Monday, 11 January 2010

Crunchy and Smooth

Over at the Ninja vs. Pirates back catalogue is the interview with Paul Tevis about A Penny For My Thoughts. Hiding in there were some details about the Game Chef contest which triggered his game design. It was something like this:
Pick from two lists of four ingredients, but choose only three from that list.
All I could think was, "A gamer thought of this." And somehow I think that if it were either "Choose one of these two groups" or "Choose any three from this list" then I wouldn't have given it a second thought. It's the combination that makes it stand out.
One layer of complexity just doesn't seem to be enough for gamers. We're drawn to the multi-layered systems, and to all the combinations they entail. Making it more complex seems to make it more appealing, perhaps by making it look like a dilemma, something that needs to be optimised.
I guess this kind of crunchiness puts the decision in the player's control. Which weapon to use? Which spell? And then, when to use them? Or even, which character to wield them? The crunch is part of the appeal of the game, giving the opportunity for strategies to be devised in order to accomplish character goals and, more strongly, the player goals. It's good feedback for the player to have evaluated the options and the interaction of layers, and then to accomplish what was required.
However, I think there's a limit to how much crunch we can all stomach before the game becomes Operations Research. A fully-functional game system with lots of crunch might be accurate, but if it's nothing more than an exercise in optimising a multi-variable system, it's a different kind of game. I can't help but remember the advice from Poison'd, that the fiction should determine which rule to employ, and that the rule should always drive the game play back to the fiction. A very crunchy game can do this, but for a player experience the result will be retrospective story, the story that we tell after the game. A smooth[1] system works hard to have the story told at the table and needs elegance in design to ensure that the play experience is about creating the story, and not optimising the mathematics.
A lot more could be written about the role of the players and the GM in helping a crunchy sytem to become smooth, but I'll stop here with the remark that the GM and players can make it smooth if they know the rules extremely well. Getting the system to help you make a story takes longer with a crunchy system. For my money, a genuinely elegant system design does this with the least amount of experienced crunch. The elements can all interact, for sure, but it needs to hide so that it doesn't overwhelm the story being made.

1. RPGs are like peanut butter, we have either crunchy or smooth. That's probably my own hack on game theory vocabulary.

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