Over at EnWorld, roleplaying writer Ari Marmell gives us his take on the interminable anti-flavour-text chatter on the Internet:

“Oh, I don’t need the fluff. I can come up with that stuff easily enough. Just give me the crunch, and I’m fine.”

Sound familiar? You may have said it yourself. I know you’ve at least heard it. And here’s the thing. It’s just flat-out wrong; has been for every edition, and will continue to be so.

I can imagine how Marmell finds it tremendously disheartening to have some of his hardest-wrought works dismissed because a few narrow-minded but vocal folks on the boards fail to comprehend their utility. And although I think he overstates the difficulty of writing game mechanics, it’s not by much: it’s easy to write crunch—writing balanced crunch is hard.

I don’t often spend time on forums—I find the noise-to-signal ratio too high—so I guess it’s not surprising that this sort of debate leaves me scratching my head. It’s all too easy to blame anti-fluff flame on clueless newbies; nonetheless, I think a touch of familiarity with Palladium’s Rifts might be instructive.

With the possible exception of the core rulebook, most published game material seemed to consist of poorly-balanced crunch, only lightly garnished with a handful of pages of background. Don’t get me wrong—some of it was outstandingly good—but all too often, I’d get the latest sourcebook home only to feel in the pit of my stomach that I’d been ripped off. And then I stopped buying Rifts stuff altogether. Maybe it’s just me—but other games systems have only very rarely elicited this sort of response.

If I can coin my first-ever Lego analogy, crunch gives you the parts, but fluff is like the instruction sheet in the box: it shows you where the parts go, and how they fit together—though truth be told, you’re free to to assemble those parts in any way that they’ll fit together. In and of themselves, the individual parts might not be exciting, but at least if the instructions can inspire, then you’ve got your money’s worth. This is what Marmell means when he states:

A good power (or magic item, or feat) should be interesting and balanced, but if the first part fails—if it’s dull and balanced—at least it’s still usable. If the fluff text isn’t interesting, it doesn’t have “Well, at least it’s useful” to fall back on.

Personally, I think this is where D&D4e‘s Monster Manuals fall flat: not enough flavour text. But that’s a discussion for another time…