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No Numbers Exercise

11 replies [Last post]
Joined: 12/01/2008

I've always been intrigued with the streamlining and elegant mechanics that hide inherent complexity from the player.
With that in mind, I've been thinking about a creativity exercise, a challenge, if you will.

In short, how would you design an RPG flavored game (typically numbery) if you couldn't use any numbers?

The goal is to remove all the math and fiddly parts. So as a lesser experiment you could use numbers, but not perform any addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, etc. But it is a more interesting thought problem to remove numbers entirely as a starting point.

My own thoughts run something like this:
The numbers almost always represent a graduated scale of some sort. So if you take that away, what is left?
Well, I guess we can still have true or false operations, and comparisons.

I suppose weapon damage could be revamped into damage classes: light, moderate, heavy. And that could compare to armor classes to get a result somehow.
Hit points are gone, and having just alive or dead seems boring. But then I realized that simplifying hit points gives rise to something interesting that is typically too complex to run satisfactorily:
And that is tracking damage to individual parts of characters and monsters, like arms, legs, wings, tail, etc. Each one of these could be a binary status of healthy or damaged and the number of locations are effectively hit points of a sort. All while avoiding numbery operations and yielding more interesting gameplay results at the same time.
Interesting development there.

What else? Since speed and movement points are gone, movement could be abstracted into groups of characters and mobs that indicate relative positions. You are either nearby or far from other entities. If you're near, game bits could be grouped together. A movement action would then be to move away or a different group. a melee fighter wants to be in a group with targets, an archer wants to be away from the group. After all, that's what counting out movement on board spaces attempts to model anyway, why not just deal with the intent directly?


What are your thoughts?

Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
I like this post Desprez,

I like this post Desprez, it's a good idea.

In much the way where (I play guitar) good sounds come from setting yourself challenges: "This song will use C and C#" or "This song will have no more than 10 notes" always produce some really awesome things (as, in designin in this way you set yourself a goal and human minds work better to solve a problem than to create a mass of ideas. Boardgame wise: most of the "problems" we encounter that need solving the idea for a "New and Unique Boardgame" is how to make it new. And how to make it unique - so I like this question a lot: it's cool.

Right: numberless numbers.

Initially my head straight away to jigsawpuzzle like design theory. In normal games (dominion, most games with Victory Points etc) it's always a X + Y + Z = Win. such as: I need to get a farm / a farmer / and the "rain" card - then I make grain to win. So for this challenge you set, (with a very heavy pinch of of abstractism btw) I was thinking jigsaws into jigsaw pieces.

So normal D&D : I need a strength of 10, the Hammer of Ages, in close combat, and flanking the opponent to *win* my current circumstance. As said, my mind went to a "strength 10, hammer of ages, close combat, flanking" card that simply "fits in" to the current situation to overcome it.

Loads of choices, and instead of creating the choices (through various different number based rolls, success percentages, preperations and ideas) you simply have all of them in a big stack of cards. So you would have a "Goblin Attack #2.3" kind of card, it would say: If you are a warrior, you now have enough strength to kill some goblins, you have enough stamina to last the day and only take a mild damage, you have *won* this situational puzzle (which would normally rely on your character stats and combinations of dice to get to the same result, plus or minus some damage either way).

Numbers in RPG's represent portions of time and what has happened. Take away ALL numbers and conditions; you are simply left with "you win" or "you lose" so you would have to find a way of turning the normal representation of a situation (via numbers) into an alternative "choice of options". You would need to define: "Whats going on and what shall I do" without using any numbers.

Another way to do it would be simply convert numbers into worded options. So instead of "10 out of 10 hit points" you would simply be "Healthy" then for "8 out of 10 hp" you would be "uneasy" 5 out of 10 hp : "in pain", "2 out of 10 hp" : "Last legs" and "0 out of 10 hp" would be "dead" as you say. All this is really doing though is changing the semantics of the health system by attributing a verbal description of a situation as opposed to a numbered situation. So instead of the normal: "Shit guys! The wraith hit me hard, I have 46 out of my 120 hit points left. That means I have a bit more than 30% of my total health. That means I'm in trouble and need to get out of there!" you would simply have "Oh no, I am in trouble and need to get out of there!" I suppose this could be accomplished by the wraiths attack being "Your conditional status is lowered one level" so it would go from "Uneasy" to "In pain" but as said, this is essentially lowering the number constant that multiplies all values eg instead of 30 of 120hp it simply goes to 1 of 4 which corresponds to "last legs" on the Conditional Status chart. But again, this is merely disguising the fact that you are using numbers, it is still using them, just not calling them numbers.

So this is why it has to be a totally situational thing I suppose, as in minimising it down to the lowest possible denominator you will always be using numbers, even as you say in your post to a binary system - it still uses numbers "off" and "on" which is always 2 choices. Bloody tricky.

The only other way will have to be some super abstract system where most of the game takes place in peoples heads such as in some other RPG systems (I forget the name) but instead of character sheets filled with stats, they ask you to write a "background description" where the Dungeon Master/Games Moderator would look at it and say: "Ok, so you used to be a circus trapeze artist in your biography, so yes, you are able to wiggle you way out of your bonds and leep onto the rafters to escape the prison" As opposed to "Please roll against your Agility and your Athletics stat with a -1 due to the height of the rafters"

Maybe some Dixit-esque kind of thing, like the above, where the game is only a game if it's played by someone as most of the action takes place in a very verbal and imaginative state. Like to not use any numbers at all, our game would have to be "Not playable by a computer in any form" - wo. That's trippy.


Joined: 12/01/2008
Replacing numbers with

Replacing numbers with something else that functions just like numbers, like using letters as a substitution cipher is, of course, contrary to the whole point of the exercise. But I don't feel like a true/false status runs afoul of that.

Just because something *could* be represented by numbers (almost everything, really) doesn't mean you're simply swapping them out in any given example.

So it doesn't really feel like true/false is a cop-out in the same way that A=1, B=2, C=3, etc would be. If you're using the resulting categories as comparisons, maybe this is abstracted enough? Whereas class B+class A=class C is certianly just numbers in disguise.
I think it boils down to what makes numbers, numbers for this purpose? I guess you could say it is what you do with them. Addition/subtraction? Numbers. On/off? Not so much.

I like the music example. And yes, I agree that imposing restrictions has a creativity generating effect whether it be music, cooking, art, and even game design.

Put on those thinking caps!

suf's picture
Joined: 07/26/2010
what's a number?

I'd argue 0 and 1, true/false, yes/no, or any binary concept is not a numbery thing. You definitely can't remove them. Win/lose, fail/success, a [hero], no [penalty], within reach etc all use this. So if a hero moves to an adjacent space, you're not using numbers. Numbers are usually used in scales (level), as countdowns etc. In examples above you can have attack/defense scales (light, medium, heavy attack) as long as you don't subtract light attack from heavy armor :), but you'll have to at least compare them. Some games use wound/life tokens to countdown how wounded you are, or how many rounds are left before something happens. Is that numbers? If for every damage you take you lose one life token, is that mathy? I'd say you're not counting, adding, subtracting, but you still have to check weather you ran out of tokens, so is it called math and numbers when you compare "no tokens left" to "zero tokens"? In some games some units just die when hit, others can sustain one damage (marked with a token or turned upside down) before they die; is that math with numbers? (alive/wounded/dead) What if a wounded character can't move? I'd say there's no numbers here again, it's just a character state. He's not half (1/2) alive when he's wounded. You got a number of characters/enemies. If there are 3 enemy counters/figures, is that 3 a number? Some games use custom dice. Say there are dice for fighting which show either miss or hit, and you roll one die for each character (number of dice to roll = number?) and say you rolled 2 hits and 3 misses, you kill 2 enemies so is that 2 a number? I'm guessing it's more of trying to avoid showing numbers rather than not using them :)

Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
deep man. I was actually

deep man.

I was actually trying to think about the hard core version of a numberless system: as you put it "kill two goblins, does that involve numbers?" I think yes, it does and am trying to go crazy abstract to find out how to get rid of this system. Hence putting it in a kind of "story mode" as opposed to a "as you play, here and now mode"

For instance: when people recount there experience after D&D club:
"So what happened in the game I missed?"
"Well, it was awesome, there were loads of kobalts and one of them jumped on me but I smashed it's arms off, then there was a big sorcerer type kobalt that had a special spell that froze time! "
"Wow, that sounded fun!"
"Yeah, so he could freeze time up but luckily I had mild protection because I was playing an ancient race dragon-kin or something, so I unfroze quicker than he expected me to. When I awoke, all of our party was in big trouble positioned around an ancient circle of obscene magic ready to get their life force sucked away but I used my flash wand, blinded him right in his beady yellow mustard eyes and kicked his face off! Loads of magic asploded out of his neck and he died and released his grip on the caputred knights templar that we were trying to save. The templar gave us some mega boost powers as well, now we are all semi-angels and have grown wings that we can fly for a small amount of time, I think next week is going involve a lot of flying!!" :O

This above gives a lovely description of a game, exactly how that player was describing it, it has all the elements of a RPG type game, and the story would vary from person to person but each time the same story would manifest itself differently. But , there are no numbers. There is no "Then I rolled a 4 and because I had toughness 15 a scored a critical so I rolled on the crit chart and caused a "massive 2d6 trauma to head" then rolling 11 I managed to kill him in one hit, the DM then translated to me that what I actually did was kick his head off" It is a lot more subtle, a loot more dependant on language and the emotional feel of something that cannot be easily transcribed into numbers.

Do you think there is anyway at all to have a game PLAY like the dialogue I wrote above?

I think the only option would have to really hammer out how to translate a human system (your brain) into an analogue playing mechanic. Tricky stuff. Loving this question.

deFunkt29's picture
Joined: 01/04/2011
Before I post, just like to

Before I post, just like to say that some of the things you guys are saying are over my head lol. But, I love that idea, it's like playing a game based on what the player wants to do, other then what the dice is telling him that he is doing. For example, all players would want to kill a lot of goblins, for example. No players want to roll the dice and have it say "That was a close fought match, you both lost some health". Players want it to be as descriptive as what you said above. Perhaps that is why numbers, although necessary for most games, do take away from the experience. There's a lot of really cool ideas here, and I still think the idea of destroying certain body parts would work really well with this, as this is something very literal and understood by players. Take out legs, they can't walk, take out arms, they can't attack, etc.

Again, I like the entire idea. I think I can sum it up into one sentence: When Gurzgah the barbarian jumps into combat, smashing the heads of goblins, he doesn't think of numbers. Why should I have to? :P I think that is the key to making a game like this.

Joined: 12/01/2010
I think it would be an

I think it would be an exercise in unnecessary complexity. If the goal is to take the mechanics out of the story, then you really don't have a GAME, its just story telling.

If you've got any kind of comparative system, then while I'm sure you could hide numbers from the players, it would just be a facade.

You'll either be using some sort of growth system (typical for RPGs) - which would either be numerical or be numerical by a different name - or you'll need to do some kind of RPS style comparative - which would be discrete and be solvable (therefore take some of the tenseness out of the game).

In theory, you could have a set of hit/miss/block dice, where each of the sides of the die are a hit, block, or tie. Each die could have a different color, and you could cumulatively gain the ability to use these - but ultimately you're going to be comparing quantities of numbers (or RPS symbols) to determine a winner - which would just be more complex, than numbers. But for the sake of exploration, it could be more narrative - though that's a lot of work for the DM.

This will be more complex than I'd like but I think it gets the concept across

let's say that we represent Red as "Offensive Power", Blue as "Defensive Power", and Yellow as "Skill or Luck"

Red Die says - hit, hit, hit, hit, miss, miss
Blue Die says - block, block, block, block, miss, miss
Yellow Die says - crit, crit, miss, miss, miss, miss

Then the following die represent hybrids of the other dice.

Orange Die says - hit, hit, hit, crit, miss, miss
Purple Die says - hit, hit, block, block, miss, miss
Green Die says - block, block, block, hit, miss, miss

I'm a new character, with a Fight ability of 1 Blue, 1 Red, and 1 Yellow die, I have a sword (a rapier) that has 1 orange die and a shield that's 1 Blue die.
I'm fighting a monster with 1 Blue, 1 Red, and 1 Yellow die. He has a sword as well (a short sword) that has 1 red die, and a spiked shield that's 1 purple die.

I roll 2 Blue, 1 Red, 1 Yellow, and 1 Orange die; the Monster rolls 2 red, 1 blue, 1 yellow, 1 purple die.

Each miss does nothing for the player, each hit would connect unless there is an opposing block, and each crit would hit (can't be blocked). You could see who won the exchange - even discuss the outcome - you made 4 vicious attacks, but 2 were blocked, 1 found its way through, and 1 was a wild miss... - etc. But you'd still eventually have to quantify the result of that combat - which would take you down to numbers again. Or else a "you lose 2 hearts" type situation which would seriously just be the same as a hit point value.

Joined: 10/17/2010
Alternatives to counting

For small groups of items, people can subitize them and compare them without counting. Would it be within the challenge to use tokens in groups up to four or five, incrementing and decrementing, and comparing?

Regardless, maybe you could use shapes and templates for comparing whether your fireball took out all of the goblens or not. The player would use a shape showing the swipe of a battleaxe to show where he hit, and it will wound unless it overlays the targets armor or shield.

This could be using cards and small punch out templates, or templates printed on transparent cards. Or it could be like a table-top, um, distance-based game.

The shapes could be color coded representing miss, okay, critical; chosen by a random die. A sword swipe would have progressively larger outlines; a good roll activates the larger outline. A critical roll activates the larger outline. For magic, or other more random events, the colored shaped might not overlap, increasing variability and risk.

Meldryn's picture
Joined: 07/15/2011
A "flicking" mechanic could

A "flicking" mechanic could be implemented, in which players substitute their own actual skill for the probability-and-modification normally implemented by dice and charts in an RPG combat system. Thus, the more difficult an opponent to destroy, the more difficult the shot(s) necessary to destroy that opponent. Having bonuses to your attacks or using magic could then be implemented as handicaps. An experience system would become less necessary, as the players themselves are actually acquiring their own experience at this sub-game.

To take the mathematical task of tabulating hit points out of the scenario, you could simply give each player their own player board with removable body part tokens, and when all of them are destroyed the character is destroyed. Dice with relative body parts could be used to determine hit location (i.e. six-sided die with a head, two arms, two legs and a torso).

Ultimately, the more I thought about this question, the more it became necessary to remove a lot of what I consider the "good" things that come from the generally complex rule systems in most RPGs. I'm beginning to wonder if abstracting the numerical mechanics so much would still allow for a gaming experience that "felt" the same. I mean, if you've ever played games like Hero Quest ( ), they really fail to live up to other RPGs, simply in that your options as a player really start to become limited...I'd definitely like to see if someone can pull it off.

Cogentesque's picture
Joined: 08/17/2011
Im enjoying thinking about a

Im enjoying thinking about a "broken body parts" system, but if we are being super hardcore: body parts are 2 legs + 2 arms + chest + head = 6 parts which is *sigh* a number.

That's why I think it would need to be "You are feeling pretty bad and are having trouble walking" rather than "minor damage to chest, major to right leg" but how that would actually be shown in the game remains to be seen.

I also like the idea of comparative numbering or "rough" numbering. So something like the Stun and Damage boxes in shadow run: colour in boxes (3 per line) and at the end of a line of boxes something bad happens (-1 to throws / -1 to stats etc) now it is using numbers but a cursory glance at the box chart gives you an idea of the situation without drawing your attention to specific numbers.

Perhaps a better example is the pie slice pieces in trivial pursuit: if you complete a certain line of questions, you add one pie slice colour to your pie slice holder (I'm doing my best with the words here guys, I hope you know what I am going on about) so yes, yes it is using numbers, in as much as the total number of slices you need is one of each colour, say 8 all together (i think its 8) but of course if you are winning, you see this by not counting the number of spaces filled or left, but by assessing that there is "only a bit more to go!" or "No I wont win, Kevin has got more slices than me" so it would be using numbers but not in a active manner.

deFunkt29's picture
Joined: 01/04/2011
I don't really think of

I don't really think of numbers with the broken body part system, especially if when you destroy a certain body parts, the enemy has other negative effects. At one point I was designing a dice game where each player was a hero in a gladiator battle. Each body party had a certain dice that went with it, for example, right arm would contain attacking signs, leg dice would have movement signs, head would have magic and warshouts etc. As you lost in battle, you would not only lose/cripple a body part (which is kind of like a hit point I guess) but you would also lost the ability to use that dice. I think if you make it so when the lose a body part they lose effectiveness (such as arm with less attack) the player won't think of it as *6 Life*. I think if we cannot even include how many limbs a hero has in the game in fear that it is a number, than the game is probably impossible.

I do like the trivial pursuit idea and the other idea as well. I suppose it is kind of cheating in a way, but it's interesting to use a system that doesn't appear as numbers. Perhaps another system would be to just use a pile of random pieces as life or something. It doesn't look like any number in particular if it's just a rough pile of small discs.

larienna's picture
Joined: 07/28/2008
I have done something similar

I have done something similar once. It is not really solid, and it has not been tested. But I think I actually wrote all the rules.

They can be found in my archives here:

It's called table theater. The primary goal was to increase the game play by removing the most numerical values possible. For example, you could need to explain why would your character traits make sure that you get a bonus for doing this or that action.

Hope it's useful.

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