Jul 27


7 Rules for Designing Great Stats

Posted by: Dan Fabulich | Comments (8)

As we discussed in an earlier article, if you want to write a long interactive novel that doesn’t suck, you’ll need to make to make heavy use of numeric scores or “stats.”

Indeed, if you merge branches aggressively as we recommend, the entire game will be about the stats; every decision will update the stats and test earlier stats to make earlier decisions meaningful.

In this article, we discuss a few techniques for designing great stats.

Rule 1: Don’t Just Use Skills

New authors frequently make their stats nothing more than a list of skills that the player (the hero) will need over the course of her adventures.

For example, in Choice of Broadsides, we have skills like Sailing, Gunnery, and Leadership. In Choice of the Vampire, you can use Stealth, Streetwise, and Lore, among others.

But when your stats are all about skills, then every question in your game starts to look like this:

A challenge! How will you overcome it?

A) Use Skill X
B) Use Skill Y
C) Use Skill Z

It is definitely possible to make these choices interesting. Typically we do it by dropping hints that each challenge has a “best way” to beat it, but only if a particular skill is high enough. If we have some challenges that require X, some challenges that require Y, and some that require Z, players will be forced to choose whether to use their best skill or the skill most suited to the challenge.

But this technique can only take you so far. Making the same risk assessment over and over gets boring fast!

A good game should force the player to decide what she wants to do at least as often as she decides which option would work best.

What do we suggest in addition to a few skills?

Rule 2: Include Personality Traits

Ask the player the sorts of questions that might appear in a personality quiz. These questions rarely have a right answer, and they give players the freedom to role play another person by giving answers totally unlike themselves. (Be sure to make these personality traits meaningful by having them affect the story later on!)

Here’s a few personality traits you might consider:

  • Calmness
  • Gentleness
  • Compassion
  • Spirituality
  • Honesty
  • Happiness
  • Confidence
  • Selfishness
  • Cynicism
  • Stubbornness

In Choice of the Dragon, we chose to make some stats act as both personality traits and skills. For example, your dragon’s Brutality represents both your dragon’s cruelty (a personality trait) and your dragon’s strength in direct combat. Similarly, your Cunning represents both dishonesty and intelligence.

Rule 3: Include Morality Traits

Force the player to face some moral dilemmas, where the common rules of morality seem to contradict, and keep track of the player’s answers with morality scores.

(Perhaps morality is just a special type of personality trait, but it deserves a separate section because it’s a great way to develop interesting choices.)

The Ultima games had a rich set of morality traits (called “virtues”), allowing players to choose between:

  • Honesty
  • Compassion
  • Valor
  • Justice
  • Sacrifice
  • Honor
  • Spirituality
  • Humility

Ultima IV begins by asking the player to answer seven moral dilemmas, pitting these virtues against each other:

Thou art sworn to uphold a Lord who participates in the forbidden torture of prisoners. Each night their cries of pain reach thee. Dost thou:

A) Show Compassion by reporting the deeds, or
B) Honor thy oath and ignore the deeds?

UPDATE: If you do want to add morality traits, we recommend using multiple virtues like “Honesty” and “Compassion” and not use an overall morality score like “Good” or “Evil”. We prefer moral dilemmas, where it’s hard to decide what’s right and wrong; when I’m literally choosing between two options, one obviously Good and one obviously Evil, I don’t think about the decision as much.

Rule 4: Include Stats about the World

Most of the stats you see on the stats screen are the sort of numbers you’d see on a character sheet in a game of Dungeons & Dragons; they’re all about your character. But it’s good to include some stats that your character can influence and that aren’t just personal attributes.

For example, you might have stats about other non-player characters, including some of their skills and personality traits, as well as their relationships to the main player character and to each other.

You can also include stats about society and culture; is the town becoming more good or evil? What’s my reputation? How much do people fear me? How much do they love me?

You can measure the progress towards a big event: how much time is passing, how close we are to winning the war, how many resources are left, etc.

Stats about the world are so important that some people think character stats are really just a small part of the game’s “world simulation” or “world model.” After all, the character is one small part of the game’s world.

Rule 5: Give the Player Expendable Resources

Give the player five magic potions, or 200 gold, or any other kind of resource, asking the player to decide how best to use it.

A common resource is how many wounds the player character can take before dying; in Dragon, certain choices cause your dragon to take a permanent wound. If your dragon suffers more than a certain number of wounds, your dragon dies.

Rule 6: Create Good Alternatives

If you want the decisions in your game to be interesting, you’ll have to present the player with several equally appealing alternatives. If one of those choices looks considerably better or worse than the others, then players won’t have as much fun making the decision. (This idea is discussed at greater length in another article.)

Since most of the choices in your game will be about the stats, it’s especially important not to make one stat much better or worse than the others. Make sure each of your stats is equally useful over the course of the story.

ChoiceScript provides a nice way to make alternatives equally appealing: you can make two stats “oppose” one another. You can see this in Choice of the Dragon, where we make Cunning and Honor opposites, or in Choice of the Vampire, where Superstition and Rationalism are opposites. If you use this technique, you’ll still need to make sure you sometimes check to see whether Superstition is high, and sometimes check to see whether Superstition is low.

Note that it’s much more natural to have opposite personality traits (e.g. Cynicism vs. Naiveté) than it is to have opposite skills. (Why does my strength decrease whenever I get smarter?) This is another reason why you shouldn’t only have skills in your list of stats.

WARNING: It’s surprisingly easy to mistakenly write a stat that’s completely useless; we’ve done it almost every time we’ve written a game. We start off with a list of stats when we begin writing, then discover at some point that we never really used one of our planned stats. For example, when we began writing Choice of the Dragon, we planned to have a Loyalty stat, measuring whether your goblin and human servants would do your bidding, but we turned out not to need it. Useless stats make the game a lot less fun for your players, so be sure to fix them as soon as you notice them.

Rule 7: Get Creative

We try to avoid the traditional RPG stats (strength, dexterity, intelligence, charisma), partly because they’re all skills (what’s good about having a low strength?) and partly because they’re overdone.

Instead, see if you can come up with more unusual stats for your game, or at least unusual names.

One of our favorite reviews of Choice of the Dragon wrote, “That’s right. This game has a f*cking disdain meter. Seriously. It actually keeps track of how much you don’t give a sh!t about puny humans and their laughable ways. Racking up those disdain points gave me way more joy than a 20-minute long multiple choice adventure game has any right to, and for that I raise my leathery wing to it in a salute.”

Here’s a few stats you may not have considered:

  • Sycophancy
  • Seduction
  • Courtesy
  • Blood Pressure
  • Shame
  • Temperance
  • Popularity
  • Retentiveness
  • Sheen
  • Snark
  • Proprioception
  • Tidiness
  • Thrift
  • Filth
  • Blasphemy
  • Introspection
  • Imagination
  • Gluttony
  • Weight
  • Torque
  • Logistics
  • Fate

And that’s not even considering any of the thousands of unusual skills your game might include.

Suggest more in the comments!

Bonus Rule 8: Turn Stats into Goals

UPDATE: CPFace’s comment is a particularly good one, so I’ll just pull it up into the main post wholesale:

It’s worth noting that a sure-fire way to make a linear game replayable is to give the player a stat or stats that represent “goal scores”. When I first found Choice of the Dragon, I replayed it several times to see if I could maximize my wealth — there aren’t many places in the story where it matters, but it’s fun to see how much you can get. Likewise with Choice of Broadsides, I played a few times to try and make Captain as young as possible.

Even better is if the player has multiple goals to work towards that often come into conflict with each other — you can replay to maximize any individual goal, or try for the greatest overall combination.

Dan Hemmens adds, “open-ended stats can constitute ends in and of themselves (I wonder how much of a naive/psychopathic/sycophantic character I can play this time).”

Mobile Armored Marine uses this technique to great effect, awarding you for completing the game with either an extremely high Light score or an extremely high Dark score.

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