Q&A: Games as Inspiration

When you talk about video game stats not translating to real fights, is the assumption usually that both fighters are ordinary Homo sapiens and that things like magic potions and “Clarke’s third law” tech aren’t factors? Or does that vary depending on the exact scenario and what “stat” you’re referring to? Example: Would an elixer that temporarily halves the amount of calories you burn with any activity (so a stamina boost) give you an advantage in a fight?

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So, stats are a complex subject, and I’ve been dancing around this for a couple months. I thought there was a comprehensive post on the subject already, but I don’t see it, so it probably doesn’t exist.

The short version I usually go with is, be careful about trying to translate stats into fight scenes, and this is part of why. If you’re making a game, it’s reasonable enough to say, “yeah, this consumable increases your stamina by 3 points.” However, when you’re trying to use that as a narrative device, it can become harder to justify. “Why would an elixir that modifies the speed at which you get hungry increase your hit points?”

The stats you create for your story are abstractions for much more complex topics and mechanics, distilled into (hopefully) an easy to manage format. It’s fine to sit back and say, “okay, my character has a Combat stat of 5, the other fighter has a Resilience stat of 2, so, I’ll deal 3 damage when they ambush them, leaving them with 2 health,” and go from there to write a fight scene where your character ambushes another, leaving them in a wounded state as the fight proceeds.

It’s not a terrible idea to stage out the fight on a map. Move your characters around, see what other characters might observe the fight, and think about how those bystanders would respond.

This only becomes a problem when you start focusing on the rules, or when the rules you’re relying on start to break the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

I think I’ve used this example before, but let’s look at D&D. (Specifically I’m looking 3.5 Edition, some of this does carry forward, some has been changed.) A 7th level fighter could reasonably have 66hp. (I’m using a dice rolling site right now.) If they’re critically struck by a character using a longsword, they’ll take 1d8 damage, doubled. So, up to 16 of damage. This means your character can be stabbed in the chest and shrug it off. This isn’t an example where the blow doesn’t connect. D&D does, explicitly, allow characters to suffer superficial damage to explain how they’re getting hit without it seriously affecting them, but crits are supposed to be the hit actually connecting.

Now, it’s possible to write a scene where your certified badass hero suffers a mortal wound, and keeps on fighting until they collapse. The problem with the example above is, that Fighter isn’t mortally wounded. They took a blow which would outright kill a human without dying. If their armor held, or the blow was glancing, it wouldn’t be a critical hit. (In fact, a glancing hit off the armor occurs when you manage to clear their Touch AC, but don’t beat their full AC. Armor in D&D is both simple and stupidly complicated at the same time. If you don’t understand, don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.)

So, it allows for a character who takes what should be a mortal wound to then shrug it off.

Having just trashed that, you can make a compelling scene from that scenario. Your fighter gets hit and they’re seriously injured, they’re fighting what could easily be a losing battle. Afterwards, if they survive, they can address the injuries. Maybe with a health potion, maybe with help from a healer.

What you want to do is remember that hit points are an abstraction, and that as your character is injured, those injuries will pile up. Maybe they can keep going for a little while if they have the will to keep fighting, but they’ll bleed to death and die. Strength is an abstraction. Your character really knows how to fight, and is probably a fairly solid combatant. The rules you have facilitate this, and can remind you that your character isn’t invincible, but also lead you into a situation where you forget your character just took a blade to the intestines, and probably isn’t doing too well right now.

So, I’ve been talking about how not to use stats, let’s flip this around and talk about how stats and rule systems can be incredibly beneficial to you as writer.

Games tell stories. I don’t mean in the sense of a written story presented to the player. I’m not talking about passively consuming cutscenes, and for the most part I’m not talking about the writing itself. I’m talking about the systems, and what you can extract for a story.

A cliche, and remarkably difficult example is chess. The game itself tells the story of a conflict between two equally matched forces, with the overt structure of an iron age battlefield. It’s cliche due to overuse. Writers (who use it) will frequently drop literal chess games into the background of their story. It’s also difficult because chess is extremely abstract even in the context of an infantry skirmish. However, it can open your eyes to a world of strategic possibilities. You probably don’t want to cue the audience in to each piece individually, but when you sit back and look, you can see the king (who must be protected at all costs)/queen (who is far more mobile, deadly, and ultimately expendable) structure repeated all over the place in pop culture. (Though you’ll rarely see eight fleshed out antagonists with cannon fodder to go up against eight protagonists with their own minions.)

When it comes to blocking out stats for characters, the kind of story you’re telling is the most important thing. You don’t need to (and realistically can’t) account for the entirety of a person in a brief stat block. So you choose the factors that are most important for the story you’re telling. D&D has a standardized stat block of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. The stat range is nominally 3-18, with 10 as “average.” That’s a fairly nice general collection of stats. But, doesn’t know the kind of story you’re telling, so it tries to pull in everything. This is where things get strange as Charisma mixes in any social skill along with appearance. Wisdom is your character’s perception, their willpower, and their skill in medicine. Because Medicine isn’t an Intelligence based skill. Because, in D&D, medical training is not about what you know, it’s how self-confident you are. Right.

Okay, let’s pull an old counterexample out. The out of print Babylon 5 Card Game had three stats, (technically 5, but I’m not going to worry about that.) You had Diplomacy, Intrigue, and Military. The game didn’t bother tracking any of the D&D stats, because any combat would happen within the context of other actions. If you attacked someone with diplomacy, it was (probably) an attempt to get them removed from treaty negotiations, maybe it was a court case or an op-ed. In rare cases it might have been a formal duel. If there was an attack in intrigue, that might have been a blackmail effort, or an attempt to expose the character’s contacts, or it could be violence. Military was ship to ship combat. Fleets would engage with one another. In rare cases military conflicts might be non-violent, but there was always the fear that you were one action away from someone opening fire and turning the entire situation into a shooting war.

Note the difference: D&D is attempting to systematize the person. Each character is a piece on a fantasy battlefield. B5 was interested in systematizing the person’s influence. This is how effective a character is diplomatically, this is how well they play the spy.

There’s no right answer for this. If you want a story where you’re focused on ground level combat, you’re probably going to want a physical stat block. However, if you’re more interested in a free flowing story, you’ll benefit far more from tuning your stats to mesh with the story you’re trying to tell.

If your setting has magic, maybe that should be a stat. If you have a heavy political theme, maybe that should be a stat. If you’re not going to be distinguishing between ranged and melee combat, you probably don’t need Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution.

The important thing is, no one will see these stats, so you can be as abstract as you want.

There’s also no hard rules about what a specific number needs to mean. If you want to calibrate stats between 1 and 10 (like Fallout), you can do that. If you want to mark a character’s stats from 1 to 5, (like World of Darkness), you can do that.

The only guidance I’ll give on stat ranges is: “Be consistent.” If you have an upper cap, do not break that without a very compelling reason. Make sure each value has a specific meaning to you; one you understand. The stats are meaningless if you cannot turn that into a description without tipping your hand.

Incidentally, for creating stat blocks, if you want to use a system you’re comfortable with, have fun. For example, I would not create characters using D&D, because I find it has too much tedious bookkeeping. However, that’s me. If you want to prototype your characters in D20, it’s your pencils, have fun. (Also, on the specific subject of D&D, character level is a stat. That has meaning, it tells you how far a character has traveled from being a rookie adventurer into a wandering demigod.)

With that said, there is another major thing about games. The systems themselves can forward narrative concepts. I’m going to explain this one with examples:

In 2001, Decipher Inc. got the license to the Jackson Lord of the Rings films. The card game they produced had a very novel cost system. The player controlling the fellowship could play as many cards as they wanted (until they ran out of cards.) However, each card had a “Twilight” cost. The player controlling the forces of Sauron paid for their cards using that “Twilight.” So, the structure that resulted would encourage Fellowship players to inch forward, and cut corners wherever possible, because anything they played would give the Shadow player more resources to hunt them down and kill them.

In a broad structure this meshes with The Lord of the Rings. Theoretically the Fellowship had almost unlimited resources, but they’re traveling light to avoid detection. Armies could be rallied, but that would bring Sauron’s attention, and massively increase the risk of The Ring corrupting someone.

It’s a simple mechanic, but if you’re writing a story about characters who are being hunted by a powerful foe (or foes), it’s a concept that can be adapted fairly fluidly. If anything you do will draw attention, you’d need to plan very carefully, to ensure your actions had the most effect.

Another mechanic that comes to mind is a ticking bomb. This one isn’t exclusive to a single game, I can think of many variants. The short version of this is, “you have X (time) until something bad happens, and you need to prevent that.” This a common narrative device as well, as it puts pressure on the protagonist to keep moving forward. The reason you see this is, it works. Timers prevent characters from sitting down and waiting it out. If you find a game with a good timer system, like XCOM2, you might want to take notes.

If you’re going this route, you want to become conscious for how the systems affect play, rather than just going, “okay, here’s a thing.” As with stats, you don’t, usually, want to be overt about systems you pick up. (Though a looming deadline could easily be something characters would know about.)

When you’re looking at systems, look for rules and mechanics that tension against one another. I didn’t go into detail with it, but the timers in XCOM2 do exactly that. This is a game where slow, methodical, deliberate play is vastly superior, so timers are added forcing you to act more aggressively, and take risks you’d otherwise ignore.

The short version of this is, a game experience can tell a compelling narrative. It can also produce a jumbled mess of events. As a writer, you can extract those moments where everything came together, smooth it out, and run with it. However, the real danger is getting into the weeds with how the rules function, instead of how they affect the story being told.

The worst thing you do is try to apply the rules over the story. This includes the potion suggestion above. You have a potion that allows your character to engage in physical activity for far longer than they would normally. Cool. It doesn’t need a rules explanation. The reader doesn’t need to (and shouldn’t) know that potion grants +3 Stamina for the next 8h. It doesn’t mean a consumable like that couldn’t exist in your world. It doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t affect their stats. It just means that you do not want the audience cued in on that. The advantage of magic (and Clarke’s Law tech) is that you don’t have to explain why it does what it does. “Why would a potion that is intended to reduce fatigue also make you more durable in combat?” Who knows, that’s just how the magic works. Same reason you wouldn’t ask, “how does a health potion heal a punctured kidney?” or, “how does it replace all that lost blood?” Doesn’t matter, all we know is that it does that.

Stats and game systems are one of the best lies you can learn as a writer. If you’re careful, and you let them, they will keep you honest, and help engineer creative situations.

Stats and game systems are one of the most dangerous practices you can pick up as a writer, because there will always be a temptation to game the rules to the expense of your story.

Have fun, be careful.

-Starke

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