In Defense of Flavor

Every so often, I hear resurgences of the old fluff/crunch debate, the idea of game flavor versus game mechanics. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d actually need to post this; defending flavor to the kind of people who enjoy this blog is tantamount to preaching to the choir. Maybe that’s why it’s taken me this long to actually make defense of flavor a topic, rather than simply taking it for granted.

Without flavor, it’s hard to really have context; you have a bunch of number interactions floating in a probabilistic haze, and that’s about it. It’s only when you get into the flavor that you start to be able to see what these number interactions actually mean. There’s something a lot more engaging about this group of people using these powers to achieve this goal than about a bunch of dice bouncing around the table until a conclusion is reached.

Flavor is what makes for lots of different uses for the same set of mechanics. I can think, off the top of my head, of at least three different campaign settings for D&D, plus a few other things that have had d20 attached. Four worlds for White-Wolf. Three variations on the FATE system, plus two more settings and sets of metaphysics one of my GMs managed to shoehorn them into. And let’s not get started on GURPS, all right? In fact, I’m inclined to say that if it weren’t for the flavor text, the major game companies would stop at two or three books and most third-party designers would have given up a long time ago, and so much for the industry! Even the most beer and pretzels groups see their triumphs as [Character] does [Thing], rather than “So this statistically improbable roll managed to reduce the points of my opponent in such a way that that set of mechanics ceased applying…”

For the indecisive player, flavor can serve as a way of narrowing down the options. I, for one, usually begin my attempts at coming up with a character concept in a new system by seeing which of my options looks the most interesting; if there’s a mechanic whose flavor makes it applicable to more than just its primary purpose, if the flavor for something gives me a visually interesting result, or if it just tags well with the kinds of characters I like to play (or the kind that’s been suggested for me this time around), I’m all over it.

Last of all, the flavor provides a number of limiters that simply having a set of dice interactions doesn’t. Reality is Broken (excellent book, by the way; manages to completely explain and contextualize gamification without ever actually using that word) sums up a game as a task set forth with a fixed set of limitations; the flavor provides these limitations by imposing our own expectations on the interplay of the mechanics and giving us templates for further things that our characters will and will not do.

This, then, is why, when everyone I’m working with is spending most of the time on what the dice do, my job is to figure out what all these things translate to. As far as I’m concerned, the flavor’s the bulk of the fun.

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