RPG Glossary: Crunch

It used to be that ‘crunch’ was just a way to refer to the rules of an RPG system, separating it from the setting and storytelling ‘fluff’. Over time the meaning has shifted to mean a blend between depth and complexity that makes a game fun from a mechanical point of view.

For example, the storytelling aspects of Dungeons & Dragons and Pathfinder are pretty much identical. They’re both traditional heroic fantasy systems, and it’s hard to think of a campaign or adventure that you could run in one but not the other. However, Pathfinder is a significantly crunchier system, with more options for players to choose from and an extra layer of complexity to the rules.

We can see this in action by looking at how the two games handle rules for conditions like being stunned, poisoned and blinded. While the D&D 5E Player’s Handbook lists 15 separate conditions and fits the rules for them into just under 900 words, the equivalent section in the Pathfinder 2E Playtest Rulebook has 42 entries and is more than 3,600 words long.

ancient book

Now, some of us will look at the comparison and thinking that a long list of conditions like that is awesome – it’s a way to give players options and make being trapped in vines feel mechanically different from being caught in the clutches of a giant squid.

But there are also plenty of people that weigh up the advantages provided by that level of depth and go for the lighter option. Some folks are turned off by a game that require a week’s careful study before they hit the table, or just want to tell a story without making sure they’ve optimised their perks and upgraded their gear for the current mission.

As we strip things down and remove crunch for a game it usually gets simpler to play and easier to pick up. Tales From the Loop is a game that’s fairly low on rules and emphasises storytelling, while Tails of Equestria – the My Little Pony RPG – has been streamlined and simplified to help younger players pick it up with minimal hassle.

Of course, fewer rules also means fewer gameplay elements, and at the very bottom end of the crunchiness scale it’s hard to tell what’s an RPG and what’s a guided improv session.

Ultimately, the right level of crunch for an RPG will depend on what kind of feel the designers were going for. A sci-fi RPG with a heavy emphasis on buying new gear and upgrading yourself into the ultimate badass is going to feel pretty weak if none of those expensive purchases have the rules to back them up. Likewise, nobody wants to break up their storytelling game to flick through the rulebook for the grappling rules.

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