14 October 2021

A Scale for Crunchiness in RPGs?

 Have I come back from hiatus?

No. No, I don't think so.

However, after writing the last two articles (review of Modiphius's two new rpgs), I found that I have some things I want to say. So I'm going to write a couple more articles, and then probably go radio silent again for... who knows how long?


To start with, I was thinking about crunchiness in rpgs. I started really thinking about it when I was reading the Fallout rulebook, and wanted to compare its crunchiness level to other games.

What is crunchiness, you may ask? Let me explain.

Or rather, let me describe the quivering morass that is people's differing opinions on what crunchiness is.

What is Crunch?

See, there is no real consensus on what 'crunch' in gaming means. For example, in his book Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering, Robin Laws describes it thusly:

...the typical roleplaying rulebook is like a Nieman-Marcus catalog for super-powers. Depending on the game system and character type, these extraordinary abilities might be called feats, spells, schticks, disciplines, skills, high tech gear, psionics, or whatever. For lack of a better all-encompassing term, I refer to these things as "crunchy bits." 

On the other hand, many players equate 'crunch' to complexity. But even that's not a straightforward definition. As reddit user ruy343 explains in this reddit discussion:

 Crunch is the ability of the players to make an optimal choice within the game that lets the player feel smart. In most cases, that's found in character creation, while in others, it's in the actions you choose in a game session, such as spell preparation or combat moves.

However, crunch is often tied to complexity because the more well-defined the game system is, the tougher it is to discern what is an optimal choice in character creation or combat with a bit of digging within the rules. But it's that challenge that makes a game feel crunchy and draws many RPG players. Crunchy games have a number of viable options inside of a complex framework that a skilled player can select that will give them a mechanically favorable outcome.

Further discussion in that same thread point out that some games may seem very 'crunchy' but a lot of that crunch is worked out during character creation (examples include the Hero System and GURPS, where a lot of the mathematics of skill rolls are worked out in advance, during chargen, so that when it comes time to actually make a roll, there's not a lot of adding or subtracting that needs to be done). Contrast this to other games, where the rules for things like combat can cause a single fight to last for hours and require a ton of dice rolls and mathematics (such as D&D third or 3.5 editions, where attacks of opportunity have waylaid many a novice player).

How do we resolve this issue?

So perhaps instead of a linear scale of crunchiness, there should be a 'crunch matrix.' Games are rated by different varieties of crunch, instead of an overall number. Maybe it would look something like this:
  • Power of Powers - how varied and powerful are the special abilities in a game, whether those abilities be inherent (like magic, psionics, superpowers, etc) or external (high tech gear, cybernetics, and so on). 
    • This rating would be ranked from 1 (PCs have no special abilities at all, and are just random everyday people: the majority of Fiasco playsets would fall under this rating) to 3 (for something like Ten Candles, where PCs have very minor abilities to do cool stuff), to 6 (such as Cyberpunk Red, where there's no magic or psionics or anything, but characters have access to amazing tech and cybernetics) all the way up to 10 (characters are playing literal gods, as is possible in games such as GURPS).
  • Powers Complexity - How hard are the powers to understand? This might be because the game has a long list of spells and feats, and each one must be basically memorised in order to be used. Alternately, it might be because the powers are so free-form that it can be difficult to know what is and isn't possible.
    • A low rating indicates that it's not hard to get your head around the powers in the game; maybe you're playing Paranoia, and you have exactly one power, and you know what it does but don't have to remember any minutia of that power. On the other hand, D&D (almost any version) has such a long spell list, with more spells being added in nearly every supplement, that it can be truly overwhelming, and would thus have a high rating in this category. Interestingly, Mage: The Ascension might also qualify for a high rating here, because although there are only nine Spheres and only five levels in each Sphere, the scope of those levels (especially at higher ratings) can be so broad that it might be difficult for players to fully understand how to use the Spheres, especially if combining them together.
  • General Rules Complexity - how difficult is it for a new player to learn the core mechanic for the game? Ignoring combat, this rates the basic system of determining success (which usually, but not always, means attribute and skill rolls). This would also take into account how many different ways of making rolls there are in a game.
    • A 1 is very easy to grasp system, like Toon (roll 2d6; success occurs if the result is less than or equal to your skill rating). A 4 might be a little more complicated (GURPS comes to mind here; roll 3d6 and get less than or equal to the skill rating, but there are specific numbers involved in determining critical success or failure, and there are also reaction rolls that work a little differently). 7 might be a little harder to understand (an example might be Overlight, in which attributes and skills are ranked on a step scale: d6, d8, d10, or d12; you roll three of the dice for the relevant attribute and three of the dice for the relevant skill, plus the 'Spirit Die' [a d4], and every two dice that result in 6 or higher counts as a success level, with the Spirit Die granting a variety of bonuses if it lands on 4). 10 might be 1st Edition D&D, which has a staggering array of charts that must be consulted for nearly every action, and some dice rolls worked differently (attack rolls vs damage rolls vs saving throws...).
  • Combat Complexity - How much do you have to keep track of when characters start fighting? Do you need miniatures on a grid to fully engage in combat? Or is it a quick and straightforward affair with a couple of dice rolls, finished in a few minutes?
    • A 1 in this category means that combat is very simple. Perhaps the best example of a 1 is Fiasco, in which there are no rules for combat at all; if there's ever any fighting in that game, players determine collectively how it ends based on the narrative needs of the story being told. A 3, on the other hand, might be Little Fears, where the sum total of combat rules is: 1) Attacker rolls to attack and defender rolls to dodge, 2) if the attacker's roll is higher than the defenders, the difference in the two rolls is added to the weapon's damage rating, 3) mark off a number of health boxes equal to this total damage amount. The scale would run all the way up to 10 for something arcane and madness-inducing, like the aforementioned D&D first edition.
  • Narrative Complexity - I'm sure there's a better title for this category, but this is what I've come up with. It is basically a a rating of how focused the game is on combat. Some games have little or no combat, whereas others focus almost the entirety of the core rulebook on how to fight.
    • A low rating indicates that the game is story-oriented, with little combat (if any). Dialect might get a 1 in this category, as it's very rare for any fighting to happen in that game. A more balanced game might get a rating of 4; for example, Dune: Adventures in the Imperium has rules for combat, but they're pretty basic and generalised because the game focuses on political intrigue. Storyteller System games like Vampire: The Masquerade emphasize story and drama, but have plenty of rules for complexity, and so might rank a 7. Meanwhile, D&D leans towards the high ranking end of this scale, as the core rulebook has very little (apart from character creation) in the way of non-combat rules.

That's just a first idea. I'm sure I could flesh out this system a little more. But I think it's a good start.

Anyway, I have a few more entries I want to write, and then we'll see how it goes from there. In the meantime, play more games, have more fun, and remember always to

Game on!

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