The first time I encountered the word “flavor” being used in a non-sensory way was not in tabletop roleplaying games (TTRPGs), but in Magic: The Gathering (MTG).
In MTG flavor text is the text at the bottom of a card which adds fictional context to it. Sometimes it’s a quote from the character depicted in the card, a description of the fictional world, or even a fictional aphorism. If you are interested in this topic and want to know more about it, I wholeheartedly recommend this amazing video essay by Sam aka Rhystic Studies.
Now I’ll talk about a similar flavor, the one we have in TTRPGs.
Half the Ingredients
I think it shouldn’t be too controversial if I say that a TTRPG, as a ludonarrative conversation, is basically made up of fiction and mechanics.
The mechanics are the basic rules text of the game, the explanation of how the characters can interact with the fictional world and with one another. As such, it is most often devoid of any flourishes and is written more like a recipe or instructions manual than anythings.
Although it is theoretically possible, I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a TTRPG that is purely mechanics. Fiction always seeps through the rules, even in “generic systems”, TTRPGs that are sold without a specific fictional world and, instead, they are offered as good enough to emulate many different types of fiction.
So I’m confident in saying that fiction is at least “half the ingredientes”, so to speak, when it comes to create a TTRPG. And, if it is so—and I’ve encountered no evidence to the contrary—then flavor is at least half of every TTRPG that has or will exist. So it definitely deserves some consideration, but how much?
Measures of Flavor
It’s not a question that I’ve seen asked before anywhere else, but I sometimes think deeply about how much flavor should my TTRPGs include.
When I wrote Banshee’s first draft, for example, it had tons of flavor that didn’t reach the final version. When I think about it, there were many reasons why this happened—the writing wasn’t good enough, the ideas maybe weren’t well-developed—but I can’t help but think that it had to do with a certain, unspoken “balance” between flavor and crunch, or between fiction and mechanics, if you want.
White Wolf’s World of Darkness games—including Vampire: The Masquerade, Werewolf: The Apocalypse, and Mage: The Ascension, among others—can be said to be on one side of the spectrum, the one where flavor is 90% of the game, if not more. At the time I read them these copious amounts of flavor didn’t bother me but, looking at them in retrospective, I feel like they are unnecessarily verbose and intricate, and all the fiction ends up being a wall that’s very difficult to climb for the average player who just wants to play the damned game.
On the other side of said spectrum is something like Chaosium’s Basic Role-Playing (BRP) or GURPS, alongside more contemporary examples like Savage Worlds and Fate which, as generic systems, skew towards presenting the rules in a format as digestible and minimalist as possible, expecting that either further supplements or the players themselves will provide with some kind of flavor.
Generic systems are often criticized by this, as some players feel like they are, in essence, incomplete. This speaks volumes to the importance of flavor because, whereas one can say that, for example, Vampire: The Masquerade had too much flavor, I don’t think that anybody would be happy if it had no flavor.
In this case, it seems, it’s better to have an overabundance rather than a lack of flavor.
Write Something That’s Useful at the Table
If there’s one commandment in TTRPG writing, it should be the one above, maybe reflavored (sic) like this: Thou Shall Not Write Things That Are Not Useful at the Table. The question is, of course, how can flavor be useful to gameplay?
First, it helps in managing expectations from players, so much so that I consider it a good practice to present at least a little bit of flavor before introducing any mechanics in a TTRPG. This doesn’t mean that I appreciate those bloody short (and sometimes not so short) stories that White Wolf made popular at the beginning of every game, but some well-written—concise, effective, and clear—flavor is a great introduction to a TTRPG.
On the other hand, mechanics can be very dry to read, and sometimes that dryness makes them difficult to parse. But adding a little flavor here and there can turn them into a much more appealing reading. This can be done in the form of in character examples or in universe explanations for a why a rule works the way it does.
Finally, flavor is useful at the table since it can provide players with examples of what kind of fiction they can create through their gameplay. This is especially useful in games that try to emulate a new fiction, or ones whose fiction is markedly different from the typical example that comes to mind when thinking about related concepts.
Deep Rather Than Wide
If I had to say one more thing about flavor, is this: it’s always better to develop a single concept (or a few of them) deeply rather than to try and encompass a lot without much depth. If you do the former, the fiction becomes more believable because it has tons of support and a profound sense of coherence. When you put a certain amount of time and effort into a fiction, it’s impossible that it doesn’t begin to coalesce into something that feels solidly real.
Shallow fictions don’t resist much examination and, considering that you and other players will probably dedicated a lot of hours to examine the fiction—the flavor—of a TTRPG, it would be behoove you to create one that’s as resistant as possible.
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