Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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Attrition and Resource Management in RPGs

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 12, 2011

Okay, this is a topic that will probably make a lot of action gamers and casual gamers immediately start snoring. Actually, it may make a lot of people start snoring. But here I go throwing caution to the wind and talk about it anyway. It’s something I’ve touched on before, but I thought I’d elaborate just a little.

There are a couple of different approaches to how combat and character state are handled in RPGs – specifically with how “attrition” is handled. One definition of attrition is “The act of weakening or exhausting by constant harassment, abuse, or attack.” It also refers to losses in an army due to death or injury, or less painfully through resignation or retirement.

The traditional model is based on Dungeons & Dragons, which is in turn based on wargaming of the era. In these types of games, attrition is a significant factor, even though the actual loss of characters might be (relatively) uncommon. Health and special abilities (typically spells) don’t automatically regenerate between encounters. If you hit a trap which damages the party in room 1, then they will be wounded going into the battle against the guards in room 2, and they’ll carry the injuries and fatigue with them in the battle against the baron and his thugs in room 3. Expend your best spells sweeping room 2 clean means you won’t have them at your disposal in room 3. You are likely weaker when encountering the final encounter than you were when you started.

Low Attrition
A popular modern approach is to eliminate this aspect of attrition – characters can quickly be restored to full health and power automatically, or through a quick and relatively risk-free action that can be performed as soon as the coast is clear. (I should note that I was a devoted fan of a dice-and-paper RPG that followed this approach for almost as long as I was playing D&DChampions / Hero System – so the idea isn’t really all that new). Special abilities may need nothing but a few seconds to regenerate or “cool down.” Debilitating effects are often removed at the end of combat in many of these games.ย  Ironically, as older RPGs borrowed their approach from early editions of Dungeons & Dragons, this approach – derived more from action-based video games – seems to have in turn inspired the design of the latest edition of D&D.

Both of these approaches – traditional and low attrition – have aspects of resource management, often in the form of limited-use items or ammunition. So in both, the party may encounter the final boss with somewhat fewer resources to draw upon than they started. In practice, the way I play at least, I find myself looting stuff from enemies as fast as I use ’em in all but the most challenging encounters, so I may actually find myself better prepared to meet the Ultimate Bad Guy of the Last Two Hours.

There are some other side effects of either approach:

Multiple Forays

The staple of “old-school” gaming, the traditional approach generally led to multiple forays against the same enemies – or at least against the same geography. Yes, you can call it grinding – I won’t mind. In the dice & paper games, the modules often included suggestions for how enemies might reinforce their losses or make preparations for follow-up attacks. In computer RPGs, you typically just face respawns.

It may make sense if your approach to an adventure is more like a military campaign (here comes the wargame inspiration again – though only for strategic-level wargames, which I don’t believe were a major influence). But for dramatic purposes, having the boss hang out in his lair ignoring you while you repeatedly make deeper and deeper penetrations into his headquarters just doesn’t make a lot of sense. Traditional CRPGs did a lot of hand-waving and deliberate ignoring of the issues caused by heroes knocking it off and going home to rest up and trade for a week before returning to face The Ultimate Evil.

Varying Encounter Levels

With the traditional approach, encounters can vary wildly in difficulty. The adventurer’s may face a powerful adversary one minute, and them some pathetic underlings the next. They have to approach each encounter carefully, weighing it’s potential threat and expend resources carefully to respond. If you don’t recognize the danger until too late, your party is going to find itself in deep trouble in a desperate fight. But overkill can be just as bad – blowing your most powerful spells and items to wipe out a minor threat can weaken you just as badly as severe damage. Though it’s definitely fun once in a while to face combat challenges with former foes that are now easy to defeat (without being utterly useless).

With the low-attrition model, there’s really no point in relatively weak encounters. The player will never be weakened enough for the encounter to provide any real challenge or threat, and the player won’t suffer any sort of attrition from them to make future encounters more challenging.As a result, encounters under the low-attrition model tend to be pretty even in difficulty and – if the designers aren’t careful (as seems to be the case in Dragon Age 2, according to reports – I’ve not played it yet) – boringly similar and repetitive.


Whereas the traditional approach typically suggests a more methodical approach to play and the low-attrition model tends to emphasize no-holds-barred action, that’s not necessarily the case. Players can find themselves motivated to slow things down while waiting for longer-duration effects to “wear off” and for longer-length timers to pop before advancing forward. This can turn into waiting for waiting’s sake, which is not good game design in a single-player RPG (and probably not the best in an MMORPG, either). Sitting and hiding and “waiting it out” is not an activity to encourage.

Traps and Speed Bumps

Either approach can have things like stand-alone traps or damaging environmental effects, though with the low-attrition model designers (or game masters) have to be a little more clever about their effects if they aren’t depending uponย instant death as a probable outcome. Under the low-attrition model, there’s not much sense in simply dealing damage to the character. But longer-term afflictions could also just slow down the pace if they can be waited out, which leads to non-fun. But they can still be creatively implemented. And fun.

Which is Better?

While the above examples may seem small, they really make a big difference in the pacing and “feel” of a game. Champions (the dice-and-paper game, not the MMORPG) would have been poorly served by adding much more attrition or resource management. It wasn’t about an endurance match to the final bad guy – it was about over-the-top comic book battles and melodrama with everything you’ve got, every time. The system served to promote a specific kind of pacing and gameplay that was a lot of fun.

As a personal preference, I like the traditional approach better. I like having encounters that build on each other rather than being completely stand-alone. I like having to manage my resources a bit. I like how the traditional, attrition-heavy approach rewards more methodical play and planning rather than just reaction. But it’s not best for every game.ย  Both approaches – and their infinite variants between them – can be a lot of fun.

The concern I have – as always – is the attitude that one approach is “best,” meaning the other(s) are inferior and can be safely discarded. No way, no how.ย  There are a lot of variations on these styles, and tons of room to blend them together at different levels and in different aspects.


Filed Under: Design - Comments: 15 Comments to Read

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    It definitely makes a difference depending on the game. Neverwinter Nights allowed you to “rest” easily, to allow people to play magic users with only one companion, and that worked to a certain extent.

    Baldur’s Gate on the other hand, punishes you hard at some points if you haven’t adequately planned ahead. Forgotten your “protection from petrification” spells? Oh dear, here’s a basilisk. (although my solution was often to throw a couple of area effect spells when I saw the “statues”).

    I do appreciate both design choices, and they both fit their respective games.

    Alternatively, you get a situation like Oblivion, where the difficulty is rather flat, ranging between always difficult (levelled your character “poorly”), and always easy (exploit the levelling system).

    I also think that you should be able to make a game which mixes up these methods. For example, you could have low attrition encounters on the main map, allowing you to easily rest between them, and making it difficult to rest and resupply whilst in a dungeon. This can provide a bit of variety.

  • LateWhiteRabbit said,

    I’ve always enjoyed the high attrition model of gameplay when it is done well. I like the rush that comes from being deep in a dungeon, low on health and supplies, and surrounded by enemies. If I survive, it is because of my cunning and strategy.

    I was playing Fallout New Vegas recently and was deep inside a Vault, kind of lost, suffering continuous radiation poisoning (I had no RadAway), low on health with no Stimpaks for healing, and since I was playing on Hardcore, where food and drink are required to survive, I was slowly dying of thirst, fighting off increasingly devastating penalties because of that, and sipping from irradiated water sources to hold off death, which poisoned me even more. Did I mention I was also down to one magazine of ammunition and surrounded by ghouls rushing me from the dark while I limped for what I hoped was the exit on a cripple leg? Surviving that was an ADVENTURE and thrilling and fun all at the same time.

    High attrition games can give you that thrill at any time, but low attrition games rarely give you the same feeling of accomplishment outside of boss fights. Even then, you KNOW that defeating the boss should be possible if you use the right strategy. Alternatively, in a high attrition game, you never know if success is even possible at the start of a boss encounter with your current status.

    I do have to say that I hate respawning enemies in high attrition games. I don’t mind existing enemies redistributing themselves, but why should a finite enemy suddenly be able to completely restock their defensive positions to full strength over-night? If they do, I better encounter less enemies further inside than I would have otherwise. Now, obviously that depends on the setting and the enemies – assaulting a military base in a modern game, eliminating the outer defenses and going to spend the night in a hotel should result in returning to find MORE defenses than were there originally – a kind of penalty for not preparing enough to take the whole shebang in one go of it.

    I also feel like high attrition gameplay forces more meaningful choices on a more constant basis.

  • Max said,

    As a munchkin (e.g min/maxer) all attrition models caused me is metagaming . Hoarding supplies, min/maxing rest intervals ,etc, which in turn kills immersion. You can argue its my own damn fault , but somehow I think I am not unique in this aspect

    I can see how it could have worked for p&p games but todays crowd wont tolerate any attrition at all – they want regenerating health even in FPS! (which always boggled my mind btw)

    I do however enjoy attrition games where it significant part of gameplay (or even main one) – like the Unreal World roguelike for example.

  • McTeddy said,

    Hmmm… my masochistic game desires are drawing me towards both. Insanely careful planning to survive the waves of minions… or going head to head with powerful monsters.

    I actually prefer a well done low attrition game. I don’t like being spammed by weak enemies even when they are intended to slowly wear me down. Besides, I’ve never been a fan of repeatedly entering and leaving a dungeon to clear it out.

    That said… you shouldn’t be allowed to fully recover in the middle of a battle for no cost. This includes the classic technique of taking a few steps back… closing a door and camping until you heal. That ruins any fun that comes from fighting strong monsters.

    I think my favorite method is actually the Might and Magic style (At least I think it was M&M). You can camp at any time, but you need to consume food. This allows me the quickly recover my HP, but still has a limit.

    Oh and Max… some of today’s crowd will still accept it. Etrian Odyssey does a fine job of Attrition mechanics and still is surprisingly well received.

  • Menigal said,

    An interesting discussion. It’s very easy to go too far in either direction with this, but the right balance can add a whole new level to a game.

    Picking just one piece of resource management to focus on, I’ve always been against a food requirement in a game, but in retrospect I think that’s largely because of how artificially rare food becomes in games that use it. Are there really only 45 pieces of food in the entire world? It essentially boils down to an alternate game timer, and I loathe time restrictions in games.

    When I heard of New Vegas’s hardcore mode my intial thought was how stupid an idea it was, and that I would never play a game with a system like that in it. Then I decided to try it, and surprisingly it works. Food and water might be almost too easy to find sometimes, but in general it’s a fairly non-intrusive game mechanic and helps add to the feeling of scrounging for a living in the post-apocalyptic west. You’re aware of it, but it’s never annoying. I’ve had a few experiences like LateWhiteRabbit’s, and they were fun, memorable little adventures instead of Yet Another Identical Dungeon.

  • EHamilton said,

    I’ve come to the conclusion that low attrition works very well for games that include some mechanism for discouraging save/reload tactics (e.g., any MMORPG), but poorly for solo games that include randomness. High randomness tends to just encourage the player to keep retrying a difficult fight until the dice cooperate.

    Traditional attrition games are really the only way to build tension over multiple fights, which I regard as important for full immersion. It’s important to give the players incentives to push forward instead of constantly withdrawing — or making it mandatory by slamming a door behind them! Some of the best fights I’ve seen are tough battles that come immediately after the boss goes down, on the way out of the dungeon. Knights of the Chalice sprang an “exit ambush” on the party after the first major dungeon, and so did Temple of Elemental Evil. These fights are interesting in that they force you to fight without some of the heavy front-end spell ammunition, and often involve scrounging around in your bags for every last potion, scroll, or wand you can find…

  • Kimari said,

    “I like how the traditional, attrition-heavy approach rewards more methodical play and planning rather than just reaction.”

    You could have that in an RPG with inmediate health regeneration after battle if you make it clear which enemies the player will be facing and let them plan in advance. Change the armor, change the spells and items, for example. You could even let them choose in which ground to fight a creature: inside the cavern, in the woods outside or down below in the hidden lake? This planning is the exact same thing as the “more methodical” approach of attrition-heavy games, isn’t it?
    Well, no, it isn’t. I mean, it’s methodical and planned but there’s a major difference here: One requires a LOT of development time, while the other is way easier to do. Guess which one is which! ๐Ÿ˜›
    Still, I’d prefer such a game, whether it has attrition or not.

  • Dungeon Dragon said,

    Surely the only point of the rules in both approaches is to enhance the story your running though?
    For example, I very much doubt Gygax planned on GM’s using every single table in the rules cyclopedia! What I always assumed was the intent in resource/table/mechanic heavy games was to provide you with a tool box of mechanics to increase the tension of your session when the story called for it.

    GURPS is a pretty good middle ground between Champions and D&D (coming as it did out of the Fantasy Trip- which predates Champions- don’t know why I feel the need to mention that been in alot of arguaments on that topic for some reason lol :D), and as any GURPS grognard will tell you the joy of that system is precisely what I was saying earlier- Players in the desert and you want a mounting sense of desperation as their resources dwindle? Pull out the desert survival rules! If your players are in the desert and they’re 250 Supers, well then its hardly going to apply ๐Ÿ˜€

    The fact that the resource management aspect of D&D tends to produce min/maxing powergamers is actually more an effect of the fantasy genre than the rules I’ve always thought, noone could ever accuse characters like Elric or Conan of being in the slightest bit balanced after all!

  • WhineAboutGames said,

    Another option in a low-attrition system to minimise boredom is to recognise that only ‘special’ fights really matter – and cut the time wasters.

    It can feel quite silly if you’re wading through the evil fortress and every room has a handful of baddies eager to fight you, but these handfuls never think to join together and overwhelm you with their numbers.

    But what if most rooms you encounter are empty, save for the occasional glimpse of ONE clueless baddie (who got lost, or was sent to distract you) who is incredibly easily dispatched (making you feel powerful and confident) … until you run into the chokepoint where the enemies have pulled back to.

    It doesn’t mean they’re all boss battles, exactly, just that you’re not facing 10 of the same fight in a row. And if each of these battles has some quality that sets it apart from the others, that encourages playing with different tactics to figure out how best to overcome them.

  • skavenhorde said,

    Good topic.

    My favorite games are the more traditional kind. I like the strategic aspect to them and the fact that I actually have to think about how to survive instead of just mowing down enemies left and right.

    Low attrition games tend to bore me because they’re just wasting my time (plus I hate regenerating at the speed of lightning), but I’ve had fun with a few like Mass Effect 2. It all depends on what kind of game I’m in the mood for. Sometimes I want to really think about my strategy and sometimes I just want to go in kill stuff for awhile without much planning beforehand. Those are best for after a stressful days at work ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    Skavenhorde, you’ve reminded me of a certain side mission in Mass Effect 2.
    You find a crashed ship, and once you reach a certain point, you have to fight your way back to the shuttle. A log mentions the number of foes, and yet I made it back to the ship easily. I decided to kill them all, and annoyingly I had Garrus say “let’s get out of here!” after a certain number, and nothing to indicate if there were more, or if I got them all. Kinda showed there were no penalties for hanging around, but no rewards either.

    Also in ME2, you often notice that a room contains many things to crouch behind, therefore indicating it to be a place of battle. The regen health thing I find very odd really. Not sure if I like it. Doesn’t stop my squad-mates getting killed though.

  • Kevin Jackson said,

    D&D 4e uses a nice mix of both styles, by having some resources that can be regenerated after every combat (ie, hp, encounter powers) and some that can be only regenerated with a long rest (ie, healing surges, daily powers). This means the players upon entering combat will vary between a baseline and a maximum power level. A good DM can take advantage of this to create tension whenever it’s needed.

  • Ranneko said,

    Not only that but you have resources that have a limited usage during each encounter. If you have 10 healing surges left you are not going to be able to use all of them during the encounter, even if things go south. If your leaders are out of healing and you have used your personal healing resources you will either need to escape or win.Once you escape or win you can then use the remaining surges to heal back up of course.

    The party gets a lot more conservative when characters only have 1 or 2 surges left.

  • Galdred said,

    Although they are not RPGs, I prefer the XCom/Jagged Alliance approach, where you fight every baddies at once, in a single very big encounter. In PnP, the equivalent would be the Descent/Doom or Warhammerquest(or spacehulk) system, although the PnP variants all feature endless reinforcements (which I prefer anyway, as it forces players to avoid spending too much time in the dungeons). It makes dungeons feel like more dangerous places IMO.

  • Daniel said,

    One system I really like is Vampire the Masquerade. Sure you’re a superhuman monster, but things still /hurt/. Like matter grenades. *shudder* Healing either takes a lot of time or a lot of blood.

    (If its bashing, one heals 1/7 of total every 15 mins or by using 1/10 of the blood in a human. If its aggravated, that same amount takes a month or 1/2 a human’s blood.)

    Either way, its a lot like real life: fighting is dangerous, even if one will easily win. It doesn’t so much promote methodical planning before hand as much as habitual paranoia and a careful fighting style where the outcomes of an action matter more than DPS.