Think Before You Stat

Stats continue to be a popular choice in game design. They are a simple and intuitive way of creating mechanically unique player characters, and mediating conflicts between these characters and the world. But should stats really be the go-to game design choice? In this article I discuss what stats are, what they fail at, and whether or not your game needs them. As usual I wildly fling my opinion around, and welcome contrasting viewpoints.

What do stats do and why?

Stats represent a skill, attribute or characteristic possessed by a character that is in some way significant in determining the success or failure of an action.

For example:

  • Strength is an attribute that affects a character’s success or failure at doing things requiring strength
  • Hacking is a skill that affects a character’s success or failure at doing things requiring hacking
  • Flashy is an attribute that affects a character’s success or failure at doing things in a flashy way

From this concept, many game design challenges arise. Let’s take a look at some common problems.

A Character’s Success or Failure

The driving impulse behind stats is a simulationist approach to determining success/failure. What do I mean by this? A simulationist approach to conflict resolution means that a character must use things which exist in the fiction to determine their success. By things, I mean stuff like weapons, but I also mean the personal attributes of the character.

Broadly, simulationist approaches work like this:

My character, Jack, wants to do a thing in the fiction.

My character, Jack, wants to intimidate your character Jill.

What assets do I, playing Jack, have to help him succeed at this intimidation?

The simulationist approach says: the only assets you may use are assets that would help Jack to intimidate Jill in the fiction.

In other words, Jack can use his terrifyingness stat. Depending on the system, maybe Jack can also use his fictionally derived advantage of holding a fictional gun to Jill’s fictional head.

Jack cannot use fictional things that don’t help him in the fiction, for example, he cannot use his fondness for bees. That just isn’t relevant.

Jack also cannot use things outside the fiction to help him, for example, pool dice or point bidding or the fact that everyone at the table agrees it would be really cool if Jack intimidated Jill right now.

So, Jack will take his terrifyingness stat and some kind of randomizer and work out if he succeeds.

Ok, so what’s wrong with this?

Maybe nothing. Maybe lots. It depends on your game’s design intention.

My game is a simulationist game.

Many times games want to take a wholly simulationist approach. And to be honest this is the default approach we’re used to. This is the classic D&D approach that says:
“I want lift rock.” “Ability to lift rock determined by strength.” “Higher strength, more likely can lift rock.”

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. It’s just a way of saying to players “hey, this game focuses on how good your character is at doing things, as being good at doing things is basically how your character can affect the story. Make a character who is good at doing the kinds of things you want them to do in the story.”

Sometimes as GMs we play against that drive for more roleplaying, but that is essentially how the system works and what it supports.

There’s nothing wrong with creating this kind of game, if that’s the experience you’re aiming for. As you can probably tell, this isn’t generally my personal cup of tea. But I’ve still enjoyed playing games like this with a good GM.

My game is not aiming for simulation.

If you have an inherently simulationist mechanic at the core of your non-simulationist game, then it’s time to think about why. Is this really the right decision for your game? More on that in the next section below.

Skill, Attribute, or Characteristic Possessed by a Character

Inherent in a stat system is a judgement of what parts of a character are worth measuring, and what are not. The Hulk is strong. The Hulk is also green, out of control, morally erratic, and houses the trapped consciousness of Dr Banner. In my opinion, all of these aspects are equally important parts of the Hulk. However, a stat based system must pick what to measure based not on a character as an individual, but averages across all possible characters. Resultantly, some generalization is required.

A system that contains stats such as greenness, self-control, moral consistency, and degree of dual personality will probably not apply well to Superman. (Actually self-control is an awesome stat, imma use that.) A system that measures only strength, and relegates these other characteristics to “fluff” does not encourage the creation of interesting and complex characters.

But there is a second effect of the stat system. Since, as discussed above, stats affect success and failure, they are a judgment of what parts of a character have the ability to affect their actions. This is inherently limiting. Mechanically, stats determine the difference between characters’ abilities to alter outcomes. This means characters with the same stats are, subject to other mechanics, exactly and equally able to affect the fiction in an identical way. Two different characters are, in the eyes of the system, the same.

But there is a wider problem; games inherently reward players who focus on the parts of their characters which affect their success or failure. After all, who doesn’t strive towards their character’s success? When you select stats you may be just trying to replicate the abilities of a character in a fiction, but you’re actually informing players about what is important in your world. This will build a roleplaying bias into your game. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this as long as you consider it very carefully, and craft your stats with a roleplaying first perspective. For example, in John Harper’s Lasers and Feelings, the two stats are, well, lasers and feelings actually. As players try to pursue these stats they make extremely thematic choices in the fiction.

It’s rare I see stats like this however. Most of the time stats are “strength”, “hacking”, “drive”, “hot”, they are just generic ways of describing ability or personality not specific to the world’s theme.

So, should my game have stats?

The first thing to realize is that your game does not need stats to function.

As always, I advocate for making conscious design choices fueled by an understanding of the effect of those choices on the game. You have the power to make the best decision for your RPG.

So I could call on you to reflect at this point on why you are using, or considering using stats. But I’m not going to, because that would be to put the horse before the cart.

Instead, I’m going to ask you to take a step back and look at the game on a player level, rather than on a player character level. Ask yourself some of these questions:

  • What do I want players to bring to the story?
  • What player behaviors do I want to incentivize? And disincentivize?
  • How do I want the story to be told?
  • When a conflict is resolved, how detailed or broad do I want that resolution to be? For example, D&D requires a blow by blow approach to combat, whereas Apocalypse World allows a whole combat to be resolved in a single roll.
  • How much freedom do I want to give players to decide what happens to their characters?
  • Do I want players to contribute to the world and the narrative beyond their own characters?

These are really the questions I ask myself when I design. I’m sure you can think of some more which are important to you.

Once you have these answers, you are better placed to consider whether stats are right for your game. In general I’ve found these trends work best for me:

Less likely to need statsMore likely to need stats
Player drivenGM driven
Focus is on relationships and feelingsFocus is on combat and physical challenges
Lots of conflict and interaction between playersConflict and interaction is largely with the world

Here’s an Example

We’re currently doing a lot of playtesting of a game provisionally called Pride, Prejudice, and Roleplaying (yes it is a Jane Austin RPG). In PP&R, each character has different secret objectives, and they spend the game aiming to accomplish these. The two drivers behind the game are:

  • Players initiate action and screw over each other to accomplish their goals
  • Players are constrained by and must operate in a setting where social interaction and standing is everything

Looking at the core essence of this game, and what I’ve written above, it’s probably no surprise this game does not have stats. In fact, funny story, the very, very, first playtest version of this game did have stats, and dice. Guess how many times they were used. None times. That’s how many.

When you put stats into a game and they are never used, this is a clear sign they should not be there in the first place. I reevaluated the core of the game, and the experience I wanted the players to have, and removed them completely.

So, if I don’t use stats, what else should I use?

I’m not going to go into every option here (I’ll be writing a blog post about this soon!), but here are some useful things to think about:

1. Think thematically

Thematic ways of resolving conflicts add so much to a game. However they can be pretty damn difficult to come up with.

The most common thematic mechanic I’ve seen, which I think is cool, is to park a value in a thematic concept which is not a stat. For example, Debt in Urban Shadows, or Bonds in Sagas of the Icelanders. These are great because while they aren’t attributes that are inherent to your character, they reflect the actions your character has taken in the past, and the unique relationships which they hold.

In Pride, Prejudice and Roleplaying we have a thematic concept called Resolve. When bad things happen to a character, they build up resolve which they can later spend to make sure things go their way in a particular action.

2. Prompt characters to take action

What do Keys from Lady Blackbird have over vanilla stats? They reward characters for taking action on what is most important to them, or most core to their being. Characters taking action makes for great roleplaying. Characters taking in-character action is even better.

3. Work out if you want a character first or story first resolution

What matters more in your game? The individual success and failure of one character in the moment? Or the overall narrative flow of the game? If the first, orient your design towards the ability of players to affect the success of their character’s actions. If the later, orient it towards the consequences of success or failure. In Questlandia for example, players match their dice against the opposition’s dice to determine the outcomes of their scene, and each result holds a different narrative meaning.

But… I want my player characters to be mechanically differentiated

I actually find a lot of people desire this and I’m always at a loss as to 1. Why and 2. Why does this automatically mean stats?

Why? There are a lot of things about characters that are important in the fiction like whether they are a famed outlaw or whether their appearance terrifies small children. However, these things are not usually reflected mechanically. Why should a character’s strength take precedent over these things?

Why stats? You can differentiate your characters however you want. In Pride, Prejudice and Roleplaying, characters are differentiated mechanically by fictional abilities that have fictional effects. For example “Divine Gravitas: Once per game, you may spread a moral message of your choosing around the community. Your family’s reputation as important clergy ensures that it will be taken seriously.”

In conclusion. Stats are the right choice for some games, and the wrong choice for others. The important thing is to understand the desired player experience in your RPG and make a conscious design choice based on that experience. Hopefully the concerns I’ve outlined about stats can help a bit in making that decision. In an upcoming article I’ll be writing more in detail on some alternatives to stats that I like.

If you’ve got a favorite alternative to stats comment here or tweet or G+ at me and let me know!





3 thoughts on “Think Before You Stat

  1. Nick Fugiel says:

    Very interesting. As a game developer I have been having this very issue and you helped me see other possibilties. Thank you.

  2. Richard Vaught says:

    I think one of the biggest things this article overlooks is the concept of the player’s perception of fairness. Stats are everything you say they are… they become the neutral arbiter when conflict arises between the GM and the player. It is VERY clear to a player why they failed if they attempted something for which they had low probability of statistical success then flubbed the roll.

    • Hayley Gordon says:

      Hi Richard, that’s a good observation. Having a arbiter between player actions and the outcome in the fiction is very important (you could write a whole article on that!).

      However in my opinion stats aren’t the only form this arbiter can take. Even within the simulation realm, there is for example the concepts of advantage and disadvantage, tags you can add if a strength applies, and stored resources that can be spent to change a roll. If you’re not attempting simulation, the options are even wider. And in my view rolling isn’t the only way to ensure fairness either – Good Society for example ensure fairness through negotiation between players.

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