Stat Blocks

It’s amazing what holds my attention these days

Several weeks ago, I wrote about what I’m calling the Rules-Lite Push, basically a re-appreciation for RPGs whose rule vagaries are more of a feature than a bug. Games of this sort are more about guidelines than actual rules, and players often need to interpret aspects of game play based on the spirit, rather than the letter, of the written text.

I Like Stat Blocks...Yaaaay!

Short stat blocks are hallmarks of rules-lite games, and (for me) part of the attraction. I like the the efficiency of a brief blend of acronyms, numbers, and modifiers that describes a character or monster in full. It’s sort of a “just the facts, ma’am” approach: enough data to run the character without having to consult the rulebook, but not so much that you can’t add your own spin or make subtle adjustments.

Generally speaking, I find that if I like the stat block, I like the game. The reverse is also true: if the stat block’s length prevents a quick scan for what I need, or if I’m distracted by too many acronyms, numbers, and modifiers, I’m out. I lean this way because a good stat block is actually useful—it’s more than just a quantification of a character—it’s a tool to help you run your game smoothly. If you spend more than a half-second scouring a stat block for a character’s armour class or movement rate or how good they are at leaping chasms, then your stat block isn’t helping you at the gaming table.

Stat Block Ergonomics

Assuming you do most things backwards (like me) and have OCD (also like me), maybe you’ve thought about your game rules in terms of its stat block. This would be different from thinking of a stat block as a representation of the game rules. I’m looking at this in a meta sort of way: given a useful stat block, what would the game rules need to look like?

An unconventional approach, but not entirely outlandish. Ever diagram a sentence in English? It’s a terrible waste of personal resources, partly because English is such a complex language, but mostly because there are better tools for learning syntax. What if the Angles and the Normans started with easy-to-read pictures of syntax and then said, “Let’s create a language based on these incredibly useful diagrams.”

Consider it Stat Block Ergonomics: start with a stat block format that’s (1) easy to read, (2) easy to create, and (3) useful during play. Figure out what it has to look like and what it needs to include. Then build your game mechanics around it.

Like These Stat Blocks

Consider the following examples. The first is a Chimera RPG stat block for a highwayman-type NPC:

Medium male human (Per 4)
(P) DEX (S) INT, CHA (T) STR, WIL, CON; MR 7” (8/–1); Pr +2; PV +3; WL 6; AL N

  • Broad sword/16 (IM +1, Dmg 1d6, Rng 1)

Skills: Burgle/8, Fight/16, Observe/12, Sneak/12

  • Bad Feeling: Use Observe to detect danger (4”)
  • Buttress: Improve PV of worn armour by +1
  • Disarm: Use Burgle to disarm traps/alarms (1d4 rds)
  • Quick Draw: Improve IM by +4

Gear: Light mail, medium shield; broad sword; 2d10p, garnet ring (2£)

Here’s the same guy in the style of my old B/X campaign:

Drake (AC 14 (light mail + shield); HD T3 (M); hp 7; AT short sword (TH +1, IM +0, Dmg 1d6); MV 90’ (30’), Save T3, AL N) light mail, broad sword, 2d10p, garnet ring (2£)

Admittedly, an apples-to-oranges comparison, because the RPG systems are different and don’t use the same stats. But mechanics aside, consider the relative merits of each. Try to ignore the games these stat blocks represent and think about them only as GM tools. Given the format and information provided, which is more useful during play?

Block vs. Block

The Chimera stat block has a lot of information, which is good—it keeps you from having to consult the rulebook during the game—but unless you’re familiar with the format, it’ll take time to find what you need during an encounter. As a result, it’s possible to miss a useful skill or ability (e.g., the Bad Feeling trait, which would help the NPC avoid being surprised by the party).

The other criticism I have about this block is that it’s 12 lines big, and therefore hard to place inline with descriptive text. Longer size implies more time to create, which is impacted by one’s familiarity with the game. But I think it’s a fair to point out that a bigger block provides more opportunity for error than a smaller one.

The B/X-like block is short and sweet (I say “B/X-like” because there are several house rules creeping through—this is a good example of how a desirable stat block format can influence game mechanics). Like the Chimera block, it contains enough material to make it useful during play, yet it’s small enough to place inline without causing much disruption to surrounding text..

Unfortunately, unless you’re highly familiar with the rules, the short-and-sweetness of this format mitigates its use at the gaming table. For example, “HD T3” is an abbreviation for “everything a 3rd-level thief can do,” which is a lot. Similarly, “Save T3” assumes some familiarity with the saving throw matrix, which you’re likely to consult during an encounter.

Final Words

A stat block is not simply a capsule description of a monster or NPC. It’s a tool to make the game run faster and smoother by reducing the players’ reliance on the rulebooks during play. The stat blocks above each have their pros and cons, essentially around the issues of quality vs. quantity (where the former is succinct but requires intimate knowledge of the game’s nuances, while the latter’s verbosity makes for a longer block but obviates the need for close familiarity).

But familiarity with the game system itself is crucial, and it occurs to me that the more versed one is with the rules, the less of an issue stat block format becomes. If so, this discussion is entirely subjective and I may have just wasted your valuable time.

So, specific game systems aside, what’s your experience, and what do you look for in a stat block?

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