Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Hiding Rolls and Statistics from Players

Jerry Stratton, June 20, 2004

On newsgroups, discussion groups, and even occasionally in gaming magazines, I hear people recommending a more “realistic” gaming environment where players do not know their character’s numbers. Because characters don’t know “ability scores” or “survival points”, their players shouldn’t know either. The referee lets the players know when their characters are successful, and describes how successful they think they were. Survival points (or hit points, or damage points) are described solely in terms of “feeling lightly wounded” or “feeling heavily wounded.”

Freed from their numbers, players are thus more able to get “into” role-playing their characters.

Players are not characters

It’s true that in the “real world” we don’t know how many survival points we have or whether we rolled a 5 or a 15 when trying to perform a skill. But in the real world we don’t have to. We have lived with ourself for all of our life and know ourselves pretty well. A player is not going to have that kind of familiarity knowing their character for only a few hours a week--and filtered through another person’s non-quantifiable descriptions to boot!

It’s true that knowing the number gives players some information about their character that their character would not already know. But in “real life” there are so many things that characters would know about their own state that players can never know. It is a necessary trade-off. Survival points, attack rolls, skill rolls, and even defense rolls if you use them, are designed to accomodate player “understanding” of the state of their characters. Take them away and the players know even less about their characters than the meager amount they knew before.

Knowing less about the state of their characters makes it that much more difficult to effectively role-play them, and that much more difficult to have fun role-playing them.

Survival points, attack rolls, and skill rolls do little more than allow the players to know a little bit of what their characters would know instinctively. Characters would know when they need to rest. They would know how difficult or easy it is to successfully attack their opponents, and how difficult or easy it is for their opponents to successfully attack them.

Survival points are not wounds

Another problem is that game masters need to be extremely insightful about how they describe the characters’ survival point loss to their players. Survival points and similar systems generally do not measure wounds directly. They measure luck, skill, pain, endurance, and anything else that keeps the characters going in the story.

Describing a character’s survival points in words rather than numbers means a lot more than simply saying that a character is “staggering” or “barely able to walk”. A character can easily have one survival point and be perfectly fine. Sometimes it takes many wounds to kill a person, sometimes it only takes one.

A character with positive survival points is never at death’s door, never almost dead. They are as alert and capable as if they had their full survival points.

Survival points don’t measure how badly a character is hurt, they measure how likely the character is to survive in the story. They can’t be described simply as a level of hurts.

In real life, you know exactly how many deadly blade wounds you can take before dying: one.

Similarly, failures at attempting a task are not always because the character didn’t know the right way of doing things. It could also be that they didn’t take enough time--that they rushed the job. Or that they were distracted. The roll doesn’t tell us, only the role-playing does. But the roll does give the player clues, and knowledge of the roll makes it that much easier to role-play the character’s “failure”.

Characters are not players

Obviously, characters do not think that they have “survival points”. They will not talk in terms of how many survival points they have left, nor in how well they rolled on a d20 when trying to break into a safe. Gods & Monsters does not have rules to decide why a character failed or why they lost survival points. That’s up to the player and guide. The players can choose to say that, on a failed pick locks, that they failed because they made a mistake, that they failed because the lock was too difficult, or that they failed because they were distracted... the description is up to the players (of whom the guide is one).

The numbers assist them in role-playing their description.

Players know so little about their characters’ worlds that taking away their only quantifiable link and replacing it with a subjective one that is not even of their choosing will, for most players, hinder role-playing. Of course, every group is different and you may find otherwise in your group, but consider carefully what you are losing when you “take away the numbers.”

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