The legacy of Statistics


Since the birth of role-playing games the core statistics have become enmeshed and entrenched into almost every set of rules. On the surface it seems reasonable to attach values for a character's "vital talents" and use these as the basis for building a repertoire of actions. Unfortunately, in most systems, the statistics are a source of imbalance, create unnecessary complexity, and stifle creativity.

On the surface a statistic is meant to measure something about a character: for instance how strong or smart they are. If you have ever tried to measure someone's strength or intelligence you quickly realize that the definition creates a problem. You see both these things can manifest differently on different tasks. It is the specific task that you really end up measuring, not some arbitrary underlying tendency. Historically this has been ignored by the hobby and players get a warm-fuzzy feeling when they put a 16 beside the intelligence of their character. This one measurement then adds to everything they do that is attached to this characteristic. This forces the game to roll an X modified by a Y. Unnecessary, complex, and wrong. If you get good at a judo throw you learn to do it your way, using your strength, your height, and your weight. Strength doesn't matter. Height doesn't matter. Weight doesn't matter. Skill doesn't matter. What matters is how demonstrably good you are at performing the technique. Sure all of the attributes (Strength, Height, Weight, centre of balance, Skill, hip separation, balance) factor in to the action, but trying to codify it or more egregiously, just saying it is all based on "Strength + Level" is stupid and unbalancing.

Fighters are strong or quick, wizards are smart, bards are pretty, and priests are wise. They have to be. Otherwise they are not a very good X. This is the problem with the base structure of all games based off this model. The X + Y mechanism creates more basic arithmetic at the table and has no positive effect on the game. Now, not only does having to have a strong or quick fighter force players into making decisions about their character, but it also pidgeon-holes them into other choices. As soon as you create mathematical relationships between core statistics and the mechanical actions of the game, you force optimization upon the table.

While optimization strategies are essential to many kinds of games, imposing them on the character creation process begins to exclude new and novel combinations. The first few times around a new gaming system are the most fun, but once you finish playing all of the optimal and slightly-less-than-optimal combinations, you begin to see the same characters at the table over and over again. Racial "options" are usually just inducements to play different classes when specific races add specific bonuses to core statistics.

I am fortunate to play at some tables where players will take on sub-optimal combinations. My question is, why should they have to? Why do we need to have an X + Y mechanism when "Y" is simply a gross, inaccurate simplification of some underlying nature -- a nature that can be trained and shaped. What would happen if you started a new D&D game where you replaced every stat bonus with a generic +2? What kinds of characters would your players make? You might have overweight fighters, or foul-tempered bards who rankle those they meet (but have the voice of an angel). You might find a better game.

Controversial as ever, Gil. Some interesting thoughts, which I will mull.

Another interesting thought that occurs, is whether Gamegrene, like vinyl, is a format that could see a revival! ;-)