“I’m really only interested in the crunch. You should keep the fluff out of the crunch sections.”
I’m done with the firm separation between the two, and I’m just going to come right out and say that only bad games have “crunch” and “fluff.” If your game doesn’t blend the two, it says one of two things to me:
A) You’re not efficiently using your words.
B) Your game isn’t really about what it says it’s about.
The words you choose matter. The more generic your game text, the less valuable it is. If your game terminology and phrasing doesn’t say something about the world and characters, then you’re missing an opportunity to communicate game and narrative expectations.
As I’m working on #iHunt: The RPG, I’m going over everything twice and I’m asking myself this question: “How can this section say more about the world of #iHunt?”
Generally, my wife looks over to me and says, “Liv, you’re talking to yourself again.” Which is a fair point.
My rule of thumb here is that I want every line of “rules text” to do three things:
- Say something about the game rules.
- Say something about the world or characters.
- Say something about the expectations of play.
These things aren’t always explicit, but if I’m not doing all three of those things, I ask myself why. If I don’t have a damned good answer, I change it.
As an example in #iHunt, I’ve been writing the rules for equipment. But “equipment” is very… clinical. #iHunt isn’t supposed to be clinical. My goals for #iHunt are:
- To make the game very irreverent in the millennial, raised-in-the-1990s sense.
- To make wins temporary, because in the gig economy, you can never really end up on top.
- Everything has to have a sense of humor because that’s a way millennials soften the blows of late stage capitalism.
Here’s a passage I ended up with, in explaining the way you buy or get the game’s “equipment.”
In #iHunt, Stuff is a formalized game term, because I’ve never seen a game that used the word Stuff for a game term, and if there’s one thing game designers like doing, it’s trying to use unique words that nobody’s ever used for game terminology. I checked my thesaurus, and the only synonym I could find that I couldn’t immediately think of a game which used it was “Impedimenta,” which sounds even more pretentious than I’m going for in this game, so, Stuff it is.
You have a trait called Cash that you get with Day Jobs and Gigs. That’s how you get Stuff if you want to just buy it or whatever. You can also hustle for Stuff the old-fashioned way. By old-fashioned way, I mean, you know, before there was money I guess? Anyway, the point is, money isn’t the only way to get things. You can also do things to procure, make, or improvise Stuff. Cash is addressed in the Gig Structure on page XX, and in Day Jobs on page XX.
The long and short is, everything’s got a Cost. You can either spend that much Cash, or you take an action to get the thing. Since stuff is the engine that makes the capitalist world go round, getting Stuff (capital S game “Stuff”) is hard. The Cost of something you want to get applies as a Threshold to the action, and doing an action to get Stuff takes an Ego just to try because it’s hard out there for a hustler.
Look at the game terms alone. We use “Stuff,” “Cash,” and “Gigs.” That all feels irreverent. It all feels temporary.
“Equipment” is the stuff you adorn a character with, which helps to define her and describe her as a character. “Stuff” is the exact same thing, but linguistically it sounds temporary, it sounds like things you accumulate but don’t necessarily care too much about.
Money, Gold, or whatever sounds like a resource that you accumulate as a reward system. Cash, while being the same thing, sounds fleeting and meaningless in the long-term. Which is absolutely the case when you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck.
“Gigs” are Jobs, they’re Missions, they’re Quests. Except they’re just gigs. You do them, you move on, no big.
And of course, you see how I turned defining a simple concept into something sarcastic and humorous, while laying out how that rule works.
Your Game Isn’t About What It Says It’s About
Games, or at least game mechanics, generally exist to present a mechanical abstraction of in-world events. Points and tokens and dice and all that exist to help you express what’s going on in the story, whether on the front end or back end.
This of course has nothing to do with the way things really work. Swinging a sword is nothing like rolling a d100 and adding Strength + Melee and factoring sword damage against armor penalties and blah blah fucking blah. Those numbers, those words, those dice communicate the way swinging a sword works in your game. That’s it.
If your game is supposed to be a high-action romp with over-the-top heroics and clever swashbuckling, but the dice say every time you swing your weapon it takes five dice rolls and fifteen minutes of navigating tables and hit location charts and looking over a grid map with a ruler and every mook takes seven hits to remove from the equation, then that’s not what your game’s actually about. Your game is probably about meticulous tactical bullshit.
This is why there’s no such thing as a “generic game system.” There’s just not. Every “generic” game system says specific things about the stories you’re telling with it, and not acknowledging that means you’re losing out on the potential value of your rules and systems.
This is why I revise all my text to make sure every single line, every passage says something about the narrative, the world, and what the expected play looks like.
Revising to communicate game and narrative themes has turned what was ultimately a generic set of mechanics into something that has a strong, bold identity. More importantly, as I considered these shifts, I came up with new ideas because I realized my more generic mechanics didn’t deliver the experiences I wanted.
It’s kind of like an automated developmental editor you don’t have to pay. If you write with your world firmly in mind, you’ll start to see all sorts of problems falling through the cracks, problems which cause ludonarrative dissonance. In video game space, that’s when a game delivers a dissonant experience because the game mechanics don’t match with the presented narrative. Tying the two as closely as possible helps you to see those potential conflicts before you even get to testing.
As a specific example from #iHunt, as I was writing the rules for health, injury, and dying, I realized in my “voice pass” that I kept using the word “trauma.” The #iHunt novels deal with trauma as a core theme, both physical and mental trauma. However, it doesn’t really line up with a “hit point” style of injury in the more classic sense. Ultimately this led to writing rules for developing trauma, which are now a robust addition to the game which helps to deliver that experience.
If you’re drawing a strong line between “fluff” and “crunch,” you’ll never catch those things. And then you run into the problem of game fiction that looks nothing like the game. Have you ever read a piece of game fiction that was excellent and evocative, only to play the game and realize the two were nothing alike? Let me know in the comments.