Thursday 6 October 2022

Good Crunch, Bad Crunch

You'd be forgivenfor thinking that I want every game to be rules lite. While I love that style of game I can't deny the draw of crunchier systems, at least on paper.

The reality is often a let down. When I'm craving a system that offers depth to explore, variety of options, and surprise moments of delight and despair, I'm often met with a ruleset that demands all of my attention just to keep it running, unable to enjoy the fruits of the mechanical labour.

The context here is that I've been making my first ventures into Battletech, with all its sprawling record sheets, encyclopedic setting, and piles upon piles of modular rules. Why would such a proponent of streamlining games be drawn to this a mountain of crunch?

Because I like it.

See, for me there's Good Crunch and Bad Crunch, but that's really just the clickbait version. A better phrase might be Generous Crunch and Parasitic Crunch.

Generous Crunch gives more than it takes. Even if it demands a lot from the players the overall output is positive. For Battletech look at those famous Record Sheets. They look daunting but they're actually quite simple. Armour dots are filled in as you take damage. Weapons and other components are crossed off as they get hit by Criticals. The Heat tracker looks terrifying but there's not really anything complex to it. Together these make your Mech feel real and generate exciting moments when you push too hard and overheat, or when your leg gets blown clean off. Whatever house rules I'd be tempted to make to Battletech, I don't think I'd mess with this part at all.

Parasitic Crunch takes more than it gives. It can take the form of entire subsystems or even just a writhing colony of tiny little rules that have wormed their way into the system, taking up cognitive load while offering little to nothing positive in return. In isolation it's easy to say "actually this rule really isn't complicated" but that's just a distraction. Always ask "what is this piece of crunch offering in return?" when you're considering whether it should be cut loose. Of course, this is a matter of taste and experience. If you make the push to internalise every part of the Battletech Introductory, Standard, Advanced, and Experimental rules across a dozen books then you've probably managed to wrangle those parasites into action, finally seeing them pull their weight. The balance between accessibility for newcomers and depth for enthusiasts is one that every game has to choose a position on. The multiple tiers of rule in Battletech (not to mention the entirely different system, Alpha Stike) could be a great compromise here.

And so I climb the mountain.

The Quick Start rules lie behind me. A great stripped-back intro but missing some of the juice that comes with Heat and Critical Hits.

The Introductory Rules from the box set are in my grasp, and seem to include a pretty comprehensive core of the game. Some of the little rules challenge me, but I think I can do this.

I picked up Total Warfare in a moment of weakness. The full Standard Rules in an unforgiving 300+ pages, covering the familiar mechs alongside buildings, protomechs, vehicles, infantry, and aerospace units. No, I'm not exaggerating by including buildings in there, as they get 14 pages devoted to rules for entering, exiting, attacking into out of, and fighting within, all dependent on unit type and building type. Also rules for when the building collapses and a special basements table to randomly determine how far down a Mech falls when they accidentally break through the floor. Whether the idea of this delights or terrifies you will determine how you'd get on with this book.

I'm trapped somewhere in the middle. Like a Mech who rolled 10-11 on the Basement Table.


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  1. Favorite house rule for Battletech: When using missile pods (short or long range), for every one point you miss your target by, reduce the pod size by one and hit with it. (SR6 goes to SR4, LR20 goes to LR15, etc.) For every one point you beat your target number by, add one to your roll for number of missiles impacting. This gives missile pods a more forgiving "shotgun" effect, while mitigating the occasions when you max out your to-hit roll, but then botch the number of missiles impacting roll.

    1. Interesting! I'm compiling a list of houserules from various sources for my "Weeknight Battletech" doc and I'm trying out this one for speeding up missile resolution:

      Cluster Dice
      Instead of using the cluster table, roll d6 for each cluster fired.
      On a 3+ that cluster hits.
      If all miss then a lone 2 damage cluster hits.

      So an LRM 15 has 3 clusters of five, rolling 3d6.
      If they get 2, 5, 6, then two clusters hit, each rolling for location and causing 5 damage.
      If they get 1, 1, 2 then they only hit with a 2 damage cluster.

      SRMs work the same way but you're effectively rolling d6 for each 2 damage missile, with at least one guaranteed to hit.

      The spread of damage is pretty close to what's on the original cluster table.