Publish those numbers! Why RPGs must be transparent about their mechanics

This is a weekly column from freelancer Rowan Kaiser, which focuses on "Western" role-playing games: their stories, their histories, their mechanics, their insanity, and their inanity.

The debate about what makes a "real" role-playing game flares up from time to time, with articles, comment threads, or message boards torn up about whether a Mass Effect or a Skyrim deserves to be treated as a true RPG. The arguments about these games tend to hinge on them being too action-oriented, or not offering enough customization. Turned on their side slightly, though, I think these arguments reveal a core value of the genre: RPGs are built on transparent, simplified abstractions of complex real-world concepts. How role-playing games have dealt with and continue to deal with transparent abstraction defines the genre in many ways.

Most all games abstract some manner of real-world behavior. Press the jump button in a game that allows it, and it'll make your character leap into the air in an animated approximation of how humans jump, but that's usually it – the rest of the jump has more to do with the needs of the game's level design than anything else. Even those aspects that aren't real, like casting magical spells, have consistent in-game rules, which often abstract other concepts, like a mage theoretically chanting magical words in a way irrelevant to the player.

What separates RPGs from most other genres in terms of abstraction is the style's origins in pencil-and-paper games. You want to punch an orc? You can punch that orc, but game rules simple enough to work with a couple of die need to exist in order to make that orc-punching workable for a group of people playing a game. Players need to know what the numbers are in order to make informed decisions. So you have things like 'strength statistics,' 'unarmed damage skills,' 'orc hit points,' 'dexterity rolls,' and so on. Shifting to the computer may have allowed these mechanics to be calculated faster as well as potentially more complex. But critically, even though those mechanics could have been masked, RPGs generally kept the numbers transparent and public.

Publish those numbers! Why RPGs must be transparent about their mechanics

Action-oriented RPGs often limit the way that their mechanics are published, however. The guns in Mass Effect have statistics, and the enemies have health bars that must correspond to hit point-style numbers somewhere under the hood. But it's under the hood, not transparent, and that sets it aside from even other RPG/shooter franchises like Borderlands, a series that delights in bombarding the player with numbers and statistics.

Interestingly, the RPGs that cause the most arguments tend to be transparent outside of combat, the most traditionally common mechanic. For example, Skyrim's combat may lack transparency, but its practice-improves-skills approach, without experience points, ends up being quite transparent about what your character does. Mass Effect is transparent in how its conversation and reputation system combines, even as its combat sections seem more similar to a Gears of War than a Baldur's Gate.

Transparent abstraction is part of what gives role-playing games their charm, which is why fans dislike it when it's removed; but it also leads to weirdness. When RPGs take a vague concept and give it concrete meaning, it can end up corresponding to the real world in surprising or unfortunate ways. For example, many older RPGs give female characters slightly different base attributes, like Wizardry VII bumping women's strength down and charisma up. Perhaps to you this seems appropriate in those circumstances, but RPGs also tend to give the same transparent abstraction to things like race without corresponding to the real world. That is, it's normal for games to treat Elves as faster and smarter than Humans, but just imagine the deserved outcry if a real-world RPG said that some races were smarter or faster than others.

This is part of why RPGs go so well with fantasy specifically, and speculative fiction generally. By moving outside of real-world rules, a game can be transparent and abstract without being ridiculous. Want to say that a certain clan of vampires are all ugly and have certain rules applied only to them? You can do that in speculative fiction. This helps explain the rarity of real-world settings for RPGs outside of a few tactics games, like Jagged Alliance and Silent Storm.

Publish those numbers! Why RPGs must be transparent about their mechanics

Fantasy and role-playing support each other in both directions. The sort of fantasy and science fiction settings used in RPGs also uses similar forms of abstraction as the games do. Complex concepts like "good and evil" are literally true, though sometimes muddled. Other "races" exist as comparisons for humanity, like wise and magical elves compared to impatient humans. Even the science fiction stories usually used in RPGs work similarly – Asari are wise and magical just like Elves, while Turians are steadfast and tough, just like Dwarves, and so on. It's a way for the stories to feel bigger, more epic, and more archetypal. RPGs tend to function at similar levels, using their game mechanics to solidify their metaphors.

Of course, RPGs aren't alone in using transparent abstraction. Strategy games, particularly wargames, often utilize it. This makes sense, as all of these genres have tabletop origins. It has similar effects, as gamers generally consider the genres old-fashioned, while fans debate the authenticity of games use real-time and other less overtly transparent systems. There are also some odder effects. I've seen the strategy game Crusader Kings II praised as being one of last year's best RPGs, thanks to its excellent, transparently abstract relationship mechanics virtually demanding that you mentally play the roles its world provides.

You can't define role-playing games only by transparent abstraction, as the Crusader Kings II example indicates. RPGs also tend to have fewer characters, stronger written narratives, and more linear progression models, to name a few traits. But how RPGs model/publish their mechanics, with their dice-rolling history always there in the background, may be their most important component.

Rowan Kaiser is a freelance writer currently living the Bay Area, who also writes for The A.V. Club, and has been published at Salon, Gamasutra, Kotaku, and more. He still occasionally finds Ultima VI Moongate maps and mantra notes when he visits his parents' house. Follow him on Twitter @rowankaiser.