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Remodeling RPGs for the New Millennium
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Remodeling RPGs for the New Millennium

January 15, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Statistics, Skills, and/or Trackable Abilities

As tools, names are useful but not critical. In contrast, there are two core character identification and development tools: statistically driven and experientially driven story and world building. Regardless of whether you allow players to develop their characters through statistics or direct experience (or some combination of the two), you have to take a stance on the subject before you put the last period on your design document.

In games such as Fallout, Diablo, Daggerfall, Final Fantasy VII, and Might & Magic VI, numbers typically define your character's fundamental attributes (such as strength, dexterity, intelligence, and luck) and/or your character's level of accomplishment in a set of skills (such as lock picking, marksmanship, and first aid). When players run into a game problem or obstacle, they use one or more of these attributes or skills, resulting in behind-the-scenes die rolls that determine success or failure in overcoming the problem.

Development (increases in individual statistics) often comes through the expenditure of abstract skill points given by the designer for solving individual problems or for solving enough such problems to go up an arbitrary level (the rewards model). In other games, development comes through the actual use of specific capabilities in game situations (the practice model). However implemented, statistics are terrific tools for setting one character apart from another - there's a reason they've been a staple of role-playing since the birth of D&D.

figure 1 -- <i>Diablo</i>'s character statistics screen

Diablo's character statistics screen

Why are numeric systems terrific tools? For one thing, they're instantly parsable by normal human beings. Any player can tell immediately that first level isn't as good as second level, and that a strength score of 65 is better than a score of 37. In addition, die-rolls introduce tension, suspense, and variety into computer RPGs.

Statistical systems do have associated costs, though. The one that I find most damning, if only because a thoughtful designer can so easily avoid the problem, is that typically, by game's end, characters tend to end up looking more alike than different. But the trick to avoiding this is simply to impose limits on the number of skills players can select and/or to limit the number of reward points we hand out.

But using statistics poses other problems, too. As easy as it is to say two characters are different - and as easy as it is to indicate these differences on a character description screen - it is extremely difficult to communicate to players the reasons why they succeeded or failed at a given task. Can players ever really know why they succeeded or failed when behind the scenes die rolls determine success of failure? Can we make players feel their contributions to character accomplishment are significant? If you choose a statistical approach, you need to provide obvious and immediate feedback when a statistic affects problem resolution.

Games such as Wasteland and Diablo, though separated by many years, are extremely good examples of games that use statistics and skills effectively. In these games, statistics, in addition to being rewards, allow players to refine their characters with a great deal of control and precision and to individualize their play experience in ways the games' limited storylines don't offer. Fallout is a more recent example of effective use of statistics to differentiate characters from one another (Figure 2). But Fallout takes the idea of tailoring experience through statistics even further than Wasteland and Diablo - a player who puts his or her points into stealth and communication skills, for example, is likely to solve game problems very differently than one who puts those points into weapons skills.

figure 2 - <i>Fallout</i>'s character statistics screen

Fallout's character statistics screen

Looking at most games that use the statistical character definition approach, you quickly get the impression that designers like to track numerous character statistics, and like to track them to a fine degree. Logically, this seems to be the best way to differentiate one character from another. However, if you're going to track statistics based on skill values, adjustments to these values have to be meaningful enough so that changing them makes obvious changes in the game play. Hand out too many statistical improvement rewards and characters start to look more alike than different. Create enough statistics and skills and players quickly figure out which ones matter and which don't, causing characters to look more similar. My advice is to be appropriately and thoughtfully stingy with rewards and with the number and types of statistics you provide.

But are all of these statistics really necessary? Of course not. There's another way. In recent years, a small, very vocal and extremely persuasive minority of the design community has begun to argue in favor of statistics-free RPGs or, as some call it, the immersive experience. They feel that hidden die rolls and finely tracked statistics are unnecessary hold-overs from paper gaming. These designers pose a number of interesting questions. Why use a crutch from another medium, one with limited simulation capabilities, in computer gaming, which has far more powerful simulation tools available? Why not let player choices determine character differences? Does anyone think the difference between a 17 and an 18 in strength or between an 89 and a 90 in lock picking should have an impact on game play?

So what do these statistics-foes offer as an alternative in terms of character differentiation and the player's ability to impact a story? The two most important alternative tools available are Inventory and Skills/Special Abilities.

Most, if not all, RPGs support the accumulation and use of items by players. In most, you can pick up anything that isn't specifically nailed down and use it later, possibly even in ways the designers never imagined. In extreme cases, you end up with characters hauling around useless candy wrappers and soda cans. In the end, problem resolution is what RPGs are all about. The more tools you give the player (useless items notwithstanding), the more solutions are likely to suggest themselves, as long as your simulation is robust enough - or your designers clever enough - to support them.

In addition to their use in problem solving, objects and weapons can be powerful tools for character differentiation. If you load up your inventory with weapons and I load mine up with keys, lockpicks, and inviso-suits, our characters look, feel, and, of necessity, behave differently from one another.

The key to making inventory a character differentiation tool is to limit, in some way, the number of items that a character can carry. In a statistics-based system, this can be accomplished by giving items weight and then tying inventory capacity to strength - how much weight a character can carry therefore becomes the limiting factor. In a statistics-free system, the same goal can be accomplished by giving each item a size and then limiting the number of things a character can lug around. Clearly, combinations of these ideas work, too - witness Diablo (Figure 3) - and there are undoubtedly several other viable schemes.

Diablo's character inventory screen

For inventory to work as a character and experience differentiation tool, we must find ways to force players to make choices. Which implies limiting characters' capabilities. We as designers must be disciplined enough to parcel out items of increasing power - things that make characters more effective - in a careful, well thought-out manner. If you dumped an infinite variety of weapons in front of a character, most players would grab the most powerful one, making the inventory limitation moot. Item and weapon differentiation must be thought of in terms of economy.

In a real-world economy, more -isn't always better. The same is true in gaming. Just because you can offer players 4,000 weapons doesn't mean that you should. The choice should have meaning. Ask yourself whether you can really differentiate two weapons; if the two items offer no legitimate, significant, and obvious game play difference in your game world, why bother? When pondering inventory issues, think of yourself as the game design equivalent of Alan Greenspan of the Federal Reserve Board - you have to open and close the object floodgates to match players' capabilities to the tasks at hand. Release too much "item power" and tasks become too easy. Interest in the game wanes. Release too little "item power" and tasks become too hard. Frustration sets in. Either way, players stop playing.

Not all systems of skills and abilities depend on statistical resolution; there are plenty of other ways to structure a system. In Deus Ex, we use a binary action resolution scheme in which your skill level, tracked in a gross fashion (rather than a granular one) is compared to the difficulty of the task at hand. If your skill level is higher than the difficulty factor - which, in most cases, you'll know before you attempt a task - then you succeed. If your skill level is lower than the task's difficulty factor, you have to find another solution.

In a deeply simulated world (or even a modestly simulated one, such as Deus Ex) each game problem should be solvable in a variety of ways. In such a simulation, a skill system like our binary action resolution model makes perfect sense. If you're not a good enough lock picker to open a vault, maybe you're a master with explosives, or maybe you can charm a bank clerk into opening it for you. If you're still thinking in terms of puzzles rather than obstacles, and if your world is two-dimensional rather than deeply simulated, stick with statistics.

So where does tension come into the picture? To offer levels of suspense like statistics-based systems, a statistics-free game must emphasize consequence and reward. Here's one way it can work. First, players may know in advance the outcome of a specific action (whether they do or not is largely a result of how much attention they've been paying - the designers aren't trying to hide anything). Second, players should have a fair degree of certainty about the reward for acting in a particular manner (for example, a player should know that if he or she gets through the vault door, he or she will get a million dollars). Most critically, players must not be able to do more than make an educated guess at the consequences of acting in a specific manner (for example, picking the lock on the vault door might or might not set off an alarm, blowing the door off it's hinges might attract the attention of the night watchmen or destroy the money in the vault, and charming a bank teller might allow the teller to identify you when the police show up). All actions - all choices - must reward players and, equally important, all must have consequences. There can be no right and wrong, no better and worse.

Whether statistics or experience is used to differentiate characters, some tangible measurement of character prowess and progress is necessary if a game is to be considered an RPG. In RPGs, arbitrary limitations are often placed on what your character can and cannot do. The idea of defining your character's abilities statistically is just one such arbitrary limitation.

Another is the notion of the character class. In the past, distinguishing characters using character classes has prevented mages from wearing armor, impaired warriors' use of magic, restricted clerics' use of offensive magic, and let thieves move quietly and do double damage from behind. This is the brute-force solution to the problem of differentiating characters, applicable in either statistics- or experience-based games (though fitting more easily into the former).

Character classes tell players, "Here's a problem. Your character can't solve this problem in ways X, Y, and Z because those methods aren't appropriate to your class. Find another solution that takes advantage of your character class's unique and clearly defined capabilities." Character classes are not a bad way to ensure experiential differences, but they're a little inelegant. I view them as a form of "remedial role-playing"; character classes have been a crutch for novice role-players since the 1970s. If reaching the mass market is your goal, character classes could be appropriate. If you're going for the Dungeons & Dragons audience, character classes are a necessity. I've noticed that the use of character classes is waning, but if the upcoming title Baldur's Gate proves as successful as most industry watchers expect, it could revitalize the notion of class distinctions in role-playing.

Varied Interaction

One of the defining characteristics of role-playing is the player's ability to impact the outcome of the story through his or her actions during the game. One of the most powerful and effective ways to give players this power is to offer and reward a variety of interaction styles.

When you play an Ultima, or even a hack-and-slash game such as Diablo, you meet computer-controlled people and creatures - NPCs - who -don't necessarily want to kill you. In a console game such as Suikoden, you build a base of operations and forge alliances with the NPCs you choose. Together, these activities have a dramatic impact. In almost any RPG you can name, players can kill, talk to, buy or sell from, maybe even learn from NPCs. The interaction can come in the form of one-sided info-dumps or in complex, branching tree conversations. Whatever form it takes, some nonviolent interaction is a necessary, defining characteristic of RPGs.

Furthermore, you can interact with the game environment in ways other than shooting weapons and opening doors. This may be as limited as picking up objects and manipulating switches and levers or it may be as limitless as, well, interactions in the real world. (I can dream, can't I?)

Finally, in the best RPGs, obstacles aren't limited to monsters or arbitrary puzzles. The solution to a particular game situation isn't as predictable as in more focused game categories and, often, more than one solution exists for each problem that you confront.


The effectiveness of your combat system depends on your understanding of the concept of "economy." Giving the player a big gun with unlimited ammo and then throwing a million hideous monsters at him or her -isn't going to buy you much sweat and adrenaline. However, try giving the player an ordinary gun with three shots and then send two villains at him or her and see what happens.

Make sure each weapon and each enemy is radically different than all others. There's no point offering a 1911 Colt, a Glock, and a Browning Hi-Power unless there's some major game play difference between them. Hey, they're all automatic pistols and serve about the same purpose in the real world. In your game, players -won't know that the stocks feel different, the weight is different, and so on. And tiny variations in accuracy and kickback and the like probably won't be noticeable even if you bother trying to simulate them. Don't bother. Just put one of them in your game and be done with it. If your game fiction can support it, make certain weapons particularly useful against certain enemies. Weapon differences must be obvious and instantly apparent.

Wherever possible, differentiate your enemies as much as (or more than) you do your player characters. If, again, your game fiction supports it, give each enemy an attack that has a specific effect (or effects) on the player's ability to move, see, hear, or otherwise interact with the game.

Do these, and you have a winning combat recipe. Because combat is easy to simulate on computers, and very little else is, I suspect (for better or worse) combat will remain a large part of RPGs, and much of our design effort will continue to go into crafting new combat systems.

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