Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Taking Away the Numbers

It was high school lunch time, and as usual I showed up to the library's back room ready to game. We were starting new characters (AD&D 2nd Edition as we played at the time), so I figured most of the session would belong to character creation.

The DM was already there, so I sat down and got to rolling my stats.

"Don't worry about that," he said. "I've already done that for you."

Uh, pardon me? I thought. I'm all for DM authority, but surely if one part of the character creation process is sacrosanct, rolling your 3d6 for ability scores is it. Nevertheless, I sat there like a spineless jellyfish and accepted this violation, and the other guy playing did likewise.

"Just tell me what order you want them in, highest to lowest," he continued. I was all set on playing a ranger, so I went with Strength, Constitution, Wisdom, and whatever else those guys needed to qualify. The DM started assigning these numbers in secret, then he started talking. "Okay, you're really strong and healthy, and rather wise. Your intelligence is about average, as is your agility and hand-eye coordination. You don't have many friends, though - people don't like you for some reason."*

Okay. So I didn't know my stats. I knew I was a human ranger, and I was allowed to buy my own equipment, but as far as the concrete numbers and game mechanics went I had only vague descriptions to go on. Sort of like real life, I had a rough idea of how good I was at stuff.

So the other player and I ventured into the dungeon, and there was an actual genuine sense of fear and the unknown. We were pretty reckless hack-mongers in those days, as high-school students tend to be. So when the goblins showed up, we normally would have waded in and kicked ass. But a funny thing happened - without the security of knowing the math, we got cautious. My ranger refused to enter melee, and spent the entire battle keeping out of range and peppering the goblins with arrows. We treated combat like it was potentially deadly, not like a grand old bit of fun.

I can't remember the rest of the game (I'm betting that lunchtime ended and we never went back to it) but the experience has stayed with me. There was something really scary about not knowing the numbers. When you get hit by a spear and the DM tells you that you are "lightly wounded" what does that even mean? How many hit points do I have left? You don't know. You could have 1 hit point to begin with and feel as fit as a fiddle, and you'll never know that you'll be unconscious and dying the first time you get hit.

There's a lot to be said for this as a gaming experiment, but it's not going to work in all groups and all systems. I wouldn't want to try it with more than four players, and I certainly wouldn't want to apply it to rules heavy games like D&D 3e or 4e. 2e was about the right level of simplicity for the DM to manage it.

So if your players are getting a bit cocky, know everything in the Monster Manual, and don't treat their adventuring as a dangerous activity - try taking their character sheets away. There is security in knowing the math, and fear in uncertainty - take away the numbers and see what happens.

* My memory is vague, and I'm making this up. So if that description doesn't match the ability score requirements for a Ranger, it's only because I don't have a Player's Handbook in front of me.


Ripper X said...

Holy Cow, that sounds neat! Way too much bookwork for the DM, however it would be a neat experiment.

Sometimes I have sub-parties go in. These are pre-generated characters which the PC's hire to accomplish a specific goal. They play this group to see if they can meet this goal, which is usually very dangerous and not something that they'd want to risk their own characters for, or requires skills that their party doesn't have.

Hiding the stats from this kind of party would make it all the more exciting!

Brilliant idea Nathan!

Jay said...

I kinda like this idea. Really unworkable with 4e, as a lot of metaknowledge is attatched to just knowing your class. Or your role, even.

I think you could do it with 3.5 a little better, but even with 2nd edition trying to do a caster might be a lot too much bookwork for the DM.

Still, an interesting experiment. Might be fun with a group of 4e virgins, as the bookwork would be pretty minimal for the DM.


ThatDarnCat said...

Back in 1988 one of my players, then Sgt Phil Hone, joined a game I was starting up in 2E D&D. He asked me to create the character and keep the chr sheet. He dubbed the Chr "Wilbur: the Lost and Confused," and amnesiac. During game play he would ask to try different actions like open locks, or bend bars/lift gates and I would have him roll. If he he had a class related skill or ability or secondary skill and succeeded I would tell him he succeeded. If he failed, then he failed. Sometimes, if the roll was good enough, I would tell him he succeeded even though he didn't have the skill.

Each time he tried a given action he would write down what he did, the roll, and whether he succeeded or not. If he had already attempted a given action he would update his success or failure die rolls.

Over the course of 5 or 6 sessions or 4-8 hours each (lots of down time in the cold war Army) he had nearly filled out his chr sheet. It was a lot of fun for me to have a player choose role play over mechanics play.

Anonymous said...

I know this post is old but i find this style of gameplay to be very intriguing , players not knowing the statistics of the characters they are playing and keeping track of the characters progression on a scatch sheet of paper (equipment carried, treasure, weapons, etc) actually sounds like the ideal way to play any tabletop RPG making the players understand that they "think" they are strong or clever, coming up with a backstory for a character in this type of gameplay would be incredibly interesting, you know what your character want's to be... but you don't know your full potential ... i wish i could find a gaming group to experience this with, either playing as the GM or as a player unknowing to my character's fate.