Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gary's Rules II: Savor the Flavor


"In addition to providing the structure that enables the participants to operate their characters within the game milieu, the rules of a role-playing game also describe the elements that give a certain game its particular flavor" (Gygax 83).
What is derisively referred to as "fluff" in some RPG discussions (in contrast with the "crunch" of the mechanics) is intimately related to the game rules for Gygax. Note that before Gygax even moves on to flavor, the rules enable PCs to operate not just in some mathematical vacuum, but "within the game milieu" (Ibid).  Further, within a shared milieu, a particular game gets its own special flavor from the rules, not from some other, less-than-crunch element.  Gygax divides the flavors up into seven major families:

  1. Wonder and fear - that which makes a game world different, mysterious, and frightening.
  2. Adventure and heroism - difficult conditions for performing great deeds.
  3. Problem solving - achieving goals by wits.
  4. Role-playing - creating, personalizing, and playing a character.
  5. Combat, conflict, and battle - I'll come back to this.
  6. Group cooperation - this goes back to Gygax's spirit of the game and morality of play, already covered.
  7. Enlightenment and education - I'll leave this aside, as I find Gygax at his most opaque here, beyond: "being a gamer makes you research stuff you otherwise likely would never research."*
The first two of these have more to do with the flavor of the game world, three through six have more to do with the flavor of the style of play, though I believe there are some intersections between play flavor and world flavor, I will focus on 1 & 2.  I will come back to touch on 4 & 5, however, as these let me finish of some points from last Tuesday as well tie into today's subject.

Gygax's first two categories provide the flavor of the game by the ways in which rules mold (and meld with) world-building.  They also seem to recognize matters of emphasis: a game of space exploration or of wizardry would tend to emphasize wonder more, a game of elder horrors from space or undead wizardry would tend to be heavier on the fear ingredients.  Similarly, a high fantasy game would tend to have more heroic elements, while  a game of rascally rogues on the make would have less heroic and more adventure elements.  Random tables in the rules would provoke wonder, insanity mechanics would support the element of fear.  Experience points granted for gold pieces would support adventure playing, while experience points for monsters killed would shift more support to heroism.  The principle is clear: the flavor of the milieu and setting are not simply sprinkles on top of the RPG sundae.  They are major ingredients that must be provided for in the rules of the game.  In my book, this puts Gygax where he should be on the question of crunch versus flavor: in my camp!  The rules structure is made to hold the flavor, and thought should be given to that end.  If flavor doesn't matter to a rules set, then it would seem that Gygax would question whether you have an RPG (yet, or at all).  I'm happy to find that Gygax's terminology in '85 was superior to a lot of what I run into on the internet.  Now to 4 & 5.

Gary's assertion that role-playing is not the purpose of an RPG, but the vehicle; not the end but the means can be taken to mean something Gary clearly, in context, does not mean.  Again, he notes that the mix of the ingredients, or what elements get the emphasis, vary according to the game.  Let's take his terms to heart: it is a game of role-playing, not a game for role-playing.  The game is for the genre, the milieu, the setting.  You create this unique character and inhabit it for the purpose of pursuing that character's goals as they are appropriate to the milieu and the setting -- maybe it is to steal the wizard gem of Grognardac the Mirthless, maybe it is to save the princess by slaying the evil dragon Stasistix the Cruncher -- and as they are supported by the rules (disarming Grognardac's traps and preceding undetected or making a save versus Dragon Breath and then dealing enough damage to kill the dragon).  To the extent that acting is done (and now Gygax explicitly recognizes this possibility without his earlier distaste: "this in and of itself neither adds to nor detracts from the work."  It would probably be more accurate if he had added, however, "in and of itself." 84), it is done for carrying out the action by the character in attempts to achieve milieu-appropriate goals through teamwork.  I believe the very next paragraph strengthens my take on this: Gary distinguishes between role assumption and role-playing.  If you simply take up someone else's character creation, as in a choose-your-own-adventure book, you are assuming a role.  Playing a role for Gary meant creating a persona for yourself through play, and playing him or her towards the ends of the game in question.

This brings us finally to combat, conflict, and battle.  "Conflict is more important that combat" (85)!  Now Gary sounds closer to what I said he should have said than what he actually said before.  That is, some games will be more acting, some games will be more tactics, but there should be a range in role-playing games for differences in the mix of elements, as long as they contain enough of whatever is requisite for being an RPG.  If there is too much emphasis on combat and battle, Gary advises that stock be taken of whether role-playing is actually happening at all, or whether one has slipped over into role assumption (You be Caesar and I'll be Vercingetorix) or "worse still, the system might be a military simulation or war game masquerading as a role-playing game" (85)!  This saves Gary from falling into role-combating games from an allergic reaction to some over-the-top ham or method-reject that must have been haunting him.  There must be conflict in a role-playing game because the play of characters in a setting towards a denouement will call forth conflict: it is the one element of story that is missing, and the most crucial element.  I hasten to add that Gary does not make the connection to story elements, that is mine, but I am confident the conclusion is inescapable.


Everything "that is set forth to bring the game into being as a shadow of actual life" operates within the parameters set by the rules (and spirit) of the game (88).  Thus the creation of "cultures, political systems, societies, secret groups, strange inventions or whatever else [that] gives greater depth and breadth to the campaign" operate within the parameters and spirit of the game to make the shadow of real life more substantial and the roles of the game more inhabitable (89).  Adventure, conflict, fear, and awe will be felt more deeply and the achieving of the goals more rewarding.  How deeply should we go into any of these  and how do we chose?  Gygaxian morality means we know the answer even before we read it: "those areas in which the players evince the most interest" (91).

Again, for whatever weaknesses you may find in Gary's presentation, I hope I have pointed out the conceptual riches to be mined herein.  It would be foolish to hope that no one would ever divide the game up into "fluff and crunch" again, but I can always dream.  Best wishes as we come to the end of another Tomeful Tuesday, especially to the families of SR and BP.

* Plus this subject gets its own chapter later, so I am sure that this Gygaxian element will become more transparent there.


  1. What I find interesting about this is how "modern" it sounds. He says a lot of things that indie game designers say, (that system should support setting, that conflict is the thing, not just combat, etc.)

    I think some of the thing that pushes the fluff crunch divide is marketplace: people find it easier (or believe it to be so) to see consumers on a new setting as opposed to a whole new game. Also, different groups have very different styles of relating to said material. For some, setting is largely just stage dressing for a game about solving puzzles and killing monsters. For others, it constitutes the world they wish to interact with. These disparate groups have very different needs and desires regarding setting information.

  2. Trey: I think you've got hold of one of the real interesting historical lessons of the book. However indie and modern some folks sound, I think they are often standing on EGG's shoulders in ways they perhaps they don't know and isn't as widely acknowledged as it should be. Although, as I am not really a historian of gaming, I hasten to add that it is possible that once RPGs are invented and the elements are out there, some folks exposed to parts of the tradition reinvented some of the other wheels without realizing that others elsewhere already had such supposedly modern and independent wheels.