If you’ve been paying any attention to the tabletop games coming out the past few years, it’s easy to spot a trend of systems getting simpler, quicker, softer-edged and more lightweight.
Fate and FAE, the Apocalypse World explosion, the Cypher system, even D&D 5E are all vastly simplified from the systems many of us cut our dice on years ago – systems that lasted for decades on their own without major changes in terms of the level of number-crunching involved.
I adore this trend. Simpler systems lead to more pick-up gaming, fewer distractions and delays looking up complex tables, and a generally more accessible hobby all around.
But I’m also a huge fan of the ‘crunch’ element of gaming – something classically set up as the flip-side of the roleplay/rollplay coin (which is, in itself, a myth – more on that in a moment). I love character builds, I love clever combinations and the gestalt of unusual blends. I love counting squares to see if I have enough to get within range and act in the same turn, something I know drives a number of my regular players nuts.
The ‘clash’ between crunch and story is mostly manufactured by early trends that put most or all the crunch in the system in the same place: combat. In reality, most players do like crunch – they just don’t all necessarily like it in the same place. Additionally, some players want the most complex rules around the parts of the game they enjoy most, others want the simplest rules then so they get out of the way.
More rules means less flex room which means players can more consistently predict how an encounter might go without relying on a given GM being of a certain mindset. But more rules also means less freedom for ‘cool’ factor when you want to go outside the lines but the rules/dice/grid don’t back you up. You will rarely find a player who wants all crunch all the time, or no crunch ever, so you have to be ready to juggle layers of a system for your various players.
Fudging the numbers alone, while it’ll work in a pinch, isn’t nearly as satisfying from the other side of the screen, and can make players feel cheated if overused. Finding, or creating, more than one ‘layer’ for the major parts of the system lets you maintain a common core of rules for consistency while leaving you the flex room to reduce complexity when needed. You essentially end up with simple and complex versions within the same systems, and can choose whichever is appropriate for a given player at a given time.
For distances, it helps to have both exact measurements (feet, meters, whatever matches the system) and relative distance-groups (immediate, close, nearby, far). Map one to the other for quick reference (close as 10 feet away, nearby as 30, etc.), but keep it to yourself – that will give you freedom to nudge without the players being away for those moments when they wind up one five-foot step short of doing something awesome.
Your players who like crunch with positioning get the exact measurements, your other players get the relative distances, and you can negotiate between them at a glance to keep yourself from going nuts in the process.
Most combat systems have layers already – standard hack-and-slash versus combat maneuvers versus complex special-ability combinations. The only trick there is to ensure your combat crunchers don’t far outpace your hack-and-slash players. Most of that can be done by creating a varied field of enemies so that direct comparisons aren’t automatic.
Your seventh-style dual-wielding jedi master versus a small army of droids and the four ex-stormtroopers blasting away blindly at a rancor all look like badasses, and it’s tough to tell who’s badasser at a glance.
It’s rare social interaction systems are complex – typically, you start from the simple version and may have to add your own complexity for the players that want it. Thankfully, I have some ideas that might get you started there.
Bear in mind that these layers can also be used with a player having an ‘off’ night or getting frustrated with a streak of bad dice luck – you won’t necessarily always use the same layer with the same player, and having the ability to swap to a simpler model around the same common core can be just what you need to speed up a scene or give a player a break when they need it without locking them into a simpler system than they really want in the long term.
It’s a piece of cake.