Crunch appeal

In the this other thread

I’ve read once more how some players enjoy crunch, or maybe is it dice, or calculation, or physics simulation. I don’t know really, because I don’t see the appeal. I know how sometimes a story lacks “resistance”, but that can be dealt with “honestly” at the player level, I feel, asking for more punch.
What does crunch stand for ? There something in crunch that makes things real. But There is all sorts of realness in RPG. If I build a world and situation with the table, realness is high, too. We’re all like “guardians” of this world, contribute to it in minute details.

So crunch does what ? give lego-like (easy, discrete) creative constraints ? resist and kick back (reality, according to K Dick) ? deliver endorphin by association with the traditional paraphernalia (dice, looking up tables, etc.) ? Wear a white coat and glasses and looks at you in the eyes to convinve you this world is real ? All this and what ?


Initially I might say that “crunch” can take two forms…

mechanics that shape actual play details and interpretation of “what happens?” moments…
(example: original Aftermath and its hit location and damage rules)

a mass of rules and details that, like a set of law books, provide a mastery challenge and a forum for dispute.
(example: WoD to Pathfinder type of games, where there are volumes and volumes of material to be learned, and players are penalized or rewarded on how much they know/memorize)

I think your original post is referencing the first, more than the second, but I’m not sure.

I would also suggest that Crunch 1 isn’t always about “realism” however we want to define it. D&D combat rules about engagement and facing, area of effect etc. (and I’m no master, never really liked those games) were rules that could be exploited (you move your character to this hex, so my character is now flanking and I get the back stab bonus, then move your character back four hexes to be blocked by terrain from the archer)… but in no way were “realistic” or simulated anything close to what a hard scrabble hand-to-hand battle in a cave would be like.

What crunch offers someone is more about that person’s desired play experience than a universally accepted benefit. For me, I’d say the benefit of crunch is “refinement”. Applied judiciously, it takes something very abstract (imagination) and starts to shape it, place it within context, narrow down cause and effect outcomes, remove some level of arbitrariness, provide some level of objectivity, etc.

As I stated in a previous thread, I feel there is a space between stated intent, “I chase the mugger down the street” and the outcome “You catch him” or “He gets away” or something else. Edit: Crunch lives in that space. End Edit

i.e. Rules that pose and answer questions like “How fast are you? How fast is the mugger? How much of a head start did he have?” could be a level of crunch that reflects a naturalist bent.

Different rules… say The Five Whys… where the GM asks the player “Why?” five times before offering an outcome (“Why are you chasing him?” then depending on the answer, “Why don’t you want him to get away?” etc.) Because this kind of crunch leads to a more thematic outcome. Existentialism: The RPG.

Crunch to me is subjective. How many rules between Intent and Outcome are you comfortable with?



Whether someone considers using dice (in whatever fashion) to be crunch or not, I would agree that such paraphernalia add to ritualistic aspects of group play, and do provide endorphins, or what I call “lean in” moments, where attention and interest are focused on “let’s see what happens.”

A good storyteller, or movie or book can also create those anticipatory moments, but only RPGs have the shared creative experience where truly no one (author or audience) knows what is going to happen next. Dice typically heighten these experiences… but rules and paraphernaila could also impare these moments.

Now, I’d argue those moments are one of the desired outcomes of play (why I play RPGs in the first place)… and perhaps there are other motivators. Someone else might see RPGs as an opportunity to perform (i.e. drama club)… or… ? I think that discussion is separate from crunch (though everything is inter-related.)


My interpretation is crunch is the level of mechanical interaction present in the system. Not relating the physical games pieces, but the abstract banging of gears and levers. Things like (and certainly not limited to) DnD skill checks, PbtA moves, and Burning Wheel’s lifepath system. They of course exist on a spectrum; one could say a specific game has more or less crunch than any other game. A board game would be considered exclusively crunch while normal conversation would be considered empty of crunch.

I believe crunch is desirable to players because it activates parts of the brain that roleplay does not. They complement one another by letting the creative and analytic parts of your brain rest while the other is working.

An important distinction I would make is between crunch and content. They are often considered the same because high crunch games are often high in content. DnD has a lot of crunch because of how many mechanics interact, but having 300 different magic items is not crunch by itself.


This is interesting–one of the most interesting takes on crunch I’ve read. These days I hate crunch, but what you’ve written is give me something to think about.

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I feel it worth discussing the juxtaposition of these quotes…


I agree with Radmad’s general definition, but at the same time I doubt DeReel’s idea of playing an RPG is just having a conversation. I’m assuming there are some rules that apply and “bang against each other” to shape a play experience that DeReel enjoys that make RPG play different from people just chatting over drinks. (Or maybe not… which I’d like to understand more about.)

I think it is because, to many people, the word “crunch” is an automatic pejorative. Subjectively, “Crunch” only applies to mechanics they don’t like. Any mechanics they DO like are not crunch.

Objectively, that doesn’t really work, but most conversations about crunch aren’t objective. They tend to be a knee-jerk reaction to a particular level or kind of crunch the person doesn’t like.

A PbtA game like Hearts of Wu-lin is very minimal, with limited Moves and only the core PbtA 2d6 resolution roll… but maybe an Amber player is like “ugh… dice… I hate crunch!”

If we accept Radmad’s definition of what crunch “is” (and I do… it fits with what I feel crunch “does” in a game)… then we can hopefully avoid the pejorative aspect of crunch discussions and get back to the OP… WHY do people like it? (Or, why do they like the kind of crunch they like?)


I would expand on my definition by saying that while we can compare the levels of crunch in systems, we can also compare the different “feels” of crunch in systems. Some people might hate counting hits/misses but are comfortable with adding buffs together for a saving throw.

Knowing to avoid/seek out high crunch games is a good strategy for finding games you like, but as @RDUNeil pointed out, we need to interrogate if the statement “I don’t like crunch” refers to the amount or type of crunch they interacted with.


Mechanical interaction : check. Different types of crunch : check. Subjective and often pejorative : check.

That crunching is a complementary activity to storytelling is certainly true. It contributes to the fiction as a creative constraint, but at the same time relaxes the creative part of the brain. Like pulling a piece of wood from a tower of these. Would Dread and Star Crossed mechanics qualify as crunch ? If so, I can leave Crunch be and concentrate on its little cousin Gamefeel.

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I would say the game mechanic “use a Jenga tower pull as conflict resolution” is the crunch, not the act of pulling a block.


I don’t know Star Crossed, but I’ve played my share of Dread… allow me an anecdote and see if it crosses into our “crunch” discussion.

Whenever Dread first came out or around then, I played games with my friend who is a self-professed gamist and proud of it. You could see him thinking and pondering and looking at the rules as we played. Early in the first game, he had this, “I got it!” look on his face and he began taking actions and making pulls right and left. The tower was full and strong, so he succeeded in everything he did… then he sat back and smiled and allowed others to start making their “pull” actions… but by now the tower was rickety and ready to tumble. I could see what he was doing, but the other players didn’t, they had been afraid to pull before, and were more so now. He’d spent ten minutes and quickly figured out how to “game the system”. The others started pulling, died first… my friend “won” and was utterly gleeful.

Immediately, I’d been considering that a single Jenga tower isn’t right. Each player should have their OWN Jenga tower… and maybe we could have rules for when you can “pull from another’s tower” and maybe seat changes, where people randomly end up with another person’s tower, etc.

So, based on actual play, there was a trend to “add more crunch” to Dread because the play experience wasn’t what we wanted, and too easily exploited.

A different Dread scenario, a group playing, my wife (casual gamer, but writer and storyteller) joined in. She was totally in character in a classic haunted house scenario… but she has no idea about Jenga. When she came up with a cool idea in game and time to “pull” she just poked the tower and it fell over. She was like, “What? I’m dead? What?” And while that moment has become a legendary joke with us and our friends… pulling, knowing when her story required her to pull vs. when it didn’t and the dexterity to pull without collapsing the whole thing… was just not for her. She wasn’t going to spend the time to get better at Jenga in order to play more.

So, I guess Dread CAN be too much crunch, depending on your perspective.


Crunch is a way of introducing external information to a game such that none of the participants need to necessarily understand or interpret it, they only need to speak the mechanical language that the game uses to represent things.

So, you don’t need to understand how guns or metallurgy or automobiles or magic or psychic powers work to use them in your game, as long as they have a suitable representation in a form that you do understand (read: “crunch”).

This is great, because it makes it comparatively easy (presuming, of course, that you are sufficiently fluent in the mechanical language of the game) to share ideas for games in a way that ideally won’t be obscured or misinterpreted. It allows shared experiences, and potentially shared messages as well, to transcend individual game tables in a way that’s more resistant to variations in individual players’ skill levels, knowledge, world views, etc…


I’m not sure I can agree with “introducing external information to a game such that none of the participants need to necessarily understand or interpret it, they only need to speak the mechanical language that the game uses to represent things.” – it seems like a lot of the time, crunch creates its own need for interpretation, and at the same time, I don’t think you need to understand …I dunno, full rigged ships to use them in a game with zero crunch surrounding the use of full rigged ships.

I feel like I kindof understand what you are trying to drive at, but I don’t think it’s what I am taking from your words.

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If I’m reading this correctly, I would agree that this is ONE OF the things that crunch can do… assuming we agree that crunch is the mechanics interacting to generate output.

I read the above as… "If the GM says my charater was struck with a needle and is now poisoned, I, the player, do not need to be a doctor or toxicologist to appropriately role play the effects of poison on my PC… I only need to look up the Poison Effects table and roll percentile dice to read what happens… or I need to roll Save vs. Poison to see what happens… or I need to start a Challenge Track and get ten progress before I get four failures or Face Death to see what happens.

All different forms of crunch that inform how the external idea of “poison” is represented in the game. Each form has an aspect of naturalism (poison does bad things to people) but may be more or less “realistic” in how this plays out.

If that is what you mean, then yes, I agree crunch does this… as it is another version of “refinement” that i mentioned above.
X is introduced into the fiction, (X might be poison, or chasing a mugger, or seducing a queen, etc.)
… mechanics are triggered by X that bang together to produce an output,
…this output refines the interpretation of the effect of X on the fiction.

Crunch, to me, is about mechanics. All games have crunch, but it’s on a scale. I think this video talks well about two aspects in how a game have more crunch than another:

The top comment for that video sums it up pretty well: “So, basically, complexity is how many options/tools you have, and depth is how much you can do with those options/tools.”

There are several types of enjoyment that comes out of dealing with crunch - game mastery, flow, the feeling of uncertainty, reward for overcoming tasks or experiencing your combo take place, among other things.

If I fall back on my theory of engagement, you can:

  • Compete with mechanics - against the other participants or against the system itself, trying to survive while hex crawling.
  • Explore the mechanics - sink deep into the mechanics to find combinations, learn how things works together, or just experience updates or new splatbooks.
  • Sensate the mechanics - get an immersive experience from it, to see where the mechanics are steering you, or just feel the thrill of rolling dice. In Dogs in the Vineyard, your character always becomes an asshole or make you fail your mission. The system in Don’t Rest Your Head actually got me unnerved.
  • Destroy the mechanics - cheat or powergame to break the system. Find bugs and exploit them.
  • Express yourself through the mechanics - having the mechanics describe the role you’re playing or steer you in a certain way.

I would like to explore this further. In talking with my very gamist friend, I feel he would fall strongly in the first category of Compete with mechanics. I feel I fall into Explore the mechanics but also Sensate the mechanics… so I’d like to get further understanding of what you are implying with both.

For example, I do love simulating combat, like gunfights, in an RPG. Yes, there is a great deal of other role playing going on around the combat, but when bad things start to happen and guns are drawn, I personally want it to play out so I feel “sensate” that I’m in the midst of a gunfight and bullets are whizzing past and muzzle blast is ringing in my ears, cordite up my nose, blood and bullets and the quick and the dead. To me, mechanics that simulate things like range modifiers, pistol fire vs. rifle fire, large and small caliber rounds, body armor, the odds that a bullet strikes the armor or unarmored locations, hit location on the body (head or chest or hands or feet) and how the damage a hit does changes based on where it hits, along with how big it is and how much force, etc. I want mechanics that simulate the effects of damage, pain, stunning, staggering, wounding, loss of mobility, incapacitation, bleeding out, death, etc. I want rules that reflect position and cover, advantage or disadvantage, blow through on cover, scaling of damage to size of attack.

All this is very immersive for me. The mechanics steer the battle as much as player decisions or PC skills and abilities. They all interact to “play to see what happens” and who comes out the other end of the battle, what condition are they in, what happened to the enemy… all of which then informs the direction the story takes.

All that is very sensate to me… but the Explore part is where you objectively look at the rules and determine where they work to evoke the sensate and where they don’t. Actual play should show that characters with long guns, the high ground and tactical cover should have a significant advantage over enemies with only pistols and lack of cover. If the rules don’t reflect this, then you have to go deep into the rules to figure out why and how to change them in order to reflect that.

I can give another example completely differently… using Blades in the Dark (which has none of the above). Blades promises, and every play experience I’ve had, the GM also promised this… that the system is designed for players to be expert criminals who have tons of experience and can pull of amazing scores, etc.

Except every time I’ve played, the mechanics have not supported this. Because the Action Roll of Blades pushes the similar Success, Partial success with challenge, or fail outcomes of its PbtA influences… and because the statistical outcome of the small dice pools are very much in the middle range with one complication piling on another… the actual play experience is not one of Ocean’s 11 sophisticated “we’ve got every base covered” cool cats… it is instead a series of misadventures that tend to result in a game that would better be a version of Fiasco. This is because the mechanics tend to push more towards “challenge or fail” rather than success.

So, I’d take this as a chance to explore and try to figure out… what do we do to nudge average Action Roll results a bit higher… give players more chances to succeed cleanly… because this will provide more of the promised experience, that of being a highly skilled professional criminal who covers all her bases and has clever contingencies, etc. (Like, to me, the Flashback mechanic is poorly designed, because it still demands a low success chance Action Roll, whereas something better might be a limited resource of “automatic success” based on “I planned for that” or whatever.)

Essentially… I’m just interested in more understanding of actual play examples of all the pieces of your theory. From minimal mechanic examples to heavy crunch examples.

This sounds like you might not be using the resistance mechanics as intended. Remember that you can resist literally ANY consequence of a roll. A lot of the time players forget this and only try to resist when they’re going to get Harmed, which is probably the worst time to resist because all the rest of the bad cascade has already happened.

Additionally, in general, I find that a lot of people don’t apply the 4-5 results correctly. If there is a “consequence” on the action, you are ALSO supposed to get 100% success on your action. “You shank him, and he dies, but as he does he knifes you” is an okay 4-5. “You shank him and score him across the ribs; He’s still up and he knifes you” is NOT an acceptable 4-5 on a risky position unless it was already established (back at the “position and effect” step) that a success would not be enough to kill this guy (in which case even rolling a 6 doesn’t kill him).

4-5 is not, usually, a “partial success”. It can be, but if it is, there should be no additional complications.

Basically: Blades is complicated and a lot people assume they know what it wants them to do when they might not.


I don’t really want to hijack the thread by discussing another topic, so I will give a short answer.

It’s not really “five categories of WHY to play the game” that should be used to categorize games. They should be used to understand the player motivation and hopefully give a game designer some thought about what kind of game that person would like to make.

The five WHYs aren’t binary either, but all on their own different scales. Every single person is a combination of these, in one way or another. I feel that the following video has a similar conclusion:

I mostly focused on the WHYs for mechanics in my previous post. I should perhaps mention that there are a few more WHATs, besides mechanics.


I don’t think this is hijacking… you are providing an approach to answering the initial question… “So crunch does what?”

A good way of addressing that is to say, “What does crunch provide to certain gamers with specific motivations to play RPGs?”

Crunch fulfills certain motivations for play.

Thus, understanding the “Sensate” motivation helps to explain “what crunch does” for people motivated in that way. Same for any of those you listed. Look at the motivations that drive a desire for crunch, to understand what crunch does.

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When I think of crunch, there are two types in my mental model of crunch:

  1. negative crunch a.k.a. busywork,
  2. positive crunch which assists or emulates advancement.

Busywork is just that, something that keeps you busy but provides no immediate value. People consciously engage in busywork for escapism or involuntarily if it’s designed to be addictive by itself (like, say, cookie clicker).

Emulation of advancement is basically about reflecting the reality of competency building. In order to achieve mastery in anything, you have to put thousands of hours into practicing some skill, you need focused, spaced repetition. This is what crunch often provides: you maneuver your advancement in a given direction (focus) and perform certain tasks to get proficient at them (spaced repetition).

So, yeah, I genuinely don’t know how to engage with the sentiment that “crunch is purely pejorative” so I don’t know what else to add. People unconvinced that there’s a space for crunch are likely to remain so - and that’s absolutely fine.


So, Dread can be too much crunch

More often this would be that the player doesn’t like the TYPE of crunch in Dread. Perhaps, the similar player would like to use cards or dice to represent their action instead. Or, actually, with Dread, most haters don’t like the stakes resulting from the crunch.

Regarding Dread, my daughter disliked it because it gave her a gamefeel that was too intense for her liking.

As for defining crunch, @Radmad definition fits my understanding. I usually define it less thoroughly as “the depth and complexity of rules.” That’s certainly how I’ve seen it used in boardgame terms.