Saturday 8 August 2015

Game Design #50: Focussed Fluff, Generic Fluff & the Shiny Factor

This is going to be a look at the merits of  "Focussed Fluff"(tm) vs the Generic Fluff common in most indie rulebooks - and the impact of "shiny" on the chances of your fluff succeeding.

Generic fluff is your typical inclusion.  They are pretty  much the same for fantasy and sci fi, and reappear in various forms.  Here's a few of the top of my head.  Maybe this could be a drinking game - take a shot each time you recognize one of these factions in a wargame.

Militant church faction. Crusaders, Inquisitors, hot-nuns-with-swords, etc.

Brutal, unsubtle, Orc-Barbarian-Norse bikie-gang faction.  War cos... war is cool?
Usually fur, leather, and big axes/choppers. 

Evil-for-its-own-sake.  Chaos, whatever. Basically, we're evil cos... evil is cool?
I always wondered why "dark gifts" come with boils, horns, pus and mutations.  I mean, not the most attractive recruiting method?   I'd rather I became devastatingly attractive and muscular, whilst having the power to give all the boils and pus to my enemies. 

Undead. Also see: exterminate-all-life robots.  Because every bloody game must have zombies.  
I never got why necromancers etc are so 'bad.' Because using rotting corpses to fight is more inhumane than conscripting teens/sending peoples loved ones to die?

Arrogant, advanced culture. Usually shooty.  Usually those damn elves. 

Evil megacorporation.  The most plausible faction.

Empire.  Usually modelled on the Roman Empire. Sometimes Russian/Soviet flavour.

Space 'Murica.  Freedom! Bestest faction! Usually comes in red, white or blue livery. 

Devour-all-things.  Lots of fangs and claws. Hivemind/Queen likely.

...anyway, you get the point.  There's very little new under the sun, and most are variations on a similar theme.  So this begs the question - if a games fluff and setting is identical to half a dozen others, why would I want to play it?

Unless, of course, all you are trying to do it show you can use anothers' setting using your game engine.  In which case you should make the parallels as un-subtle as possible as you try to piggyback on the success of others. Which sounds a bit lacking in nobility, but is certainly a sensible option.

The Magic of Shiny Things
Do you really think a written page or two of "setting" will make someone fall in love with said setting?  Most top sci fi and fantasy authors get 500+ pages and can't do it.

I've been reading a lot of RPG settings, and to be frank, the standard of writing is pretty awful.  People inventive enough to make great games do not always have writing talent (and vice versa).

But most successful settings (almost irrespective of literacy merit) invariably have art with high production values or an attached miniature lineShiny stuff, in other words.  I really can't think of any settings which can successfully engage people with a MS Word document with a few typed pages and some generic clip art.    Certainly not one that uses the same generic tropes that half a dozen other settings do.

It's naive to assume anyone will give you fluff more than a passing glance unless it has the "shiny" factor.  Just describing your fantasy race, without even pictures..., it's not going to make your setting the Next Big Thing.  In all likelihood, they never even glanced at the page.

Focussed Settings
This is a setting focussed on a small area or portion of the game world.

This does not mean making the game universe a small one, or making the game universe "rigid" - I call that a  constricted setting - like 40K has become. 

Originally, 40K was an infinite universe, full of any number of weird alien races - of which the official races - space marines, space dwarves, space elves, space imperials and space orcs - were only a small part.  Now it restricted to pretty much the Gothic Sector, with only the official races who are locked in eternal war with each other, kinda limiting your options into a kind of deathmatch situation in a limited arena. Storytelling options are "x fights y in z" or "a fights b in z."  Not only that, but the timeline is tightly filled in. All the important events are documented - you kinda have to play their events, rather than being free to invent your own.

A focussed setting is different.  It focusses on one aspect or area of the game world, but allows flexibility, creativity and latitude outside of that.  Infinity does that - whilst it "zooms in" to local conflicts, whilst allowing that it's a big universe out there - they already have two alien factions, and have the option of adding more at any time. It's focussed on human space - and only a few specific planets at that - but allows itself a wide open galaxy with the potential for future expansion.

A focussed setting allows a smaller game/developer to do a good job, by narrowing the game designers/writers efforts.  It allows for detail without bloated, unwieldy exposition.  Frostgrave was a great example of this - and in fact what inspired this post.  Its "explore a frozen city, unearth magical treasures" theme was both a clever appeal to both piggyback nostalgia for another, previously popular game "explore a ruined city, unearth magical warpstone" and also to focus the writers' efforts and creativity.  It doesn't restrict me - I can use the games and rules to play the game outside of the frozen city of Frostgrave - heck I can use it for my own fantasy settings if I want. But by focussing on a single aspect of the setting, and providing plenty of shiny (both nice artwork and a small miniatures line) I'm inspired to play in the setting - even though the actual "factions" are rather bland, generic human mages with generic human fantasy mercenary troops. However the focus on mages as the main character is (apart from Warmachine) relatively unique.

Remember - a focussed setting merely means the rules writer concentrates on describing a small area of the game universe, whilst leaving plenty of "wriggle room" outside of that.  It does not mean a constricted universe, with "set" factions, limited army building options, and a rigid, overly-detailed timeline.  It just allows the writer to focus their efforts to give a better "feel" - and minimise bloated fluff.   


  1. Its a fine line in RPGs between writing enough fluff to inspire but not so much as to bore. Art as you observe is key. After all a picture is worth a 1,000 words and you can say a lot with a picture that would take much longer to say in text.

    Lets imagine a market scene. I could write about the stalls, what they sell, how they are arranged, how the stall holders dress and call out to potential customers. I could write about the crowds or potential buyers, the buying customs and rituals. Or about the how the market is policed. Or I could do that with a single image which would show styles of dress, body language, a shady agent lurking in the background and a young pickpocket trying to make his mark.

    The truth is you need both. Text can give a depth and a sense of time that a still image cannot. But that picture tells you more in a glance than several pages of text about style and presentation.

    Its actually very difficult write truly novel settings / factions. I have been writing my own game (don't we all), its set in a universe that is sci-fi post-golden age. I have a number of factions... I could have based these on historical settings as games (like Fading Suns have done), but instead I tried to make them truly different and unique. At which point you find your setting in need of much more description because there are no assumptions and associations for people to make (look at the game Talislanta to see this in action). Basically you need a point of commonality with our world for players to identify with.

    What your setting has no humans? then how do we relate to it? Standard fantasy tropes (elves / dwarves etc) have their place because they proved a short hand for the writer. But truly alien civilisations all need to be balanced against human norms so that we can understand them.

    1. "What your setting has no humans? then how do we relate to it? Standard fantasy tropes (elves / dwarves etc) have their place because they proved a short hand for the writer. But truly alien civilisations all need to be balanced against human norms so that we can understand them."

      I can't recall the name of it, but there was a sci fi book where the heroes were fighting these vicious, cunning enemies. Halfway through the book, I realised the enemies were humans and the heroes were a humanoid alien.

      A bit OT, but a cool switching of the PoV - I ASSUMED they were human, but on re-reading it there was truckloads of information which could have been interpreted otherswise...

  2. So true. Apart from infinity, there is not much on the market with focussed fluff at the moment.

    Actually the only games which are not wh/40k rippffs I can think of right now are licensed from literature and films (xwing, aliens vs predator, anything zombie-ish, Mars Attacks, until recently LotR).

    I would go so far calling games like Warzone already original, even if they take a lot of "inspiration" from 40k.

    One of the reasons I think is that to appeal to customers it is helpful if those customers can use at least part of their collection (painting takes time and I dont want to start from zero again) or if they understand part of the fluff without much explaining. Both is probably teasier if you "orient" yourself at GWs minis and their fluff (Confrontation, Kings of War, Warpath are good examples as well as all those companies selling "space knights" and models which look suspiciously similar to the races of GWs Old World).

    The other thing, why there are so few original and new attempts, is that GW had covered nearly everything that was popular in fantasy (tolkien, moorcock) and sci fi (dune & star wars originally, later Alies/starship troopers (modern tyranids), terminator (necrons), anime (tau), etc.)

    The third point you rightly stressed,is the superiority and openness of the old Rogue Trader Universe to the Grimdark Stupidity we nowadays have to cope with, and I would add that the evolution of 40k and warhammer shows pretty good how anything that was understandable with basic media knowledge of scifi and fantasy was kicked out successively.

    Think of Fimirs and Genestealer Cults or Squats and Chaos Dwarfs on the one hand. On the other hand, GW introduced such grimdark "masterpieces" like the Vampires of the Old World and the DARK Eldar.

    So to sum up this rather long answer, Id say that the boring and ripped off fluff is based on the same assumption that makes hollywood movies often so boring and usually ripoffs or sequels to already established films: risk minimising by limiting the plot and the camera to what the audience is already used to. Innovation bears a high risk of failure.

    Thats one reason why we see innovation in tabletop fluff mainly from the big players, who can and must do it to reach new audiences, but then also from very small producers who found a niche.

    A good example of the latter and for what you called focussed fluff is the German fantasy pirate game Freebooters Fate. Though I dislike their boutique prices, the fluff is very nicely written. A lot of Monkey Islands and Pirates of the Caribbean in it and references to pop-culture while they still have NOT tried the easy way other competitors in that niche do and simply convert all fantasy races to pirates. Instead we have the Imperial Armada (Spanish/Portuguese), Goblins with all kind of funky gadgets, which are the escpaed pets/slaves of the Armadas nobles, an Assassin Cult, a Trade Union, a Voodoo Cult, and Amazons living in the jungle.

    All is very well integrated into the setting (carribean) and assissted by a large number of models to build scenarios from which further enhance the fluff (zombie octopusses!!! Dodos etc.). I actually have quite a lot of their stuff, though I prefer to use it with other rulesets, but I liked the fluff so much that i simply needed to have their books and models. I think it was exactly this concentration on one aspect which made me like it. I just never had thought about it.

    1. "The other thing, why there are so few original and new attempts, is that GW had covered nearly everything that was popular in fantasy (tolkien, moorcock) and sci fi (dune & star wars originally, later Alies/starship troopers (modern tyranids), terminator (necrons), anime (tau), etc.)"

      I find it ironic GW defends its "IP" so vigorously when it so obviously borrowed pretty much everything from other popular media. I'd be hard pressed to think of anything even remotely original they have ever done. I also think there is a strong grounding in the 2000AD comic universe for a lot of core concepts. But yes, they covered their bases pretty thoroughly.

      I also agree Infinity is pretty much the only IP flying the flag with decent fluff - anime inspired, perhaps, but still a distinct flavour of its own.

      I like the Freebooters idea, but not their prices (and the rules seemed overly complex). Have I done an article on "boutique" (aka closed, usually card centric and overpriced) rules yet?

      I think a lot of indie devs would like to put out their own fluff, but without impressive art/a model line that fits, it's unlikely anyone will care, no matter how clever it is.

      It's why I think we need to come up with new ways to use existing model lines - i.e. modern pulp is one I point out that has potential, as well as utilizing the prolific hard sci fi 15mm models in a different way (psychic powers, downloadable sleeve bodies, matrix , a X-COM or STALKER style game)

      I.e. sit down and look at modern PC games (and movies) and see what genres aren't well represented in gaming yet have minis already available.

    2. Agree. I forgot 2000 AD. Mainly because this tongue-in-cheek approach has long been left out of GWs worlds. Not for the better, if you ask me. I wonder how many players nowadays actually realise that the Imperium is a fscist society no better than the one in Judge Dredd... But even 2000ad lost this approach somewhere in the mid 90s.

      Freebooters Fate: i agree on both points. Still the sculpts are awesome and nearly on the level with Infinity, all models are multipart and they all include a scenic base. So in a way I feel like I have to defend them.

      What is definitely worth buying are their rulebooks. At least the German ones are very well written and actually quite funny and all the items in their shop to play certain scenarios.

    3. The GW world is smaller and poorer now, that's for sure, as they narrow it down. It feels like the one sector of the Imperium IS the entire universe now, apart from some naughty Chaos hiding out in another dimension, and the odd other race (Ork, Eldar etc) drifting about on random planets. Even the stories simply focus on tiny sub-sections of the Imperium, i.e. perhaps the Inquisition is now 5 different factions and now each sub-faction must gets it's own fluff book...

      They're going back in history now, busily filling in all the possible narrative gaps players could have potentially been creative in, but the universe is neither expanding nor moving forward.

    4. I once read an interview with Rick Priestley on one of the oldhammer blogs, think it was realm of chaos 80s, but not sure. There he stated that the original Rogue Trader was so open because it had to include every miniature that Citadel at that time produced. This gave way to such brilliantly craziness as the Jokaero (Judge Dredd Ape Gangs).

      Nowadays they just look what their fanbase would buy next and dish out another Space Marine Army.

      Even if the original Rogue Trader was born out of the necessity to include everything GW had at that time, this resulted in such incredibly great fluff. I still love the Genestealer Cults and have failed to see anything as cool as these Space Deep Ones anywhere (and I cannot forgive GW i"including" them in later Tyranid lists).

      So to get back to the discussion. One great rule of thumb for creating good fluff is a certain openess of your world, while the other is focussing on something not yet manufactured a dozen times but staying away from the boring archetypes. Agree?

    5. Keep the world open - absolutely. Don't be obsessed with mapping every location, and describing every event, giving players no room to "breathe."
      i.e. saying definitiely there are 101 space marine chapters then going on to describe the colours, tactics, and history of every single one from conception to present day = no way to make up your own flavourful force.

      Pick a certain aspect of your universe. It provides a snapshot of your world while not waffling on trying to cover every aspect (see above) i.e. focus on Frostgrave the city keeps the fluff tight, while allowing us to assume most things we learn extrapolate to the wider world (i.e. magic is a big thing, mages come in schools, there was a "fall" where we lost knowledge from a elder race).

      Staying away from boring achetypes is good, but allowing your game to use available models is important

      Example: a modern pulp game where modern special forces and mercs with psychic powers battle aliens and mutants in the Chernobyl forbidden zone. Everything I described you could do in 15mm or 28mm right now, as well as being a Necromunda style wargame whilst avoiding copying any existing game ,

  3. From a fluff standpoint, what Frostgrave did with the 'focussed setting' meets 'nostalgia of Mordheim' was really clever. It was just close enough [while at the same time being open enough] to pull in that audience that's been wanting a replacement for a really long while without creating a 'rip-off' backlash.

    Speaking about settings, I believe that for indie designers there is another subtle in-between category that combines the shiny factor with the generic: implied settings [with an emphasis on the 's']. I think that players approaching an open indie game system are looking for things that fit their miniature line/world without having other items that are unacceptable in it.

    With some work, I think it's possible to cater to varying tastes if you place specific rules or references in the system without breaking the illusion of openness. For example, a wizard controlling a construct wouldn't be out of place in D&D, BUT with a few carefully placed words or references, you can help a Warmachine player to see how it could be a Warcaster and Jack combo. Moreover, you can even add rules that cater to [and reinforce] that setting without breaking the seemingly generic nature of the wizard/construct.

    On a related note, I can't wait to see what you think of my shiny meets focused setting game that I'm working on! ;)

    1. Frostgrave was quite a thought provoking rulebook. It was very "instructive" from a game design standpoint, for me, anyway.

      (+) value of focussed fluff (cleverly aimed as you say)
      (+) well-executed "shiny" rulebook
      (+) mage-centric game with 'badass' mage (something lacking aside from Warmachine)
      (+) well fleshed out campaign system
      (+) magic centric play gives the "x factor"
      (+) ability to re-purpose old minis

      (-) campaign enthusiastic but unbalanced
      (-) didn't really add anything new with mechanics ...also, hitpoints :-/

      Ironic that you should use it as your example, but I'd like a rules set I could use my Warmachine models for - as the official rules make it into a CCG more akin to MtG than a wargame. Many dislike the models (the prices are a bit disproportionate) but whats not to like about a steam powered robot with a gatling gun in one hand and a giant mace in the other?

    2. Based on your thoughts about Warmachine I have often wondered your opinion on a game like FFGs X-Wing or Armada?

    3. As they sell small plastic clix ships for $65 a model ($80 for new star destroyer?), I don't have any thoughts about them at all. I think the 3 ship starter box which is a "bargain" sets you back $150.

      Given this is anywhere from 300% to 1000% more than metal GZG or huge resin Spartan ships, don't hold your breath waiting for a review.

      (FYI, $80AUD is 40 pounds... for a single plastic ship....)

      That said, the locals seem to enjoy them, and they can hardly be worse than the bland, hit boxy, WW2-in-space that is every other spaceship game on the market.

  4. 'Ironic that you should use it as your example, but I'd like a rules set I could use my Warmachine models for - as the official rules make it into a CCG more akin to MtG than a wargame.'

    That's what you need to be using Rogue Planet for! ;) I may just have to break down and give you a variant that has some hard measurements for movement and weapon ranges. You could even skip the Pawns and just give your Warcaster his own energy pool for hit points.

    'but whats not to like about a steam powered robot with a gatling gun in one hand and a giant mace in the other?'


  5. I may just have to break down and give you a variant that has some hard measurements for movement and weapon ranges.

    I'd like that. :-) But I do want to try the rules as written. And you're right - this would go perfectly with Warmachine. And I have a lot of their robots but sold off the rulebook ages ago.

    And just to bring this back on topic, at least a little -- the Rogue Planet artwork does a great job of evoking the fluff. And while the pages of fluff in the original 40k Rogue Trader added a lot of detail it was really the art that evoked it -- remember the picture of the Emperor as a dessicated near-corpse with all the tubes attached?

    I get annoyed with pages of fluff which end up just being another "heartbreaker" - just a re-tread of ideas other games have expressed. But good artwork -- man, that gets you invested in the game. I'll have to remember that if I ever publish my own ruleset.