I feel that I would be negligent in my duties to the Tabletop Community at large if I did not at least mention the buzzwords “Crunch” and “Fluff”.
I personally added these words to my gaming vocabulary as soon as I first learned them from one of my favorite podcasts Full Metal RPG.
In short, these terms are used in order to better quantify the differences between different types of games. They could be applied to any game really, but I find them most useful when it comes to discussing Tabletop RPGs.
Crunch are the mechanics and various rules that may (but not always) slow down play of a game. Crunch is “ok so I have a +2 from being on horseback, and also my sword gives me extra damage against undead.” Crunch is extensive rules for various types of situations. Crunch is the order of operations when deciding who hits what first and how hard it hits. Crunch is a descriptor to denote how much of a game is codified and overtly delineated in the rules.
Fluff is, in a way, everything else. Fluff is “Half-Elves are the looked at differently by humans and elves alike. Humans see them as too other-worldy to fully understand, and elves see them as too mundane to appreciate true elven sensibilities.” Fluff is the dressing, the backdrop, the flavor of a character or a campaign. Fluff is the tone, the mood, and the setting. Fluff is vivid descriptions of people, places, and things that don’t directly correlate to any mechanical codified rules.
Using these two loose descriptors it becomes much easier to express to people the differences between game settings, game systems, and styles of play.
I can ask someone “So do you like a really crunchy game or are you more a fan of fluff?”
I can say “3rd Edition D&D was very crunchy and combat usually took hours, and part of the reason I like 5th Edition is they’ve trimmed down a lot of what I felt was unnecessary extra-crunchiness. Like grappling. God I hated the concrete crunch of 3rd Edition Grappling rules.”
I can say “Burning Wheel is a weird game because it feels like all the crunch is focused around what other games treat as fluff. Like all the mechanics focus around Beliefs and Instincts of characters while D&D treats beliefs and instincts as window dressing that is secondary to how much damage you roll for a long-sword versus a dagger.”
So try out these frameworks when you’re looking at the next game you play.
Just for fun, here’s some game examples and my perspective on their crunch to fluff ratios:
Settlers of Catan: 100% Crunch, 0% Fluff (nobody cares how many settlers died of starvation, just tell me if you want to trade your fucking Ore so I can build a god damned city)
Eldritch Horror: 80% Crunch, 20% Fluff (cards have flavor text which sets the mood and is interesting to read aloud, but ultimately the cards matter more for what they mechanically do to Investigators and the board. The cards are written in a nonlinear style so it really doesn’t matter when you “Open a Planar Gate” or if you fail your check and get lost in a city of cats for a turn, you’re probably gonna die anyway)
D&D 5e: 70% Crunch, 30% Fluff (the inclusion of Inspiration, Personality, Ideals, Bonds, and Flaws to the front of character sheets reminds players to role-play and not just hack and slash anything that moves. Ultimately, Crunch to Fluff is up to how the DM runs the game, but in general I feel the system as is equates roughly to a 70/30 split.)
Dungeon World: 40% Crunch, 60% Fluff (Since all the mechanics of Moves are directly tied to a narrative, this game strongly reinforces role-play and Theater of The Mind dynamics. There is no mention of weapon ranges in exact terms of feet or meters, that doesn’t matter in this game. What matters is are you pushing the story forward in interesting ways. But there’s still some bookkeeping in terms of Encumbrance, Holds, and other noodly bits)
Microscope: 10% Crunch, 90% Fluff (If you haven’t checked out this game, you should. I banged out a quick blurb about it here. At first glance it doesn’t exactly look like a role-playing games but it definitely is a role-playing game. The only crunch in Microscope is keeping track of who is in charge of a Focus and what Legacies have built up, but mostly this is simple and straightforward. The meat of Microscope is describing events, characters, and vast spans of chronology. There are no rolls in Microscope, just roles.)