Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Statistically speaking

Stats are a great convention in role-playing games. They allow players to distinguish between strong fighters and smart wizards, wise priests and dextrous thieves, with a minimum of effort and as a game mechanic directly feed into the class and skill-based systems that I have discussed previously. Dungeons & Dragons has its Str, Int, Wis, Dex, Con and Cha, Fallout has its SPECIAL system, and so on. I bet 99% of you know what the D&D terms I just wrote are abbreviations for, without necessarily having played the role-playing game itself, because the stat systems have become an equal convention in computer RPGs.

There's a recent discussion on rec.games.roguelike.angband, started by the new maintainer of Angband about making Cha (short for Charisma, for those of you who don't know) more important. The Cha stat at the moment just affects the prices in shops in-game, and has little impact once the player starts getting a multi-million gold piece purse. Andrew Sidwell has (correctly) seen that there's not much of a point having a stat that is useless for most of the game, and the suggestions made have fall into either getting rid of the stat completely, or increasing its in-game utility (or a radical few suggesting no change at all).

I've got a slightly different perspective, having gone through a similar thought process for Unangband. A big part of the problem is that for a large part of the game of Angband, there are no interesting choices to be made around stats. Stats are affected in 3 ways: various monster attacks can drain your stats, and force you to buy stat recovery potions; you can find potions of gain stat in the dungeon, which permanently increase your stat; and you can find various items which increase your stat while you are wearing the item.

And most of the time, there's only one sensible option. There is little to no incentive to not drink a potion of Intelligence for instance (although Andrew has added some potions from Eyangband which increase one stat at the expense of another). You may end up with choices around which stat improvement item to wear, but it'll almost inevitably be a ring of Con, along with (maybe) a spell stat item. The only points at which stat choices are important is character creation. And its not a particularly interesting set of choices there, either, because each class finds one stat so much more useful than the others.

Unangband has a different way of doing stats. In Un, each spell casting class has 3 separate stats that affect spell casting: for learning spells, gaining mana and reducing spell failure %. All stats are also useful for warrior type classes: e.g. Int reduces the chance of thrown (or fired - not yet implemented) items breaking and increases to-hit, Wis increases armour class, Cha does 'crowd control'. There's two different stats that contribute to player hit points (Con and Siz) but each has differing side-effects, that makes warriors prefer Siz and spell casters prefer Con. There's an additional stat Agility that adds to speed.

And there are no stat gain potions: instead you gain a set number of stat gains every couple of levels to distribute as you wish.

But how did Angband end up in a position where a game-play mechanic doesn't have much of an in-game impact. Stats are made to seem so important in Angband that a fair amout of screen real estate is devoted to displaying them. And Angband is not the only computer RPG out there that makes this decision.

A key point to make, is that stats are an RPG convention and its possible that like other conventions I've attacked, they may not make the most sense in a computer game setting. Stats are a great short cut to starting to develop a character for the purpose of role-playing, and as I've pointed out previously, not a heck of a lot of role-playing actually occurs in computer games. And more importantly, they are a way of distinguishing different characters from each other.

So why have stats in a single-character game at all?

Stats kind of make sense in games where you control multiple characters. You want to differentiate each character as much as possible, and if you've already agreed with me and got rid of classes and skills in the game, then stats are probably the only way you have of doing this.

But in a single player game, you don't need to make this distinction. You're you, and your distinguished from everything else in the game by virtue of the fact you don't have to kill yourself or pick yourself up (Or as I've seen in some .sig files: roguelikes are about killing letters to collect punctuation).

So the primary functions of stats are useless in this environment. Instead, you should be directly exposing the game-mechanics to the player. If a ring of Strength (+3) gives +5 to hit and increases the character's carrying capacity by 25 lbs, call it a ring of Strength (+5 to hit, +25 lbs) instead. At the start of the game, roll-up carrying capacity, to-hit and to-dam bonus and spell failure chance directly. You don't need to worry about these abstract and ill-defined concepts of stats to confuse the player.

All you end up doing with stats is forcing the player to understand and memories tables of numbers in order to figure out the weird and non-intuitive stat break points that you've developed as a part of the game.

So get rid of stats completely. Statistically speaking, I'm sure you'll feel even more liberated.

[Edit: as usual, there's a big follow up discussion in rec.games.roguelike.development here]

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