Wednesday, October 7, 2020

We Need to Talk About Stats

In the broken world by ionomycin
So it should go without saying that a game's mechanics effect how you fundamentally interact with the game itself. If you disagree with that assertion, I'm not here to argue with you today, because you're provably wrong. Just know that I am going to take this true statement for granted, and am building on it to hopefully show the following:

A game's stats effect how you fundamentally interact with and understand the world of a game.

Why Stats?

There is a lot to unpack with stats, in my opinion. There are obvious questions with a game, such as: whether or not to include stats, what stats are, what differs stats from something like skills (if at all), or how stats are used in the game (are they a modifier? The number of dice you roll? The number you must roll under?). However, I don't want to talk about any of that today. Those are all interesting topics to think and talk about, as well as to analyze across various games to see how they answer those questions.

What I want to talk about today is two things in particular, and the interaction between them: What are the stats in a game (and relatedly, what do they mean diagetically), and how are stats determined for characters? I want to talk about these questions first in the abstract, and then look at a few examples of different games to see how they answer this question. Let's see what we can learn!

What Do Stats Mean?

Speaking broadly, stats tell us how characters are differentiated by their abilities. However, as you may be aware, people's capabilities are far more complicated than a few completely distinct independent traits. Therefore, the reality which stats describe is fundamentally oversimplified and unreal - no number of numerically represented attributes can ever capture the complexity of reality. In pointing this out, we acknowledge that stats are fully fabricated.

However, mechanically, they are also the major way through which we are able to see the difference between people's basic abilities, to the point that they influence what characters are mechanically capable of. Thus, although the reality described by stats is fabricated, it is also the most real distinction between people's capabilities in game. Or, put in other words, it is the only distinction that the game cares to acknowledge as important enough to influence play directly.

The question of how you choose to determine a character's stat values also has implications, although they are far less interesting to talk about in abstract, and I'll save the topic for discussion around specific examples. So, let us leave the realm of the abstract and talk about a few games!

art from Faith Schaffer
 Stats of the Spirit

For our first example, I'm going to use my own in-development game, SUPERLUNARY: Fight with Feelings (S:FwF), which I'll talk about in more detail at a future date. For this discussion, all you need to know is that it is set in a dreamlike world and is heavily based around capturing the feeling and energy of both battle shounen series as well as folkloric metaphysics and whimsy. As such, my focus with the stats was never to describe the physical capabilities of characters - it simply wasn't relevant. Instead, I chose to focus on emotional stats, because they worked thematically with what I was working towards.

The stats I decided on for the game were HEART, INSTINCT, and ANTICIPATION. What these each represent is not how you do certain actions, but why, because that was what I wanted to emphasize as important in play. For the mood the game captures, it is incredibly important to ask what the reasoning behind actions is, so I made it the core mechanic.

Speaking diagetically, each also have a few meanings. While they all have literal meanings (intense emotions, the drive to survive, and expectations of what is to come), they also have poetic meanings which tie them to both parts of the universe as well as to moments in time (past, present and future). What this does, in my opinion, is justify the importance of these stats diagetically, as well as provide avenues for characterization through stats. (These meanings also come up mechanically at times, to further show that they too are important.)

Relatedly, I decided to make stats at character creation rather simple - you just choose a template of how they are spread. I landed on this for a few reasons. For one, I decided that randomly generated stats weren't appropriate for the scale of values I was using (2-4). Further, I found that a few discreet templates was better than calling it something like "point-buy" and outlining a system for it; it didn't need that level of complication.

Overall, I tried to keep things simple but evocative. They don't try to map every attribute a person has, nor would they particularly make sense for a game trying to feel tethered to reality. However, for S:FwF, they do exactly what I want them to do. The biggest takeaway from my philosophy with the game is this: since stats represent the most important attributes by which people are defined, they can also tell the player what feelings are most important.

art from the lovely Sarah Carapace

Stats of the Mind

So while S:FwF is intentionally divorced from thinking too hard about reality, that doesn't mean all games with more poetic stats need to be. In fact, not only can grounded games have evocative stats, they should. So, for our next example let's talk about cavegirl's Dungeon Bitches (DB). Much like S:FwF, it is a game which is currently in-development, and which places importance on the emotions of the characters. However, it does so in a very different way, and with a far more grounded game. If you're somehow here but unfamiliar with it, the elevator pitch is "disaster-lesbians trauma-bonding and maybe falling in love while exploring a horrible dungeon, because they've got no better options. expect angst, romance and skellingtons."

So, the four stats in DB are Hard, Soft, Subtle, and Queer. Respectively, they generally represent: your ability to do harm and endure pain both emotional and physical, your awareness of your surroundings as well as your empathy with your fellow Bitches, your ability to escape from problems and to be manipulative, and your ability both to reach powers beyond mortals as well as flirt.

So, what does that tell us? Well for one, it reinforces the queerness of the game - it's literally one of the core attributes to a character. However, it's not something so bizarre and crass as a measurement of just how gay a character is, it's rather more a measure of their confidence to do things outside of societal norms (flirting with other sapphics, talking to ancient beings).

There's something else we can notice about the stats, though - none of them are purely literal or physical. Even Hard is not a measure of how buff a bitch is, but it is a measure of her willingness and ability to hurt others, and a measure of her ability to handle pain. Sure, you can interpret a character with good Hard as being physically strong, but it's not a direct connection. It also represents mental fortitude, since the game makes no mechanical distinction between physical and emotional pain. Someone can be strong without being good at doing violence, and they can be weak while also being willing and able to kill things. There is a certain nuance to what the stats actually mean beyond mere descriptions of physicality.

Something else interesting in how the game handles stats is in their allocation to characters. While I won't be talking about the classes in the game in detail here, it is worth noting two things about them. Firstly, they don't represent jobs in the way 'thief' or 'ranger' do, rather they more represent who a character is poetically and narratively. Second, classes determine your stats. So the Amazons, devotees to violence, have a +1 to Hard and Subtle, but struggle being open with others and have -1 to Soft and Queer. 

Further, every character gets to increase one stat by 1 at creation. Whether you choose to make a +1 into a +2 or a -1 into a +0 says something about your character. An Amazon with +2 Hard is dedicated to fighting, whereas one with +0 Soft still is clinging onto an amount of awareness and empathy that others may lack.

Once again, we find a game which uses a stat system which is both simple and evocative. In both their names and their functions, these stats tell us what is important about a character to the game, as well as what isn't. The mechanics aren't concerned with how big a sword you can wield, but how willing you are to chop something in half with it. They reinforce the game's focus on trauma and emotions, while simultaneously not detracting from the grounded nature of the game.

INJURED by Juliette Cousin (18+)

Six Stats For Life

(Alternative title: The Only Stats You'll Ever Need)

And now it's time for me to talk about a stat system which I have nothing but disdain for. One which I will here argue is not only uninteresting, but outright bad. It is, of course, that of Dungeons and Dragons (DnD). I won't be talking about any specific editions, as they are wholly irrelevant to my arguments here. Being that there are many editions, some of the specifics of my claims may not be true for your favorite. However, these specifics are largely irrelevant to my claims, so I will continue to ignore them because I'd rather not prattle about the minutiae. Also, this post is long enough as-is, and I don't care.

So, let's start with the facts. We have Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Respectively, they represent: how much weight you can carry and how hard you hit with swords, how fast you are and how good you are with ranged weapons, how hard you are to kill and your resistance to disease, your . . . smartness?, your . . . uhhh . . . , and every single social capability plus a few things.

What the fuck?

Let's start with what this list tells us about the game's priorities. Half of these are ways of showing how physically fit a character is, and although I frankly have issue with the way they chose to group and name these stats, they're largely fine. However, half of the stats in a game boiling down to how much your character works out definitely sets an expectation that the game is rather focused on what bodies are capable of. (I don't think it does a good job of capitalizing on this in the slightest, but that's a topic for a different day.) Our other three stats can be kind of put under the banner of the psychological, although many folks have taken to interpreting Charisma as also influencing ~attractiveness~, whatever that means.

So personally, I don't find these stats to evoke much of anything. That's not bad, necessarily, they don't have to. However, as I hope I made at least something of a case for, I think games should strive for that. In theory though, DnD's choice to be half and half of physical/mental traits isn't too bad - after all, the implication is that an adventurer's mind is as important as their body! Of course in play this isn't true at all and the mental stats are unimportant unless you want to be good at magic, but IN THEORY, it says something. Except . . . 

in the end by ionomycin

What the fuck is wrong with its mental stats?

So first and foremost, we have the issue of Intelligence as a single stat. As you may be aware, IQ is a concept which exists in the real world, and is thought of as a way to measure someone's intelligence. There's just one little problem with it; it's pseudoscientific nonsense. There is no one smartness number which determines how much of a genius you are, and these tests don't measure shit except for how good you are at taking them, which correlates pretty well with how white and affluent you are. Of course, it has then also been used as an excuse to do some horrible racist shit

So with that real-world context in mind, one can see how Intelligence is not only nonsense, but potentially connected to some gross shit. Put a pin in that second part, we'll come back to it, and let's talk about Wisdom instead! Now, of course, Intelligence represents your SMARTNESS NUMBER, which means Wisdom represents your . . . uh . . . seriously, what the fuck is Wisdom? It's sometimes understood as something of an 'intelligence of life,' a more practical foil to the academia-flavored Intelligence. That's profoundly unclear and unsatisfying, though. It's important to characters like clerics and druids, so perhaps it's somehow tied to faith? Does it represent morality? Well, no, that's it's own separate and extremely stupid mechanic in DnD. So ultimately, it ends up being ambiguously different from Intelligence, and both of them mean absolutely nothing in real terms.

Then we have Charisma. This is a stat which governs all of the game's horrible social mechanics. From B/X where it's tied to things like reaction rolls and how many retainers you can control, to more modern iterations where it represents your ability to be scary, kind, and manipulative. (Those have their own problems which this post is also not going to get into.) It ends up determining everything from your leadership abilities to how conniving you are, and that is . . . a frankly baffling simplification of how people socialize.

But enough bitching about what the stats are, let's get into how they're determined! Rolling up your stats to randomly determine their values is a classic method, while modern iterations have emphasized things like "point-buy" systems where you build a character's stats using a resource and mechanic particular to creation. It's a bit messy, especially when the way DnD's stat values work is already a nuisance, but it's fine. Random generation can have its problems too, but it obviously has its place. And all of this is fine.

What isn't fine is how DnD handles racial modifiers. Now, these obviously are not something in your game if you're playing a game which uses race-as-class, but most editions of DnD do in fact use this mechanic, including the most recent iteration, so I'm going to talk about it anyway. And I know plenty of people before me have talked about this, but it's relevant to the discussion at hand regardless.

So racial modifiers in DnD are a major way in which character stats are affected during character creation. In previous editions, these included both positive and negative value changes, but as of 5e they are all positive. Essentially, the species of a character effects their stats in some way, which silently is suggesting that all of these stats have some biological origin. Elves are nimble, everyone wants to fuck Tieflings, and Orcs are strong but stupid because they're . . . oh fucking hell we're doing this, are we?

So let us recall once more that in the real world, the pseudoscientific claim that intelligence is a measurable number has been used to legitimize some racist shit. The tests given to measure it largely measured how prepared someone was to take them, and heavily favored people with the affluence to know how to answer them, which in turn meant that, due to an economic divide along lines of race, there was a disparity in results along lines of race. In particular, this concept was rather popular amongst phrenologists, who were very concerned with the "hierarchy of the races", and who rather liked having a way to pretend to do science while claiming that white people were just the smartest. It goes without saying, they were just a bunch of rich racists who wanted to come up with excuses to call institutional racism "just some science".

So with that in mind, when DnD includes a stat called Intelligence which is some nonsense metric of how ~smart~ someone is, and then ALSO includes different species (which it calls races) and ALSO says that some of them just inherently have more or less Intelligence than others . . . yeah, that's going to carry some fucking implications. And it's gross.

Whew. Okay. So to wrap up my thoughts on DnD, its stat system isn't totally irredeemable, but you need to do some shit to it. The irony of the atrocious Intelligence stat is that many modern versions have a Skill system, which is a much better implementation of the idea. There is no One Smartness Number, but certainly you can be different amounts of smart/experienced at different specific topics and skills.

Like I also said above, I think the idea of a game which tells you mind and body are equally important is perfectly fine. However, I don't think DnD successfully implements this atall, mostly because they don't know what the fuck they are doing when it comes to how people think.

art from Faith Schaffer

The Conclusion, Finally

Alright, just shy of 1300 words about Dungeons and Dragons later and I'm done bitching about it for today. So what has this whole post been trying to get at? Let's come back to what I set out to show: a game's stats effect how you fundamentally interact with and understand the world of a game. Now that we've shown this through a few examples, I would like to ask a follow-up question - why does that matter?

The reason that I think this matters is far too many games fall into not thinking critically about what their stats communicate to a player. Stats are, to reiterate, the major defining mechanical traits of a character, the way in which they are differentiated from anyone else. So to uncritically copy over the template of DnD, a game who's stats are laden with issues to begin with, you miss the opportunity to reiterate the themes or core conceits of a game.

Some games do a sort of halfway attempt at having more evocative stats, keeping DnD-esque stats while adding maybe one or two which are more tonally appropriate or specific to their setting. While this is certainly better than nothing, they still feel largely uninspired. It's much more interesting to think about what is important to a game, and drive that home. And to keep in mind that stats are arbitrary, they're not real. You don't need to attempt to describe every attribute to someone, only the ones which you think matter, grouped however you like.

Alright, next week is definitely going to be the Weary Rust-Knight; this damn post took too much time. (The irony is I did this thinking a class would be too much work . . . sigh.) Also, expect a sister-post to my running horror post on Halloween, talking more about some specific pieces of horror media and the unique lessons they have to teach us for tabletop games. And if you've read all the way through this, thank you! I didn't intend for this blog to immediately become full of philosophical nonsense, but I'm rather enjoying writing it.

1 comment:

  1. Is INT being a measure of formal education any better than just being the Smartness Number?