I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the issue of rule mechanics vs. color when it comes to things like class descriptions, spells, and magical items. Take, for example, the following:
Level 1 mage spell (alteration)
Requires: incantation, gestures
Casting time: 6 seconds
This spell causes a sheet of flames to spring 3’ from the caster’s spread fingertips. This fire will cause 1 hit point of damage per level of the caster, and will ignite any flammable materials.
As opposed to the following:
Urquart’s Fan of Flames
This is a spell of the first order, of the school of mutability, usable only by mages. First presented to the college of magicks by Urquart of Greenwald, and subsequently stolen from the library of the Red Wizard of Jix and published for the world’s edification. This spell, which requires the recitation of an incantation of certain precise syllables while the Sign of the Third House is made upon the left hand, will cause a fan of flames to shoot forth from the fingertips of the caster, in the person of a least elemental summoned for but an instant to perform its task and then cast back to the plane of fire whence it came. It will cause damage appropriate to the power of the caster (1 h.p. per level of the caster). The range of the Fan of Flames is somewhat limited (three feet), but it is hot enough to ignite any flammable material. It is said that the spell is banned by the Order of the Silver Bells, for reasons known only to the inner circle.
Now, my question is… Which is better for a game? Certainly the second is more colorful, and gives more detail as to the exact nature of the effect (the summoning of some sort of minor elemental). But I personally feel the first is actually preferable, as it gives the game master the freedom to invent those little details. What if there’s no Order of the Silver Bells in your campaign world? Simple enough to ignore, sure, but why should you have to?
By sticking to strict mechanics, I will readily agree that a certain level of color is lost. But we gain both clarity (less text to look through to get the relevant mechanics) and the simultaneous feature of less imposition of setting on the game master and the ability to fill in those sorts of details at will.
If I was designing a game that was setting-specific, I might choose differently. But I’m very much inclined to go with mechanics over flavor.