Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today we talk about games with big rules and games with small rules: how much crunch do you like in your gaming?
Crunch is probably a term you’ve heard if you’ve wandered around RPG discussion groups for more than five minutes. “This game is very crunchy”, “I’m looking for a low-crunch experience”, and other similar phrases help gamers boil down their gaming desires into a reductive but understandable scale. Crunch, in game terms, is the amount of complexity in the rules, and it’s one of the strongest drivers of preference in the RPG market.
In general, players who prefer less crunch in their games like things to be simple, and like the rules to be directly related to the task at hand. Players who prefer more crunch like to have more differentiation in different events and characters, and also often like games to have verisimilitude. Verisimilitude is the appearance of being realistic, and it’s quite different from actual realism.
Realism is, from a literal perspective, not desirable in RPGs. First off, doing the statistical analysis to achieve realistic results from something like a combat or skill test would be onerous, and I say that as someone who does statistical analysis in their day job. What good RPG rulesets do is design a mechanic that reflects some basic truths in the broad shape of results. Cyberpunk 2020 is an example of this: most of the combat mechanics were tuned using law enforcement analysis of gunfights, but the basic mechanics using 1d10s and 6 hit locations were only intended to emulate those results insofar as the game was concerned. This system provides verisimilitude, but isn’t literally realistic. The second thing is that “realistic” is a loaded term for RPGs. A good, crunchy magic system is significantly less realistic than no magic system at all!
To get an idea of how RPGs use rules complexity, we’ll run down a quick, isolated example: the mechanic of Range. By range, I mean engagement distance for combat and useful distances for weapons. Pull out your D&D Player’s Handbook, and you’ll see ranges listed for weapons like bows and crossbows; spells also have effective ranges. Is range necessary, though? Let’s take a look.
No mechanics is just that: a lack of mechanics or rules. Many games, especially simpler ones, don’t really mention range at all. If weapons boil down to a single attack roll, no distinctions about how far away you are need be used at all.
Conditional mechanics simplify any mechanical differences into a small decision tree, instead of providing a dedicated rule or set of rules. The simplest version of conditional mechanics for range is having a mechanical distinction between “ranged attacks” and “melee attacks”. Apocalypse World uses slightly more detailed conditional mechanics, giving “tags” to weapons based on roughly how far away you can or must be: “close”, “intimate”, and “far” all imply different things about how the weapon must be used in the fiction.
Abstracted mechanics aim to simulate reality without actually assigning numbers to it. Fate provides my favorite abstracted range mechanic: Instead of caring about actual numerical ranges, an area is broken into zones. The rules state that moving between zones is an action, and opposition to movement and ability to move through multiple zones depends on the fiction (often by some Aspects that apply to the area). Melee combat must happen within a zone, and ranged weapons can usually fire into an adjacent zone. Without doing any math, the Fate system gives you a tidy mechanic that covers weapon engagement, area of effect, and movement, and makes it easier to draw maps to boot.
It’s unsurprising that GURPS is an example for granular mechanics, the use of mathematical rules with a continuum of results. The GURPS speed/range table, a master table for ranged engagements in combat, has increments as small as one yard at the top of the table. Dark Heresy also goes to a granular level, but then increases the importance of range by tying psychic effect ranges to skill, often also in increments of single meters. Granular mechanics both provide a lot of detail and an easy way to tie into other quantitative mechanics, but require a lot of bookkeeping and must be designed quite deliberately to be realistic. When a linear system like range interacts with a non-linear system like incremental dice (found in Savage Worlds and Cortex), the edge cases can often break not only the appearance of realism but the entire game.
What makes a mechanic good has little to do with how detailed it is. In a game like Risus, which has very little mechanical detail or distinction, having no range mechanics at all makes the most sense. In a game like Savage Worlds, which is heavily based on minis, a lack of range mechanics would be a serious problem. Similarly, Dungeons and Dragons introduced a series of quite detailed range mechanics which covered spells, ranged weapons, and even melee weapons which had a ‘reach’ stat to model how far out they extended from the character using them. All of these were a bit much…until you started running on a battlemat. D&D, especially Fourth Edition, shines when you put all the detail to work in running miniatures combat.
In general, good mechanical engagement requires either the tools to deal with a granular level of detail (usually some combination of minis, a gridded play surface, and/or a computer), or mechanics that are fun to engage with. Math turns a lot of people off, and even people who like it can still only tolerate so much before a game starts looking like work to them. On another continuum, further increasing detail has diminishing returns in any modeling situation. Even people who like crunch tend to like having all of the levers available to play with, as opposed to actually enjoying math (and I say this as a person who generally enjoys math).
One of my favorite examples of a game with heavily abstracted mechanics that still manages to be crunchy is Torchbearer. Several elements of Torchbearer are great examples of using abstraction to cut down bookkeeping and speed up play while still giving mechanical detail and weight. The best example is the encumbrance system. Instead of giving items weights and having characters with carrying capacities based on strength, Torchbearer gives every item in the game a slot it can fit in. Helms go on the head, backpacks are worn on the back. Some things are small enough to fit in a pouch, others need to be put in a backpack, others must be carried. With this system, encumbrance both a) requires significantly less math and b) is immediately elevated in importance. Even if the system is simplified from a rat’s nest of encumbrance calculations, it significantly ups the chance you’ll actually play with the encumbrance rules, instead of handwaving them like I always did when running D&D or GURPS.
The key to choosing a good level of detail is based in what makes things more fun. GURPS has modeled out everything so that your players can make any character in any genre and have all of those characters playable with each other. Fate in some ways aims to do the same thing by not modeling everything out, instead implying that heroic characters in any genre have a similar number of heroic aspects. One of these methods will click better in your brain than the other, which is exactly why games come in such a wide range of levels of detail and mechanical intensity. Figure out how much you want in terms of rules, then figure out what parts of the game you would like to see modeled. The crunch of GURPS creates a physics model, while the crunch of Burning Wheel creates a range of story conflicts, and the crunch of Rifts creates a huge number of gameable options. Crunch is more than realism: it’s how specific and deliberate you want the rules to be for the part of the game that makes it fun.