ByAlan Bradley, writer at
Alan Bradley is a freelance games journalist, vagabond, and collector of oddities. Find him @chapelzero on Twitter.
Alan Bradley

At their elemental core, tabletop role-playing games like have their roots in oral storytelling. It’s a tradition that goes all the way back into the darkness of prehistory, when our ancestors sat around fires and informed and entertained each other.

At some point, this tradition of telling each other stories intersected with the statistics and the need to quantify associated with board games.

Games like the original Dungeons & Dragons (and the wargame, , that spawned it) distilled the essence of people into measurable statistics, representing things like their physical strength and their intellectual prowess.

Now the idea of measuring and defining a person through sets of attributes like strength and dexterity might seem commonplace and obvious, but in 1974 it must’ve seemed like a much more daunting task.

How do you define a person? What scale do you use to measure their essence? Can things like personality and wit even be represented by numbers?

The measurable world

To begin, most RPGs focus on the fact that we live in a material universe, one that’s defined largely by the physical, and those elements will always be the easiest to measure and quantify.

Things like strength and speed can thus be measured, and those measurements can be abstracted into other numbers that broadly represent, for instance, how much weight a character can carry and thus, by extension, how easily they could force a jammed door open or how hard they can strike a goblin with a sword.

This framework, established by the physical limits of a character, were then extended to other, less tangible characteristics; first, things like intelligence, that we have determined real world scales (albeit slippery ones) by which to measure.

But then you come to some of the trickiest parts of what make us who we are, things that are so subjective they would seem, on the surface, impossible to quantify.

How do you evaluate how wise someone is, or how likable they are? These qualities are not only transient but also deeply subjective. This, then, is where some of the real magic of role-playing happens, where that other dimension of play, the imagination, is so important.

The canvas of imagination

First, the best way to give these seemingly arbitrary numbers meaning is to illustrate them, to assign appropriate real world examples to them that then make their position in a numerical hierarchy make sense.

A person with a low charisma score, for instance, might have trouble talking their way out of a traffic ticket, while someone with an exceptionally high score might charm an entire jury into believing them innocent of a murder that was captured on tape.

This sort of illustration de-emphasizes the purely numerical representation of a person’s qualities and leans instead on the imagination of the players. The best systems, games like ’s setting, are rich with examples that nestle every number in an imagined scenario, give each piece of hard data a soft bed of context.

To my mind, it’s that sort of context that lets us tell our best, most interesting stories. While there are certainly players and groups that are more interested in “roll-playing,” living and dying by the rolls of dice, the stats and the numbers, no one remembers what Drogg the Orc Barbarian’s reflex save was.

What they remember was the time he leapt from the lip of a smoking volcano to catch the tail of a silver dragon and ride it to safety. The numbers we use to build our characters are tools; they’re important, because they add meaning to our games, they make our stories seem less arbitrary, reduce the sensation of deus ex machina and make our fantasies more concrete.

But in the end they’re just that: tools. And they should never be as important as what we build with them.

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