April 13, 2012

Crunch v. Fluff: The Unstackening

On Wednesday I unloaded both barrels on the crunch vs. fluff dichotomy in roleplaying design, labeling it a stacked framing meant to grant an air of objective authority on one set of gamer tastes. Monte Cook, whose post inspired that one, doesn’t much care for the terms either.

Which raises the question: is there a neutral way to describe this real separation in player tastes?

To do that, we need to find positive terms for both ends of the continuum, which respect the essential role they play in a roleplaying experience, and the players who strongly prefer one side over the other.

“Crunch” works as is, as one would expect for the quality the framing was built to favor. I used the related term “crunchy bit” in Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering to evoke the satisfying interplay of imaginary hard details. There is an aesthetic pleasure in these interactions, both as abstractions and in the ways they claim to simulate real-world processes. Players find a certain complexity level emotionally satisfying. Inconveniently for game designers, that level varies even among crunch-lovers. Crunch also suggests what one tends to do with these rules—crunch your opponents upside the head. It appeals to particular player types, placing vital tools in the hands of butt-kickers, tacticians, and power gamers.

“Fluff”, however, has to go. It’s inherently dismissive of the RPG elements that bring storytellers, method actors, explorers and casual gamers to the table. We need a punchy, fun term to encompass the invented histories, character portrayals, setting descriptions, visual imagery and other imaginative elements that together make up the form’s narrative side. “Imagination” or “visualization” describe what these bring to the game, but sound dry and lack that one-syllable pizazz.

In exceptions-based card games, one sometimes uses the term “chrome.” That sounds cool and shiny, but, like “fluff”, implies a superficial layer placed on top of the true substance. Which is arguably the case with the art, flavor text and setting elements in a card game, which are much less central to play in a card game than their analogues in an RPG.

The term “flavor” gets us a little closer. Who would want food without flavor? But it still sounds like an added ingredient rather than one half of a balanced whole.

With a little free association, however, we can springboard from “flavor” and “chrome” to two possible alternate terms.

“Sizzle” seems at least as cool as crunch, and sticks with the latent food metaphor. It draws out the emotional dash that story elements provide.

The judges will also accept “flash” as a short, positive word that describes that selfsame impact.

So if you want to speak honestly when discussing the balance of mechanics/tactics and character/story, call it “crunch vs. sizzle” or “crunch vs. flash.” Then we can talk.