Friday, May 20, 2011

Fluffernutters and D&D

        I love fluffernutters. Holy crap are they delicious. For those of you who have never had one, a fluffernutter is a sandwich with peanut butter, but instead of using jelly or jam as the other condiment to complete your delicious lunchtime snack you use fluff. Fluff is a marshmellowy jam like spread that has a distinct after taste of Heaven. But why am I talking about Fluff? This is supposed to be about D&D. Well aside from the fact that I really want a fluffernutter right now I want to talk about the importance of fluff in D&D. I’ve seen a lot of games go bad when players lose interest in their characters, stop being as involved and committed to the game and just overall stop caring about the world they are playing in and, in turn, the game itself. I have been one of these players so I know what a stale game of Dungeons and Dragons tastes like, and I think the cure for a stale game is more fluff.
        So what is fluff? Fluff can be anything from adding flavor texts to your actions, to describing what your attacks looks like in an encounter to the DM describing the weather conditions. In short, fluff is everything that acts as an adjective to the world you are playing in.
         Fluff is something that is and should be used by DMs and players alike. It’s really hard for a player when all he/she hears from the DM is - Ok I got a natural 16, plus 9… so that’s 25 to your AC, I do 13 points of damage. Next this little guy right here is gonna move 6 squares and attack you. He gets a 17 to Fort. Miss? Ok, next in initiative is Valrun. I mean come on! I’m at this table killing my liver with two liters of Mountain Dew and this is the game I’m playing? No. If this is what your D&D game sounds like then there is something seriously wrong. How much better does – The elven warrior runs right up to you and with a furious battle cry bring his halberd down right on top of your shield! How’s a 25 feel against your Armor Class? Alright you scream out in pain as the halberd pierces your shield and skewers your arm causing 13 points of damage. Then the other elven warrior is going to cast his halberd away, you see him start to focus his energy into his hands and he runs right up to you and throws a powerful fist right at your chest. You feel the full weight of the elf break across your chainmail. Will a 13 hit your Fort? Ok then as the elf’s palm slams into your chest you brace yourself against his blow, shift your weight and easily absorb the hit. Valrun, as you see this happening you are spurred to actions!
          Do you see the difference? One is so basic that even George Lucas would laugh at it. The other feels epic and grand like a real encounter should. Now I know you can’t do this all the time, as a DM you have a LOT to keep track of and things can sometimes get overwhelming but more times than not you should be adding some fluff to the combat.
However fluff does not partner well with only furious combat. Oh no, fluff is delicious with everying, skill challenges, minor details of towns and people, anything really. Tell your players what the weather is like, let them know that the weight of their wet cloaks feels heavy as they approach the dark town, the cold bites at their windswept faces driving them to seek shelter. I promise you that little things like this will do more for your campaign than any amount of story hooks could ever do.
Let’s say you want your players to talk to a certain person in town to highlight that person because you want the NPC to come back and be useful later, the only problem is that your players have a nasty habit of never doing what you want them to. Just add fluff. (DM rule #1: No matter how many scenarios you plan to present your party with, be it one thousand or ten thousand, your party will always choose the one course of action you not only hand’t planned on, but didn’t even know existed until just now.)

No fluff:You get confused walking through the streets and are now lost. Give me a streetwise check. Ok you notice a guy sitting outside his house in an old wooden chair who looks like he lives here, you think asking him would be a good idea.

Fluff: “After setting out for the mansion district you realize that you don’t really understand the layout of the town and as you continue to pass by brick buildings and clay houses they all start to blur together. Soon you find yourselves lost amongst the towers and spires. These behemoth of brick lure over you, causing you to feel like you are lost in a sea of stone and mortar. After several minutes of this you come across a small clay house that seems to have aged faster than the rest of the city. It’s not decrepit; it simply looks more homely than any of the other buildings you have seen. What’s more is that sitting outside this house, in an old yew chair is a man who seems to have noticed the puzzled looks cut across your faces. His eyes meet yours, he seems kind, the blue hue in his eyes seems to have faded with age yet you get a feeling that he wishes to talk to you. You see him wave at you, beckoning you.”
         Now there are two things to take away from this. One is obvious the other is not. First off, which one do you think your players will be more responsive to? Obviously the second one. It not only helps to set the mood for the town and the player’s current situation but it also helps your players get a feel of their own characters. A lot of the time players forget that they are not playing themselves in the world you are laying before them but rather playing a character in the midst of a world that is unfolding in response to their actions.
The second thing that you may or may not have noticed is that aside from fluff catching your players attentions with it’s alluring and captivating flavor, is that it can eliminate needless and pointless dice rolling. Let me just say this, if you are asking your players to roll for a skill without them prompting it (i.e. them asking if a nature or religion check would be better on a particular monster) then you are doing something wrong. But more on that in a different post. Fluff will capture that players attentions and bring their minds and imaginations back to the table/game and help block out other distractions that may be present at the table.
          But!!!!!! This is not a DM only game. A DM is only as strong as his/her weakest player. You MUST get your players hooked on using fluff too. Have them describe their actions, ask them to explain how they are feeling after a major event in the game, how they feel about finding out it was really the old man in the chair that had been helping the kobolds with their invasions of the city. The best way I have ever seen this put to use is actually in a game I am currently playing in. My DM, who is actually the author of this blog, gives all players a +1 to attack rolls if we describe what our attack look likes before we roll. Now you can’t just be like “I swing my axe really super duper hard!” No. That’s not going to cut it. Try, “As I charge the Fomorian Guard I hurl my axe overhead and with an ear shattering howl I bring my blade down, burying it in his purple skin.” Now THAT is worthy of a plus one. This is a perfect way to get players in the right mindset to respond better to fluffy goodness. Maybe even trying basing the success of a skill challenge on how well they describe what they say to an NPC. If your players find themselves invited to tea by an NPC they suspect is up to dastardly deeds, and in his presents at the tea party are conversing with him DON’T ask them for a Diplomacy or Intimidate roll. FIRST ask them to role-play, I know crazy idea. Ask them to actually talk as if they were face to face with the NPC. This forces the player into the mind of their character, and while this may seem second nature to some veteran players you would be surprised at how well it works with newer players and people having a hard time finding a grip on their character.
          Now I know the stuff I’m saying here isn’t groundbreaking or probably anything you haven’t heard before but sometimes I think we need to state the obvious because the obvious can be overlooked. A lot of the times, especially in 4e, players will get really excited over what a power can do or how many dice they role. They forget about the rich and thriving world that they are exploring and instead center on the mechanics of the game which can really grind games down after awhile. I mean sure rolling a crap ton of dice is fun but it will get old I promise you that. The story, the adventure the thrill though… well isn’t that what we nerds come to D&D for in the first place? I mean if you wanna be cool and roll dice go to Las Vegas, man. But if you want to bitch slap a mummy into an iron maiden with Mage Hand, or stop the slaughter of the Githzerai… well then I’ve got a sandwich for you.
The gist of what I’m trying to say here is that fluff when looked at from a distance can simply be what it appears to be. A little dollop of some sweet treat with no lasting impression or nutrition. Nothing big or anything to get excited about. But when you spread that fluff evenly over a nicely paved foundation of peanut butter and sandwich it together between two well prepared pieces of bread… well… well you’ve got yourself one hell of a sandwich right there.
          Good look at I hope this helped a little bit. I am now off to the kitchen.

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of using fluff instead of rolling dice to determine the results of a skill challenge. I have always considered dice rolling to be a secondary tool to the overall narrative of the game. Like you said,

    “if you are asking your players to roll for a skill without them prompting it then you are doing something wrong.”

    The origins of D&D lie in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. This narrative is rich with description and detail. Too often I feel my players slip into the game mechanics of the game and fall away from the plot and true motivation of their characters. Rolling should be limited to what if truly random or challenging, such as combat or skill challenges involving multiple competitors or when the outcome of an event will determine a major change for a character or the plot.

    If I wanted to play a dry hack and slash fantasy themed game I would play WOW. D&D is more than that. It is a tool that we use to write our own epic tale.