Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Benefit of Fluff

This is something of a game design heavy week. I apologize for that; I imagine most of you are more interested in GM and RP advice more than game design, but it has been on my mind of late. Today I want to talk about fluff, and the importance it can have in a game. Now, this benefit isn't immediately obvious. After all, what is an RPG but the GM and Players making their own world and characters, and then having fun in it? However, fluff can be an important part of a game, and in the design of a game, and I wanted to take a few moments today to talk about it.

Full Disclosure
It isn't a secret by now, but I'm an aspiring professional game designer. While I haven't made much in the way of moves towards this goal of late - school has kept me pretty busy - I am working on a few games, just at a slower pace. Now, I am confident in my mechanic's ability to provide a good time for people. So much so that I was contemplating cutting out some of the general fluff stuff that you'd normally find in a game book Then I started thinking about it, and realized what I'm going to talk about here today.

The point? I'm still feeling my way through this. I've also got a bit of a personal stake in any of the advice or views expressed in the comments. Nothing new, but wanted folks to know.

An Example of Play
Disclosure out of the way, one of the things that fluff in your game can - and should - do is give players and the GM an example of how the game should play. The stories and fluff written by the developers of a game are more than just entertaining bits to read, they are the kind of stories that the game is supposed to let you play. John Wick, when he does it, is generally pretty good at this. He writes pieces that strike right to the heart of the game, things that can happen, things that may have happened in play tests. Either way, by reading through the fluff for his games the GM and Players instantly get an idea of what the game is supposed to help them do.

Don't believe me? Read the opening fluff in the first edition of Legend of the Five Rings. Better yet, give the man $5 for his hard work, and grab The Shotgun Diaries from his store. Both have fluff that pulls you into the action right away.

Story Ideas
The tales told in the provided fluff can also give ideas for stories that the GM may want to use. Maybe they will take the plots whole sale, maybe they will just take an idea here and there, either way the fluff usually works great for adventure ideas if only because of the above point.

Often times the fluff in a book will actually cover snippets of multiple stories. Just touching on the relevant parts for that section of the book. Others, it will give a long and detailed story. The beginning to Werewolf: The Forsaken was essentially how one character became a werewolf. The kind of adventure that the book recommended every player go through with their GM. It effectively worked as both an example of play, and an idea for how to handle it.

The Desired Feel
This is an extension of the above two points, but is just as important to cover on its own. The stories, more than giving ideas and examples of play, also convey the desired feel for the game. This is another one where John Wick and White Wolf usually nail it. Even if you don't like the stories, they convey the theme and feel of the game wonderfully well. Some of white wolf's snippets are incredible at bringing up the sense of the horrific world that the games are meant to convey. Either playing up the role of the monster in the PCs lives, or just showing that there are things out there that are beyond the normal ken.

What Else?
So, what else do you get out of fluff? Do you enjoy it? Personally, I've found myself reading through the fluff before I even get to the system mechanics at times. Other times, well, its been one of the last things I've read. How about you?


  1. I enjoy 'fluff' quite a bit, actually. The old WEG Star Wars stuff was full of fluff- the various Sourcebooks and Galaxy Guides had all KINDS of fluff, in the form of NPC backgrounds, notes on vehicles and vessels and even short stories interspersed throughout. I've plucked dozens of ideas from all that stuff. But my personal pet peeve is when 'fluff' is injected into the 'rules' section of a book. When I'm trying to find out how a specific combat rule works, I don't want a short story describing it. Just a simple paragraph will do- followed by another simple example of that rule in actual use. If you want to write a combat short story BEFORE or AFTER delineating the rule, that's cool, just don't make me have to dig for important 'mechanical' info. But again, that's just my peeve.

  2. I actually agree. The example for a rule should be the out of game mechanics, not the in game story. It isn't an example of how the rule works if it is a fluff story, it is an example of what the rule does.

    "Use in play" could work, those silly things where it has the GM and Players talking about what is going on. Where the really smart player explains it to the really dumb player.

    "No Jack, because you tried to disarm you have to call 3 raises, hit him, and THEN do the contested strength roll."

    "Oh thanks Marla, you know I'm not good at this stuff"

    GM: "Haha, now you guys are cooking!"

    but I digress....what was I saying?

  3. Another way I've been seeing fluff is for the designer to use a blog to publish short stories about the game even while in development. I can imagine it gets people anticipating the game and it can introduce the setting in bite sized nuggets. Some designers have said it keeps them focused on developing. I haven't heard of anyone doing this yet but it might be possible to use the blog to determine which stories are the most popular and then include them in the book.

  4. I love fluff in the form of campaign settings. A system that has its own setting is much more appealing to me simply because I don't have to worry about making something up if I don't feel like doing that. I also love fluff for skills or abilities or whatever the system uses for combat because I always role-play combat and it's nice to know that my wizard is "summoning forth flames from the nether to burn my enemies to a crisp in a mighty fiery explosion" rather than knowing that my wizard is casting fireball. Those sort of things just make me happy whenever I read the text for systems.