Why Do Our Role-Playing Games Still Need Numbers Everywhere?

Why Do Our Role-Playing Games Still Need Numbers Everywhere?

I understand that role-playing video games owe their existence to role-playing tabletop games, and as a result, share many of their predecessor’s customs and traditions. After all, if tabletop games need to simulate action via numeric values, then it was natural for the first video game RPGs to do the same.

But, uh, why are we still doing it in 2011?

Those values were useful in the early days of video game RPGs because electronic games, like their tabletop counterparts, simply weren’t sophisticated enough to work without them. Seeing your character represented as a giant stack of numbers – hit points, damage points, mana points, etc – and then seeing his or her actions represented by those numbers being moved around gave life to the game.

Cold, abstract life, perhaps, but life nonetheless.

Today, though, I’d love to see that baggage cut free. To stop thinking of role-playing characters (or enemies) as a pile of numbers waiting to be chopped down, and to start thinking of them as characters. For developers to follow BioWare’s lead (at least their Mass Effect team’s lead) and do away with the practice of basing your RPG experience on a set of values and start basing it on your decisions and immediate experiences instead.

(I recognise this is an argument that could be applied to many kinds of game, even Madden and FIFA, but for now I’m just talking about RPGs. Indulge me!)

Old-time fans of the genre (and JRPG fans especially) may scream at this, but games like Mass Effect 2 – and to a lesser extent Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas – have already taken large steps in this direction, sweeping much of the number-crunching that was once the lifeblood of an RPG under the rug, letting sophisticated programming take care of it while you worried about more superficial concerns.

Compare, for example, the experience of Mass Effect 2 with that of a more traditional RPG. You’re still doing largely the same things: you’re leading a party, you’re exploring worlds, you’re engaging in dialogue with characters, you’re increasing the strength of your party and gaining access to new and improved equipment along the way.

Yet if you asked somebody to play Mass Effect 2 and then play a more “traditional” RPG – whether Western or Japanese – and they’d tell you it would feel like playing two completely different games, the former’s fast pacing and action sequences contrasting with the latter’s obsession with statistics, percentages, numbers and inventory management.

Whether you like one or the other (or both!) is entirely subjective, but to me, the very purpose (and appeal!) of a role-playing game is to, well, role-play. Create a character and go on an adventure. Like playing dress-ups as a kid, only with (hopefully) better writing and props. I don’t know about you, but my fantasies would involve exploring worlds and kicking arse, not seeing numbers everywhere and juggling inventories.

For those who enjoy RPGs specifically for those numbers, I’m not attacking your pastime of choice. You’re not alone, and there will always be games catering for you. People are still making hardcore vertical shooters and side-scrolling beat-em-ups nearly thirty years after the fact, so you’d imagine the same will be done for stat-heavy role-playing games in the event they go out of style. Especially if Japan has anything to say about it.

But for those like me who enjoy the human side of adventuring – the walking, the driving, the talking and the fighting – but not the mathematical side, I’d love to see a future where more games leave the traditional RPG trappings to the computer and let the player simply role-play.


  • interesting article.

    I think thats why i loved FF8.

    The inventory, the numbers and percentages played a big role compared to other FF’s.

    Junctioning correctly to increase your numbers in different ways to get higher percentage defence and attack against the right enemies.

    It was all research and statistics which made it fun because of the huge role you take on, it felt like you were the programmer/developer, optimising it. although this is what was intended in the game, it felt like you were doing something cool and great that others werent.

  • The numbers offer you more varied experience with the game. It also makes things interesting since you cant just pick up any weapon and be a master at it.

    Its kind of boring to have a character than just picks up anything and is able to use it, or picks up armour and has it just be like skin….the numbers give weight, advantages and disadvantages to the game.

    I felt that Mass Effect 2 was too dumbed down and shooter-orientated in comparison to the first one…without the numbers, you lose a certain amount of control over your character and you can’t make it your own…rather you take the character the game gives you.

    So the numbers offer you more of a chance to make a character truely unique and your own, rather than just slotting into someone else’s idea of what that character should be like.

  • TL,DR: You can hide the numbers without removing customization/options etc. You just have to use other descriptive means to represent abilities, strengths and weaknesses.

    I have asked this question before, and never actually got a response like CloneTrooper above, so I wanna explain more what I’d think about this.

    Numbers in any RPG (tabletop or computer) are a representation of what we imagine the fictional reality would be like. If we consider Lord of the Rings as a model that I hope everyone will be familiar with, the “reality” of that universe is that Legolas is an elf, dexterous and slight, so good with a bow and small weapons. He’s not good with the heavy axe that the dwarves carry, and he’s not a mage.

    This is not because Legolas, the character, has 20 points in dexterity and only 5 in magic or intelligence. Its because he is a character/person who is gifted in particular ways. When translating that idea into a game, we use numbers to represent the differences. Its obvious why computers are so good at RPGs of that sort when you think of it this way. Real swords do not roll a dice to see how hard they chop, but there are a huge number of real-world variables that a dice roll simulates.

    What modern sophisticated videogame RPGs could do is not to eliminate those numbers–in fact a computer game can’t do without numbers. Instead you’d simply hide them. Most of us wouldn’t call GTA4 a RPG, but each of the weapons has a numerical value of damage associated with it. We all learn that the M16 type rifle is more accurate and damaging than the earlier machine guns, without numbers flashing up on our screen or a stat breakdown in an inventory panel. RPGs could do the same thing.

    This doesn’t mean that there is no choice about customisation or that all the equipment will be equally usable by all characters, the way CloneTrooper is saying. If I spend the first hour of the game using a bow instead of a sword, then when that cool new crossbow drops, I’ll be able to use it much better than if I didn’t practice on the bow for that time. You don’t need to show the player the numbers of skill points or whatever to achieve this anymore. So basically the player will still be able to make decisions, he will just simply use fiction “My character is an archer” rather than a mechanical definition “My character uses weapon type seven, eight and eleven.”

  • If the game had no combat, I could see RPGs without numbers working. You could even have “story combat”, meaning your choices result in immediate success or failure without any number crunching behind the scenes. However! If numbers are programmed into the game, I want to see them. Otherwise, when I make my choices of which weapon, which power, which skill, etc, I might accidentally choose the weapon that gives me +2% damage instead of +10% accuracy. Or the developer has to make all choices strictly equal, resulting in a blandness that you quickly realize is unsatisfying when you can’t seem to make your character better “or worse”.

  • I’m glad Plunkett doesn’t speak for gamers as a whole or we’d be looking at the death of the good RPG, or well the death of the RPG

  • Whilst there is a market for more casual RPG’s there will always be gamers who like to plan and strategise and plot there course through a RPG in ways that only numbers can provide.
    Visually, HD graphics provides a way for games to represent the numbers visually (health bar, etc.) but I don’t know if that will be able to replace things like the EXP sumamry and levels which give you a clear idea of progress and accomplishment.

  • While I do agree with not needing to see numbers all over the screen (such as damage, and misses and all the like) Inventory and stat management (to me atleast) is a vital part of rpgs, I always enjoyed researching builds, mixing and matching stats and skills to get different outcomes..

    Having no inventory management though, to me, seems like it would be incredibly boring, unless I am just misinterpreting the statement, because if I don’t have to choose what gun (or sword) or armour, any of this stuff, I might aswell just play any other fps.. (I enjoy the fallout series and mass effect mostly, that’s why I use fps as an example)

    But as you said, it’s all subjective, I enjoy changing my character, and actually investing time into it.. I dunno how hard this would be to implement in games (on consoles) with limited disc space (xbox mostly) but how about an option when you start the game: Complex or Simple? (open to new names :P) Complex, you get number crunching, simple you make choices such as you like sniping, or sneaking, or anything, and the game updates the stats as you level according.

    I don’t know how you could implement that with equipment though…

  • Numbers are a reward on themselves. If you upgrade a weapon in a modern RPG you might notice you take old enemies in less shots than you used to. However, new, more powerful enemies will take more or less the same amount of time to take down that the old ones with the unupgraded weapon. Except on the times were the upgrade translates as flashier effects or new functions, upgrading or leveling up is something necessary and mechanical, not exciting.

    Numbers speak in definite ways, on the other hand: “OMG! I’m dealing 200 more damage than the old weapon!” or “500000 hp? how the hell I’m supposed to take that down with my 50hp-per-swing weapon?” etc, and there’s fun in crunching numbers, especially when you have different choices such as fusing, synthesizing, etc.

Show more comments

Log in to comment on this story!