. avatar
      April 20, 2012 at 17:22

      This, taken together with the previous post, really makes me want to write something on the gendering of “crunch” as male and “fluff” as female. (Even the word used to be a synonym for girl!) I think I’d probably have to do a bit of research to write something substantive, though.

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      • avatar
        April 20, 2012 at 20:02

        Clearly, I would LOVE to see that. I very much get the dude vs girl vibe in many discussions of crunch vs fluff. Most noticeable, I see it with White Wolf products, of all things. Which is just mindbending to me since you’d THINK people coming to play games about monsters in the night would be all over the setting, writing, themes, and muscle of the game. But there’s so much dismissal of that and implication of gendered biased toward that stuff. You should, for example, see the hate-on that ‘pro crunch’ players spew when a setting heavy book comes out. “There’s no mechanics! This book is useless!”

        What I find just as interesting though, and here’s where I’m going to get myself in some serious trouble, the last WW product I worked on was a book about bringing paranormal romance and urban fantasy to a vampire game. (It’s in there, but this book was supposed to highlight that aspect and take it to 11.) It was three women writing and a dude developing plus a dude editing. (Great dudes, both, don’t get me wrong.) We were heavily heavily discouraged from any kind of mechanics in our sections. To the point where some of the mechanics that I slipped in were cut after editing. I was, to say the least, dismayed. There were probably good reasons for many of the cuts, I guess, but for one, they were never mentioned to me, and another, I don’t know what purposed it served to forward a gendered agenda and, in many ways, kill the ‘usefulness’ of the book to a lot of crunch fans. (I can’t tell you the ‘this is Twilight’ comments I read. Because I’d explode from rage.)

    3. avatar
      April 20, 2012 at 17:59

      Yes, yes and more yes.

      But I think that even making the dichotomy is a bit wrong. Yes, there are two poles that you can characterize as crunch and flavor, but there’s no bright line between them in an RPG. This is clearest to me in design’s like Vincent Baker’s, where he makes a big point out of “this fictional thing triggers and is-the-same-as this mechanical thing”, at which point you have to concede that fiction—typically the realm of flavor—can be an important and meaningful part of mechanics—typically the realm of crunch.

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      • avatar
        April 20, 2012 at 19:53

        When I design, I want my crunch to serve my setting and theme. All of my mechanics are very specific to the game I’m designing. (You should hear my partner rail about universal systems. It doesn’t make him many friends, but I kind of agree with him.) The crunch serves the flavor to make sure the game is giving the experience I want.

        So in my games, no, the dichotomy is a false one. But not everyone designs that way. Or should. Many people love more generic systems and a game of Dread or Freemarket wouldn’t excite them in the least. Their tastes aren’t wrong, just different. I’m thinking GURPS as a prime example where you have a unifying layer of crunch that you can fancy up with a hundred thousand different flavors. (Possibly literally.) I would still say to a GURPS player that flavor is a better word. I wouldn’t want to tell Ken Hite that his ‘fluff’ text was useless, would you?

        • avatar
          April 20, 2012 at 20:05

          While I agree with what you’re saying, even in more generic systems I think that there’s a sense in which it’s a false dichotomy. The area where I see it as more real is really in, say, board games. The fundamental reason I think it’s a false dichotomy in an RPG is that the fiction informs the rules informs the fiction, and so they necessarily blur a bit.

          Contrast that with a classic board game, where rules are rules, and you can tell yourself whatever story you want about the events in the game, but that story won’t flow back to trigger things in the rules.

          Does that make any more sense? I’m not sure it’s a very valuable point, but it’s my point and I love it.

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          • avatar
            April 20, 2012 at 20:19

            When you compare it to board games, sure. But you also have to take audience into account. For whatever reason, some people are just more comfortable seeing a line in the sand. Some designers, for example, I think are so earth shatteringly terrified of writing that they’ll do anything to avoid fiction. And I know a woman writer or two who is so sure that her ‘crunch’ won’t be taken seriously that she literally won’t write it. (I’ve been there. I got over it.)

            I’d also say that there are absoulutly rpgs out there where the mechanics don’t serve the setting at all. The game may be striving for ‘realism’ in its system, or may have simply botched the job. I’ve seen games where the mechanics straight up get in the way of the setting and actually prevent the characters from experiencing the themes of the game.

          • avatar
            April 20, 2012 at 21:27

            Well when you put it like that. Yes, I know those games. It’s a good reminder that I can get so deep in my own little post-Forge-style world that I forget that those are a real part of the design space, even if they’re disappointing to me.

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