So, there’s been a ‘manifesto jam‘ over at ich.io, which includes all sorts of stuff, both thoughtful and funny. One piece in particular piqued my interest: ‘The Inhumanity of Hitpoints‘. Basically, the argument seems to be that common videogame mechanics reflect an obsession with quantity over quality — the cultural tyranny of something like Weber’s ‘instrumental rationality’. It’s a good (and appropriately provocative) manifesto, and you should read it if these issues interest you.
‘Inhumanity of Hitpoints’ is a better articulation of some ideas that have been kicking around in my head in an inchoate form for years. For example: recently, I’ve been looking at pen and paper RPG design, and I can see applications for this idea.
First, a necessary digression. P&P RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons are interesting (and very tricky) from a design perspective, because of the odd way that players interact with the game’s fictional world. In conventional games, fiction is implied by the mechanics — the physical (or virtual) nuts and bolts of the game. Armies get moved around the board, money changes hands, meeple are sent to hazily-defined sweatshops, whatever.
In an RPG, players can often interact with the fictional world directly. This is the freeform, ‘playing make-believe’ aspect of RPGs that makes them unique. You say ‘I do this’, and it happens. So there is actually a complex set of possible interactions between players, mechanics and fiction (I owe this notion to Vincent Baker, who blogs about it here).
OK. Let’s say we’re playing D&D, and a dragon decides to burn your character to a crisp. Standard dragon behaviour. In that game, I, the Dungeon Master, would say ‘the dragon makes a breath attack. Roll a save vs. breath weapon.’ * If you succeed, you take half damage. Lucky you! Either way, your character loses a chunk of hit points.
Looking at this from a fictional perspective, the question is: what the fuck just happened? Dragon breathes fire. OK. Then… something happens. We can assume your character is trying to avoid the fire, but they’re clearly not very good at it, and it has no effect on the fiction whatsoever — only the damage inflicted by the fire is registered by the system. Except, this isn’t fictional either, since it’s just a number of hit points, and no-one can say what those mean, except that when you run out you might die. We, at the table, might try to add some narration to give this event some colour (‘you dive to the ground; the flame scorches your back; you leap to your feet!’), but the system is extremely unhelpful (incidentally, it also tends to remove agency from the player, both over the fiction and over the mechanics, which is why I prefer active/reactive defending, but that’s another issue).**
This kind of abstraction creates another problem, because once things become abstract, you cannot parse their significance from the fiction. What are my chances of surviving a dragon’s breath? I don’t know, what type of dragon is it and what is your saving throw stat? What hits harder, an ogre or a troll? The Monster Manual tells me it’s the ogre, by a small margin, but the troll has many more HP and hits three times as often, so it’s actually much, much more dangerous. Both are the same size, and the troll is unarmed while the ogre has a massive club, so you’d never know by looking at them.
In this situation, meta-game knowledge and constant quantitative balancing (how odd that we take this very strange and frequently game-breaking necessity for granted!) become tools for averting disaster. In other words: you trust that the DM sends an appropriate challenge your way (‘appropriate’ begs all kinds of questions), or you rely on hints from the DM, game context, the Monster Manual, or previous encounters to parse the monster’s capabilities. So many problems start to emerge when the fiction becomes untethered from the rest of the game. In videogame RPGs, things aren’t quite as bad, but problems remain: for example, as you advance, enemies become quantitatively weak and so become too easy, or are quantitatively balanced and feel samey and gamey. The Elder Scrolls games have struggled against this problem for many years, with mixed success.
D&D isn’t always like this; I’ve picked an extreme example to show just how boring and inhuman abstract, quantitative systems can be. Other types of games work a bit differently from RPGs, but, as we’ve seen from the hitpoint manifesto, the fictional disconnect still occurs. Some people, some of the time, might actually want abstraction– consider all those dreadful ‘eurogames’ — but at the very least, qualitative design deserves more exploration, and emphasising fiction is a part of that.
I’m also not saying that quantitative abstractions should be banished utterly from games. Being able to measure how far a player is from a fail state, or whether a character can succeed at something, is very useful sometimes. The problem is, to paraphrase Guy Debord, when the originally instrumental Condottiere of quantity ends up waging the war for itself.
As an aside, check out Za/Um’s blog about their game Disco Elysium, which seems to promise a more human-oriented approach to computer RPG design — though something like HP is still present, I think.
*In 5th Edition D&D, this is now a Dexterity save, which would be marginally more descriptive if ‘dexterity’ were a word that meant ‘agility’, which it does not, outside of RPGs. This isn’t just pedantry on my part: the connection between the mechanics and the fiction was historically so tenuous that people didn’t need to know what ‘dexterity’ actually meant; it was just a number that improved some other numbers.
**Someone will be along presently to tell me that actually, I don’t understand the D&D action economy and player agency is handled in a different, asynchronous fashion. Well, sort of. ‘I do a “full defend” ‘ or whatever (if you have initiative!) isn’t much better. In most cases, player behaviour is still canalised into vague, quantitative mush.