Thursday, August 31, 2023

The Least Interesting Type of Crunch

As I'm sure you well know, not all crunch is the same. It can be broadly useful to know if you generally prefer less crunch or more crunch. But it helps a lot to feel out the nuance of the issue. I myself don't often identify as preferring "rules lite" games anymore because I have to admit that there's actually some very crunchy games I love. My own design certainly leans lite, but I know confidently that I'm no true minimalist. I can sink my teeth into rules and procedures, so long as they're the right kinds. But I think I've discovered the one category of crunch that I find the least interesting overall. And I'm sure many of you out there will vehemently disagree.

Rules, resources, and procedures that complicate basic task resolution do basically nothing for me 99% of the time. I cannot get excited over this sort of thing. And the worst part is, this is also the focus of, like, 75+ percent of all RPG design discussion. Just go onto and see how much of it is literally just talking about dice mechanics.

Don't get me wrong. I'm well versed in this area. I can talk about it for fucking days. Right now, off the top of my head, I can name and explain at least 20 different core mechanics from RPGs I've seen or read or played. I can tell you all about the strengths and weaknesses of d20s, d6s, 2d6s, d%, or whatever. Binary pass/fail? Variable difficulty or static difficulty, then? Or what about noting margins of success? Or if you're a PbtA fan, gradations of success then? Please. Roll-under or roll-over? How about roll-under blackjack? Hell, some games exclusively use contested rolls for all checks. And yet, others have exclusively player-facing rolls. Dice pools are cool, but you know what's cooler? Measuring attributes in die sizes themselves. But I'm sure some of you enlightened ones are about to preach the gospel of narrative dice, or FUDGE dice, or Zocchi dice. And how do we feel about modifiers? +/- X is a bit clunky, but we could go back to matrices. Advantage/Disadvantage is pretty slick, but have you heard of Boons and Banes? Personally, I really like Momentum from the 2d20 engine. Effort dice to deal "damage" to a task is cool, too. But sometimes you just gotta go for exploding dice, right? And yet, is anything more elegant than two attributes sharing a single stat, as in Lasers & Feelings? We haven't even touched criticals and fumbles, either. Oh Jesus Christ how the fuck do you begin to explain FASERIP??

And yet... I don't give a shit. I just don't care. If the most interesting part of a game is its dice mechanic then I probably won't be able to get into it.

I recently tried looking up "gimmick mechanics" in RPGs. Y'know, little pieces of design that aren't exactly foundational or revolutionary, but which still make you go "oh that's cute." I love gimmick mechanics. I wanted to collect a list. On occasion I'll revisit it, and maybe consider bolting one or two of these gimmicks onto whatever project I'm working on that week. And the list is coming along okay. But you know what I found in my search? Almost exclusively fucking dice mechanic variations. Things that just interact with the probability of success or failure at basic tasks.
  • D&D 5E has inspiration. Do a cool thing, DM gives you advantage. Spend it to get free advantage to one die roll. Only 1 inspiration at a time, so you better use it.
  • Fate has fate points. Everyone starts with a pool of fate points they can spend to either get +2 on a roll or to re-roll, whichever would be better. But to spend it, you need to invoke one of your traits and make it relevant to the fiction somehow.
  • Paranoia: Red Clearance Edition has the Computer Dice. It's the one die you always get to roll in your dice pool no matter what, but gets weird if it rolls the computer symbol. You gotta erase a point of Moxie and see how Friend Computer intervenes, which could be helpful or harmful.
  • Savage Worlds has the wild die, exploding dice, and bennies to spend for dice re-rolls. Do I have to explain all three? Go look it up.
  • Blades in the Dark has the "devil's bargain," where the player can add an extra die to their dice pool in exchange for a narrative complication.
  • Kult: Divinity Lost has relation inspiration. You have certain character relationships that are valuable to you. Then, whenever you can invoke the power of one of these relationships during a roll, you can get a bonus on it. Lifting a car to free someone underneath is difficult, but it's less difficult if the person is your own child.
  • Lots of Free League games include the "push" mechanic. Take some damage for the chance to re-roll some dice.
  • Troika! has an attribute called Luck. It's used in all sorts of places, usually just to see if things "go in your favor." But every time you test your luck, it lowers by 1 no matter what.
  • Call of Cthulhu has both a spendable Luck stat and a "pushing the roll" mechanic, which cannot interact with each other!
  • Every Star Wars RPG has had some kind of metacurrency. The 80's WEG one has "force points" The 00's WotC one has both "force points" and "destiny points." The 10's FFG one has "destiny points." All of these work differently. All of them are something you earn by being cool and you spend to make things work out better.
I'll admit that Dread really did something special in this area. But it's a rare sort of innovation.

The folks at Critical Role are currently coming out with a new game of their own. You may have heard of it. It's called Candela ObscuraHere's a video of a developer explaining the basics. I watched it. It seems like a fine game to me. I'm sure lots of folks will have a blast. But I just can't get past how much shit is involved in basic task resolution. To recap:

You have a score from 0-3 for each Action, determining how many dice you get in your pool when you roll that Action. Actions are nested in categories called Drives. When you roll an Action, you can also spend points to add extra dice from the pool attached to its parent Drive. You refresh Drive points by using one of your Gilded Actions. When rolling a Gilded Action, you replace a die in your pool with a Gilded die and can choose to take its result instead. Even though it may be worse, it at least restores a Drive point. And you also have Resistances, which you can spend to re-roll dice when you fail a roll.

Dear god that is so fucking boring. What could justify this degree of overthinking dice rolling?

I think one thing I've found during all my years running and playing games is that I want basic task resolution to be as quick and seamless as possible. I get unreasonably annoyed even just when one of my players takes 10 seconds to find the right die to roll, or they're struggling to type out the exact roll command on a VTT. Hell, I announce difficulty classes out loud when I call for a roll in the vain hope that I can maybe get the player to skip a couple steps and instead answer me with a simple "I succeeded" or "I failed."

I'm not an FKR purist, mind you. I enjoy that style of play, but I do prefer the uncertainty that dice can add to the equation. It's a crucial piece of design for me. I am pro-dice. But it's an ingredient of the design where I firmly believe that less is more.

Every piece of crunch you add has a cost. A cost in how much brainpower it takes to learn, to teach, to remember, to use. The essential tradeoff is to make sure that crunch is able to add something really valuable to the game in spite of that cost. I try to only add crunch in the parts of the experience that I think have the most potential for interesting decision-making. And in my opinion, "will I be successful at the thing?" is one of the most shallow questions to ask for inspiring decision-making opportunities.



  1. The last paragraph is "Good Opinion" zone.

  2. [And in my opinion, "will I be successful at the thing?" is one of the most shallow questions to ask for inspiring decision-making opportunities.]

    Could not have said this better!

  3. So I do love that kind of over-mechanised stuff, in a boardgame. I'll take my pixel-bitching for things like Gloomhaven or Wingspan. I don't need it when we've got stories out there