For those not among gamers, those terms mean next to nothing. To me, they’re a little bit red-flaggish, I’m afraid.
They’re short-hand for whether a gaming product is full of rules and game-specific material (be it an item, spell, race, or some thingummy for the rules system) or story and background material.
Crunch for “crunchy bits of game material.” Fluff for … well, no one ever answers that one.
And that’s my tempest in a teapot–”fluff” derogates (yes, derogative comes from a verb) anything that’s not linked directly to “game-usefulness” in the minds of many.
Silly me. I thought Game Masters already had the rules in hand and could get by with them. I thought what they didn’t have time to come up with was all the backstory and all the history and details and character interactions for their role-playing games. Thus, I always weighed heavily in my game designs toward adding history and layers of meaning behind the immediate details of what was on stage at the time. I figured people might like to know why there was a dungeon there or when a fabled artifact they might find in their adventure was lost, by whom, and the context.
Yes, I realize (as I was once a gamer just like they were) that there’s a lot of fun in expanding the game rules and all that. I’m not arguing that’s not a great and useful thing to have in your game supplements and adventures. I’m also not against adding continually to a system when it needs it and you’re not straining the same to its breaking point. (I’ll fully admit I was never the best at the numbers-game to balance game mechanics beyond the most gut-level way, so I was never one for introducing too many new spells, skills, classes, etc. into D&D while I worked at TSR or Wizards of the Coast.)
I just hate that the prhase has built this nonsensical straw-man-argument where people either want “crunch or fluff;” often, I’m finding that many who use the phrase do see non-rules-driven material as fluff, rather than real content.
Maybe that’s why I’m more on a path as a publisher and a fiction author, rather than staying within my comfort zone of the past 21 years as a game editor, developer, and designer.
For me, I’ll keep pushing for the “crunch vs. fluff” prhase to be “rules vs. story” if only because neither of the latter phrases assumes a derogative nature at the start of things.