It’s not “fluff”. It’s “setting”.

One of the things that makes me cringe when I read various gamer-related message boards and blogs is the terms “crunch” and “fluff”. Language and psychology go hand-in-hand, and I think the pervasiveness of the terms heralds a shift in attitudes towards gaming over the last couple of years.

Back in the day, rules were called “rules”. Background was called “background” (or, alternatively, “setting”). Early on, the approach to both was an extremely light touch; the original World of Greyhawk folio, for example, is almost Hemmingway-esque in its brevity; you had just enough information to get started. The same thing goes for the OD&D rules (and, I would say, the first three of the AD&D rulebooks).

You could say that trend ended with third-party products like Harn, which was incredibly detailed in presenting its setting, or Arms Law, which was a very detailed combat simulator (and which eventually grew into the Rolemaster game system).

But now it seems that the balance has shifted away from setting and background, and over to rules. By way of evidence, I submit the rise of the terms “crunch” and “fluff” to describe rules and setting, respectively. I think the terms themselves betray the bias of their users.

“Crunch” is hard. It’s solid. It’s necessary. It’s the sound of your boots on the gravel as your character stomps along like a twenty-sider-fueled killing machine hurling fireballs and lopping off the heads of demon lords with your +5 vorpal holy avenger frostbrand two-handed sword. It is the key to value.

“Fluff” is ephemeral. It’s light, easily transferrable, and brings little heft per dollar. It’s vaporous and vaccuous, and can be blown away by a small gust of wind caused by the backswing of a +5 vorpal holy avenger frostbrand two-handed sword taking off the head of yet another demon lord. It is of little value.

Now, these are not universal attitudes, of course, and I am not trying to say that they apply 100% of the time. But they are reflective of the overall attitudes, and the respective values placed on rules vs. setting. Just look at the newly released Forgotten Realms book. WotC made a deliberate calculation that they wanted to make the Realms more accessible. How to do that? By wiping out all the accumulated background (“Realmslore” as fans of the setting call it) so new gamers wouldn’t be overwhelmed. After all, it’s only “fluff”, right? It can’t have much value.

Or, look at Pathfinder. Are folks really jazzed at the default gaming setting that the Paizo folks are coming up with? Or is it the rules– an updated version of 3E– that is generating all the excitement? Setting is almost a necessary evil that you need because adventure paths have to exist someplace. It’s just “fluff”.

Perhaps my aversion to the denigration of setting is a function of my style of play. I DM a sandbox game; no adventure paths, no overarching plot driving the characters in my campaign. The world is there, humming along, and the players are free to roam about that sandbox any way they choose. In order to run a game like that, you need a lot of background, as the characters’ interactions with that background drive the action of the campaign. And you can’t do that with just fluff.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

16 thoughts on “It’s not “fluff”. It’s “setting”.

  1. My adoption of “fluff” dates back to Warhammer 40k, when the term was used lovingly to describe the little gray text boxes next to the rules themselves. Those gray boxes were worlds unto themselves, often consisting of a simple sentence or unfinished short story, and many players found themselves helplessly drawn into the setting through these little background nuggets. I loved them, so my use of “fluff,” at least, is borne out of respect.

    Semantics, eh? 🙂

  2. I haven’t really thought about it, I’m afraid. I have been using “crunch” and “fluff” because most english-speaking gamers used it, not because I think crunch is more important than fluff or something like that. As someone who doesn’t speak english as a native language I have probably a different approach to some words because I don’t get all the subtle nuances conveyed by some words.
    And as a gamer I think “crunch” or rules are much less important then “fluff” or the background. Because the latter is what makes the game fun and the rules are just a neccessary evil. 😉

  3. I always thought crunch was, for example:

    Ftr-15/Thf-9, AC: 8, Al: CN, Move: 12″, HP: 117
    Str: 18/00, Int: 16, Wis:10, Con:17, Dex:18, Cha:15. Followed by number of attacks, damage and so on …

    Where as fluff would be more like:

    “Know oh Prince that between the time when the oceans drank Atlantis, and the rise of recorded history, there was an Age undreamed of… When shining Kingdoms lay spread across the world- like blue mantles beneath the stars…

    From the north came a Cimmerian – sword in hand. A thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies, and gigantic mirth – to tread the jeweled thrones of the earth under his sandaled feet.” ~The Nemedian Chronicles.

    I always took it as ‘crunch’, derived from number crunching and ‘fluff ‘from “purple” or ‘flowery’ descriptive text; and in that sense, I’ll have a helping of both and be back for seconds.



  4. Well, I think I tend to make the distinction between crunch, the rules and bare-bones setting information (like maybe maps, a timeline, the “elevator-pitch” for the setting) that I’ll actually use, and fluff, the crappy fanfic they put in sidebars and chapter intros. But then, the only published settings I’ve ever used are Tekumel (back in EotPT days) and recently Forgotten Realms because the group I was GMing specifically requested it, and I didn’t really enjoy either. Making up the setting is one of the things I like best, so I prefer game-books like Savage Worlds:Explorers Edition and Champions that pare the fluff down to nothing to something like Vampire:The Masquerade, which I regard as nigh unreadable.

  5. Crunch is literally the math of the game [i.e. to number crunch] separated from the thing it is supposed to be an abstraction of [i.e. the imagined game world]; the term “fluff” refers to something of little substance or consequence in relation to math [i.e. something that does not affect the math].

    This speaks to a larger trend that views the game rules as informing the imagined reality, rather than vice versa. To many people the rules of the game are literally the physics of the game world, rather than an abstraction thereof.

    It is a very pervasive mindset.

  6. I use fluff when talking to other gamers and setting when blogging; it tends to work out pretty well. For me, that doesn’t make it any less; after all, it’s my specialty. (Heck, when I do professional game-writing, I am The Company Fluffmaster, and there is no book that they have not requested my help on.) And let’s face it, Fluffmaster is a lot more fun to say than Settingmaster. Rolls off of the tongue better.

  7. I’m definitively guilty of using these terms on my site.

    I used it in a semi-derogative way initially (I used to prefer rules over narrative subtance in a RPG).

    I also disliked a lot of the ‘settings-heavy’ games of the early 90’s. The White Wolf use of 3 fonts on the same page of their WoD books still make my eyes bleed.

    However, by exploring ‘fluff’ more I’ve found that it plays a crucial role in a good RPG session.

    I use the terms as placeholder, an easy to understand/convey word about a concept vastly more complex.

    Plus like Ravyn says, they make better prose than ‘Rules’ and ‘Setting/Story’

  8. “. . . Hemmingway-esque in its brevity.”

    Eh? A lack of adjectives does not imply brevity. Hemingway’s sentences were devoid of fluff–quite true–but he still created very realistic settings and very visible environments, which isn’t at all the case with the Greyhawk folio. In a sense, Hemingway used crunch to create fluff.

  9. I agree and think the elevation of "crunch" over "fluff" is one of the reasons D&D has gone the overly-gamist direction it has.

    I think you're off track in attacking Paizo on this though – Golarion is the best game setting since Greyhawk. Sure, they're publishing some rules, and they have adventure paths – they also have loads of standalone adventures and loads of setting products that are mainly "fluff." IMO they are taking up the setting/fluff torch that WotC is deliberately dropping.

  10. It wasn’t meant to be an “attack” on Paizo in any way. But from what I read on the various boards (admittedly, it’s not my focus, as I never played 3.x and have no interest in 3.75), I never got the sense that folks were out there chomping at the bit waiting for Golarion. Pathfinder, sure, as in the rules. YMMV, I guess.

  11. interestingly enough, i won't be buying Pathfinder for the rules but for the setting entirely. i have liked what i read in the few issues of the magazine and it could be a good world to play whatever ver of D&D in it.

  12. The enthusiasm for Paizo is absolutely tied to the setting – which is also known as Pathfinder. The RPG wouldn’t have nearly the buzz if it wasn’t for the setting.

  13. As a counter-point, I’ll assert that my own adoption for the terms “crunch” and “fluff” has to do with the importance I put on the integrity of my homebrew campaign world. Fluff in published products tends to be of little value to me because it will almost certainly have to be changed, whereas that’s not the case with mechanics.

    So, for me, those details in a published product are usually “fluff” — it’s not what I’m paying for. But I’m a heavy sandbox DM nonetheless.

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