“Fluff,” Lore and Mechanics

“What, drawn, and talk of peace! I hate the word as I hate hell, all Montagues, and thee, [fluff]!”

I absolutely hate the word “fluff” as it is applied to gaming worlds. If I understand correctly, the term was first used by wargamers to discuss the information given about the world in which their chosen wargame takes place (for me, it was first used in “Warhammer 40k fluff.” The word is, of course, derisive, with the connotation that “fluff” is not necessary, but only a nice addition to have. I understand why some wargamers might have coined and still use the term if they only carry about the actual game they’re playing itself (they want to know which options make for the best Tyranid warriors but don’t give a fig about Tyranid biology, for instance), and the word makes this plainly evident.

Even in the wargaming realm, though, I think the word does a disservice. Maybe I’m just not as competitive a wargamer as others (or maybe I think I’m not until I sit down to a game and take it overly seriously!), but the narrative of an unfolding combat is just as or more interesting than all of the rules themselves. Games overly based on the army you bring and the synergies between unit selections quickly bore me over games where on-the-field decision making and use of resources takes center stage. I want to know a reason the forces are fighting for me to be interested in outcomes more than winning and losing. I think that’s a more fun approach, too, as you can celebrate the sudden reversals in fortune for your opponent with them instead of lamenting as “unfair” every time the dice turn against you.

As a curious aside, I find in interesting that some fictitious settings get “lore” or a “legendarium” while others have only “fluff.” I’m not quite sure where the distinction lies, but I’d love to locate the line. It’s not simply that games have fluff and speculative fiction has “lore”–the Elder Scrolls and Dragon Age worlds are often spoken of in terms of “lore” and not “fluff.” Maybe some of this is just a matter of how seriously a particular person takes a particular settings; almost certainly some of it is a matter of semiotic fluidity and carelessness with words.

But I do think it matters. Over the past fifty years, roleplaying games (and games based on fantasy and speculative fiction in general) have increased both in popular appeal and in the seriousness with which the writing of gamebooks and the playing of the game are taken as artistic and literary pursuits. Academia is studying and writing about roleplaying games more and more, and I think that’s an amazing thing; there may be more to learn about how humans examine and work through their own existence in the roleplaying game than in the solitary virtuoso’s classic novel.

When it comes to roleplaying games, I absolutely detest the word, “fluff.” I like a good set of mechanics for a game and I have a great interest in analyzing, modifying and creating RPG mechanics, as some of the posts on this blog demonstrate. I don’t want to fall into the trap of proclaiming the “one true way of roleplaying,” so take my opinions for just that: opinions. But I believe that the setting in which a roleplaying game takes place is not only just as (or more important than) the hard-coded rules, but that the setting and lore surrounding the game are part of the rules.

Those of you who read my RPG-related posts with some frequency know that I gravitate toward narratively-focused games, and especially Fate. But my posts on character-building for Shadowrun are probably the most-read posts on the entire site, so I’m not averse to rules-heavy games either. Still, the games I favor tend to explicitly incorporate setting as mechanics. Fate uses Aspects as a mechanism for those things that are narratively important to affect the dice resolutions, Cortex Plus and Prime do the same thing in a slightly different way. These rules are both focused on providing flexible mechanical systems to handle those points of narrative where randomness and insecurity of outcome is beneficial to the game, while keeping the narrative at the forefront. There are not rules for every case, nor do these rules get too bogged down in exceptions, combos, etc., leaving both Fate and Cortex as RPG toolkits for those gamemasters who like to tinker with and personalize their rules without having to start from scratch.

Forged in the Dark and Powered by the Apocalypse take a different, maybe even more direct, approach to setting as mechanics. They call this narrative or fictional “positioning,” and they don’t need hardcoded rules to do it. The premise is simple–when deciding how successful and effective an action is, we look at the context of the action to make the determination rather than resorting to a “margin of success” or other explicit rules. In a gunfight with a knife and you’ve out-rolled the opponent? Maybe you’re able to get a good slash on the opponent and disarm him. Had you been using a gun of your own, maybe the result would have been a John Wick-style headshot, since you’d have had a much better fictional possession relative to your opponent.

Both systems can use the “hardness” of a GM response, cost of success or degree of success or how many pieces of a clock are filled in for a more specific tracking system.

But neither of these system is necessary to use the “setting and situation as rules” approach. In fact, I think it’s fair to argue that all games to this to a greater or lesser extent. Even Dungeons and Dragons, where you might have a discrete dice roll for damage or to determine whether a condition is suffered, many tests (especially skill tests) are wide open to interpretation of result by the GM. Genre, setting and situation can be drawn upon to determine results in such cases.

A few notes on this:
(1) I think that this is part of what OSR gamers are looking for–greater acknowledgment of setting and situation for resolution rather than specific rules for every action authorizing what can and cannot be done. There’s an opportunity cost for writing rules for specific actions, one most evident in feats and abilities for characters, I think. If there’s a “Great Leap” ability that allows for a jump attack, there’s, at the very least, an implication that characters without this ability can never make (Brad Pitt as Achilles in Troy-style) badass jumping attacks.
(2) Also with reference to D&D, the opposite situation–when mechanics are treated as the physics of the setting, even when that doesn’t make rational sense–occurs. I think that this is part of what drives me away from the D&D system as a whole (among other things). I think of Jake Norwood, writing in the preface of his awesome game The Riddle of Steel, when he states that part of the impetus for creating his game was a D&D experience where his character stood on the edge of a cliff, a horde of orcs rushing towards him, and he realized he’d take less damage jumping off the cliff than fighting the orcs. It’s okay to say, “if your character does this, he will die”–even if the rules say otherwise. Unless you’re trying to play a goofy slapstick game (power to you if that’s how you roll), everyone at the table should understand that logic trumps rules when they’re in conflict. A good example, I think, was how the Serenity RPG handled being thrown into space without protection. The rules state (in paraphrase): “The character dies. If you really need to, roll all the dice on the table and apply that much damage.” Note that I’m not saying that it’s inappropriate for a game to have a mechanism for resolving falling damage, only that that mechanism should give way to the fiat of death (perhaps modified by whatever “barely escape from death” points the system has) when it is logically appropriate.
(3) No rules system can cover all situations, nor can it possibly account for all of the minute variables that might factor into a resolution roll, so by necessity we resort to using setting and situation (as our form of internal consistency and logic) to structure resolution rolls in the first place. Is this a one-die penalty for difficulty or two?

And, of course, the lore of a setting tells us what types of things are likely to happen in that setting, what things are extremely unlikely, and how actions or events are likely to play out. You can, and sometimes should, homebrew and modify rules to reflect those realities, but the truth is that you don’t necessarily need to if the setting itself provides the North Star in guiding the structure and interpretation of rolls.

For all of these reasons, I’d argue that setting is a much a part of mechanics (or at least should be considered such) as everything that falls within the “rules” section of the books. When that’s the case, there’s no such thing as “fluff,” there’s only information about the setting that helps us understand how to position the mechanics we use when playing in that setting.

RPG Design Journal #1: Choosing a Core Mechanic for Avar Narn RPG

Reader beware: this post is as much me working through design ideas as it is describing design choices. If that’s not interesting to you, but RPGs are, just wait until I’ve posted something more concrete about the Avar Narn RPG’s systems.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started work on an RPG ruleset for Avar Narn and then stopped.

Here’s a list of rulesets I’ve used to run games in the Avar Narn setting over the years (as the setting has developed and grown): The Riddle of Steel, D&D, Fate, Cortex Plus, various custom systems.

And here’s a list of systems I find (to varying degrees) influential on my own design approaches: Shadowrun, World of Darkness (particularly nWoD Mage: The Awakening), Dogs in the Vineyard, Fate, Cortex Plus/Prime, TRoS, Warhammer Fantasy, Apocalypse World, Barbarians of Lemuria, Artesia: Adventures in the Known World, Shadows of Esteren, The One Ring, Stoltze’s One-Roll Engine (and particularly Reign), John Wick (especially Houses of the Blooded), Blades in the Dark, Fantasy Dice, GUMSHOE, FFGs system for Star Wars and WFRP3e, Burning Wheel and Torchbearer. Yes, that’s a lot of varied designs with some ideas that are incompatible with others.

Having mostly cut my teeth on dice pool systems, that’s my typical starting place. I’ve read a fair bit on game design and, this time I’ve decided to start at the very beginning, without preference for a core mechanic. Here are some links to give you some background on things I’ve been thinking about as I do this:

“How Do I Choose My Dice Mechanic”
“All RPGs Are FUDGE” (while I see a little more significance to the variation between systems than this author, the point that statistical variations in the most-frequently-employed core mechanics are not as significant as we might think seems pretty sound)
“Design Patterns of Successful Roleplaying Games”
The Kobold Series on Game Design
Robin Law’s Hamlet’s Hit Points and John Wick’sĀ Play Dirty (although these are more about running games than designing them)

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to analyze the statistical differences between core mechanics (though math is not my strong suit, and particularly when it comes to complex probability equations) only to come down with a bad case of analysis paralysis.

Here’s what my recent reading (and experience) has led me to conclude:

(1) When the rules serve their purpose well, it’s the story that gets remembered, not the results of dice throws.
(2) The actual statistics of a core mechanic are less important than the way we perceive them–the way (our view of) the dice mechanic reinforces (or undercuts) the feel of the game and setting is what matters.
(3) The most interesting thing about a core mechanic is how it can be manipulated with interesting rules that are intuitive and yet reinforce setting ideas. Thus, a core mechanic should be selected more with an eye to what it can do for subsystems and design goals than its own merit.

Here are some of my analytical conclusions so far:

(1) Efficiency is paramount. The more you can resolve with a single die roll the better. Dice pools are often faster in use than roll and add/subtract systems because counting successes is easier than addition. Is it easier enough to force a design change? No.

(2) Inspired by the FFG custom-dice game: if a single roll can give you both the main pass/fail and degree of success informationĀ and give you cues for scene complications or opportunities, so much the better. The One-Roll Engine is also good at this. Additionally, checking the dice for multiple conditions should be simplified as much as possible so that this feature does not carry with it too hard a hit on efficiency.

(3) For a gritty setting like Avar Narn, a bell-curve or Gaussian distribution makes sense for three reasons: (a) extreme results are made more rare for a more “realistic” feel, (b) character stats are more significant in a bell-curve distribution than a linear distribution, and (c) along with (a), these distributions give more predictability to players as to results, which is important in a game where consequences of actions (including but not limited to lethality) are severe. The binomial distribution of dice-pool systems aren’t so far off as to be ruled out by this, but do not fit as well as a multiple-dice roll-and-add system.

(4) Along with a bell-curve or similar statistical distribution, the “bounded accuracy” of the latest iteration of D&D helps create expectations reliable enough for players to reasonably predict the results of courses of action.

(5) Combat requires a delicate balance–it must be fast, but it must also grant enough tactical depth to be interesting for its own sake. Additionally, it must be intuitive enough that advanced lessons in martial arts are not necessary to use the system to its fullest. One of the ways to make combat quick is to make it deadly, but combat that is too deadly is not fun for players. This is exacerbated if (1) the game intends deep and serious character development, (2) the “adventuring pace” means that injured characters must take a back seat for an extended period, or (3) character creation is time-consuming and/or complex. I’ve got a number of ideas for streamlining combat, but that’s for another time.

(6) Rules principles that can be applied to many different scenarios are far better than complex rulesets. Fate and Cortex are the best at this, in my opinion.

So what does all of this mean for Avar Narn RPG? Despite my love for dice-pool systems, I’ve currently leaning toward a 3d6 system, or perhaps even the use of Fudge/Fate dice. The 3d6 is more accessible for newbies into RPGs, but it’s probably more realistic to expect this to be a niche game. And, to be honest, I’d rather have a dedicated group that loves the system and setting than having to try to cater to a large base with very diverse expectations–especially for a first “published” (read: publicly available) system.

My apologies if you were expecting a solid answer on the core mechanic in this post! Right now, my action items in making a final decision are as follows: (1) determine the subsystems the game will need/benefit from, (2) play around with manipulation rules for various core mechanics, (3) find the core mechanic that checks off the most boxes.

Thoughts from those of you who have tried your hand at RPG design?