The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

Fluff, Crunch and The Dashing Swordsman

In the very popular web comic Order of the Stick, the character of Elan has levels in a prestige class called “The Dashing Swordsman“. Because of the great popularity of the strip, there have been a lot of fan who have tried to put the class to paper (though never the creator of the strip; he has been very clear he won’t ever release in-game information about the goings on in the strip).

The interesting thing I have seen, or rather not seen, in many attempts at interpreting The Dashing Swordsman, is that the most obvious characteristic of the class is always ignored; that he can use his charisma bonus in melee if (and only if) he says a pun right before he attacks. Now everyone is all over the swapping in the charisma bonus, but for some reason the puns get left by the way side.

D&D Keeps Fluff and Crunch Separate, So We Do The Same

Its not surprising that many a fan would ignore the fluff side of the class; as D&D players we are conditioned to think that rules go in one box and role playing in another, and there shouldn’t be much mixing between the two. Oh there are a few exceptions, like role playing xp or role playing skill uses, but the idea of a class that demands an action from the player – that goes against the grain of D&D. And the idea that a character could get a significant combat bonus from role playing would be consider hearsay in some quarters.

That we are so adverse to mixing fluff and crunch I think was born of the success of games that do it so well. In the 90s there were a lot of popular games which had no qualms about demanding role playing in return for statistical bonuses. I can’t help but wonder if the success of those games both drew players of that ilk away from D&D (thus limiting their influence on the game), and furthermore created a kind of backlash against heavy handed role playing (3E hugely scaled back role playing elements of the game).

I can’t help but think that part of the reason that 3E and 4E feel kind of different than what came before them is because the fluff and crunch parts of the game are further apart than ever. But what can be done?

I Can’t Mix Them Because I’ve Been Conditioned Too

To be honest, I would never have guessed just how deep this bias against mixing fluff and crunch runs in myself before I started writing this post. I wanted to finish it up with some examples of rules that might mix fluff and crunch and bring some fun to the table, but I can’t. Every time I start to make up a feat, or a class or whatever I find myself saying one of two things:

  • “You can’t let players do that; it would be unbalancing.”
  • “You can’t force players to do that; what if they don’t want to?”

Yet, I shouldn’t be thinking these things. My whole point should be that fluff can bring a lot of fun to the table, and so worries about balance or the like should be pushed to the side. But, alas, I am part of the machine of which I have been complaining.

How Much Would You Mix Fluff and Crunch?

So how about you? Would you be willing to bring a rule to your table that directly traded fluff for crunch? What is the biggest bonus that you think fluff could give? What would you think if such a thing found its way into the official rules? Let me know.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.


December 14, 2010 - Posted by | 3.x, 4E, Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , , ,


  1. There are a couple of problems. One is that it shifts the balance because everybody values fluff differently. Somebody will see this and then come up with a rationale to use Intelligence for attacks by reciting trivia. Does trivia balance with puns? It’s hard to measure. The second problem is that often the fluff ends up going by the wayside. How many people can come up with eight good puns per combat? 24 per night? If the class requires good puns or unique puns it’ll quickly lose a lot of value. If you can use bad puns or re-use puns then it’ll get really old really fast.

    A lot of 2e kits used fluff to balance crunch and in many cases it wasn’t as cut and dried as punning to get a benefit. Different groups would emphasize the fluff differently. If you had a GM who was lax about it, you got benefits without flaws. If you had a GM who was strict on it, you had some big penalties for little benefit. By building a class with crunch-based balance, then you have something balanced for everybody.

    Comment by Philo Pharynx | December 14, 2010 | Reply

    • Oh, it goes without saying that pure crunch can achieve balance, while a mix will almost certainly cannot. I guess I am just wondering how we came to be so obsessed with balance, and if this obsession comes at a cost.

      With regards to 2E, by the end it was certainly a guide in how not to mix fluff and crunch. But early on (like, say, The Complete Fighter’s Handbook) it did do some modest mixing with no balance issues.

      Comment by The Red DM | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  2. You might want to check out how Raggi handles spell descriptions in his Lamentations RPG. I’ve always considered spells to be the ultimate conjunction of rules and fluff, with the later versions really toning down the fluff until all you really have is rules. The older, more verbose and fluffy descriptions of what, exactly, a spell does invites players to be clever in how they’re used, and find unintended utilities in some spells. For my part, I love it when players do stuff like that.

    Comment by Brian | December 14, 2010 | Reply

    • I, for one, love the fluff intermingling with the crunch, but only in such ways as it encourages player creativity and involvement. I come predominantly from a White Wolf (specifically Exalted) background, and have borrowed quite a bit of my DMing style from those environments. I prefer my players to add to the scene as they feel necessary and appropriate, and to augment their character’s actions. It’s partially laziness, as I get tired of trying to come up with original descriptions of every attack, plus it encourages them to get creative with how they approach things in conflict. Exalted uses a stunt system that encourages exactly this. Players achieve mechanical bonuses (entirely at the DM’s discretion) and everyone benefits from the increased description and involvement. It works the same across the board for everyone, so there’s not a disparity amongst classes, only across player creativity and willingness to help paint the picture. It’s worked well for me so far.

      Comment by Jess | December 14, 2010 | Reply

  3. For me it’s mainly about balancing. I often find “fluffy rules” to be unbalanced, but that seems not to be a matter of the idea but of the realization. It mostly this “I found this rule/item/… on the Internet!”-thing. but if you do it carefully enough you should get it balanced.

    I never would have imagined to hhve the Dashing Swordsman class without the pun for charisma. Using charisma as attack and damage ability as a special ability of a class (or with certain power for that matter) seems to me totally balanced in any way. Putting the pun as a requirement makes it a little weaker, but nobody forces you to take the class when you don’t like puns. So I don’t see any problem here except for players complaining “naaah, I don’t want to use puns, but I wanna have the class!” Screw you, I’d say. Yes, I force you to use puns. But I don’t force you to use the class. One pun per round would be enough for me to get the bonus, but totally without having to use puns? Most players then will leave out the puns totally sooner or later.

    But in general D&D focuses so much on XP and treasure that you have to allow all players with all their preferences and stuff to be free to chose any class. Which in turn allows any player make his class an unique experience. So it has also a good side.

    Comment by TheClone | December 16, 2010 | Reply

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