I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Monday, April 20, 2020

RPG and Design VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)

RPG and design series so far:

I - Vocabulary; Manual x Encyclopedia
II - Crunch x Fluff
III - Crunch IS Fluff (excavators can't jump!)
IV - Theme, Mechanics, and Narrative
* V - Incongruous and dissociated mechanics
VI - Unproductive fluff (and crunch)

In this post I'll talk about unproductive fluff and unproductive crunch. Unproductive is the best word I could find, I think. I considered "useless", but even unproductive fluff can be used an inspiration. Let's see.

We have established that most of the actual "role-playing game" takes place purely in the fluff or in the interaction between fluff and crunch. More precisely, the role-playing game happens while the players can interact with things that happen to their characters, usually by making meaningful choices (see the post by The Alexandria in part V).

While a PC is talking to an NPC, that is obviously role-playing. When the player rolls a dice to see if the PC can hit a foe, he is also playing a role-playing game.

There are some details, however, that are so removed from this experience as to be near useless; they do not affect the things that happen to the PCs.

In the diagram above, such unproductive parts are marked in red; they are far from one another (i.e., unproductive fluff has no effect on crunch and vice-versa) and far from the emerging narrative. In short, they are peripheral to the role-playing experience, at most.

Lets tackle unproductive fluff first.

One example is the detailed chronology or geography that was included in some old campaign settings.

If a king died 100 years ago leaving no descendants, castles, lessons, factions or relics for the PCs to interact with, the fluff is entirely unimportant to what happens to the PCs, and thus almost useless for the actual role-playing game.

Likewise, the fact that one village produces barley while the next village produces rice does not affect most adventures.

In theory, ANY piece of information can be relevant to a campaign. However, these are examples of things that are unlikely to be relevant.

There is at least one good reason to include unproductive fluff in RPG books: solely to provide inspiration. Maybe the manner of death of a king sets the tone for the campaign, for example. In this manner, they function like a beautiful piece of art inserted in an RPG book (like art, however, they serve other functions such in layout, etc.).

Still, feels wasteful to provided inspiration that do not affect the PCs. If the king was killed in an undead invasion, where are the undead now? Could they rise again? Did they leave relics? Etc.

Therefore, the fluff included in a book should either affect the lives of the characters, provide inspiration for the reader, or, preferably, BOTH.

Details that do neither are both useless and boring.

Unproductive crunch is a bit trickier - only because we are so used to it.

I call unproductive crunch the mechanics that take you away from the fluff, and therefore away from the actual game. These mechanics are not entirely removed from the fluff, or they wouldn't be included; in fact, they just add unnecessary steps.

Let's say a stealthy thief turns a corner in the dungeon, sees a goblin, and attacks it. These are the steps the group can take when playing 5e, for example:

* Check for surprise [maybe for BOTH sides]
* Roll initiative [also for both sides]
* Roll to see if you hit [re-roll 1s if you have such feature]
* Roll for damage
* [Re-rolls 1s and 2s if you have such feature]

In old school D&D, things are not necessarily any easier - initiative can be a lot more complicated, for example.

There are other complications, of course. In 5e, for example, a dragon might have four different rolls to decide: if it attacks first, it its breath in available, if it success in hurting the PCs, and how much damage it causes (sometimes, this is actually an automatic hit with two separate rolls for damage: "dexterity saving throw to take half damage", etc.)

We are used to this stuff. It feels familiar. But it is far from necessary. The entire situation could be resolved with a single d20 roll. You'd think dividing it in many phases would give you a more detailed account of events:

- You approach the goblin [roll] but he sees you before you attack. [roll] however, you have the initiative [roll] and you hit the goblin [roll, maybe re-roll] but your attack is not strong enough to kill him.

However, a single d20 has enough results to account for all these possibilites (specially if the enemy rolls as well), including variable damage if you find this useful, and also some non-binary possibilities that are both realistic and fun. For example, the goblin is "half-surprised", etc.:

You approach the goblin [rolls 15] and quickly hit him before he can react, but he is still alive.

The first method takes longer to get to the same result (the goblin is wounded), and includes lots of rolling without meaningful decision from the players (all decision were made before the rolling starts) and results that do not really matter (did the goblin avoid a blow because he saw the PC coming [perception], because he prepared quickly [initiative] or at the last moment, when the PC swung his sword [AC]? I doesn't matter).

Notice that each roll involves other steps such as adding different your ability modifiers, skills, choosing the dice that corresponds to your weapon, etc. In addition, 5e has multiple instances of re-rolling, ignoring the result of the dice if lower than X, rolling multiple dice and ignoring a few (I'm not talking about ad/disad, but things like the savage attacker feat).

I think it would be possible to ignore all of that, but that's a difference subject that deserves a post of its own.

For completeness sake, I must include that useless minutia should be included in unproductive fluff (and crunch). Two quick examples:

* "The good king William was killed by Saxons a few decades ago" versus "The good king William was killed by Saxons in 1053 at the age of 44 in the battle of Justinvented near Hoocaresatall."

* A feat that will give you 3% additional damage on average, but this raises to 7% with the right build.

The "incredibly long and boring backstory" that some players write to their PCs fall unto the same category. Likewise, when GMs do the same for their NPCs and setting. Ultimately, this is a futile exercise because it doesn't affect the actual play; it has no effect in the table. Again, it might provide inspiration, but other than that it becomes irrelevant.

"Metaplot" (as in "things that happen without the PCs being able to interfere") is the same. It only becomes relevant when it affects the PCs and allows players to react.

Most RPG players know these things are bad ideas, anyway - but it is useful to know why these ideas are bad in the first place.

In short: both the fluff and the crunch should be in service of telling the players what happens to their characters (an the surroundings) so that they can make informed decisions on what to do next.

The rest is filler.


  1. While I appreciate and agree with much of what you've written, here, there are some important issues to address:

    I will give you the benefit of the doubt with regards to Metaplot, insofar as you have described it, and shall assume that you mean specifically when there was /absolutely/ no way for the players to interact with or effect the outcome, or for it to effect or affect them.

    I find that there are at least two scenarios in which such activity could become very much relevant and directly play into the game aspect of table time: 1, when the events were in fact a direct result of the players' choices (either in a dilemma situation where the players either explicitly or implicitly had the capacity to head to and/or address one or more issues that were happening simultaneously,* or alternatively because of their activity in an indirect way--- a city or village becoming larger and more successful because the players decided to be active nearby, for example). 2, these sorts of uncontrolled events can majorly impact the goings on of the campaign by cutting off or greatly interfering with the activity the group was pursuing (i.e.: an army invades and destroys the location wherein a quest giving NPC resided, causing the players to need to address the issue, possibly rescuing them, looting what they can from the residence's ruin, or possibly attacking the force for revenge).

    I /will/ assume that you specifically meant details/events that never come up again and/or which are only tangentially related to campaign activity (despite the fact that it /could/ theoretically cause the players to derail whatever plot they were currently in to run toward whatever circumstances occurred, like a dog seeing a squirrel).


    The second issue is that, despite how irksome they might be to get to, I wouldn't necessarily say that character background stories are unimportant, insofar as they might not only be a cause for inspiration for decisions on the DM's part (the classic having a parent or sibling killed/kidnapped, for example), which I believe you actually accounted for in your post; but also: such backgrounds might become very relevant insofar as they can often be a source of inspiration for player action (which is quite encouraged in 5e), meaning that reading and memorizing as much as the drivel as possible might make it a little bit easier for the DM to predict and understand the characters' actions and mindsets [very useful for herding cats]; furthermore, there is the possibility that some consequences should naturally occur as a result of the characters' backstory actions: if a player has killed or committed another major crime in a certain jurisdiction, you might expect them to have bounties in that area, and for them to possibly have a reputation of infamy among those who recognize them--- and the same occurs for characters that have performed some major act of heroism or national service that would not be obvious by just looking at their Background choice, ideals, et cetera.

    * = This can be particularly poignant and/or interesting when the area/person that was not helped held trust toward the adventurers and/or they trusted them, but their future interactions are either completely cut off (because they died/it was destroyed) or occur with a damaged relationship (up to and including potential betrayal).

    1. Yes, your assumption is correct; like I've said, "In theory, ANY piece of information can be relevant to a campaign. However, these are examples of things that are unlikely to be relevant."

      Same goes for player backgrounds. In theory, they could help the DM, yes, but in practice I see players ignoring their own backstories 90% of the time; and even if they don't, why not empathize the stuff that happens in the table, with the entire group, instead of something a PC has done on their own?

      Probably depends on the players, etc., but the older I get the more I feel like we should cut the "drivel" and focus on the experience of playing the game.

    2. Indeed, I will agree that it certainly depends on the group of players.

      I, as you indicate you do, tend to gravitate toward only involving that which has happened at the table, but I have also come to recognize that there are certain players who very much not only enjoy, but greatly desire their backgrounds and backstories to be interacted with, and will be disappointed if this never occurs over the course of a longer campaign. Given this is the case, then, properly communicating with them and thus equipping yourself with the knowledge of where everyone's priorities lie will help immensely in ensuring that everyone is satisfied, as always tends to be the case (which I know you know already, but which I say anyway because you never know who will read the comments).

      One interesting thing I've noticed is that when one *does* interact with one player's backstory, it often leads others at the table to desire such a thing happens to them as well, at some point. Depending on the group and how many resources are devoted to it, I'm sure this could potentially devolve into jealousy and annoyance, though, rather than simple desire, so a DM must be quite careful with their management of the situation.

    3. Ah, yes, I think you're right about this one.

      I've been through this with a single player; his great desire of having elaborate (and "epic") backstories enhanced the campaign, and his enjoyment of the game (I had to exercise some veto power to stop him form taking over the world).

      The other players didn't care to learn about his story, and playful referred to him as "the GM's favorite" because of that, but didn't feel the urge of creating their own backstories.

      I do think that the fact that he was more interested in his character than the other players to be an advantage, as it made him more interested in the campaign as a whole.

      Only caveat is that his backstory was TOO extensive, and 90% of it got disregarded and had no effect in the table (otherwise, it might have dominated the fate of other PCs).

      But I'll concede, sometimes elaborate backstories can be useful, at the very least to help the GM come up with ideas.

  2. While I agree 95% as a GM I do like QUICK bits of info such as the Barley in the fields.

    A table might be better but sometimes you have a Druid that is gonna ask and you're tired of everyone having wheat because you can't think of anything else, and othertimes you might decide that Ankhegs avoid Barley fields for some reason that the players can exploit using bails of the stuff to improvise a barley fortress to protect the villagers while they go hunting.