So I had this week’s post Arithmophobia in my head for months as “write some words on how RPG numbers put me off playing” using The Story of Thor and Dark Souls as examples from different sides of the numerical wall. It was meant to be short, more about these individual games, but something happened on the way to the Publish button: I started to question why those numbers were important.
I had no conclusion so instead turned the ending into an invitation to discuss. And a lot of people got in touch, through the comments and on Twitter. This has been great and helped sharpen up my thoughts.
This post is a more structured take on RPG stats than the original Arithmophobia, touching on different aspects such as grind, feedback, accessibility and more. It was supposed to be short. Who would have guessed that evaluating the role of numbers in an RPG turns out to be a goddamn rabbit hole…
To show I’m not biased against numbers, I’m going to number every subsection. P.S. I also have a PhD in mathematics.
1: What We Talk About When We Talk About Numbers
I exclusively focused on character and item stats in RPGs. Many JRPGs have only a manageable handful but there are plenty of games that are absolutely drenched in them. I was honestly surprised to discover that Dark Souls had so many. And any game where you manage multiple party members means it balloons fast even with a modest quantity of stats. Mount & Blade had a expansive character sheet – one for every party member.
I also count item stats because each one is another number to consider. Dark Souls assigns every item an explicit weight value so you can figure out how much you want to carry. Some people swear by going full loincloth because the low weight keeps you nimble in combat. The stats give you a choice: nimble and vulnerable or slow and armoured?
As a developer, if you believe showing stats is a bad thing, there are two different roads you can go down. One of them is to reduce or eliminate stats and another is to change their representation (hide them). Unfortunately, I conflated the two options in Arithmophobia and the consequences for each are entirely different.
2: Everybody Loves Numbers
One anonymous respondent commented, “I don’t have a huge problem with this, but there’s certainly an accessibility problem. Ultimately however, I think humans are more than capable of understanding numbers. Numbers can often be less ambiguous than language, particularly after things like localization.” While it’s fair to say numbers act as a common language, I fear that my focus on them obscured the real problem.
Physics is a lot of numbers, but it doesn’t mean you understand physics. The numbers are the ambassadors for the RPG internals and their presence tell you immediately: oh this is one of those games, it’s got a system I gotta learn. This was first and foremost my initial motivation for writing Arithmophobia.
So many people have told me over the years I just had to play Dark Souls and, even though I’d read Matt Sakey’s excellent Dark Souls Diaries years ago, I had never quite twigged that it was a full-blown RPG system. I knew this game was “fearsome” but discovering part of its brutal magic was learning an intricate stats system was depressing. I’ve become very jaded with stats systems over the years. And the presence of all those numbers is immediately threatening to someone who is not an RPG fan. Raigan Burns of Metanet Software (N++) also shared my distaste of numbers.
However it’s vital to recognise it is not possible to say definitively whether this is a problem borne of presentation or system.
If I play an amateur RPG Maker title and see four different character stats, my immediate reaction is that it is overkill. The game is not going to be long enough to give those stats significant meaning or punch. I had groaned when I played Mason Lindroth’s Hylics because each character had six stats – but it turned out that five of them were jokes without any impact on the game. Jon Dog tweeted, “Some games do get a bit carried away with the numbers though where it begins to look like a mathematical incantation.”
But suppose we keep the systems intact. If we suppress all the numbers, that would broaden the appeal of the game and remove the threat. But the system itself may still cause grief… and removing the numbers can make it worse.
3: Negative Feedback
Naturally, I’m not the first person in the world to have suggested that we could hide the numbers. James Cox wrote about it on Gamasutra a couple of years ago and Felix Plesoianu brought to my attention a rebuttal to this piece. Felix explained, “Numbers provide clear, unambiguous feedback not easily available otherwise.”
Urthman commented that No Man’s Sky does away with numbers but is frustrating as a result. By dispensing with the numbers, people have to make guesses at how the system works and can become frustrated. Matt W also testified that Nethack has a lot of stats but “should have more, you basically have to look up weapon damage on the wiki to make decent decisions”. One of the main arguments for keeping the numbers present is entirely practical, they are a straightforward system of feedback.
“Without numbers, it takes me a much longer time for me to learn the game’s mechanics,” wrote Alexander Nadeau. ”Without numbers, the maximum difficulty of really searching and figuring out how mechanics connect is very high, and random. I would never play an SRPG that hid the stats that affect turn order, damage calculation, skill affinity, etc.. It wouldn’t be immersive or interesting. It would be annoying. Phantom Brave hid one stat in one release, and it was horrible. There’s definitely a place for games that hide numbers. Metro 2033 was an absolutely fascinating experience.”
Josh Simmons was another proponent of numbers because “it’s hard to maintain ‘complex’, ‘opaque’ and ‘understandable’ all at once.” This is a more nuanced look at the feedback problem, which Richard Goodness makes clearer, “Numbers are the simplest solution we’ve come up with because most people can at least compare numbers instantly. You know, like strength of 40 is higher than str 20, it’s unambiguous. I’d say the problem isn’t numbers but their use– like how THAC0 is a terrible and unintuitive system, or how Pillars of Eternity has too many goddamn numbers.”
This reaction to Pillars of Eternity highlights that numbers do not automatically result in good, readable feedback. Some systems use big numbers to wow the player but, as Everdistant commented on Arithmophobia, if the stats are large, these big numbers prevent players from making quick judgements: “You can obviously know that more = better, but how much better, how that translates directly into your output, etc – all that is impossible to know when you’re dealing with, say, a 6458 strength warrior swinging a 130 atk sword.”
We could also ask: are these systems, descendents of D&D, actually the right fit for computer games? Is the reliance on numbers slowing innovation in RPG interface design? Do they promote systems which are only intuitive to those who love profile spreadsheets?
4: Like Tears In The Rain
There have always been arguments over whether the Game Master running a boxed RPG campaign should expose players to stats; in Call of Cthulhu the investigators (players) were forbidden from reading all of the rulebook to ensure players were ignorant about how the Cthulhu Mythos was implemented as a system. Hidden or not, RPG systems have generally remained complex and this has endured as D&D and its many boxed children offer systems meant to be reused, not adopted for a single campaign and then thrown away.
But unless you’re playing a MMORPG or a roguelike, the stats system is throwaway. When I asked whether a complicated stats system made sense for a single-player RPG, Felix Plesoianu countered: “If you play it for 40 hours plus, yes. Or if you reuse it for a sequel. Sure, you ain’t gonna need it… or will you?”
Let’s at least agree, then, that the system complexity must be consistent with the system’s lifespan. There is no point having a 50 dimensional character profile if you can complete the game in a few hours, never to return. Like I wrote in Arithmophobia, I loved the bare bones Skill/Stamina system of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks. Sometimes you do not need more than a couple of numbers to capture everything you want to say. If you have a class-based system, I wonder if some games might thrive better with just a “core skill stat” than, for example, having to maintain lots of combat stats that you’re not supposed to care about if you’re a mage.
Players need time to become conversant with a new system and figure out how to exploit it. The more complex, the longer this takes. There is an evil twin to this rule. The more complex, the longer it takes to fully test and balance. A crude example is Deus Ex: Human Revolution in which a character with a stealth build is equivalent to playing on nightmare difficulty because the player is forced through boss fights. Despite giving the player choice to play the game their way, it is skewed towards the combat build. Dishonored is interesting in that it recognises that getting through the game without murdering everyone in sight (a stealth build) is actually pretty hard, and offers narrative compensations.
5: Love > Hate
Because figuring out the consequences of a custom-built stats system within the context of a campaign is difficult and time-intensive, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that many of the RPG systems out there have bugs, unintended exploits and stats that are just a waste of everybody’s time. For all the talk of “numbers as vital feedback” the mystery of the Poise stat in Dark Souls 3 became a god damn Kotaku headline. (I know, readers, I’m being unfair because it’s Dark Souls. But, hey, Dark Souls was unfair first.)
From where I’m sitting, weighing up the time developers have to spend testing and the amount of time players spend learning, then realising that well-balanced systems are similar to a flat difficulty curve… it can feel like a problem no one wants to talk about.
But it’s games innit? Many videogames, by their very nature, are digital paradoxes. We could have a platformer where you press a button and jump straight to the exit, but there’s no fun to be had unless it’s deliberately difficult to get to the exit. And so, of course, we could have a game stripped of all stats, much like The Story of Thor, and a game with an automatic flat difficulty curve, but that isn’t as juicy if you’re into the stats metagame.
Richard Goodness even said, straight to my Twitter face, that without numbers it’s not an RPG. And he went on: “One of the main hallmarks is constant, incremental progress. Monsters represent not only obstacles but also, and more importantly, resources which stimulate character development.”
Plenty of people thought the numbers were essential to making an RPG fun. Russell Damerell said getting the numbers up is part of the achievement. And Mattias Gustavsson wrote stats were “a deliberate creative decision, personally, I like numbers in my RPGs.”
It doesn’t matter if I say “oh bother all those pointless numbers are a waste of my time” when plenty of players find stat systems engrossing. But that desire for explicit numbers has another downside.
6: The Treadmill
Ever since the chimpanzees stood in front of the black monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey, humans have been addicted to numbers going up. It’s that little buzz you get when you fell an enemy or, eventually, go up a level. Yesss, my preciousssss, you say looking at your XP.
Experience and levelling systems have been so powerful in motivating players, they’ve been adopted well beyond the borders of the RPG kingdom. Education is big into XP systems and there are no shortage of attempts to gamify our lives. I’d even argue the Quantified Self movement is trying to convert people into a set of RPG stats. Our brains love every action infused with a number going up.
In computer RPGs, the main consequence of this is grind. Grind is where we perform repetitive tasks for the purpose of raising stats. Sometimes grind is captured explicitly with goals like “kill 10 rats” but other times the players take it upon themselves to grind.
Players do not necessarily feel exploited by this and Oswald Hurlem wrote, “I agree that more RPGs could do away with numbers. That said I think grinding and leveling up can be rewarding and vital to a game.”
But Matej Zajacik explained it was a fine line: “I like numbers if I can feel the difference after investing a point in an attribute. If 1 point = +3%, it’s nonsense.”
I suggested there was no grind in Dark Souls but it was always possible I was wrong. I remember Matt Sakey found it difficult to avoid grinding in his Dark Souls Diaries and words have been written about why it’s okay to grind in the game. Oswald also waxed lyrical about his own grinding experience because it helped with the bosses and his favourite Dark Souls memory was “replaying the Depths (to get Humanity) for about an hour while listening to The Beach Boys.”
But there’s a dissonance here that I find difficult to maintain. On one hand, there’s this argument that number systems are challenging and fun, like Alexander Nadeau said, “I play RPGs to learn their mechanics. Once I learn the mechanics, I push them as hard as I can. I break the game to see if the devs left anything under the surface.” But on the other hand, these challenging systems… result in players killing rats for hours, and the web is awash with questions about the best places to grind.
Game developer Aaron Steed commented, as I’ve argued myself, that grind is “the journey. When done badly you can’t see the destination and it seems like you’ll never get there. When done well, there is a plethora of sights to see as you make your way up the mountain. Grind becomes part of that journey.”
There is good grind and bad grind. What separates the two varies from individual to individual. In my case, if I know I might have to do grinding in a game, I am reluctant to get started. I’d prefer I levelled up gracefully as part of my assigned activities – but that’s obviously because I do not enjoy what stats do in games. I never had to grind once in The Story of Thor, but I still felt like I’d been on a great journey.
I do wonder if our videogame stat systems – and all the good and bad they entail – are the consequences of single-player videogames mimicking systems that were originally built to last years over multiple role-playing campaigns.
7: There Is No Alternative
I said there were two options if we decided to rid ourselves of the naked number.
First, we could eliminate the stat system entirely. There would be no numbers hidden or otherwise. Are these even RPGs any more? I do want to be that asshole who is points out “role-playing” wasn’t supposed to be about number chasing, especially in the original boxed RPGs. Unless you’re playing a roguelike, then I would be surprised that stat choices should be a key decision over, say, who will join your party or whether to take on a quest.
But I also want to be the counter-asshole who points out many, many videogames are “role-playing” games today. From Gordon Freeman racing through the Black Mesa Research Facility in Half-Life to Passepartout in 80 Days. Some of these offer greater choice than others, but that old canard of “immersion” is another way of saying role-playing. We have “role-playing” games without numbers. Dark Souls just isn’t one of them.
Wait, wait, wasn’t there another option?
8: The Alternative Option
Hit points don’t make a jot of sense. As you become stronger, you can take “more stabs”? What if I stab you in the eye? I’ve heard them argued as an abstraction to represent exhaustion that, once they fall to low numbers, you are incapable of dodging that killing blow. But then you also have a dexterity/agility stat which has nothing to do with hit points, right?
Grind makes some sort of sense. Well done, all those dead rats have improved your refle– wait, how come your intelligence has gone up? Were you reading a book while stabbing rats?
Hey, what about that “death spell” or the super vorpal omega sword that will kill the demon boss in the Dungeon of Criminal Grime in a single attack? I’ll earn a 10,000 XP bonus for slaying the bad guy and that is literally amazing. Literally amazing for someone who scratched a demon’s leg after tripping over his own feet or read out a few runes from papyrus. Now I’m pretty buff after that! We could use abstraction to explain this, that the XP bonus represents the culmination of a long quest to bring the demon down.
But we’re still left with the idiotic cases where your so-called expert needs to level up. No One Lives Forever 2 was not an RPG but sported this awful stats system where superspy Cate Archer couldn’t shoot straight until the end of the game. This is after she’d already saved the world once.
I have a real point here. Of course, it’s all some beautiful abstraction. W. Stubbs said on Twitter, “I just think numbers are a shortcut away from what would be everyday activities represented in a game – e.g. The GYM!” But a character stat system that’s perfect for a “videogame” can tie you in knots trying to explain how it maps to the real world, which is one reason why hidden stats are prone to frustration, because they don’t have neat physical analogues. Unless you invent a glowing meter on someone’s back to represent health because it’s the future.
Why not copy the real world and have skills get better as you use them? How about a system where the more you run, the better you run? The more you fight, the better you fight? And rather than having XP levels leading to distinct level upgrades, it’s a more gradual, sliding scale. In real life, if I run every day, I don’t get a sudden leg and lung upgrade after I’ve done X hours of running.
This kind of approach would make for an entirely different experience, and balancing would be tricky as levels would not receive the natural gating of bosses or finding treasure. It wouldn’t necessarily avoid grind because any system that has stats can still invite grind.
And, bugger, I don’t know if there’s an alternative to hit points. But we don’t have to get rid of every number… right?
No doubt someone is going to write a comment saying this has already been done and I’m late to the party.
Update 19 Sept: Well that didn’t take long – Oblivion, Skyrim.
What was Arithmophobia about? Or what should it have been about?
There are many players, such as myself, who are put off by what we see as spreadsheet games. But games with attributes and stats have a strong audience, strong enough to make them financially viable, and to shroud or eliminate the numbers would change the nature of these games. They would not be the same.
I’m playing Dark Souls. I can’t avoid the numbers and I recognise dismantling them would make it a game called Not Dark Souls.
Are there other innovations out there, alternatives to the stat system? Possibly. But these would be different games, not equivalents. Would RPGs with numbers endure if an alternate model emerged? No idea. Did text-based interactive fiction die after 3D environments became commonplace? Nope.
Still, I never envisioned a holodeck future in which I’d be expected to pull out my character stats sheet.