I don’t know if talking about Diablo has upset anyone, but I considered it a bit, what kinds of things might need to be quantified, and it made me want to write about RPGs and The Almighty Spreadsheet. It’s a staple of stat-based roleplaying games.

There’s been a recent trend in games, like the last ten-plus years, of adding “RPG Elements” to increase the sense of achievement a player gets for, well, playing. It’s a way of incentivizing gameplay, giving the player a sense of accomplishment and progress, whether it’s genuine progress or not.

More often than not, it’s a poorly conceived, poorly implemented (tacked-on) gameplay mechanic that’s added without any real thought given to how it effects the rest of the game. When effects scale with the game, certain otherwise innocuous effects, like directing damage to mana points can become game-breakers.

See, in the beginning of the game, mana points are low, and mana-restoring consumables are scarce and/or expensive. After twenty or more levels, mana points are higher, and the player can easily afford and hoard mana potions. Suddenly, the above-mentioned mana shield spell makes the player effectively invulnerable.

I’ve argued before that a big part of this problem is that at its core, the game isn’t very diverse in the options a player has been given. In my previous post, I described two active powers (attack and engage) and one passive effect (evade) that can be used to abstract and summarize the gameplay of Diablo. All of it. ALL THE GAMEPLAY.

But there’s another feature in there I only kind of mentioned, which is the spreadsheet. Sorry, I mean The Almighty Spreadsheet. See, it’s this thing that tells you how the numbers change over time, across the scale, up the echeladder, or whatever. Your character does 1d8+5 damage at level 1, and 4d8+30 damage at level 30.

You tend to have one spreadsheet for your players, and one spreadsheet for your monsters. That’s if the game uses a spreadsheet. Some don’t, or don’t appear to, like the Final Fantasy series (except maybe FF8, where the enemies level with you), where the numbers seem to be almost randomly assigned. That’s all there really is to it.

Some systems are more complicated, involving the idea of calculating the effects of a character’s equipment, though the resulting combinatorial explosion is usually enough to kill a semblance of balance across levels. Did the player grind too much? Did they farm a particular enemy for lots of money and buy equipment above their level?

Level requirements for equipment can be used to lock down this sort of problem, but introduces more problems, such as why certain types of equipment can only be used by higher-level characters. Oh, that darn, silly spreadsheet.

And yet, spreadsheets are a part of the RPG, in an almost inseparable way. You still need something to incentivize playing the game, getting from one part of the story to the next. You need the sense of accomplishment that comes with increasing your experience bar. Just one more encounter, that’s all you need. Just one more level.

You, my friend, are playing against a spreadsheet.