Tuesday, April 26, 2022

The Long & Short of RPG Stats

Since the dawn of roleplaying games many have relied on two forms of game stats for adversaries and other elements requiring definition in relation to game mechanics. Long-form stats usually reside within the rulebook pages with similar reference material; the typical bestiary chapter for fantasy roleplaying games. Sometimes supplements use them, too. Adventures often rely more on short-form stats distilled from their more detailed cousins. These serve as quick, in-game reference without having to drag out the rulebook. New monsters appearing in adventures often get short stats in game text with long-form stats and more elaborate description in an appendix. Although I admit both long and short stats have their place in roleplaying game rulebooks, I’m starting to tend toward short stats or – horror of horrors – no stats at all in my own setting and adventure materials.

(Of course I realize not all roleplaying games rely on such rigid concepts as stats – the preponderance of new game innovations in the 21st century offers numerous other ways to parse the traditional tabletop roleplaying game experience – but I’m an ornery curmudgeon with a foundation in and a fondness for earlier games, though I try, not always successfully, to explore and appreciate newer forms.)

Early incarnations of Dungeons & DragonsAD&D and my favored B/X D&D – used long stat formats in their rulebooks and sourcebooks with short, paragraph-sized stat summaries in adventures. Certainly other games of that period used short or long stats (or both) as they felt best suited their games. Old School Renaissance games (OSR, or whatever you want to call them) emulating the early fantasy roleplaying game ideals tend to use long/short stat conventions of their inspirational sources. Even such later products like West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game relied heavily on long stats in core books and its numerous sourcebooks, with short, “paragraph” stats serving as reminders in adventures.

(Classic Traveller has, perhaps, the shortest short stats of any game, using an alpha-numeric sequence to indicate core stats, the order of which one had to remember, often followed by a few basic skill modifiers and some equipment. Granted, one’s character sheet and starship stats could consume several pages of forms, but these served the players more than a harried gamemaster referencing stats at the table.)

Theoretically one could run an adventure and reference an adversary’s stats from the rulebook or wing it based on a description (such as “Fighter 1” or even just “F1”). In the past I’ve jotted down stats on individual cards for easier reference, especially for game elements seeing lots of use. But for the most part long stats establish a game element in a rulebook or sourcebook, while short stats serve as reminders in adventures to cut down on referencing the core rules (assuming one’s not doing that already for other issues of game mechanics).

Stats define a story element in precise game terms. This degree of definition seems necessary in competitive games where some folks might fear others could cheat by not following the rules. It sometimes fuels adversarial tables where players and gamemasters bicker about outcomes in the game related to stats. But many see stats – like other rules – as guidelines in crafting a fulfilling roleplaying game experience. We’re often trying to balance the “roleplaying” with the “game.” I’m one of those roleplaying gamers who doesn’t mind fudging a die roll or playing fast and loose with an adversary’s stats to create a more engaging story outcome for everyone at the table. Certainly stats are good guidelines for what’s possible within the scope of the rules and in defining relative power between adversaries and characters, but they shouldn’t slow down the game.

So it makes sense I’m not a fan of long-format stats. I’ll take the bare minimum to define a game element, but I have no need to overwhelm myself with long stats for everything in a game setting. Gamemasters can feel obliged to read, understand, and become familiar with all the rules for a particular game; long stats, even for reference, pile on numerous additional categories to define game elements and emphasize the importance of authoritative rules over freeform guidelines.

I’ll admit I sometime became frustrated at West End Games because long-format stats took up so much room in books with piles of values to adjudicate the more complex rules. Did we really need to know all four ranges for every weapon? The exact number of crew for efficient operation...and the bare minimum skeleton crew? The first edition of the game wasn’t too involved, but the second edition catered more to experienced roleplaying gamers who wanted more “crunch” in their rules, even rules designed for a more cinematic style of play. Every sourcebook featuring the major Star Wars heroes had extensive long-form stats of the character during the period covered in the supplement; a nightmare not only of tracking changes from past releases, but of exercising judgment in how a character grew. Stats were so important that a large part of the infamous Star Wars RPG Style Guide I assembled consisted of the proper long and short stat formats for various aliens, creatures, starships, vehicles, planets, droids, weapons, and gamemaster characters. I realize long stats are necessary to fill out a page count – a key concern with corporate publishingbut I can think of other, more inspirational and useful material to include in that space.

The Star Wars Roleplaying Game also used short, paragraph-format stats (and we had style guides for those, too). These usually included the phrase “All stats are 2D except” followed by a list of improved attributes, skills, and die codes. Perhaps the most useful element in this regard was the second edition inclusion of a chart defining each die code in subjective terms: 4D professional level, 6D best in a city, 8D best on a planet, 10D best in a sector, etc. I also used short stat formats on my personal stat reference cards; when West End began releasing some products with sheets of perforated (and nicely illustrated) stat cards, short stats generally fit better.

As a game designer I dislike long stats...probably because my strengths are source material and adventures, not rules. In past projects like Pulp Egypt and The Greydeep Marches I used my system-neutral Any-System Key or Any OSR Key to offer a broad, descriptive framework gamers could use to generate suitable stats for their own games. Such generic systems never gained much traction beyond my own use in my system-neutral source materials and adventures. These relied on gamemasters using their own judgment in relation to their preferred game rules...certainly some added responsibility but a byproduct of reading and understanding the overall setting. In developing my current fantasy roleplaying game setting project I debated the entire range of possibilities related to stats. Should I use a generalized OSR format? Should I return to the Any OSR Key descriptive system? Or do I just avoid stats altogether and allow gamemasters to judge from the text how to handle stats for a given monster or non-player-character (offering, as I have in the past, lined areas for hand-written or form-filled PDF notes)? I’m tempted to go with the latter, presenting information in the textual description of a game element gamemasters can draw upon in determining their own stats. For instance, for a “goblin scout” gamemasters might simply look up their game’s standard “goblin” stats with some variation for weapons and armor; or they might determine their own game values based on standard stats but incorporating relevant details from the text.

Stats remain one factor in a roleplaying game’s balance weighing “story” against “rules.” Different players prefer different proportions in their games. More recent games with innovative designs can de-emphasize stats and more traditional game mechanics; these offer different roleplaying game experiences as crafted in rulebooks and supplements, by merging setting elements and game mechanics and balancing the two according to designers’ vision. My own preferences for play and design favor “story” over “rules.” I’d like to think my source material and adventures invite others to interpret them to suit the play style they prefer.



2 comments:

  1. I loved the short stat blocks in the D6 books. I do think one area Star Wars could've helped GMs was to have some generic templates based on ... competency? "green", "professional", "elite", etc. Another blogger was talking about something similar recently: https://d66kobolds.blogspot.com/2022/04/three-statlines-for-all-npcs.html

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  2. Using the stat block as a character sheet is what Nicolas Dessaux did with Searcher of the Unknown isn't it.

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