5 Reasons "Flavor" Is The Heart Of Tabletop RPGs
If you have spent any amount of time reading my prior work, you know that I am big on flavor. I thirst for flavor. Flavor is my wheelhouse. I live in flavor country. In short, I have a fondness for the stuff.
What is "flavor"?
Flavor is the part of the RPG that has no real mechanical component. Descriptions of characters and places (that don't involve tactical vantage points), history of the campaign world, and treasure that has no real monetary value but has that little special something that sets it apart from other shiny bits. It is a thing that cannot be measured by rules and is a product solely of the imagination of the Game Master and the player. My blogs on weapon and armor backstories are examples of pure flavor.
"Scope mah mad flavor-duds, brah!"
Recently I came across an article (Warning: not for younger readers) about flavor. What I found disturbing was that the author, and intense fellow who calls himself The Game Mechanic, feels that games are being ruined by an overabundance of flavor.
While I may have agreed with a few points here and there, I found myself disagreeing with the majority of the article, and not just with the oppressive, sometimes abusive tone of the piece. Seriously, I have a black eye from just reading it. Personally, flavor for me is what makes it a role-playing game. Rich characters with great backgrounds who can come up with creative solutions to problems and traverse the length and breadth of a great story for the sake of a great story is the very soul of a Tabletop RPG.
So, perhaps, this is a counter piece, or perhaps it's complimentery. This is your benevolent bard defending the institution of flavor, its uses, and its importance to the many worlds of tabletop games. Here are five reasons that flavor is the heart of Tabletop RPGs.
1. Backstories Are Essential: The very history of a character, the backstory is monumentally important, not just to give a sense of who the player is, but where they came from, both geographically and from a character standpoint. This is the benchmark of where they began, the starting point for any kind of real character development and growth. If Oskar Ironhammer was the son of a blacksmith, but too frail and weak to even lift a hammer, it is going to hold a lot more weight when he becomes a Paladin and the greatest craftsman ever.
"Getting hammered in the name of God."
And while my counterpart, The Game Mechanic, thinks that there is no room for epic backstories, I heartily disagree. One could make the argument for a character backstory of epic proportions, and still let that character be level 1. They could be in hiding from a more powerful foe, afraid to show their true capabilities lest they draw the villain's attention, they could just be egotistical and just "holding back" when dealing with enemies they feel are not worth their effort or they could have been cursed for some kind of hubris by a powerful spell caster, locking away their knowledge and abilities until they can complete certain criteria in order to "earn" them back (like leveling up).
"Scott has unlocked the power of 'Cult Classic'."
Now, it would be a perfect world if character backstories intertwined in such a way as they were interconnected, making it easier for the players and the Game Master. Several games have begun with the very principle of a shared past, but I don't find it to be entirely necessary. If you are playing an urban game, and you decide to play a barbarian from the frigid north (several hundred kilometers from said urban setting), it would be odd or out of place for you to have a lot of prior knowledge of the streetwise thief who has only ever lived in the city, or the cleric who has been studying in the local temple since they were young. Especially if you are attempting the "Stranger in a strange land" angle.
For the sake of ease of prep, you are sacrificing some of the most enjoyable parts of a character; secrets. I love a good secret. Big revelations like finding out that the villain is really the paladin's grandfather, or that the rogue is a reformed assassin responsible for murdering the cleric's father really make a game memorable. It creates tension, helps the characters grow and develop. When confronted with a dark secret the player character would rather stay secret, it creates an incredibly fun moment for role-play. No dice rolls, no need for game prep, just a group of player characters driving a story forward.
"Well, maybe a few rolls."
These secrets need not be anything earth shattering, like having the knowledge to power the great Doomstone. Rather they could just be deeply personal things the character finds embarrassing or shameful. The secret could be their entire motivation for adventuring. In any case, it pays to run your ideas by your GM first. It helps them incorporate those ideas into the larger story of the world.
2. There Is No Sin In Character Restriction: Wait a minute? Am I actually supporting the idea of telling a player what they can play? Strangely yes, but I will explain my reasoning behind this obvious fever dream.
Some stories call for a specific cast of characters
Our friend The Game Mechanic was quoted as saying "No one cares that you want an authentic dark ages campaign setting. Absolutely no one. I don't care if it “enhances” your story, the fact is players are only limited by your “vision” because you lack the imagination to deal with anyone who steps outside of the box... of a fantasy game."
However, any Game Master worth their salt is not going to simply thrust such a setting on their players suddenly. They would run the idea by the players, with something like a "Hey, would you guys want to play an authentic dark ages campaign?".
If the players seemed enthusiastic, it stands to reason the Game Master would then discuss restrictions on classes, races, etc. before anyone ever got to Session 0. If the players are still gung-ho about the idea, then they do in fact "care".
Restrictions aren't a bad thing. They aren't a great thing, but sometimes they are a necessary evil when crafting a particular type of story. Hard to run an all-dwarf game concerned with the safety of a particular mine when you have a random elf, tiefling, and gnome hanging about. If the Game Master is running a game where everyone is playing a member of a goblin tribe, it wouldn't make a whole lot of sense for a halfling, an aasimar, and an orc to be there as tibe members (or it could be hillarious, depending on your GM). Granted, not a one of these games could (or should) happen without an open line of communication between players and Game Master.
"You want to play an awakened lobster? Let me tell you why that won't work in Dark Sun."
3. "Stupid Flavor Rules" Make RPGs More Fun: Have you ever seen a feather token. It's a little disc that lets you use feather fall in case you're... well, falling. There are tons of these neat little tokens. My favorite is the tree token. Activate this little baby and it springs up a fully grown tree. Pretty neat right? Instant shade, instant lumber, and instant regret for anything that attempts to eat you alive.
Flavor can do a lot for players, and Game Masters alike. Interresting uses of skills, magic items and spells can make whatever it is your using far more intriguing, and useful. If the party finds itself in a cavern quickly filling with lava from the cieling, and the druid has a spell that creates whirling gusts of wind and wants to use that spell to cool the lava, that is a fin and unique way to use a spell. As a GM I would be remiss if I did't rule in favor of it. Sure, the lava from up above will slowly melt the newly cooled obsidian pillars, but it gives the characters time to think of a plan to escape. You are empowering the player to think outside the box by rewarding them with a favorable result.
And like any ruling, players do have the ability and potential to abuse it. That's okay. aspects of the game are meant to be abused. In a lot of cases it isn't really abuse, it's just a creative use of an ability. If your characters have rings of featherfall and the GM rules that you fall at the same rate as normal, and only reduce the damge to yourself, than you may have a bunch of nutbars throwing themselves off buildings and crushing enemies below.
And that is a-okay. Can you imagine how much fun the player are having walking off of high ledges, creaming battle crys as they go sailing by open windows? There are a ton of purely mechanical things that can cock up a game.One need look no further than the dervish magus build for Pathfinder to see that mechanics are no picnic either. At least with flavor, things get more interesting.
4. Rules Are Important, But Never Set In Stone: It never fails, at some point or another a Game Master is confronted with a rule that seems vague, strange, or unimportant. This Game Master might rule that the rule acts differently than the wording in the book (much to the dismay of Rules Lawyers). And you know what? There is nothing wrong with that. That is the Game Master's perogative. If a rule seems superfelous, than the GM can change it on a whim. They can even put it up for a vote to make it a house rule.
Some players may take advantage of this new rule, like counting every square of movement as 5 feet, even diagonally. Yes, moving in a diagonal motion allows you to move over a greater distance in less time (feet per round), but the fact is that exploiting these loopholes is a dangerous venture.
Becuase when you bring it to the Game Master's attention, it becomes part of the Game Master's already potent arsenal. Suddeny you have crabwalking kobolds moving at breakneck speed, and that is a nightmare scenario I am sure all of us can do without.
The rules aren't engraved into stone tablets. They can be changed. And they can be changed back. In fact, there is a rule about that in every Dungeon Master's Guide and Core Rulebook out there, stating that the Game Master has final say over rulings. If the movement rule prooves to be detrimental to the game, the Game Master can change it back. A wise GM will use this as a learning experiance, choosing to stay with or expel the changed rule for furture games.
Gary Gygax, you know, that Gary Gygax, had something of importance to say on the subject of rules in roleplaying games that was as true than as it is now, and as the guy who litterally wrote the book on rules, I kinda have to agree with him...
5. Story Will Always Trump Rules. Always: Contrary to what The Game Mechanic says, to utter these words is not an admission to screwing up, nor is it a means to disenfranchise the players. One of the bests examples of this comes from the love letter to role-playing that is The Gamers 2: Dorkness Rising.
"A cinematic classic."
Right at the beginning of the movie, the party cleric finds himself unable to turn a group of undead becuase he was cut off from his God. A situation that has no basis in the rules, but has a difinitive tie to the story. It should be noted that this wasn't a common occurance, but something unexpected, a "nasty suprise" thrust on the players and their characters.
Sometimes the roles are reversed, and the characters throw the Game Master a curveball they weren't expecting. There is no reason to despair in either case. In the case of the players, the Game Master should reward them for creativity. It is but a brief moment in their adventuring career, and there is pleanty of time for the Game Master to recoup and try again. Hell, these curveballs often open up brand new story options for the observant GM to exploit later on.
But what of these power gamers or Game Masters that want to exploit the story to their own ends, wraping themselves in an invaulnerable cloak of flavor of which there is no penetraiting?
Like The Game Mechanic, when I was a kid I played make-believe with a kid named George. He was always indestructable, like Superman. And you know what? George had a lot of fun stopping bullets and using his super strength. And I had a lot of fun putting obsticles in front of George for him to knock down. Eventually George tired of the ease of these "challenges". They become boring, so he decided he wanted to fight me. But I was not like George. I didn't play Supermen. I played Batman.
And I kicked George's make-beleive ass.
"Like a boss."
George decided he didn't like playing invaulnerable Super Gods with endless powers and no weaknessses. They were lame, boring, and could be taken down by people with no powers at all. Now the guy that can take this kind of character down, someone with all the vaulnerability and frailty or a regular person standing toe-to-toe with a being far beyond their ability, and beat the God because they were clever... that guy is a badass. George decided to be more like Batman after that.
Be like Geroge.
The fact of the matter is that a role-playing game is a collaborative storytelling experiance. The Game Master has a story to tell, the story of the player characters. As such, players and GMs both need input on how this story plays out, as it pretains to all of them. You cannot have one without the other.
Game mechanics are an important part to any game, and flavor is just as equally important. It goves the game life, helps it to grow, and makes it memorable. If you , as a Game Master, want to change a rule or mechanic you don't like, do it. Just let your players know what your're thinking. Communicate. If it doesn't pan out, change it back. No big deal. After all, it's only a game.
Roll well, my friend,
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