Why Do Our Role-Playing Games Still Need Numbers Everywhere?

I understand that role-playing video games owe their existence to role-playing tabletop games, and as a result, share many of their predecessor's customs and traditions. After all, if tabletop games need to simulate action via numeric values, then it was natural for the first video game RPGs to do the same.

But, uh, why are we still doing it in 2011?

Those values were useful in the early days of video game RPGs because electronic games, like their tabletop counterparts, simply weren't sophisticated enough to work without them. Seeing your character represented as a giant stack of numbers - hit points, damage points, mana points, etc - and then seeing his or her actions represented by those numbers being moved around gave life to the game.

Cold, abstract life, perhaps, but life nonetheless.

Today, though, I'd love to see that baggage cut free. Stop relying on abstract representations and start getting a little more literal. The numbers will still have to be there, of course. In a video game they always will be. I just don' want to see them anymore.

(I recognise this is an argument that could be applied to many kinds of game, even Madden and FIFA, but for now I'm just talking about RPGs. Indulge me!)

Why Do Our Role-Playing Games Still Need Numbers Everywhere?

Old-time fans of the genre (and JRPG fans especially) may scream at this, but games like Mass Effect 2 - and to a lesser extent Oblivion and Fallout: New Vegas - have already taken large steps in this direction, sweeping much of the number-crunching that was once the lifeblood of an RPG under the rug, letting sophisticated programming take care of it while you worried about more superficial concerns.

Compare, for example, the experience of Mass Effect 2 with that of a more traditional RPG. You're still doing largely the same things: you're leading a party, you're exploring worlds, you're engaging in dialogue with characters, you're increasing the strength of your party and gaining access to new and improved equipment along the way.

Yet if you asked somebody to play Mass Effect 2 and then play a more "traditional" RPG - whether Western or Japanese - and they'd tell you it would feel like playing two completely different games, the former's fast pacing and action sequences contrasting with the latter's obsession with statistics, percentages, numbers and inventory management.

Whether you like one or the other (or both!) is entirely subjective, but to me, the very purpose (and appeal!) of a role-playing game is to, well, role-play. Create a character and go on an adventure. Like playing dress-ups as a kid, only with (hopefully) better writing and props. I don't know about you, but my fantasies would involve exploring worlds and kicking ass, not seeing numbers everywhere and juggling inventories.

The acceptance and prevalence of stats, and numbers, and figures is a convention of the genre that we've grown to accept, but that doesn't mean they have to be a mandatory feature. Mana points don't make an RPG. Role-playing and questing do, and it's fascinating that despite no longer needing these old conventions, many developers and fans cling to them as the trademarks of the RPG regardless. Which they don't have to be!

For those who enjoy RPGs specifically for those numbers, I'm not attacking your pastime of choice. I can definitely see the appeal. You're not alone, and there will always be games catering for you. People are still making hardcore vertical shooters and side-scrolling beat-em-ups nearly thirty years after the fact, so you'd imagine the same will be done for stat-heavy role-playing games in the event they go out of style. Especially if Japan has anything to say about it.

But for those like me who enjoy the human side of adventuring - the walking, the driving, the talking and the fighting - but not the mathematical side, I'd love to see a future where more games leave the traditional RPG trappings to the computer and let the player simply role-play.