Confessions of an RPG Nerd, Pt. 4

By Christine Martin-Resotko

How crunchy is it?

I’ve seen a lot of confusion when people mention “crunch” with RPGs.  No, it isn’t about what type of paper it is printed on or how big the book is.  “Crunch” is short for “number crunching”, which in RPG terms means “how rules-heavy is the game system?”  Crunch can be a big factor when you are trying to determine what game system you want to run.

Light crunch means that the rules are fairly simple, character creation and advancement is really quick, and your book tends to be significantly smaller.  The advantages to this are that the GM and players don’t have to remember as many rules and most of the important information can usually be found on a GM screen.  The disadvantage is that many skills and statistics are VERY general.  An example would be Medicine:  In a light crunch system, Medicine could easily mean every single aspect of medicine, while a heavy crunch system will have a way to have detailed specialties like Surgery.  I am a light crunch person myself.  I love systems that are very streamlined, leaving more room for role playing and story development.  It also means that I don’t feel like I must be quite as detailed in my preparation, like having detailed descriptions of monsters and such written down.

Heavy crunch is the opposite.  There will be LOTS of rules, LOTS of books, and LOTS of tables.  The advantage is that you will have a rule for pretty much every situation and a way to resolve just about every conflict.  The disadvantage is that there isn’t a lot of wiggle room.  There is typically one way to handle things, and that is how you have to do it.  I have played in lots of heavy crunch systems, and I was reliant on my GM to tell me what I was rolling for and for every step of character advancement.  That doesn’t mean the game wasn’t cool to play, it just meant that I was less and less likely to actually purchase the system for my own collection or consider running it.

As with anything, there is a whole range between light and heavy crunch, and I tend to gauge them by how long it takes to make a character.  The lighter crunch systems are ones like FATE, Fantasy/Modern AGE, and 7th Sea.  Generally, you can make a character for the first time in about 15 minutes to half an hour with very little math or checking a book.  Mid-range crunch are systems like Dungeons and Dragons 5e and Pathfinder/Starfinder.  Character creation will be about 45 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how many source books are available to the players.  Heavy crunch systems are systems like GURPS, Rolemaster, and Hero System.  Character creation can take several hours, and you will probably need a calculator.

All the systems I have mentioned are a ton of fun to play in, and they each have their place in the galaxy of systems available.  What you need to do is figure out which fits your gaming style.  I’ve found the two best ways to determine if a system is your thing (before playing it) is to look at a “Quickstart” and to build a character.  Most systems have a Quickstart available, which will have a light version of the rules, some characters, and a scenario to play.  It will give you a good feel for the system mechanics.  Building a character from scratch will let you know how complex the system is and how much book flipping you will need to do.

Now it is time for you to pick a genre, find a Quickstart, and try out a system to see what you like.  Begin your adventure!

What questions do you have about crunch?

Christine Martin-Resotko is a Library Assistant with the Mason Branch of the
Capital Area District Libraries in Michigan. She has been a lifelong nerd, starting
when she saw Star Wars at the age of 5. She started playing RPGs when she was
in college, and within 4 years was invited by a gaming company to run their game
at GenCon, the biggest gaming convention in the country. She has run games in
over a dozen systems, and personally owns more than 30 game systems at this
time. Christine created the CADL Adventurers Club for her library system, which
encompasses a teen chapter at her branch which she runs and adult and kids
chapters at another branch that she assists with. Christine has a B.S. in
Anthropology from Michigan State University. She lives with her husband, son,
and their crazy cat.


  1. How interesting to know the origin of the word! I use “crunchy” as a descriptor for board games, but I hadn’t thought of it in terms of number crunching. For complex board games, there might be number crunching for victory points, though.

  2. Great article series.
    I think I prefer slightly soggy systems too. I don’t know how it stacks up compared to GURPS, but my favourite game to run is Call of Cthulhu. It must be mid-range crunchy title, and has a realistic feel.

    1. While I haven’t played around much with CoC, I would definitely put it in the mid-range. Crunchy enough for those who like rules, but not so crunchy that there is a ton to remember.

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