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The Art of the Small—Analyzing “Crunch” for “Fluff”

Written by LanJemWezz - Published on April 29, 2011

Well met, fellow gamers!

Join me in a series that takes a 20 on a Spot Check examining details within the D&D game that provide role-playing cues. In this edition, we learn how to appreciate low ability scores, why ability scores improve “in-game,” and what else a language tells you about your character.

Part the First: “Feeding off the negative; exercising between meals; and all the ways the tongue wags.”

Aww, that stat is horrible!”

These words, minus the choice expletive, have left the mouths of more than a few players. No one likes to play a gimped character, but expecting every ability score to carry a bonus, or even come up double digits is unrealistic and something less than enthusiastic. Many gamers will get one ability below “10” when they roll or do a point buy.  Here is a less pessimistic and game-improving way to look at some of those “horrible” scores.

When playing a non-spellcaster (or even a spellcaster whose dud-in-question isn’t her key ability score for spellcasting), if one of the character’s mental ability scores happens to be below 10, consider how it might affect her view of the type of magic associated with that score. If the character has no aptitude for that type of casting, they could easily not comprehend it. Intelligence is the hallmark of wizards, possibly causing anyone with a negative Int modifier to ‘know’ that wizardry comes from hucksters with no real power , or from “illusionists.” A fireball to warrior with a negative modifier? Nothing more than a carefully preplanned oil lamp, the fuse to which only the too-clever-for-his-own-good wizard (nay, arsonist!) knew about! Those “charmed” locals who helped the wizard? Paid off in advance to ensure their cooperation! Sometimes stupid sounds smart; and a character who has such tactics employed against her always has denial as an explanation. What could a dumb druid say about wizardry? Well, wizards obviously have devised a means of combining natural elements (i.e. movement, breath, components from the natural world) into a pale shadow of true nature magic. And what does the uncouth ranger think of the bard’s musical talents of magic? Not much, really. While nice to listen to, it’s all in our heads. My training and hard work account for my ability on the battlefield; the bard’s just along for the protection and the free meal when he can get it!

Detailing added bits of character fluff based on imperfections should never amount to a greater handicap that can be measured in the rules. It’s all in the role-playing. A little friction adds color to the party dynamic and should only open up opportunities for players to explore each other’s characters in a game-enriching manner. But this should never escalate to where characters are turning on each other. The warrior depicted above may scoff at or distrust the wizard’s magic, but he knows the value of having someone around who understands the unthinkable, or whom she can blame when something unexplained goes wrong. The druid above may try to mentor the wizard through words or actions meant to bring to light the “true source” of the wizard’s spells. And the ranger may tease the bard occasionally and give him a hard time, but it’s no more harmful than a typical sibling relationship, and the bard can always get the last word when he parodies the ranger in song.

Yes! Plus one to Strength. I. AM. A GOD!”

Every character gets added ability points at 4th level and every 4 levels thereafter. It makes more sense though—and is more interesting—if we know how a character’s ability score improved, than it miraculously raised itself without explanation. Because we know when a character’s ability score will increase, it’s determinable in advance which one you want that to be. Even a couple levels in advance. By doing this, you give yourself time to consider your options and can begin to pepper your role-play with examples of how the ability score improves. Plus one to Strength? No sweat. My character jogs into the woods and chops trees for a few hours every couple days, then hikes the lumber back into town by hand. First, this provides the character with a potential job, supplementing any loot from his adventures. Second, the DM can take this bit of info and plan encounters or entire quests based on separate hikes into the woods. And lastly, it gives a reasonable cause for the increase in strength. Plus one to Constitution? My monk begins a weekly routine of meditating under a waterfall. Or my sorcerer gradually begins exposing himself to trace amounts of toxins, irritants, and allergens, building up a greater resistance to such things. Plus one to Wisdom? My character regularly takes up chess/draughts/or a philosophical correspondence with a local sage. Charisma go up?  I’ve been carousing with the ladies.

Just like it’s a good idea to floss between meals, so too is it a good idea to flex your role-playing muscles and get creative with how your character progresses between levels.

“[insert your own pithy saying here]”

Almost every character in the D&D game starts out bilingual. More than a few are outright polyglots. While the game makes it easy for you to pick up and use languages in-character, it may be important to know how you learned a language, or from whom you learned it. The body of languages a character carries around with her can affect how she communicates. Might your character have picked up the mannerisms or colloquialisms of the speakers she learned from? Let’s say your character grinds his heels or spits whenever speaking, even in Common, due to having learned Dwarven from a crew of surly miners. A cleric who knows Celestial might hold her arms across her chest, as exampled by the “spirit talkers” that taught her, in a serene posture of peace when speaking, regardless of the tongue. In the same ways that real world languages differ and native speakers of those languages have different ways of gesturing and varying speech patterns, so too would a D&D character, and devising ways to incorporate that into your play would only serve to enrich it. Might every wizard who knows Draconic have learned it from a dragon directly? Of course not; but consider what this could mean if she did! Alternatively, other “dragon-related” and long-lived races could know Draconic, or perhaps an old uncle who spent several summers in slave pits garrisoned by lizardfolk. If you learned a language from a creature outside your own race or in a setting wholly alien to your origin, then perhaps you slur and gesticulate more, indicative of the more unfettered environment you learned in. On the flip side, studying a language by schooling, mentorship, or through books might give you a more formal and stately, if not entirely natural, delivery. Each kernel of information you add is simply another point of reference you or the DM can use to add flavor to your games.

More for DMs, there’s certainly no dearth of languages in the game, so it generally falls on you to find ways of including pertinent ones short of designing an entire quest around a language’s use. A technique I’ve used in my Forgotten Realms game is to designate most rural tenants and laborers as speaking only the regional tongue associated with them (e.g. Chondathan, Illuskan, Durpari, etc.) It makes sense that not everyone should be speaking Common, and it gives the players a special pride to know that those regional languages they knew nothing about when they took them come in handy when they’re not in more settled areas. Even when no one in the party can speak the language needed, it’s often fun to try to get the point across through pantomime and improvising descriptive actions without actual dialogue.  Highlighting what the heroes lack heightens believability, and hopefully reminds the players to value those things that they can do.

It pays to glean bits of role-playing fluff from the crunch aspects of your character, even those you aren’t satisfied with. When you start assigning significance to details, including the “blemishes,” you may start to look forward to putting them in! And when everyone at the table exhibits a sense of even the details of their character contributing to the story—rather than a what-has-that-crunch-done-for-me-lately —  overall gameplay becomes more satisfying.  Give it a try, and keep following this series to find out more clues and new places to look when analyzing crunch for fluff!

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Written by LanJemWezz

Writer for ICOSA Entertainment LLC, and author of the upcoming in-house offering, “The Alchemist’s Trilogy”: a series of Pure Steam tie-in novellas. Also, look for his short story “Dark Magic in the Root Cellar” in the “Dreamless Roads” anthology for DreamWorlds Publishing, due out Winter 2014!

Check out the Pure Steam Campaign Setting at: puresteamrpg.com, drivethrurpg.com, paizo.com, d20pfsrd.com
Twitter: @PureSteamRPG
Facebook.com/PureSteamRPG

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10 Responses to “The Art of the Small—Analyzing “Crunch” for “Fluff””
  1. Frank says:

    This idea of extracting fluff from the crunch is an superb.. However as a DM I would say implementing such concepts remains a little more tricky then the idea itself. I run a game with mostly newcomers to D&D, and they are a little role playing shy. Do you have any advice to motivate them, and to get them to run with more fluff content?

  2. LanJemWezz says:

    Howdy Frank! Thanks for the comment.

    Gee, newcomers, huh? I think you’re pretty much out of luck….

    Nah, just foolin’. When I first started role-playing, I was very shy about such things as well. It took being around those who weren’t to convince me that I could do it too. But if your players don’t have the luxury of playing alongside veteran actors, I’d inject your NPCs with as much personality and “fluffy-bits” (that just doesn’t sound right ;) as you can! This article series should be a good spring-board for such aspirations. Make your NPCs at times funny, somber, melodramatic, proper, slovenly, etc. Hopefully, the players will come to see how much effort and fun you put into it, and feel more comfortable about doing the same with their characters.

    As for hard and fast ways of incentivizing role-play in your games, consider this. In the early days, our DM used to have the players vote on who we thought role-played the best after each session. The winning player received a 10% bonus on XP earned for that session. To keep it so that one popular player doesn’t dominate the voting, you could rule that no one player can win the vote during consecutive sessions. I often adopted this method and put it to good use.

    Another idea: award in-game “checks” and “minuses” for game-changing or excellent role-play. A check can be used by the rewarded player to change a “natural 1” into a “natural 20,” or something similar. These help to highlight specific examples of how you’d like the players to role-play, and give them a crunch-related means of saving their bacon. Minuses, however, if employed at all, should not be assigned to individual players, but to the group as a whole, and can be used by the DM to negate a player’s “natural 20” or negate a “natural 1” for an NPC. Use minuses sparingly, and only when a player or players takes everyone completely out of the game or causes out-of-game drama, etc.

    Hope this helps!

  3. BrianJH1969 says:

    Its good to see gamers communicating and trying to bring high quality entertainment to there Players.

  4. Frank says:

    Hey thanks for the follow up! I fully intend on beefing up the NPC parts introducing heavy personality where applicable, and dribbling in more fluffy bits. ^^
    Furthermore I convinced some of my fellow players of my old campaign to make a nice cameo visit, to have them lead by example with uninhibited roleplaying. A win-win situation I think!

  5. BrianJH1969 says:

    That’s Great Frank, Keep it up it is good and it keeps the game interesting and it keeps players from becoming Board with the game.

  6. LanJemWezz says:

    Well said, sirs! Game on!

  7. B'omarr Punk says:

    I especially like the idea of having commoners use only regional language/dialect. I’ll definitely use that in my next Realms campaign!

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