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Crunch at the right level

In linguistics, there are “open” and “closed” word classes. A language doesn’t break if a new verb or noun is added, that happens every day. Closed word classes are changed more rarely, like prepositions and conjunctions. “Here is a bird and it is quite frotz” you might say, and the preposition “here” and the conjunction “and” helps you understand it even if you don’t know what the heck “frotz” is.

I enjoy a game with a lot of spells and magic items you can learn (or vehicles or monsters or animals or other abilities). They’re all optional but they make the game varied and interesting. I’m looking for a game that isn’t minimalist in this regard.

One of the games that gets this very right is 5e. You can understand the simple basics in just a few pages but then endlessly discover more class abilities and spells and monsters which all have a different mechanical effect on the game.

People love to complain about 5e and whenever a license goes to 5e (like Hellboy or Dark Souls) people hate it. They wish it had gone to some super simple no-crunch indie engine. But 5e is a real treasure of a flexible and lightweight core system that has already been endlessly expanded and enriched in a sustainable way.

For what it’s worth, Apocalypse World also gets this right. Super simple core and then you can always add more playbooks with more moved that all have a completely different set of outcomes. More moves create a huge impact on the game’s variety and play patterns yet are easy to use.

The Shadow of Yesterday, another awesome game with a very generic core system and then lots of “secrets” and “keys” explore, which all transform your character’s entire purpose and arc.

Some games don’t do crunch in this way.

GURPS has a lot of crunch, great! Two issues, though. One, most the crunch isn’t designed for its game interactions. You can tell with D&D or Magic how every spell card is added with the idea of “how does this make the game more fun to play, more things could happen, more curious things to talk about”. In GURPS, most of the skills are the same and have the same impact. You wanna do something like look in a drawer or drive home from work and you roll to see whether the game denies that action to you or not. You wanna shoot someone and you roll to see whether the game makes you miss or not. It’s the same boring gameplay pattern under a thousand names. There’s no thought to game balance or interesting decisions. Often combats got stale and never-ending (until that got patched by kluges like “deceptive attack”). There are decisions (“do I go for the vitals or just a general hit?”) but you need a spreadsheet to make those decisions properly since the dice curve is so unintuitive. The crunch is never “how do we make the best game experience” and always “how do we make this thing from the real world or from such-and-such fictional genre be represented through GURPS’s ‘Lego vision’?”

Second, the crunch goes everywhere, like eating toast in bed, crumbs all over the place, like you need to parse hundreds of skills just to get out of bed in the morning. They all have different costs and defaults and difficulty and underlying ability so you do have to look them up, but all you get out of that work is the same boring gameplay pattern.

In D&D, we use the “ability check proficiency” variant from the DMG (p 263), so we basically only have six “skills” in GURPS terms, and additionally a lot of the basic trap-finding or guard-convincing is done through roleplaying, not dice. The core of how to interact with the world isn’t crunchy, it’s light and easy. On top of that light and easy core, there are games to play that are set up as actual games. Spell duels, physics puzzles, logistic challenges, discovery, fighting…

Other games like SLUG or Fate just doesn’t have a lot of extra crunch (in the case of Fate, it’s core system of aspects and invokes and compels is convoluted, entangled, and complaited enough to not need a lot of extra crunch). That’s fine, and I like Fate and have a lot of fun with it, but sometimes I feel like there are very few TRPGs that are like D&D in having so much richness, so many “Magic cards”, so much variety in its crunch while still keeping that crunch very focused to the right places: as a mine where you can go dig for fire at your own pace, not as a firehose that overwhelms you just for trying to do basic things.

Alex Schroeder writes:

I agree with that: D&D allows you to add feats and spells and monsters in endless variety since they only affect the ones that pick them or encounter them (unlike skills which are things everybody might do so new skills impact everybody whether they like it or not, like the introduction of the Ride skill resulting in characters falling of their horses as they fail the skill check).

I have definitely noticed that games that are too simple like Lasers & Feelings don’t make me want to play a longer campaign. There is no promised long term change in gameplay. Good for one-shots and first games, though!

Perfectly put. This is exactly what I mean.