I am definitely guilty of this, in case anyone wants to call me out.
Look, there are lots of ways in which a game can be made complicated. Rules can play many roles. The devil is in the details. It is genuinely worth it to sometimes take a moment to look under the hood and see what kinds of rules are in the game before dismissing it.
Some games have lots of rules but they're fairly intuitive (once you know how spellcasting works in Ars Magica you can start using it quite naturally). Some games have relatively few rules but they are difficult to master (Burning Wheel famously takes at least half a dozen sessions before you even get a grasp on it, they say). Some games have lots of rules but they're all built using the same core ingredients, so once you learn the "Rosetta Stone" mechanic then everything else falls into place (most universal systems rely on this, like Savage Worlds or FATE. I would argue D&D 5E does it pretty well. It's very "rulings over rules" friendly). Some games have a ton of rules that are all disconnected and are each a subsystem that you have to learn separately and it's a pain in the ass (sigh... Fantasy Craft).
However, I want to put the spotlight on very specific types of mechanics that, yes, are all more rules than you would ordinarily need if you were just running something like B/X D&D, but aren't necessarily all equal in how much they truly complicate or restrict the game.
Enumerated Player Choices vs Freeform Player Choices
In D&D 5E, this is perfectly doable without complication.
In many OSR fantasy games, this might be a bit much for one turn but it could definitely be accomplished in two.
In Pathfinder 1st Edition, achieving this would literally take a minimum of 4 separate feats and, for most builds, wouldn't be achievable until level 8. And it would probably have to be a build you've made specifically to do this combination of actions. Why? Because doing things like splitting up attacks across your movement aren't allowed by default. Drawing your weapon uses your movement by default. You don't get to do nonlethal damage with a sword by default. When the game has, say, a feat or something that grants players the ability to do X, then it implies that you could not do X otherwise without the feat. It must be specifically enumerated to you by the rules.
Most RPGs assume that, "the PCs can do anything they can imagine, describe, and seems feasible in the fiction." The rules dictate only the things you can't do.
But a game with enumerated powers are, to use the cliché, like buttons in a video game. In a video game, if you have an idea of what you want to do, then it needs to be mapped to a button on your controller for it to be possible. The rules dictate everything you can do. Why would you recreate that limitation in a tabletop format? Why would you reject one of the most beautiful qualities of your chosen medium?
This is a type of crunch that you see all over D&D 4E, 3E/Pathfinder, and GURPS, but it isn't just a new school thing. The very first supplement for OD&D, Greyhawk, introduced the Thief class and it was immediately controversial for this precise reason. If the Thief is given mechanics for things like sneaking, disabling traps, and climbing (and godawful mechanics at that), then does that imply that members of other classes can't do those things? The answer, apparently, was yes.
But you know what game does really well at adding lots of crunch but never in this way? D&D 5E! They went out of their way to make it really friendly towards a playstyle where you can just describe, like a movie choreographer, whatever it is you want to do on your turn and then the DM figures out how to make it work in the rules. It has a really strong and flexible core mechanic along with some very forgiving action economy that lets you do a lot. The game even encourages players to think more in "narrative terms" than in "gameplay terms." This breaks down a bit in the higher levels when you begin having combats where every round involves someone Counterspelling somehow, but for a while it works pretty well.
And when you do get cool abilities from your class, they oftentimes just make you better at something that you could do normally. Things that everybody can do, but which are easier for you now. A Rogue can hide, dash, or disengage as a bonus action instead of a normal action, which just gives them more efficient action economy than other people. Battlemaster Fighters get cool maneuvers that come with a special pool of "superiority dice." Most of the maneuvers are, again, things which anyone is capable of doing but which you get a bonus to. For example, any character can attempt to disarm their opponent. But you can pair the disarm with an attack (two actions for the price of one!) and you get to add your superiority die to the attack's damage.
Now I should be clear, there are indeed some things which you can argue should be enumerated powers. Most magic systems have to be this way, since the standard is that "you can't cast spells unless you are specifically talented as a mage" or whatever. In fact, any action requiring specific training or knowledge is something you can fairly hide behind a gate that the player must unlock. If you haven't been trained to do brain surgery, then you can't attempt it. Makes sense. And any action needing special equipment obviously has a requirement to overcome. But I would also argue that there is a place for special enumerated abilities that only make sense in the context of the "metagame," but which have no in-fiction analogue.
For example, in my RPG Brave I am working on adding classes to Knave. There's a Knight class, and one of the abilities they can get is called "Leadership." The description is: "You can spend your movement to grant an ally one move or one action." Look, the best way I could try to justify this with a "real" explanation is that your character is, like, barking orders at their teammates. But the real point of the ability is that it lets you tamper with the action economy to help your friends. I didn't lock your ability to do normal people things that all normal PCs should be able to do. I just created something unique that you have to unlock and it simply gives you a way to break the rules a little bit. If you're just going to be standing there anyway in a sword fight with a villain, then you may as well give your movement to someone else. Of course, such a benefit does work against tactical transparency but it at least makes you feel like a valued team player.
The point of this section: don't make the mistake of thinking that "all rules are inherently restrictions." That's only true of these kinds of "enumerated abilities for things you should just be able to do", but it is very possible to avoid that.
Related: Arbitrarily Limited Resources and Thematic Powers
Arbitrarily limited resources are an example of crunch I try to avoid. Some things it makes sense that you can only do them so many times. If you need to consume an item for the power to work, then you're limited by supply. If it's a magic system with limited slots or magic points or whatever, then who's gunna argue? It's not like magic is a real thing. Who's to say that magic couldn't work in such an arbitrary, game-y way? You can't claim that it's failing to adhere to realism if it's just a made up system.
But then there are powers which seem like they should just be, like, things that you can innately do. Why do Barbarians get a limited number of rages per day? Why are so many things limited to once per short rest when there's nothing about them which seems like it's "exhausting" at all? Well, who can say? The meta reason is for balance, but there isn't a satisfying explanation within the fiction. 4E D&D was built entirely on arbitrarily limited resources, which is one of many reasons that people think it feels "video game-y." Again, I try to avoid this if possible but sometimes I fail.
A debatably good example of crunch that's related to the "metagame abilities" thing would be any benefit that isn't about simulating anything, but is instead just about reinforcing a theme. Obviously this isn't the kind of thing that everyone goes for in RPGs but I'm usually impressed when I see it done well. In Brave I gave the Warrior class a skill they can learn called "Stubborn" that gives them a bonus on their Death and Dismemberment rolls. Does it make sense? Not really. I don't know how to explain it in the fiction. But it definitely makes you feel like John McClane! And a good Warrior wants to feel like John McClane.
Here's a more in-depth example that I really love:
The Star Trek Adventures RPG uses the 2d20 game engine. When you have to do a task, you roll a pool of d20s and are trying to roll under your target number on each of them, and then count up the number of successful dice. If it's equal to or greater than the task difficulty, you succeed. So if the task difficulty is 4, then you need at least 4 of your d20s to successfully roll under your target number. You only get 2d20 to work with by default so you also have to do things to earn yourself more d20s for your pool, each and every task. That means that tasks of difficulty 3 or greater may be mathematically impossible for you to succeed if you can't find a way to increase your pool size.
So if you're used to playing games with a simple core mechanic (d20, d%, d6, 2d6, etc.) then you might think "why complicate it? A simple mechanic can serve all your needs without bogging things down. It's one roll that abstracts lots of stuff into a clear success or failure." But in the Star Trek RPG, you also get a benefit called "momentum" for every successful d20 you roll in excess of the difficulty of the task. So if the difficulty is 2, and you roll 4 dice, and 3 of them are successful, then you get to keep 1 of those dice as "momentum." This means that you'll also have that die in your next pool for your next task you attempt. Success carries forward, snowballing as it goes, so you have a chance for your pool to keep growing if you keep being really successful at easy tasks (there are even tasks with 0 difficulty that you still roll for anyway, literally just to see how much momentum you build up). Then, a bunch of built-up momentum will really come in handy when you need to attempt an extremely hard task. But of course, all it takes is one failed task to lose all momentum.
What's the point of this mechanic? Well, it helps reinforce the themes of the game. It creates an interesting flow to the session. It makes it so that tension ramps up throughout the "episode" and characters have the ability to push themselves beyond their normal limits when you're approaching the climax and the situation has escalated. But what does it represent within the fiction? Nothing, really. This weird sort of "dramatic momentum" is completely made up, but it makes the game more fun to play. So yes, it is more complicated than a simple dice mechanic that most other games would use, but the tradeoff is that it makes every single check matter to the following check. It's neat. And from there, they find a way to incorporate the mechanic elsewhere throughout the system.
Momentum becomes a resource that players can also spend to do their own special abilities like doing bonus damage, disarming someone, avoid an injury, and so on. Thus creating a decently interesting choice architecture for the player to consider if they want to solve challenges effectively. Do I save the momentum for my next task or do I spend it on an action? Now I will fully admit: this is something that won't appeal to all players. Not every player is really interested in RPGs as "games," where the appeal of the activity is in treating the rules as a puzzle to solve ("gaming the system" so to speak). But for those who do enjoy this kind of experience, having just this one small extra rule goes a long way.
But the point is that even the simple idea of momentum is already neat enough. Some crunch serves to reinforce themes and that might be worth having.
Amount of Moving Parts
One of the types of added crunch I'm usually the most uneasy about are new moving parts. I'm usually fine when I see a rule has been added as long as it's simple and can be stated as a sentence. Static things, you know? But the minute they create a new type of resource where you have to spend X points or you now get special X dice or you have to roll on the X table, that's asking a lot more. Like I said, I enjoy it sometimes (like the 5E Battlemaster!) but it really does need to be done quite sparingly. If you got a new toy every single time you level up then it would get unwieldy fast. But you can have lots of toys across the system as a whole so long as any one player only has one or maybe two toys to play with themselves. Unless, of course, the GM is going to have to learn and understand all the toys of every player. Sigh.
This is why I'm disappointed that nearly every single class in 5E D&D is a spellcaster. Especially things that don't need to be a spellcaster by default, like the Ranger.
Ever heard of the RPG Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate? It's a Wuxia kung fu game by Bedrock Games. It's pretty good, but boy does it have some crunch. As you might expect, there are tons and tons of kung fu techniques to learn. They take up a huge chunk of the book, not unlike the spell section in many D&D-like games. Here's an example of one called "Grasp of the Python":
You grab an attacker’s arm when they strike at you, pulling their strike wide. Against poorly aimed strikes, you can also pull them into a deadly chokehold.
When someone attacks you with an Arm Strike, you make a Grapple Skill roll against their Parry. On a Success you automatically avoid the Attack. If your opponent’s original Attack roll against you was a Failure, you can also pull your opponent into a chokehold. Each round, they must make an Endurance roll to remain conscious (TN 1+1 per Waijia Rank each round: meaning you cumulatively add your Waijia Rank to the Endurance roll TN each round, starting on the first). This must be maintained each round with an additional Grapple roll against Parry.
Cathartic: Whether the attacker misses or succeeds, you get an opportunity to roll Grapple against Parry to initiate the choke. However if they miss, you also do 2 Wounds each round automatically in addition to the choking effect.
I mean, don't get me wrong. It sounds cool, for sure. But also, it's kind of elaborate, right? It really does seem like a whole spell from D&D, and a bit of a complicated one at that. Well the whole game is comprised of using tons and tons of techniques just like this. You have hundreds to choose from and all of them are about this complicated. Everything you do in the game is almost like a minigame. To its credit, most of them are still just building off of and manipulating the same core elements of the game. But every now and then you get wholly new moving parts added, like a new random table to roll on. Sounds rough, right?
Here's another good example: let's compare D&D 5e's advantage/disadvantage with Shadow of the Demon Lord's boons/banes.
In 5E, they almost entirely replaced numerical modifiers (aside from your core abilities and proficiency) with advantage and disadvantage. No more counting up +2s and -1s and +4s and -3s all over the place. Instead, roll 2d20 and take the better (or worse) of the two results. This mechanic is fucking spectacular. There's a reason every other game is stealing it all the time. It does so much heavy lifting. The rules say that you can treat advantage as being roughly equivalent to a +5 but that's not really accurate. The cool thing about it is that it keeps the full range of results still bound within the 1-20 range, but it skews it towards the upper end ("bounded accuracy").
But they also say that any amount of advantage and disadvantage cancels out, and multiple sources of advantage or disadvantage can't stack. On the one hand, this is a great idea. It means that you don't have to spend so much time on bonus farming. Have advantage from at least one source? Done, time to move on and do the roll already. Enemy has a bunch of advantages to hit you? Well if you can impose just one source of disadvantage then it'll all even out. Don't overthink it. Especially since, if you do the math, you'll find that any attempt to allow it to stack ("roll 3d20 and take the highest!") is way overboard.
For example, you're going to make an attack from the high ground and with a Bless spell on you and from hiding or something. So that's 3 boons. You roll 1d20 and 3d6. The highest d6 gets added to the d20. So if the d6s are 2, 2, and 5, then you add 5 to the d20 roll. Thus, any amount of boons can only add, at most, a 6 to your check. But having multiple boons makes it more likely you'll get a 5 or 6. And having at least 5 or 6 boons makes it mathematically almost certain you'll get at least one 5 or 6, so bonus farming has diminishing returns after a certain point. Oh, and every boon and bane you have cancels out. So if you have 3 boons and 2 banes, then 2 of each are cancelled out and the final roll will just add 1d6 as your 1 boon.
Some people greatly prefer this over 5E's system. I will admit, one of the limitations of advantage and disadvantage is that, because it doesn't stack, sometimes you can't make things as easy or as hard as you might feel like you should. If you're already attacking in the darkness then it doesn't matter if you also get drunk and attack from a prone position. You can only suffer from disadvantage once. The DM can always make a ruling that "if you have X number of disadvantages then you automatically fail" but that does violate the rules as written. The whole point of disadvantages is to keep the DM from having to really agonize over how difficult something ought to be.
But on the other hand, SofDL is giving you a whole 'nother set of dice to roll. It's making you go back to the days of mining for +2s everywhere you can find them. And it's harder to explain to people. These two mechanics represent a crunch threshold that can define a lot about a gamer. Are they okay with boons and banes or would they rather stick to advantage and disadvantage? They functionally achieve pretty much the same thing for the game, and arguably add the same "amount" of crunch to the game... but are implemented in quite different styles.
How Many Basic Ingredients are There?
Knave has 6 core attributes, like D&D. But it also has some side stats that don't get talked about as much. HP, Armor, Morale score (if you give that to PCs), movement distance, critical hit range, and so on are all side variables that you could also manipulate. You can make magic items or class features or whatever that modify these factors instead of just the core 6. There's more core ingredients present than you might realize at first.
D&D has 6 core attributes. It also has lots of side attributes, though. Like in 5E you also have your proficiency bonus. Then you combine the two to get skills and saving throws and attack bonuses and whatnot. So then things like HP are derived from Constitution and Level (aka number of HD). But I'll admit, they do a lot with very little. They were able to take all of 3rd Edition's Saving Throws, Base Attack Bonus, and Skill Points and streamline them into the proficiency system instead, which is just 1 number.
Some games have 5 or 4 or even 3 attributes. Lasers and Feelings has 2 attributes, and goes so far as to make them a binary spectrum at that. And they stick to it. You really don't have many core ingredients to manipulate if you're trying to key things to the mechanics themselves.
On the other end, sometimes games add fuckloads of ingredients. Only 6 attributes? Please. Pendragon has a whopping 13 pairs of core Traits. That's right, 13 binary scales to work with. That doesn't even bring in your character's 4-7 Passion scores, 5 Attributes, 24 Skills, and 6 Combat Skills!
Or let's take a look at Stars Without Number. You have 6 attributes that have both a score and a modifier. You have hit points and system strain. You have AC and three saving throws. Then you have skills and class and a background and foci and potentially psionics as well. Most games would have only one or two of those. It's often called an OSR game, but it has about as many core ingredients as a new-school game like D&D 3E or something similar.
Some games have lots of pieces but many of them are derived from a smaller set of core pieces. Like in GURPS, you get 4 main stats and then a goddamn billion other stats, all of which are calculated with equations that involve combinations of those 4 main stats. So on the one hand, this is good because it's getting the most use out of the few central stats as possible, really incorporating them thoroughly. On the other hand, each derived facet of your character is still a separate facet. It's still another thing that makes your character sheet longer and will be another thing the player has to know about so when the GM says, "make an X roll" they know what that is. Even if it's all derived from the same few things under the hood, it's still a new thing. It's yet another vocab word to memorize for the test.
That's why I like games like Knave that just get rid of skills and have you use an ability check for everything. If you really want a bonus for specialist expertise, have advantage. But you only ever need to know and determine 6 numbers, period. And even when I play Knave, I cut out the ability defenses and reduce it down to just the modifiers alone.
A d6 has less granularity than a d20, which has less granularity than a d%. They each have a different range of possible results. And as core mechanics, they each have a different degree to which they can be modified. A +1 on a d6 is huge. A +1 on a d20 is okay. A +1 on a d% is meaningless.
In a Powered by the Apocalypse game you'll roll 2d6 (to form a bell curve of results) and add a small modifier. But the results are still broken into only three ranges, like "success," "success at a cost," and "failure." In some games they'll have a huge range of results. In GURPS you have to not just roll your 3d6 under your stat, but you have to make note of the margin by which you succeeded or failed in relation to your stat. But also you have to roll it against the opponent, since nearly every type of check in GURPS is a contested roll. So that means that there are different outcomes for "both succeed," "both fail," "I succeed and you fail" and "you succeed and I fail" and all of these are modulated by each character's margin on their roll.
It's a lot.
I prefer low granularity. I'm fine with having additional mechanics but I want each one to be meaningful. I much prefer 5E skills that just add proficiency over 3E skills that have you allocate skill points. If a player can get a bonus to opening a chest from using a crowbar, I'd rather the bonus be "instant success" rather than "+4 on the roll."
[This next section about Pathfinder was heavily revised after I got a lot of feedback, especially from u/Sporkedup on Reddit]
Back in the day, I played a lot of Pathfinder 1E. I don't like that game. I'm glad I don't play it anymore. And a big part of the reason why has to do with needless granularity. They call it "Mathfinder" for a very real, very valid reason. You have to calculate many, many variables for every single type of roll. And the main philosophy for the kinds of benefits you can get from feats and class features and magic items is almost always just, "+X to this action" again and again and again and again. But they don't even use a consistent number like if most things were +1 or if they were almost always +2. They'll be all over the place.
And I ask you, what do you gain from Pathfinder's level of granularity? How does your experience really improve by adding up so many numbers when other games keep it simple? I especially dislike things that are just numerical bonuses, bonuses, bonuses, bonuses when you could instead have crunch that expands the player's choices. A sword that does +3 damage isn't as interesting as a sword that lets you knock the target back 5 feet. The latter gives you something to think about how best to use your actions.
So let's talk about what Pathfinder 2E changed. It's still one of the crunchier games on the market, and certainly not the kind of game I'd like to play. But it is popular, so there must be a reason for it. I think if we practice what I said about "looking under the hood" and focusing on the nuance will provide us a pretty good example of the kind of crunch that's just subjective. Let's start with this review of Pathfinder 2E. It's funny but also tries to impart what it feels like to play the game for somebody who just doesn't like granularity at all. As he says in the review, to hit something in Pathfinder you must...
First check status effect, ask the player if there's any additional bonus, add up all the status effects, roll, add bonus, check to hit, check AC modifier due to status effects on the target, check to see if it's within crit range, then roll damage, then check to see if status effects give a bonus to roll damage, then deal damage, then subtract weaknesses and resistances.
All of these steps involve numbers that can change a lot by circumstance. Even a critical hit was changed from a nat 20 to "beating their AC by 10+" meaning that you have to also note margin of success! Even just going from your first attack on your turn to your second attack on your turn changes what your bonus is. And this is all multiplied by the effects of an attack. Oh, if only it were as simple as "do damage, reduce HP!" For a detailed example of calculating just one attack, I've timestamped the part of the review where he talks about it here.
But let's talk nuance for a minute. Lots of people will point out that you can dismiss a lot of this right away by just having a lot of it written down on your character sheet. You calculate all your default bonuses up front before the session begins. Even the "multiple attack penalty" that applies on each subsequent attack should be calculated and written down ahead of time (meaning you actually write your attack bonus on your character sheet three times). But what about all those situational modifiers that can't be accounted for on your character sheet? Well, yes, there are lots of those. But something convenient is that they fall into categories. Flat-footed, fatigued, being grabbed, etc. are all status modifiers. Meanwhile, cover, allies giving Aid, buff spells, etc. are circumstance modifiers. Another category are item modifiers, and so on. The point of the categories is that you can apply this rule: "modifiers of the same type don't stack. You just apply the highest." This saves a lot of the load in keeping track of miscellaneous variables, because you always know that "as soon as things go from bad to worse, you don't have to worry about bad anymore."
The point is this: it's subjective. Every player has a personal threshold for how much granularity they're willing to put up with. Clearly it can't be that cumbersome to play because we know that Pathfinder 2E is a popular game. Lots of people say it runs smooth for them. But me? I still think it's too much stuff to learn. Even if "multiple modifiers of the same type don't stack" I'd still have to learn what all the different status modifiers are anyway. I'd have to learn what all the circumstance modifiers are to know which ones are higher than others so I know which ones I should aim for. I like advantage/disadvantage because it's a blanket mechanic that can be applied in ad-hoc fashion.
In Pathfinder I have the granularity to customize my character in a million ways! ...But I don't want to.
In Pathfinder I can take 3 actions on every turn! ...But I just find that to be a burden.
In Pathfinder, a shield doesn't just give +1 AC or +2 AC, it instead functions as straight damage reduction! ...But it also has its own HP pool and then multiple degrees of broken-ness, and comes with another circumstance bonus from a unique action called Raise a Shield that ties into other abilities and mechanics and ugh.
So we look under the hood and see that Pathfinder 2E definitely isn't as guilty of "needless granularity" as 1E, but it still might not be enough to get past your own threshold. Pathfinder carved itself out an identity for gamers who like that sort of thing, but even they had to scale it back. Meanwhile, 5E D&D went way further with the same idea and has found that it's clearly the more popular and accessible way to play. Granularity scares people away. It's hard to use. It's hard to learn. It's hard to care about. In 3rd Edition there was a complex "magic item treadmill" that all characters were on and was essential for Martials to stay competitive. By the time you get to 5th Edition, magic items are an optional part of the game. How does that kind of thing happen? Well, think about the strengths of TTRPGs.
This is also why I really don't like B/X classes compared to class systems in many other OSR games, like Five Torches Deep or The Black Hack or something. The classes in B/X are so mechanically meaningless I'd rather just not have classes at all and play Knave. If there's a Fighter class then I'd like it to at least have some features, you know? And the features it has would be nice if they let you do different sorts of things.
There's a hack of Knave by Jason Tocci that's called Grave. It's meant to be an RPG for Dark Souls and it fucking rules. It's simply brilliant. They modify death rules to include some resurrection and souls stuff, which I think most people would expect. But they also found a way to add stamina into the game. After all, it's a staple mechanic of the Souls series. But the nice thing about Knave is that it has a simple and elegant action economy, right? Why add in a new resource that you attach things to? But don't worry: Tocci was smart about it. You get 1 stamina per empty item slot, and you spend stamina to boost an action (gain advantage, an extra stunt, extra damage, extra move, etc.). All the things you can spend it on could logically be connected to human stamina, so that's nice. But more importantly, all it does is give you something extra to use. It doesn't restrict your normal action economy and it doesn't just give numerical bonuses. You use it to make tactical choices. And it turns a game that's normally extremely focused on just equipment into a game where you now have a tradeoff between choosing more equipment or more stamina. You're going to be making choices about how best to equip your character anyway, so why not allow the option of not having equipment also have some unique benefits? And in keeping with the design philosophy of Knave, it's a way of doing "character customization" that isn't permanent, so you can always change your mind between adventures. Give me more choices to consider rather than numbers to crunch any day of the week. And not just choices like "there are 600 spells to choose from that all have unique descriptions and mechanics," but rather choices like, "you get one new ability but there are lots of ways you can apply this flexible and potent tool, and it's up to you to figure out how best to read the situation to optimize it."
And if you are going to be giving numerical bonuses, make sure that 1) there aren't too many of these and there will probably never be a situation where more than one can apply to a roll, 2) the bonus is statistically significant (I'm talking some chonky numbers), and 3) make sure they're encouraging a special playstyle and not just reinforcing whatever the "default" choices a player might make. Which is all to say: if the game is giving you a numerical bonus to some type of action, it better make you feel real special for choosing to focus on that action all the time.
Now it should be noted: many people who enjoy "high granularity" crunch will say that it supports better "realism" in the game. After all, maybe the difference in skill between my lockpick and your lockpick comes down to 4% and that's worth measuring. Maybe having every possible field of knowledge be a separate skill that each needs to be trained in at different levels is the best way to represent the burden of learning and attaining expertise at things. Maybe the best way to show the difference in effectiveness between a great helm and a sallet and a kettle helm is to have each impose varying degrees of visual perception penalties but also varying %s of damage reduction.
But how does that improve your game? Most people are satisfied to say that "wearing a helmet gives you +1 AC" and that's that. If even that. And it's also not the only way to create "realism" anyway. Technically, as long as the GM decides a result that is in accord with reality (or at least a hypothetical reality, in case magic is involved) then the game achieved "realism," no matter how many steps were involved. Why is the "realism" of GURPS better than the same degree of "realism" you can achieve in a totally freeform FKR game? Where the GM is trusted to just decide the most sensible outcome with their judgment and knowledge of how things work? They could arrive at the same conclusion that the fucking calculus tables will give you in a more granular game.
Ease of Use
Most forms of crunch can be forgiven as long as efforts have been made to make them easy to incorporate. Good presentation goes a long way. I can even be quite forgiving of a complicated combat choice architecture or character creation system or something as long as I have a flowchart in front of me that fits onto one page. The kind of measures that help you achieve what the computer is capable of doing, you know?
But there are some underlying variables that will always be an obstacle to ease of use. Anything that has multiple steps involved will always be a greater burden to use than something with only one step. Boons/banes are one step more than advantage/disadvantage, which is already one step more than attacking in Into the Odd. In that game, you always automatically hit when you declare an attack, so you only ever have to roll damage. Imagine that!
Meanwhile, in the superhero RPG Mutants and Masterminds 2E (the one I've played), just resolving a single attack requires that you first make an attack roll on the target, and then, if successful, the target makes a resistance check. They have to consult a chart to see the different ranges of failure, and to record the damage they have to consult the chart showing them what new penalties they suffer. Ugh.
Anything that can be randomized somehow is technically another step. This is why people say that "rolling dice slows down the game." It's kind of weird that the standard in RPGs is for weapons to do variable damage by die size. Why not make them static numbers? There are pros and cons of course but it makes the game easier to play.
Probably more important than either of those is how easily your crunch can be memorized by players. Every game has a learning curve, and people are understandably turned away if it seems like learning the rules will be too daunting. But sometimes it can be genuinely worth it to put in the time to play the game for long enough that you just internalize all the rules. The first few months my group and I played 5E D&D, we had to pull the rulebook out at least once per session. But ever since then, we've only had to pull it out a handful of times in the 4 years since. I think it paid off.
But you know what I've never memorized? Fucking status effects. I had to type up a summary of each condition in 5E and put them on my DM screen because I can never remember all the details, and the details always matter. Likewise, the exhaustion steps are hard to remember. I know step 1 is "disadvantage on all checks" but after that I'm hazy. These things should be improved.
Once again, this was something that turned me off when I tried GURPS. I'm perfectly willing to deal with some crunch if I can get a handle on it with time. But I cannot possibly imagine how you could ever "memorize" most of the rules you'll have to use in this game on a daily basis. For example, I made a character that I saw focusing on throwing stuff a lot (he was a football player). I figured it would be simpler than someone who uses a weapon of any kind, because I took one glance at the pages explaining weapons and I thought it seemed like too much. Well guess what I found when I look at the rules for throwing stuff?
|These were split up across a couple pages so I had to splice them together here.|
I could play this game for years and never memorize what's going on up there. Your only choices are streamline or grind the session to a halt to consult the book. And while I am 100% the type of GM who absolutely advocates streamlining whenever necessary (just make a ruling, let it ride, look it up later, etc.), the more I have to streamline your game, the worse it probably is.
This is also why it's so tragic that mainstream gaming has forgotten about procedural play. It used to be the standard that any common but even moderately complicated activities at the table would have a designated procedure to follow in the rules so you can make sure that you're following all the rules in the way you should be. D&D 5E has tons of rules for wilderness adventuring, but they're split up across several books and several chapters within each book and aren't laid out for actual "use at the table" purposes, and there's no guidelines about how they all "fit together." All it would take is a solid procedure that connects it all and suddenly those rules would actually be usable.
Sometimes You Create Restrictions in Order to Drive a Challenge
I generally find it more fun when I play a character who can't do everything you'd expect in an RPG. For example, Call of Cthulhu introduces a new rule that infringes on player agency but adds to the game nonetheless: sanity. Lots of GMs decry any mechanic which forces players into a certain course of action they may not have chosen to take (personally I think the issue is incredibly overblown), but CoC creates its horror themes chiefly by doing exactly this. If the Keeper says you gotta make a sanity roll, there's a chance your PC shits themselves and goes loopy temporarily.
I like this sort of thing. It reinforces the themes quite well and it puts players into sticky situations where the answer isn't always obvious. Many GMs would instead say that, "if you want to make your game properly horrific, then you should just scare the players." And to an extent I agree. Just making PCs fragile enough and throwing big monsters at them is oftentimes enough to get them to respond to the situation the same way a horror movie protagonist would. But using the crunch method is also tried-and-true at this point.
One way in which "more crunch" can create challenge is simply by outlining some parameters on something that otherwise would have been handwaved. The "less crunch" method therefore isn't really the "easier" way of doing it, but the "lazier" way. For example, the way most people play fantasy dungeoncrawl RPGs, they'll just handwave all encumbrance-related issues. If there are rules for it, it's usually literally "add up the total weight of everything you're carrying and compare it against this calculation for how much you should be able to carry based on strength, split into several degrees." Eh. Sounds boring. So instead a lot of PCs get away with just carrying as much as they want.
But some games add a crunchier-but-more-usable system for carrying capacity! Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Knave, Mausritter, Ultraviolet Grasslands, and so on all add some kind of strict system for encumbrance that takes time to learn and takes up space on the character sheet, but I think is totally worth it. It makes the game harder for players, but also gets them thinking about decisions and risks that they otherwise probably wouldn't.
For a similar reason, I felt it necessary to re-introduce the dungeoncrawl procedure. Procedures don't just help you make use of lots of rules easier. They also impose a structure that puts some bounds on what can happen in that environment. Or rather, how it can happen, and what the consequences will consistently be for different things. The procedure I've created for myself uses an action economy for players and requires the GM to track time in 10-minute turns because I specifically want to force the players to make tradeoffs about how best to spend their actions. I want there to be a cost to each of the things they choose to do so that way I can create an intrinsic source of challenge (rather than all the challenge merely coming from me just deciding to throw monsters at the players on a whim). And then some players can be better at dungeoncrawling than other players.
You don't really get that with the way most people run dungeons in post-2E AD&D because they'll just let the players do whatever they ask to do. "If the players ask to do everything then they should be rewarded for being thorough!" Bullpucky I say! More thorough does not equal more better at dungeoncrawling! Smarter uses of one's time and effort is what a good dungeoneer makes! But some crunch is required in order to define the spending of time and the application of effort.
Different Rules for the Same Fictional Activity can be Completely Different
Within the so-called "simulationist" school of design, what I've just said is probably insane sounding. But broaden your horizons. Different methods for resolving the same fictional activity aren't necessarily equivalent as gameplay. You can be "narratively" accomplishing the same story state but with a completely different experience.
An FKR-inclined player would say, "if you want to resolve an activity in the story, just talk it out and decide on a reasonable outcome by consensus." But that's missing the point of why people like lots of games that use crunch instead. Even if we did just talk things out in natural language, there's a world of difference that can be created by what parts of something you're focusing on in that conversation. Or the rationale on which you arrive at consensus. Or even being able to account for risk at all. Let me tell you about three different kung fu RPGs and how they handle combat.
First, there's a forthcoming RPG by my co-writer called Rivers and Lakes that I want to describe. Boom! Thought I was going to use a convenient and relatable example, huh? Well I'm too much of a hack for that. The next two will be, don't worry. But I want to describe a bit about this game because it makes for a really good contrast. And if you like the sound of it, expect an article about R&L soon.
So R&L uses the more conventional approach to adding crunch. It has a D&D-like combat system with rounds and actions, rolling to attack against someone's AC and then rolling damage to reduce HP. But what it adds are a role for every attribute to play in combat. Each of the 6 attributes corresponds to a category of attacks, a category of defense, and a category of mobility. So your Wood score is used for unarmed strikes and basic weapon strikes, is added to your defense against strikes while wearing light armor, and is used for climbing speed. Meanwhile, Earth is used for improvised weapons, medium armor, and walking. Water isn't used for any strikes but rather "grappling stunts" like throwing, grabbing, and tripping people. Then it's used to determine your unarmored defense and your swim speed. And so on. Most damaging strikes target whatever type of armor you're wearing, but stunts bypass armor altogether and target different ACs instead.
What does this all add up to? Well, you probably won't be successful in a fight if you don't learn the rules well, but once you do, you can begin reading your opponent. A huge part of every combat is figuring out, based on their actions, what your opponent's high stats are and low stats are. Then you want to make the best use of that information that you can. If someone is wearing heavy armor and wields a glaive, then you know they have a high Metal score and it probably won't be super effective to try to hit them directly. But if you determine that they have a low Water then maybe you can beat them by throwing them into walls, into objects, and off balconies. You have to switch up your fighting style constantly, making sure you're playing to your own strengths and your enemy's weaknesses, which is very thematic for wuxia.
And while the core rules can eventually be "figured out" by a player who has determined the optimal tactics, all of it gets modified by kung fu itself. Every PC and every villain is going to know a unique fighting style and set of techniques and forms that'll help them "break the rules," letting them do things like "add your Fire to your grappling stunts" and "subtract Earth from all received damage" and so on. So the game of reading your opponent is never ending.
Yes, it adds a lot of crunch. But I think it makes for a really cool experience. It turns every combat into a puzzle.
Second, there's Wushu, a free RPG by Daniel Bayn that's specifically going for "Hong Kong kung fu movies," going so far as to rename the GM the "Director." It's a brilliant little game that has a devoted fanbase and you should all check it out immediately. So here's the gimmick: your attacks are determined with a dice pool, but the number of dice you get to roll is increased by adding details to your description of how you attack. Your goal is to verbally choreograph ridiculously elaborate, unrealistic, and badass-sounding stunts. From the text:
Jeremy: "I throw my arms open wide and an automatic pistol pops into each hand from spring-loaded holsters up my sleeves. I hold the triggers down, spin down onto one knee, and spray them with lead!"
Each detail earns you 1 die. More dice = more control over the next round of the narrative. For example, I would give Jeremy 3 dice for the narration above: 1 for the props (spring-loaded sleeve holsters) and 2 for the stunts (quick-drawing the guns, then shooting in a circle).
A generous Director might divide it up even more...
- I throw my arms open wide
- and an automatic pistol pops into each hand from
- spring-loaded holsters up my sleeves.
- I hold the triggers down,
- and spray them with lead!
Neat, right? Lots of people complain how their players will be lazy and not put in any of the work involved in immersion and will just say, "I roll to hit" every single turn. But you can't do that in this game. If you do, you'll never succeed at anything. You have to get really into it and be creative and keep doing things to entertain the table.
So you can see how both Wushu and R&L are having you play out the details of the fight, but they're testing completely different abilities. One of them is testing system mastery and some critical thinking skills, while the other is testing your ability to describe cool shit. The player characters may be doing the same thing, but the players themselves are involved in extremely different activities.
Lastly, there's Hearts of Wulin, a PbtA RPG by The Gauntlet. It got Kickstarted in 2019 and had a public playtest packet available for all of 2020 that would get incrementally updated, and is now in the process of final publication. It's a wuxia game that specifically focuses on the melodramatic elements prominent in the genre (hence the "narrativist"-friendly PbtA base). But it is still wuxia, and that means there's still kung fu. So how does that work? Well in their own words:
Combat in Hearts of Wulin is conversational in nature, as you would expect from the wuxia genre, and is resolved with a single, elegant die roll. Compare your scale to your opponent: if you are a higher scale, victory comes easy; if you are a lower scale, you'll need to train or find additional resources to defeat them.
Wow. That simple, huh? What's the big idea? Well, to be honest, it doesn't really want you to focus on the kung fu parts of wuxia. Personally, I take a bit of issue with this (to me this combat system would be ideal for something like samurai fiction, westerns, gangster and crime fiction, etc. but is terrible for most forms of wuxia) but let's just talk about the details of how it works and what difference it makes. It's a cool idea.
The main part of character creation in HoW and the main thing driving most sessions is each PC's "entanglements," which is the complicated web of relationships, duties, and conflicts they have. All it takes for interesting drama to naturally emerge out of gameplay is for everyone to generate a web of entanglements and then just see what happens.
Thus, the most interesting outcome for two or more characters fighting, and the main reason you might even put yourself into that situation to begin with, is to see the rippling effects it has on your social situtation. Friendships will be made and lost, status will be gained and destroyed, minds will be changed, and so on. So "combat" is just each party stating, up front, what they want to be at stake in the fight (narratively). You'd say something like, "if I win, your PC has to leave town and never come back, and the mayor will give me the key to the city" and the other player says, "but if my PC wins, he's gunna take your magic sword and your girlfriend and you'll look like a fool" and if they agree on the stakes, they make the one combat roll and see what happens.
Any details about how the fight actually goes is just a matter of fluff description that is totally optional. The game encourages you to describe how you kick ass but mechanically it doesn't matter. Like I said, I think this is a shame for a game that's technically about kung fu. But still, it's a neat sort of activity to be doing in an RPG that's very different from the other two examples I gave. R&L tests system mastery and Wushu tests "rule of cool" but Hearts of Wulin doesn't test anything related to kung fu at all, and barely allows you to have a meaningful impact on the outcome of a fight, essentially handwaving it as a "non-gameplay" component.
Amount of Total Content Covered by the Crunch
You can make a lot of crunchy detail go into something extremely minor, like a single punch. You can use no crunch at all to resolve incredibly vast amounts of activity, like the trajectory of an entire civilization through history. Maybe this is part of the conversation about "complexity vs depth" but I think it has more to do with "depth vs breadth" where the same amount of complexity can be spread in either direction and get different outcomes.
For example, I think of BECMI D&D and AD&D 1E as being pretty comparable in levels of crunch, but notice that AD&D makes every process in the game crunchy (right down to how you make your character), whereas BECMI just kept adding more kinds of activities as it went on. The core rules remain simple. You're still technically playing Basic D&D (with a few tweaks). But they kept adding rules for new activities. Basic had rules for dungeons, but Expert introduced rules for Wilderness traveling. Then rules for running warbands and owning and running a stronghold were added next, then rules for mass warfare (the infamous "siege machine" rules procedure), and eventually rules for dealing with gods and the affairs of the multiverse. So yeah, the end result is pretty crunchy, but this is the important part: each chunk of rules is compartmentalized, so you don't use all of it all the time. Meanwhile in AD&D, every activity can get quite complicated.
I therefore think of BECMI as having more substantive "content" overall than base AD&D 1E (obviously AD&D expanded enough over time that it almost certainly had rules for all those same things and more, I'm sure). But the point is, I'd rather play a game that has 6 simple procedures for dungeons, wilderness, towns, sailing, combat, and warfare instead of a game that has 1 really complicated procedure just for combat. Part of that's because I just enjoy a lot of variety in my gaming, but another part of it is that, I can accept a lot of overall crunch if, at any given moment, I'm not burdened by too much crunch all at once. But that's just me.
Crunch Genuinely Can Be Fun to Use Sometimes
Some have said that "rules intrinsically get in the way of fun, so any moment where you're stopping to apply rules is a moment when you're choosing to interrupt fun." Respectfully, I disagree. Sometimes you can have rules that are like toys, and are intrinsically fun to use. So fun that, yes, they might incentivize the players to stop the game so that they can use these rules. Magic systems often aspire to this, especially ones with chaos magic or fumbles or whatever. "Gamble mechanics" are a common thing as you can tell, but even just choosing to play any spellcaster at all in a game with even slightly complicated magic rules must at least somewhat come from an interest in engaging with the system. Even freeform magic like Maze Rats is fun in a creative-thinking sort of way.
Crash Pandas is a 1-page RPG with very few rules. But the rules it does have mostly concern the collaborative operation of a racecar. Couldn't you just handwave all vehicle-related action with some simple description and ad-hoc rulings? Couldn't you just take a narrativist approach and instead emphasize that "the important thing is that you have a racecar, not how it works"? Here's the problem: the rules in Crash Pandas for controlling your vehicle are fucking hilarious. They are a joy to use and will turn a mediocre adventure by an amateur GM into a total blast. They don't have a lot of long-term potential in them, but for the sake of a one-shot session it is very worth it to learn and use that little bit of crunch. Not just to make it easier or to resolve uncertainties, but to have more fun.
There's been a lot of talk about how 5E D&D actually has a secret 4th pillar of play: character creation. For some people, their favorite activity in the game is the one part where they aren't playing it. They just really like the character creation rules and they sincerely enjoy the process of making characters. This has been a growing appeal in the hobby since the 90s and is considered one of the hallmarks of "new school gaming philosophy." It continues to be the driving appeal of Pathfinder. Personally, I kind of hate it and find it to be one of the parts of gaming I like the least. But that's just me. Clearly, lots of people are not only willing to tolerate this type of crunch, but actively embrace it as what they think of as "the fun part."
I mean, the game Dread has you play goddamn Jenga as the core mechanic, for Pete's sake. Nobody would choose to do that over rolling dice unless they found Jenga itself fun to play.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that all "intrinsic fun" is just thrilling rules. Most of those examples are, but think again about spellcasting in Maze Rats and character creation in new-school games. I have a friend who'll spend hours making characters in solitude (not exactly thrilling) but will be giggling to himself the whole time nonetheless (intrinsically fun). And even aside from ridiculous gimmicks like Jenga, there are lots of players whose favorite part of playing D&D is literally just the feeling of getting to roll dice. To them, "any moment where you're stopping to roll dice is a moment when you're finally having fun."
I don't have a specific agenda with this post. I'm not saying you need to like rules-heavy games or anything. I'm just saying that some nuance in the discussion would be helpful. There will still be lots of gamers who genuinely do prefer games that are almost entirely freeform and use the bare-minimum amount of crunch possible, used only for resolving perfect, simulationist uncertainties in the fiction. But I bet there are lots of gamers out there who think they dislike "high crunch" when actually they just dislike the type of crunch you'd find in Pathfinder or GURPS or something, but might really enjoy the entirely separate kind you find in D&D 5E or Shadow of the Demon Lord or something. Or maybe the inverse. Or maybe something totally different.
Most of all, when someone says they're making a hack of Knave and they're adding stuff in, don't immediately recoil. Sure, it could be that they're adding "bad crunch." But they might be adding crunch that's totally worth it. I aspire to always go rules-lite, but to also let myself add a bit of crunch to the parts of the game that are most important. If it's something you're going to be doing a lot and is the main focus of the activity, then it can benefit from a bit of extra crunch that follows the good qualities described above and avoids the bad qualities described above. I'll also let myself throw in an extra rule as long as I can continue to remember it well, teach it well, and make sure the players can learn and use it easily and I think it adds to the experience.
For example, I decided to change the rules from "death at 0 HP" to a "death and dismemberment" table you roll on at 0 HP instead. Lots of people make this change. Why? It adds another step, it adds another moving part, it requires you to consult a table, and it adds granularity to the concept of "death." Those are all examples I gave of ways in which crunch can hurt the game. But there's a tradeoff: it makes the game more fun and interesting! It prolongs survivability but changes how your character operates in the fight, and in my case, gives an extra benefit to having a helmet. It reinforces some themes by making it feel "grittier" because there's gore and injury built directly into the rules themselves, even though it's technically more forgiving than if I just used death at 0 HP.
But there's a limit. Go Google some death and dismemberment tables and see what you find. Even just the ones from DCC will do. People go ham with this mechanic. They'll come up with absurdly long and varied tables with dozens or hundreds of results, oftentimes with several (maybe dozens!) of different tables divided by damage type. In order to properly use them, you'd have to consult multiple spreadsheets whenever someone gets hit. It's ludicrous to me. I just use a simple 2d6 roll on a single table small enough to fit onto the one page that covers all combat rules in the game, and which I've embedded directly onto everyone's character sheets so they don't even need to look at the rulebook. I think I've hit the balance of "adding some crunch for the right reasons, minimizing the costs of doing so."
So while I'm happy to point out many, many examples of qualities that I think can make either "good crunch" or "bad crunch," there's no perfect answer. It's always a matter of tradeoffs and personal calculation about what you want and what you'll accept. And a lot of times it just comes down to innovation. I am continually impressed at the cool new mechanics and methods of resolving activities that people come up with, all of which required that they be willing to engage in some crunch. Your game will probably be guilty of "bad crunch" qualities, so it's more important to then make it worth it to use them anyway.
What I'm trying to say is please give my Knave hack a chance you guys. Wait. Come back. Don't go! I promise my homebrew is worth it!