Prevent Burnout With Crunchy Bits

How "roll for initiative" frees the mind. No, seriously.

The thing that was weighing most on my mind in kicking off this newsletter was the concept of burnout. It’s a thing in pretty much every hobby I know, and you see people in some of those hobby counselling others to “avoid burnout”, most by not doing too much. Some hobbies allow for this more than others, particularly the ones where organising things, and doing behind-the-scenes stuff can take as much time as (or more time than) engaging in the hobby itself. The SCA is notorious for this. But RPGs can be nearly as bad, because the game is run by one person; if they don’t show, the game don’t go. And the degree to which other players are just along for the ride is much more extreme; in other hobbies, the people engaging need to at least buy some of the gear, know the rules, and so on. It is possible to play an RPG, from the player side, with zero preparation, zero investment of time outside the actual game session, and zero knowledge of the actual rules. This may be read as me complaining about this, but I’ve kind of given up on that; it’s the nature of the beast.

There are, however, aspects which lead to this to a greater or lesser degree. I see the word “aspects” has already crept into the previous sentence, which makes sense, because they’re one of the essential parts of Fate, which lies among the more “story game” ends of the hobby, where actions are not so constrained, there’s a loose consistency of rules, and the narrative, pushed by all the players, is more the focus than the numbers. But these games (particularly when the players don’t push the narrative) end up being a lot more difficult to run. When there are no mechanics to lean on, you have to do all the legwork of establishing what is and isn’t possible in the setting by means of more narrative, more story - and that lands on the GM. Who is then a lot more prone to burning out.

Crunchy bits, on the other hand, are an aspect of D&D (and plenty of other RPGs, too, but let’s look at the one I’m dealing with). Crunchy bits are numeric rules, things which are defined and laid out in the rules of the game. A fireball does 3d6 fire damage, plus 1d6 for every spell slot above third you use to cast it, and a spell slot is… and so forth. Crunch provides two things for the GM - the ability to not have to think about a particular thing because it has already been defined, and the existence of it as a limit. The former is kind of obvious; combat in a crunch system allows the GM to “just” play the game for a bit, rather than have to keep multiple plotlines in mind, the consequences of all the actions going on (except in the obvious form of “the fireball sets the flammable paper on fire”, and that’s only if you want to engage with that) and so on. They can just play with the pieces in front of them for a little bit, and that’s a relief. The overheads of the game are diminished for a little while, in essence.

The latter is perhaps more important, though. I’ve come to think of the shape of the rules in D&D as being like poetic forms; sonnets have 14 lines and a particular rhyme scheme and are in iambic pentameter, and while you can break the rules for effect, you don’t have to, and indeed doing so too often clearly makes for a poorer sonnet. This is opposed to freeform poetry, which doesn’t have rules, and is consequently much, much harder to do well. The rules of D&D limit what can happen in a given situation, and that makes much creativity possible within those limits. And further, they render other people’s work - monsters, magical items, spells, or whatever else - into both pieces you can use directly in your game, or inspiration you can pull from in a much more concrete and direct manner.

This is made manifest for D&D in two places in particular for me at the moment - the homebrew items in D&D Beyond, the database/app which I’m using for character sheets in my campaigns, and the DM’s Guild, a framework set up to let people who are not full-time professional game designers (and some who are) publish material for the game. The amount of good stuff to be had in these is absolutely beyond belief. The only analogue I think of is that it’s like spending years having to invent cookery from the ingredients up, and then suddenly getting access to whole libraries full of recipe books.

This is even further boosted by the existence of a broad ecosystem of random generation tables. These had a bad reputation in earlier editions of D&D, and indeed in similar games; they resulted in stuff which was narratively random and often just annoying for the players. But there’s been a lot of conceptual work done around them at this stage, and encounter tables, and the vast panoply of tables to generate other details of the game (location names, treasure, alchemical ingredients, what’s in specific rooms, and on and on) mean that a lot of what was fairly tedious writing before is suddenly discovery instead. Not “I have to come up with what’s in room 17 of the castle’s under-cellar…” but “Let’s see what’s in here!” - and if it doesn’t suit, you can roll again, or have the example of the first roll to think against when you’re inventing something yourself. These are almost meta-crunch; they’re crunch to make crunch, and I adore them.

So as you can tell, I’m feeling enthused about gaming at the moment. The fact that both ends of it - the writing/creation/worldbuilding and the running - are things that, thanks to technology, I can do during Ireland’s particularly strict lockdown, is keeping me sane in a very definite and meaningful way. I’m not good at “just hanging out” with people at the best of times; I need some structured thing to do (there’s a limited set of people with whom this is not true, but I’m not sure it goes far outside single digits in total). So Zoom calls just to hang out are a special kind of misery from my point of view; they’re unstructured pursuits without even the benefits of being in a pub or a park. But a game which can be played over Zoom (with the aid of dndbeyond and, for example) is immensely more comfortable and easy to get on with.

And then there’s the writing. I love worldbuilding even in less than ideal circumstances, and have a few dozen semi-developed world concepts written up to greater or lesser degrees which are hanging around waiting for more attention. But the fine detail of game worlds that’s possible when you have rules to work within is wonderful.

I spent two evening recently coming up with the stuff on market stalls in one town in the setting for one of the two games I’m currently running. They were low-level magical items - candles and scraps of paper, and other such things in line with the theme of the town, which is all about old knowledge and research and, to some degree, magic. Some of them came from supplements provided by other writers. Some of them came from stuff I remembered from years and years ago, and was able to chase down for the details (an issue of Dragon magazine from 29 years back), and some of them, having the inspiration of those bits, I came up with myself. Each of them has a very minor game effect; it does something with some number, or enables some action. I could write those same things in a narrative system, but it’s a lot harder to do so. “This piece of paper contains mind-bending text, the study of which makes the next time you try to remember something about magic or history a little bit easier” is nearly impossible to adjudicate in a narrative system. “Gives you advantage on your next arcana or history check” is straightforward, useful, and very nearly flavoursome all by itself.

And there’s some kind of meta-effect too; other aspects of world-building and game writing which are not directly affected by the crunch/narrative spectrum (pure plot; map-making; representative art or mood boards) get easier when the crunchy bits are there to lean on.

The map above is one I made for a game that was/is nearly pure narrative. But it was in a setting (Sigil, in Planescape) which is based in 2nd Edition AD&D and uses the numbers and rules-based material in that system to express things. And that made it easier to make the map. It gave it shape, in some way.

I adore the way in which story games can go anywhere, do anything. But right now, I’m finding the support given by the structures and numbers of the more rules-oriented games to be of enormous help, and they help keep the fires of enthusiasm banked and running, rather than burning high and then burning out.