There is No +5 Sword in Lancelot
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Let’s Chat about Character Stats
A major difference between table top games and digital games are that, while we need to do our own math in analog table top games, digital games can keep track of numbers and do our math. This is nice for streamlining experiences. If I was to sit down and play a D&D session with some friends, we’d have to keep track of:
- Our stats
- Our characters names
- Each other’s character’s names
- All the items in our inventory
- Their stats
- Our money
to name a few. And many of these make sense. If I was to live in a fantasy world, I should know my own name and my friends. And the items in my inventory. But that may be about it. Yet, in a table top game if I was to engage in combat, not only do I need to know (depending on the variant of D&D or table top game) my strength, weapon type (and associated numbers), my initiative, the opponent’s initiative, and the opponent’s strength but also the calculations that include those numbers: how many dice to roll, what type of dice to roll, do I need to roll any dice? This can get very complex very fast.
Let’s Try to Talk about Stories Rather than Numbers
From my experiences playing table top games, the combat takes not only the longest amount of time in real life (for what in-game would usually consist of only a few minutes of fighting) but is also often the most boring, opposed to solving diplomatic issues, uncovering hidden ruins, or completing ancient rituals. When I DM, I limit the combat as much as possible.
And so digital games are nice. You can slash away at goo-beasts all day without having to pull out your TI-85. Computers can take care of all these numbers and calculations for us. Yet, herein lies the solution and problem that I have with digital games: We don’t need to see the numbers. A lot of games show the numbers behind the curtains, but really, we don’t need to see the numbers. It feels as if we aren’t taking full advantage of the fact that our computers can keep track of these numbers for us. Because, really, we never have to see them again.
Sure, you like knowing what level you need to be to wield that sword, or how much stealth you need to pick the jester’s pocket. We’ve been raised on these babying systems that give us more information and numbers than we will ever process or need. Yet that’s about as far as it goes. Digital RPGs are known for being good for combat, and analog ones are known to be good for story-telling. But I have an idea:
Let’s Just Hide All the Numbers OK (and never talk about them ever again)
What if you could always wield that bad-ass sword? You just suck with it at first and as you practice, you get better, and you notice you get better. Not through little experience bars or “leveling up” but because your character makes more confident sounds and continues attacking in more dynamic experienced ways. What if you don’t know what level you are because the game doesn’t use a “level” system at all; if all the numbers and calculations are hidden from the player? Because you don’t in real life, and that creates stories. And in my fantasy universe, elves don’t check their stamina stats before rushing into battle.
This type of digital RPG is unique: games where characters in-game, much like in real life, don’t know their exact experience or ability, and only find out through active comparison of skill. Rather than thinking “I can’t take on that lvl 73 lava deamon,” you’d think “dang, I can’t even slay a fire-pup, but I’m getting there!” The game would never tell you “we’re sorry, you’re too weak to cut down a diamond tree,” because you can try and fail, and learn through experience, and have a story from it.
This would be completely frustrating for some. But the people who would play this kind of game, this digital world more akin to reality with only estimates of numbers, would gain deeper, more interesting, and more immersive stories.
Creating Gaps for Stories to Fill
You see, in real life, you don’t know your stats. When you study for a test, you’re practicing and trying to increase your knowledge of that area, but you never know what “level” that test will be; you only have an estimate of how difficult it will be. And when you run a race, you do the same thing. You practice and feel better about your speed and time, but you don’t know your opponents “track-and-field level,” it’s more complex than that (in terms of the game, it could be less complex, but that doesn’t matter: the player doesn’t see it). And these mysteries allow for stories. They create spaces and gaps for us to fill.
Let’s say that your “track-and-field level” is 35 and your opponents is 25. That’s not an interesting story. You’d win most of the times just by skill. But if we don’t know the skill levels, we can only compare you two athletes by other stories of your athletic prowess. You, track star of the local field, runs 10 miles every day. Them, regional champion, relaxing because no worthy opponent has stepped up to the plate. With the levels, it’s easy to make a comparison. In the second scenario, we learn why these “levels” would be the way they are, but in a more immersive way. The first is math, the second is David and Goliath.
It’s a celebration of the journey leading to the moment.
My Knight Shouldn’t Know His Own Heath
Back in the early 2000s, I played the free version of Runescape. The last quest you could do in the free version lead to fighting a dragon. My friends and I made up rumors that you could only fight it once, and if you failed, that was it; it raised our anticipation. When we all prepared, we saw our stats go up. We never felt ready, but we knew we were ready because we saw numbers that told us we were ready. So when we fought the dragon, we didn’t have to justify being ready through our training stories, much less pump ourselves up through encouragement. We had cold stats in our favor. And we all killed the dragon, without any problems. I don’t remember much of the battle. I was too busy keeping track of numbers, something I thought digital games were meant to fix. How much health I had left, how much damage I was dealing, how much health it had left. I was doing math with a dragon and a knight.
What would have made it epic is if we didn’t know how strong the dragon was, if all we knew about it was from other players; all we knew about the dragon was literally from the legends other players told us. And even if our stats were high enough to win; if we stood by the entrance to its cave, shivering in anticipation; entering with a feeling of confidence, not from defining unemotional numbers, but with the moral boosts we gave each other. Remembering how much swifter and more accurately our sword hacks had become over the past two weeks. That would be a story worth sharing. Regardless of how much “health” I had at the end of the battle, I could always say I slew it in the final moment. Because without the numbers controlling the mind, your imagination is free to run wild.
That’d be a great fantasy world. That’d be an even better RPG game.