Let’s assume you’re playing one of the many roleplaying games that gives you a character, with stats and skills or abilities on your sheet, and these things have ratings, and when you want to do something in the game, these things get involved.
Some games have very few of these stats to choose from, and some have a lot. I’m concerned with ones you actively choose between using, during play, so stuff that’s passive (hit points, encumbrance, etc.) doesn’t really count for this discussion.
Anyway, there’s some interesting things that come up when you decide to have a game have a lot to choose from vs. a few and I wanted to talk about that.
First, the reason to have stats is to actually produce some kind of effect in play. If you have stats like, “Fight Monsters” and “Paint Wagons” and the game has a lot of fighting monsters and no time to be painting wagons, it’s not really a choice of what you’re going to use in play.
This is true whether you only have 3-5 stats/skills/traits/whatever, or if you have 50 of them.
A lot of games include a lot of stats for the sake of “completeness” but no other reason, which means you end up with a lot of false choices, which is generally not a good thing in design.
Second, if a character has a single or few stats that are really strong, is there any incentive for them to use a non-optimal choice (other than, being forced to by circumstances)?
If there isn’t, it’s also a non-choice. Unless you have some kind of mechanics or other things pushing players to do so, what you end up seeing is that players have incentive to only do the same things, over and over, with their characters.
Spread Stats – features
When you have a game where your character has many, many stats to choose from to use in any given instance in play, several things commonly happen:
Requires Regular Engagement
If you have 20 skills on your sheet, and only roll 3 of them the whole night, guess what the other 17 skills are? Kind of a waste of space.
This is especially bad if you had to spend 45 minutes or more making a character that, effectively is mostly colorful description in the form of numbers that you could have written out in 3 sentences.
For games with a spread of stats, you need to use a lot of engagement with those stats to make them worth the effort.
A useful trick is allowing stats to help or augment other stats.
Maybe having “Read Latin” isn’t such a useful skill by itself, but being able to use it to increase your “Casting forbidden Magic” skill makes it useful.
Hero Wars/Hero Quest, Burning Wheel, Agon, and Sorcerer are all examples of games that use this trick.
Some games have stats that get “used up” or reduced or “damaged” over play- which means having multiple options is a useful way of staying capable even as you get weakened. Agon is a prime example – each skill can be damaged, so spreading out your ability keeps you effective.
Alternatively, maybe each skill can only be used once or a few times during play- so having multiple options allows you keep doing stuff.
A key problem with spread stats is that you can give people too many choices- both in building characters and during play.
For character generation, some games give you a limited set or group of stats, so you don’t have to make as many decisions (Burning Wheel does this with skills). During play, though, it can become difficult to decide, especially where there is overlap.
Overlap, what to do?
A lot of spread stat games give you a lot of choices which overlap – “Is this Brawling or Boxing?”, “Is this Navigation or Map-Reading?”
The question then becomes, who decides what goes and what doesn’t?
A lot of games leave it to the GM, but again, if the GM always rules one way, then the other skill is useless, and if the GM flips back and forth without any idea which one to use, the players can’t make choices about how to build or use their characters.
Some games leave it to the players, but that also brings up the question of why a player would ever use their weaker stat.
Focused Stats – features
When you have a game where your character only has a few stats to choose from, some things regularly come up:
Clear division vs. Overlap
While Spread Stat games suffer overlap from having tons of skills, Focused Stat games sometimes suffer overlap for having too broad categories or fuzzy definitions.
These feel even more problematic because choices are supposed to be more clear, not less so – so it becomes important to make stats and what they do very clean.
Games with few stats need to consider -how- they make characters feel different, even if their stats are close in effectiveness.
Sometimes this is as simple as having a few descriptions that come up in play – “Describe how being Red-headed helps you in the conflict and reroll the dice” etc. Dogs in the Vineyard does this kind of thing- your character mostly grows by adding color and history.
Trickier Reward cycles
When you have fewer stats, you can’t just cause them to jump all the time. These games need a different sort of reward cycle to work well.
Otherwise characters tend to max out/break limits quickly and easily and that can be a problem.
What choices do these provide?
Focused stats means there’s less to choose between- so what makes these meaningful choices? The stronger the differentiation, the stronger the difference in choice.
The other question is whether these stats provide choices before, or after you’ve initiated engaging with the mechanics.
Apocalypse World has you say what your character is doing in the fiction, which then engages the mechanics- you don’t sit around choosing between mechanics after you’ve started things. In comparison, Dogs in the Vineyard has escalation rules that forces you to choose if you will do certain things to bring out other stats.
The former is a choice going into a conflict, the latter is a choice after starting one.
Although this is also true of Spread Stat games, it’s much more pivotal in Focused Stat games.