Lesson 4: Fluff vs. Crunch

Welcome back to Crit the Books, friends! This week, we’ll be looking at a few terms that get thrown about a lot in discussions of gaming, especially tabletop roleplaying games. They’ve been called different things based on context; you might be familiar with them as lore, flavor, rules, and mechanics. I’m going to be using the terms Fluff and Crunch for these two ideas! This is going to be a bit more of an academic article than normal, but I’ll be sure to put in some tips at the end to improve your winrate, as well as improve your gaming experience in general!

Fluff and Crunch are, in the shortest description, ways to divide the components of a game between “soft” narrative descriptions and “hard” rules or mechanics. It’s most used to be able to discuss parts of the game in contrast with each other, or to find areas where those aspects might not match up entirely. It can also be used as a tool to restructure parts of your games in order to emphasize parts of the game that some of your players like or used to analyze your own gaming preferences to better find games that interest you!

Fluff is the narrative aspects of the game. This is also occasionally called backstory, lore, or flavor. It is what makes games more interesting than just sets of numbers! An easy way to tell if something is part of a game’s fluff is to see if there are hard numbers associated with it. Sometimes, something will provide a mechanical bonus but not use numbers to describe it – advantage in Dungeons and Dragons is an example – but most of the time, if something doesn’t have numbers or a mechanical buzzword like “advantage” or “reroll”, it’s an aspect of a game’s fluff.

Crunch, on the other hand, is the rules of the game. It can also be called mechanics. These are the parts of the game that provide the framework that differentiates a game from a choose-your-own-adventure novel or an interactive piece of theater. Crunch provides the venues of hard interaction between players and their antagonists and specifies the rules for which conflicts are solved within the game. The easiest way to identify a crunchy element of a game is to look for numbers and bonuses.

Now that you know what crunch and fluff are, how is that useful? Knowing the difference between these can let you improve your gaming experience in a number of ways. The first, and perhaps most important, is that knowing the difference can let you identify what parts of different games appeal to you, and that can help you find more games that you will like! For example, say that you are somebody who really enjoys optimizing your character in Dungeons and Dragons games – you love big numbers! You’re more attracted to the crunch of the game, and so you’ll likely find more rewarding experiences in more crunchy, mechanics heavy games.

On the other hand, maybe your favorite parts of playing games are the stories behind them. You’re not concerned with dealing the most damage; you’re concerned with making sure your character has the chance to confront their father and make him pay for his misdeeds. You’re probably more interested in the fluff of the game, and that might lead you towards looser and freer games, where you can focus more on the story being told than whoever has the bigger numbers.

In addition, knowing the difference between these two aspects can make games more entertaining by changing one or both of those aspects! For example, say that you are slated to play in a game of Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition. You have this awesome imagery that you want to use for your character – a druid who shoots swarms of bugs with their magic bow rather than arrows. You can talk to your DM, and most times, if you agree to not change the crunch of the build – tracking ammo, your damage dice, your range – they will happily let you change around the fluff aspects to better fit the image in your head. Most DMs would much rather have an engaged player who wants to improve immersion in their game than someone who sticks to every piece of the lore as written. Plus, let’s face it: “As I loose the string of my bow, nothing seems to happen for a split second. Then, along what would be my arrow’s path, small insects being to swarm to existence from nothingness. They fly forward and attack my enemy!” is a lot more interesting than “I draw an arrow, nock it, and shoot it like usual.”

Enjoyment is all well and good, but I know that some of my readers are much more interested in “How does this help me win?”. Don’t worry – I’ve got some tips for you as well. These tips touch on the ideas I looked at last week – playing to your outs – but they’re just a bit different. If you want to win, focus on what you are mechanically good at, not necessarily what your good at in fluff. Sometimes, aspects of your gameplay will not sync up entirely with what your fluff might seem to suggest. To improve your winrate, you’ll want to keep your eyes on the parts that matter for winning and conflict resolution. Sure, it might be cool to take a feat that better fills out the relationship between your character and their father. Or, you could take the feat that gives you better numbers to get your revenge on him. If you’re playing to win, don’t let your fluff sidetrack you from that goal unless it helps you with it.

There are a number of topics related to fluff and crunch – ludonarrative in games, roleplaying vs “roll-playing”, and designing strongly themed games, just to name a few. However, even just a rudimentary understanding of fluff and crunch, plus the contexts in which they can be used, can lead you to more enjoyable and satisfying gaming experiences. I hope that you’ll be able to use what you’ve learned here to do just that!

A big thank you to my Patrons for this month: Alex, TicTac, and anonymous patrons. If there are specific subjects or concepts you’d like an article written on, I suggest you look at my patreon! For just $7 a month, you’ll be able to suggest article topics for me to write on.

As always, remember that it’s not enough to just hit the books if you want to win. You’ve got to Crit the Books!

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