Dice, Damn Dice and Statistics

This article is part 3 of 4 in the series Role-playing Game Rules

I think I’ll stop with the puns now1, and dive right into today’s topic.

In Role-playing games, the character you play is described — as far as the rules are concerned — by a number of stats on a character sheet. And already I’ve probably written the wrong thing, because stats in RPGs usually refer to a specific subtype of the stats I meant.

Broadly speaking, your character has a number of different types of, hmm, let’s call them properties instead2. Some of them are innate, others are attained through various means, and each controls a different aspect of what you can and cannot do with a character.

If we take a look back at the origins of RPGs, table-top wargames, then some of these properties become immediately understandable, as they regulate e.g. how fast your character can move, how hard it can attack, and against what kind of other characters it might be most effective when attacking. Such properties tend to still exist in RPGs, and are lifted more or less verbatim from wargames.

A good example of such properties are hit points. Something like hit points exists in just about every RPG, and represents how much punishment your character can take. Each attack, if successful, subtracts a certain amount from your total hit points, and your character typically faints or dies when they reach zero. In wargames by contrast, you tend to move around army units with a certain amount of soldiers, and each attack, if successful, kills off or wounds a number of them. Your army unit is typically considered beaten if there are no more soldiers left. There are variations, but I’m sure you can see the similarity.

Given the history of RPGs, most character properties revolve around topics also covered in wargames. The movement speed, for example, may be used when determining how long it’ll take your character to travel from one city to another, but may also be referred to in combat, in much the same manner as in wargames.

Glory, an American Civil War game by GMT
Image via Wikipedia

There are some character properties that have evolved beyond a similar use wargames, though. Consider an army unit of engineers. Such a unit tends to have relatively low fighting power, but the additional properties that they can construct or destroy offensive or defensive structures on the battlefield.

Role-playing games have extrapolated from such special properties a class of properties usually termed skills or talents. And it makes sense for them to do so: when you look at an army unit, after all, it doesn’t matter as much if an individual soldier has experience in any specific field. They could of course train the whole unit, transferring their abilities — but micromanagement of all the abilities of all members of an army unit in this manner would soon blow a game out of manageable proportions.

When you’re considering a single person, however, such fields of experience become both more manageable, and gain in importance.

Skills aside, RPGs tend to view a character in more detail than an army unit is represented in a wargame, for the same twin reasons of manageability and the importance of details as outlined above. More specifically, many RPGs tend to separate out innate properties of a character — such as their strength, height and weight. On the other hand they handle derived properties that are used in conjuction with individual game rules, such as the aforementioned hit points.

  1. No promises. []
  2. Mostly because I’ve not come across this term in connection with RPGs. []