Toward Qualitative Design?

So, there’s been a ‘manifesto jam‘ over at, 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.

5 thoughts on “Toward Qualitative Design?”

  1. “…no-one can say what those [hit points] mean, except that when you run out you might die.”

    We can say what they mean. We’ve been saying it for years. The problem lies with the player who refuses to accept the definition; or with the DM who fails to consistently apply a meaningful definition.

    I do not mean to detract from your main point by starting a flame war ~ I’m only trying to point out that your argument, if I’ve understood it correctly, is based on a false premise.

    There are plenty of DMs who know what hit points and base attack and level and saving throws ~ all these other abstract get mechanics ~ mean. And we’ve been applying them to good effect. If you understand them and can apply them yourself, the follow on argument loses traction.

    1. Could you explain what you think HP mean, then? To me, they are some vague notion of health (since they require healing), but not one that has any impact on the mechanics until you run out; which means they don’t translate into any meaningful fictional referent. When a player gets hit by an orc’s axe and loses a some HP, what does that mean? For that matter, if the orc misses, from the game’s perspective there’s no difference between a simple miss, a hit that was dodged, one that was blocked, and one that was stopped by armour.

      1. Hit points are a measure of lasting injury sustained by a character (or creature) as a result of a successful attack (or similar event). They are determined by a combination of character’s mass, health and training.

        You can find a very similar definition (and a very good explanation) at this site.

        You are correct that they don’t have a concrete impact on a character’s abilities until they run out. (Although 4th Edition had the “bloodied” condition, but that was probably the only thing it did right.) A simple solution to that is to apply penalties to ability scores as a character’s current hit points fall below a predetermined threshold. Using 5th Edition as an example, you could say that above three-quarters of max HP, a character has no penalty; from one-half to three-quarters of max HP, the character has one exhaustion level; from one-quarter to one-half, two exhaustion levels; and below one-quarter, four exhaustion levels. (Or whatever threshold levels work for your game, with whatever penalties.) (It’s important to apply the same penalties to NPCs and monsters, in order to prevent a death-spiral effect for the players.)

      2. Here’s another thought: what does it matter if the game doesn’t prescribe a certain description of an individual attack roll? Aren’t we making hundreds of such rolls during the course of a game? What benefit do we gain by having that information?

      3. It’s not *necessary*, but I think there are drawbacks when the mechanical effects become too disassociated from what is supposed to be happening in the fiction, which seems to be the case with HP. To be fair, this is partly a matter of taste.

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