Saturday, May 3, 2014

Confessions of a Stat Junkie

This is one of those posts about RPGs and such.  Just thought I'd warn you.

Some while back (years really) I noticed a trend in MMORPGs (hereafter called MMOs for brevity) where the player characters did not have stats or choices in stats at creation.  The player selects a race and class and the game provides a 1st level character.  Thus all characters of the same class and race have the same stats.  I don't suppose there is a problem with this, but at the time it struck me as odd.  Coming from an old school game background, and being the sort of person that compares and contrasts everything, I found myself a bit put out that I could not determine the stats for myself.  Yet why should I?  What does it matter if my Fighter has high strength and low dexterity and someone else's Fighter has low strength and high dexterity?  Ultimately it is level and gear that drives success.  It did make me think about my past in gaming.
I was a stat junkie.
So was everyone I ever played with.  EVERYONE.
If you are a gamer you know what I mean.  If you come from that glorious old school world of describing characteristics with numbers vice descriptive adjectives you know what I mean.
"So this half-elven sexy is she?"
"19 Charisma, my man."

The simple fact is that we look at numerical scales as a rating of good, bad, and otherwise and why would anyone want a 17 when an 18 is available?  Or for that matter a 19 or 20?  When those stats comes with bonuses it is inevitable that everyone is going to want the high stats.  When the low stats come with penalties is is even more so.  This leads to players wanting better rolling methods for making super characters or simply trashing good characters to make better ones.  So why not just set all your stats to max and get on with the power gaming?
Well the problem is that we, as gamers, MUST OBEY THE DICE.  We can't just set the stats where we want them.  That would be cheating.  If the dice "give" us high rolls, that is okay.  Yet if everybody is working for max stats does that not raise the bar of normal to the high stats?  It does, that was rhetorical.

I can tell you from experience, however, that a "Straight 18" fighter of level 1 will still get killed in a trice by a level 5 fighter of average stats.  This leads to annoyance from gamers who live by the dice and the numbers.  Yes, the numbers are in the level 5's favor but "dammit, I have all 18s!"

Games use their stats, or ability scores, or characteristics (it's all the same) in two ways:
1) Provide a source for other abilities, usually in the form of bonuses to rolls, penalties to rolls, and benchmarks for qualifications (such as class entry and spell use).
2) An absolute value that directly affects the rolls.

Type 1 is the Dungeons and Dragons type where the stat score tells you the highest spell level you can cast, if you can be a Paladin, and how many points you add or subtract from attack rolls and the like.
Type 2 is common in skill-based games and dice pool games.  Type 2 can be further sub-divided into two more general classes: those that are the roll itself (dice pools and Savage Worlds work like this) and those that are added as a straight modifier to a dice roll (such as R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020 system).  In Type 2 games the stat is EVERYTHING.  The difference between a 5 strength and a 6 is a real value of 1 die or point toward a roll.  It is always better to have a bigger number in a Type 2 game because it has a real effect on the outcomes.  Take the Cyberpunk system where you roll 1d10 and add the relevant stat and skill values.  A 6 is always better than a 5 because that is 1 more point.

This leads, of course, to being a stat junkie.  Rather than see the character as an alter ego to be played in a game, or even as a simple pawn, the player sees the character as a stack of numbers and he wants high numbers.  In skill-based RPG this is at its worst as the points MUST be high.  If your dex-based rogue-like character has less dex than the dex-based fighter-like character you become frustrated.  Even more so if you can't cast the spells you want because you put some points in a health stat to keep yourself from dying.  So now you have a bunch of fragile wizards with nuking overkill magic who will die if they trip and stumble into a Sheetrock wall.  Frankly I blame the games themselves.

And it's no good writing a clever little line in character creation sections of game manuals saying that a character with some flaws is more fun to play.  Yes, game designers, I'm talking to you.  We all know that is a lie.  The funny thing about being a stat junkie is that in a Type 1 game the stats quickly become outstripped by the class itself.  Having a +3 bonus to hit and damage will always be a good thing (it is, after all a +15% bonus to hit) but the class improvements, such as hit points and skills, are more important.  Or they should be.  A Wizard with a huge strength bonus, say a +4, has the same hit probability at level 1 as a 4th level fighter with no strength bonuses at all.  He will have the same probability as a 5th level fighter at levels 2 and 3, and then a 6th level fighter at level 4.  At 20th level the Wizard has the same hit probability as a 14th level fighter of no bonuses, except that the Fighter has far more hit points, uses better weapons, and can attack 3 times to the Wizard's 2.  Now that's 3.5 edition D&D, but it was always like this.  We aren't even taking the other things into account, like Saving Throws.  Just hit probability.  The class is more vital to the character than the stats themselves.

Am I suggesting do away with stats entirely?  Well, not exactly.  I just don't like how the bonus structure or outright roll value makes them the driving goal of character creation.  MMOs haven't done away with stats, indeed the MMO is so driven by math that its binary brain cannot function without it.  I might be suggesting that bonus structures put too much importance on them, however.  I look back at OD&D (the 1974 inaugural release, pre Greyhawk) and note that Strength, Wisdom and Intelligence were only bonuses for the class for whom they were the prime requisite, and then only for purposes of XP gain.  I look at other games I have played and enjoyed (HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest) where the stats are fixed for each class (well character model technically) and the party works together.  Yeah the Barbarian is strongest of all but he won't be disarming a trap or phasing through a stone wall anytime soon.  What these minimalist games and MMOs are saying is, "This is what a warrior looks like.  This is what a wizard looks like."  It's simple but effective.  A wizard may be quite a fine physical specimen in terms of strength, dexterity and constitution, but rather than learn to make athletic use of it he studied arcane mysteries.  The warrior might be very smart in absolute terms of IQ and quite the brilliant field tactician, but he simply didn't take the time to learn the dead languages of magic.  It is more about a simplified way of looking at the character as a role within an established work of interactive fiction.  It does not do away with stats or math, indeed the class abilities will be key to the success of the character in the game, but it does away with the obsessive drive to use special rolling methods, scrapping characters, and stat jealousy.  It frees the player and allows him or her to simply PLAY THE GAME.  Isn't that why we do this?  Play.  Fun.  Games.

Which links back to my complaints about wizards not being allowed to use swords.  By all means let the wizard use a sword.  He won't ever be as good with it as the fighter.  He is not supposed to be.  That's okay.  I prefer it that way.  The warrior is not supposed to use a magic wand.

Anyway, so that's about me having been, in the past, a stat junkie.  Bloody games.


  1. Never got into RPGs...until I started playing a little game called Dungeon Siege. All of a sudden I started looking at stats for my little fighting party. Trying to figure out the best strategy for them in order to kill a Boss, etc. But then this little game (and my husband) led me to Oblivion...then came Skyrim and now, of course, Elder Scrolls online. I don't play a stats game and HATE looking at numbers, however, these games have been a motivator in trying to understand why they matter :)

  2. I played a little ESO in beta. ESO is an interesting example of allowing the player to increase a stat or skill 1 point at a time however they like. Over time one could specialize completely or spread evenly. I don't recall, off the top of my head, the value, mathematically, of a single point, however. Thanks for reading.