Consider this: Back in the day, Dungeons & Dragons gave us six primary characteristics - Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution and Charisma. Each was represented by a number on a scale, but the most important statistic for determining a character's overall effectiveness was its level. Fallout 3, the game of the year in 2008, has seven primary characteristics represented by numbers on a scale, including Strength, Intelligence and Charisma. Agility stands in for Dexterity and Endurance for Constitution. Levels? Check, and now as then, they boil down a character's overall potency to a single number.
Fallout 3 isn't a bad game, and it doesn't stand alone in committing this particular failure of imagination. A determined ludo-archaeologist could unearth Strength and Levels in the many progeny of D&D from one end of GameStop to the other. But it's a perfect example of how far roleplaying hasn't managed to come in 35 years. For everything that Fallout 3, Mass Effect and the others bring to the table, what's the point of the Strength and Levels, for crying out loud?
Computers have given us instant mechanical resolution instead of mental math and a bag of dice. (Remember Rolemaster? Insert your own "roll"/"role" pun here and grab a Blatz from the fridge, old-timer.) They've brought the ability, via the internet, to roleplay anytime and with anyone, instead of only on game night and only with campus buddies. They've given us fantastic - and still improving - visuals for the worlds they've created. But why do they continue to thrust numerical values for Strength and Levels in our faces? They're the gameplay equivalent of slowly spreading spider cracks in the windshield of your car - all you want to see is the road, and all you can make out is the glass between you and it, constantly inhibiting the sense that you can fly. Every inessential statistic, every number the player doesn't need to know to navigate the game world, is a distraction.
In fact, it turns out that Strength and Levels - that is, all of those inessential statistics clinging to new games for no reason other than they were present in old games - aren't primordial, monolithic, or inevitable. Designers of both pen-and-paper and computer RPGs are questioning these assumptions. On the tabletop side, designers have given us a slew of games in recent years that blow your father's Oldsmobile - the one that ran on Strength and Levels - into outer space. If you haven't played or heard of Dogs in the Vineyard, to cite just one example, get thee to a game store. It's not that it doesn't have statistics that the player can see - it lives on paper instead of in RAM, so it has to. The thing to notice is that Dogs is relentless in pushing players into meaningful conflict over the things they claim to care about, and making sure the consequences live up to the stakes the players are proposing. Its roots are recognizable, but it also looks forward, and there's nothing vestigial hanging off that puppy. If roleplaying prioritizes the changes wrought and experienced by player-avatars in a realistic world over the quest for bigger and bigger numbers, it's light-years ahead of whatever dungeon-crawl game came out last month, where the conflict is no more dramatic than what happens between a bishop and a pair of pawns.
And that's not bad, as Progress goes.
Jeff Tidball is a freelance writer and game designer. Through the magic of V.A.T.S. he can hit a typo in the head with 99-percent accuracy. Come say "hi" at gameplaywright.net and jefftidball.com.