Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: Expendable!

Posted by Rampant Coyote on October 17, 2013

One of the issues that I face when playing any RPG – computer, dice & paper, whatever – is my tendency to hoard expendable items. Expendable items (AKA consumables) are those things that can get “used up.” Potions, magic items with charges, scrolls, etc. Often, at the end of a game, my level 60 character will retire victorious with an inventory still containing items he acquired back at level 2.

I hold on to these items for the time that I might really need them… only to discover I still have them long after they are no longer very useful.  Then I’ll say something like, “Oh, yeah, that wand of magic missiles. You know, that would have been useful in some of those early battles.”

Occasionally I’ll go on binges. I’ll remember I have a bunch of expendable items that really should get used, and I’ll just start blowing through them. This continues until I’ve used up a good selection of my inventory, and I’ll get to hoarding again. Saving up for the next binge or something.

I wonder how much that reflects my behavior in real life… hmmm….

Anyway – there’s nothing particularly wrong with this, but it does make progress through a game uneven, and likely more difficult than it should be. As a designer, you assume the player will actually use these resources to succeed against the more challenging encounters. That’s why they are there. When the “renewable” resources (like spell points – “Mana”, hit points, uses per day or per combat of abilities, etc.) are running low, you can fall back on those extra, expendable resources. Or, for the more overpowered ones, you save ‘em for that nasty boss or dragon encounter.

Now, in a Diablo-style game, players will use some of them in a steady stream. I do. I actually have no problem maintaining a constant drip of potions in those games. I hate dying with healing potions still in my belt. The game has trained me to hit those hotkeys whenever I see the red or blue indicators getting low.  Health and mana potions don’t seem scarce. They don’t feel like things that need to be preserved… just a resource to manage.

But in other games – things get hoarded. I know I’m not the only one.

I’ve seen this in my own game, too. Realizing that the intro dungeon – and the general threat to low-level characters in the game system – could get a little rough for new players, I compensated by providing some really potent, expendable items – in particular, potions of Liquid Sleep, and Chloe’s magic wand of fireballs. My hope was to help train players early in the game to use these resources, and get in the habit of expending them. Between those, plentiful additional potions to be discovered in that dungeon, and an all but guaranteed leveling up in the middle of the dungeon (which automatically restores health and endurance), it seemed like a good plan, and that the dungeon was really not that hard.

But people still have trouble with it, and don’t always use these resources. Maybe it’s because it’s too hard to use them, too confusing when players are still learning the basics of the game system. That’s certainly possible. Or maybe the hoarding mentality is not limited to me, and people are reluctant to use these resources, or even think about them. I don’t know.

What do you think? Do you also end up hoarding expendable magic items? If so, what can help it? If not, what do you think accounts for the difference?  The “resource management” aspect is one of my favorite aspects of old-school RPGs, and it seems newer designs (particularly AAA games) have responded by simply avoiding the problem, having most powers and resources restore automatically on a timer or at the end of combat. I’d like to see the indies forge ahead on better solutions.


Filed Under: Design, Frayed Knights - Comments: 30 Comments to Read



  • Robert Boyd said,

    The way I see it, there are basically two approaches to fix the item hoarding problem.

    One, is to make the game so difficult that most players will have to use items frequently to succeed.

    The other way is to make items replenishable – either at the end of combat, at the end of a mission, or at stores (with cheap prices but also low quantity caps thus encouraging frequent use & purchase).

    To go along with those two approaches, items need to be powerful enough to give a good advantage but not so powerful that they break the game.

    I’ve been replaying Persona 4 Golden on one of the highest difficulty levels & I think they handled items well. Healing items are very useful and not too expensive; there are some useful items with miscellaneous effects that can be grown in your garden (so they cost both money & time), and finally there are some really powerful items that can only be discovered in dungeons.

  • Tom Willoughby said,

    There are a few reasons why I would hoard expendable items.
    1) If it isn’t clear that the item will be available in reasonable quantities later in the game.
    2) If the item feels very OP, I’ll save it for enemies that feel OP, which may never come.
    3) If the enemies are only just beating me, or I’m only just beating them, I’ll fight them without items to give myself a challenge or increase my skill at the game.

    I noticed this with a lot of Tomb Raider games. I would have full ammo stocks of most of the weapons by the end of the game, because standard enemies were easy enough to take out with the pistols and bosses were easier to defeat by solving a specific puzzle. It also trained me to conserve ammo by making it scarce in the early game.

    As a side note, it really annoys me when a game takes away all weapons and ammo during an unavoidable cutscene. It creates an artificial difficulty by essentially resetting you to the state you were at the beginning of the game.

  • Xenovore said,

    Things that makes me hoard potions or scrolls (particularly in the Elder Scrolls games):

    1) It may not be convenient to use the item in the middle of combat (and/or they’re too weak to make a significant difference anyway); after combat it’s like “Whatever, I’ll just rest.”

    2) If they are more rare and powerful items, then there’s this feeling that they need to be saved for emergencies, except often the supposed emergencies never arise, so they go unused.

    3) Often spells are more effective anyway, so with a caster (and who isn’t at least a mediocre caster in the Elder Scrolls games) there’s a tendency to use spells to heal or buff, completely ignoring the potions or scrolls.

    Some ways to incentivize item use are:

    1) Make it easy and obvious. Diablo does this perfectly with the hotbar: the potions are right there, easy to see and easy to use.

    2) Provide some sort of lingering bonus. For example, quaffing a healing potion could not only heal right now, but also give a buff, like regeneration or a Constitution bonus (i.e. more total hit points), for the next couple minutes. I know I’m more interested in using stuff that provides a longer effect over time, rather than just a one time effect.

    3) If you have a spell casting system, remember that it’s likely in direct competition with your consumable items. Make the item effects better/faster/longer than equivalent spell effects. Diablo also nailed this: potions are instant and uninterruptable, spells are interruptable. This has a directly effect upon tactics: run out of healing potions and you can continue to fight, but now you have to maintain enough distance to heal; allow yourself to get swarmed and you’re finished.

  • Infinitron said,

    If you aren’t prepared to make the game difficult enough to truly require consumables, then just don’t put them in the game. This is what J.E. Sawyer is doing in Project Eternity.

    This is less of a problem in mission-based games, where your inventory resets after each mission. You don’t feel as bad about “blowing your load” when you know that it’s now or never. A related solution for a seamless game would be to make them replenishable, as the first commenter suggested,

  • Arkadesh said,

    A random thought: what about “Best use before” timer for potions? This way you could force using them or they would just rot and spoil. Of course this should be well communicated but it should effectively force players to just use them.

  • groboclown said,

    For myself, it’s because I have the natural human tilted view of costs. If I know that I can go in a corner and suck my thumb to heal or regain mana, even if it takes 10 minutes, I’m more willing to try to push myself in a fight where I don’t have to use that cheap potion. “Free” will always seem cheaper, even when the time cost to earn the money to buy the potion is significantly lower than the free alternative.

    Although, this probably comes from setting myself purchasing goals – yes, I could use that 5gp potion (or item that I could sell for 5gp), but that would add additional time before I could buy the super expensive weapon I’ve had my eye on.

    So, one way to counteract this side of things would be to have a set of items, such as health potions, that you can’t sell. That way, the player doesn’t see those as an alternate form of currency.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @groboclown – your comment seems obvious at first glance, yet… it launched me on something of a mind-blowing train of thought. Thank you. Now I need to keep up with it.

  • McTeddy said,

    I agree with everyone above. Rare items I save for emergencies that never happen, crappy items I tend to forget about, and I will indeed stand still for 10 minutes to heal instead of using my 5G Health potion… that is sad but true.

    I can think of 2 possibly useful ideas.

    First, I love Dark Souls idea of having no regen and a limited number of potions that restock when you rest. This creates a disposable feel like the item is SUPPOSED to be used. There is no benefit for saving them until the later game.

    Second, Grobo got me thinking about an “Eating” mechanic. The idea is that the player can stock up on food as usual and that will be consumed at regular intervals automatically.
    As long as you are eating during these intervals you get a health regen effect. Run out of food? Damage is permanent until you go hunting again.
    The auto-usage of the items will avoid my “Need to save for a rainy day” mindset and the “Menus are too slow”.

  • adorna said,

    well, I hoard RPG items too – big way. But I know when I started that – the earlies computer rpgs I played were wizardry 7 and the old Realms of Arkania games – and both had areas that were just unbeatable without the right kind of item. Especially realms if arkania had neither resting nor saving in dungeons – so you really needed those many and health items. And I remeber both of them had random events/puzzles that let you use your stuff, too.(maybe you would need to swap some item for something else in an Indiana Jones like trap, or you needed a rope to climb somewhere) And I sort of miss that. Today you rarely need to prepare for any dungeon, since you’ll find all you need there.
    Its also feels sort of wasteful to use up items i might need to turn in for quests or crafting, so I’m more likely to use my expendables when crafting and quest items are put into a diffrent inventory slot.

  • Corwin said,

    I’m a notorious game hoarder. The only thing which ever limits me is the size restrictions of my inventory. If you really want to prevent hoarding, then make the inventory space quite small. Everyone will hate you for it though!! :)

  • Rachel said,

    this seems weird, but I feel like using items is kind of like cheating. I never thought until I read your post that designers would expect their players to use them (although in retrospect that seems obvious).

    I’m also a RPG-item hoarder and cheapskate. Remember Ni No Kuni? I never paid for an inn when I could quicktravel to a healing save point. It’s just so much cheaper that way!

  • Xian said,

    Similar to what adorna said above, I hoard items because I have been burned before, needing an item that I had used or sold long before I knew it was needed. I haven’t really run into this in years though. Many games even separate out items into quest items vs regular expendables.

    McTeddy is right about Dark Souls, no use to hoard something that is going to be reset anyway, but even then you still had some expendables – do I want to use the item that gives my weapon a lightning attack or wait until I need it on a tougher opponent?

  • Silemess said,

    I’m a hoarder. The Elder Scroll series is the one I blame for best exemplifying it. I get the health potions and mana potions that restore almost as much health/mana as my character has at the time. So I reason, I should save it for when I need it. But when I need it, is usually determined 5 seconds after it’s too late to do anything about it. So I’ll reload, and still have those potions on hand. Eventually I’ll outgrow them, and usually I only notice that I have them in my inventory when I’m trying to make room for some new “____ of awesome”/money source. And that only comes after battle, when there is no point in drinking them. So they’ll get sold piece meal to merchants as I retire.

    The one exception to this is when I deliberately go picking battles with things I know I should. That’s when I’m happy to fall off the wagon and guzzle potions. But I have to have that battle where I know I need it, in order to use them. If it’s a close run battle, then it’s usually “I survived the last one, so I can survive this one. I’ll drink the potions if I really need to.” and that leads back to the 5 second oops.

    I hoard for my character’s life. But the number of times my character’s packed it in because I’ve forgotten to use what I’m packing? Beyond count.

  • Mephane said,

    I have been a hoarder. Actually, I still hoard stuff, but mostly stuff that is not expendable. Weapons with cool looks, armor with nice design, non-consumable magic trinkets that do fun stuff – my bags or bank are always filled with those eventually.

    But consumables? Nope. I just sell most of them to the next merchant. I’ll hold onto stuff like health potions if they are readily available, but remain very conservative about them. But a potion with +10% damage vs orcs for 1 hour? A scroll with 5 charges that makes me invisible? I turn those into gold and use that to buy a new piece of armor.

    (I also hate permanent item degradation, for it makes armor and weapons effectively consumables, too. I don’t play games that do that. I don’t even care whether it is more realistic, or healthy for some ingame economy.)

  • Mephane said,

    Addendum:

    Generally, I prefer every resource in a game to be renewable. If it does not regenerate by itself, its source better does. I am very glad that games are going away from managing expendable resources towards renewable ones. I like short-term resource management, as in “will I defeat the foe before my mana runs out” where mana regenerates slowly over time, but hate it long-term, as in “will I run out of health potions and die of attrition”. For example something that very much annoys me in games is when

    a) health is only replenished through the use of consumables (very annoying in and of itself) and
    b) the amount of said consumables is finite.

    Together this mean that the game has a finite amount of total hitpoints you can ever blow through, and if you exceed that amount, it means game over*. And you do not know that amount. So I stay on the safe side, for example by never wasting hitpoints. An apple restores 10 HP? I will not use it when I have lost only 8. Well, mostly hypothetically speaking nowadays, because I have stopped playing games that are like that, too.

    This is a traditional setup of first/third person shooters, by the way, but gladly that genre has at least partially moved away from that. Saints Row 4, as a recent example, remove the health regeneration from its predecessor, but the amount of enemies to that drop health items is infinite, so I can live with that, though I preferred the way Saints Row 3 handled it. Another example was Mass Effect, where I played on easy difficulty for the sole reason that only then does health regenerate automatically after battles.
    On the other hand, thinking back to Half Life 2, I was desperate about conserving health and ammo. I went through Ravenholm using the crowbar, sawblades and the various environmental traps almost exclusively because I did not want to run out of ammo in the middle of the town, and the best way to avoid that is by using alternatives that cannot be used up. (For those who don’t remember or did not play it, you could use the gravity manipulator to throw sawblades which were not destroyed in the process, but ended up sticking in the wall behind the foe you just cut in half, then you could just pull them out and use them again.)

  • alanm said,

    Interesting thread. I have similar hoarding tendencies too, although usually I work actively to counter them.

    I mostly dislike the modern trend away from expendable and towards cool-down periods.

    Some random thoughts:

    You can make new ways to use the expendables become available as the player progresses. For example, those light healing potions that the player didn’t consume at low levels might be required an ingredient later on when crafting becomes available. Or today’s wands of minor zapping can become tomorrows ammunition for uberweapon X.

    I think often player resistance to using up the expendables is tied to a mistrust of the economy of the game. So many CRPGs have broken economies that players never know the real value of their possessions. Without enough information to do a cost/benefit guess, they just hang on to the stuff.

  • David W said,

    Am I the only picturing a Frayed Knight-exclusive solution? ‘Arianna, stop being such a miser and let drink a X already. I want to make some BIG BOOMS! We’ve got ten, it’s not like you’ll miss one…’

  • Modran said,

    I don’t think my post will add anything new, just validate many things that were said by previous posters…

    I’m a hoarder. I’m the goddamn batman of hoarders, ready for any situation that could arise.

    Most of the time, I will play using only my spells and attacks until such a moment that I lose a fight. At least 3 times. Then I’ll go on a consumable binge, using everything that boosts my HP, MP, armor, damages, saves, etc.

    Then, I’ll breeze through said fight and a part of me will regret using those consumables…

    As said by one commenter above, it feels a bit like cheating. If I can’t win without items, I’m not good enough.

    That’s for consumables that grant bonuses.

    For items that replace an existing skill (ex: the aforementioned wand of fireball), weeeell, you see, I’ve got the skill, it only costs mana and mana can be replenished, so why should I use it? Also, My skills grow up with time, whereas the objects will just stay at whatever level it’s been designed. Case in point: Golden Sun – Dark Dawn, which I recently finished. Every time I found a sleep bomb (sleep never works anyway), crystal powder (Yeah, like I don’t have a stronger Ice spell) or what-have-you, they were promptly sold.
    I had healing spells, mana that regenerates over time, so why would I go to an inn? Only used one inn when I needed time to pass in the game.
    Healing items I kept as a last resort. Never used them.
    Mana restoring items I kept as a last resort. Used them ONCE, in the final serie of fights, because the game told me “are you sure you’re ready?” between the fights.
    … Basically a problem with almost every JRPG existing…

    McTeddy mentioned Dark Souls. I play Demon’s Soul. In it, I’m liberal with healing items, because I can’t survive without them. I can buy them, and i f I die, I’ll lose that money, so it might as well be used in healing items (that I keep between deaths). But stick stuff, that makes your damage magical? Can’t buy that. Yet. Only find it. If I use it, it’s gone. If I use it and die before killing the boss, it’s gone and I don’t have it anymore. which means I don’t have to speed up the fight once I know how that boss works.
    Which meands I don’t use it…

    Or take Warframe (which I recommend. F2P ninja in space). In it, you gain mods/cards that boosts your equipment. To boost a mod, you fuse it with other identical ones. Or with Fusion cores. Which I started hoarding, to use with “that special mod” (which one? I don’t know, but there might be one). Until my friends used theirs, upgraded their equipment, and… I won’t say “left me in the dust”, but it felt like it. I stopped hoarding those :). But I hoard duplicates of mods, of various levels, just to be sure I can use every combination I might need.

    You know what? i think I need help…

  • Modran said,

    Aaaand that was a doozy of a comment…

  • Arkadesh said,

    As this evolved into Anonymous Hoarders meeting I have to admit something: Not only I hoard expendables, I noticed I tend to hoard skill points, too. Often I keep them and do not spend on skills until some difficult boss or game moment, where I need some specific underdeveloped skills. So I tend play most of the game with heavily underpowered characters.

  • Xenovore said,

    @Arkadesh: LOL!

    @David W: Agreed! With the design of FK, the characters in the party could either harass the player, or take matters into their own hands…
    Ben: *drinks a healing potion*
    Arianna: “WTF, Ben?! You weren’t hurt! Why’d you waste that potion?”
    Ben: “Whoa dude, chill. We’ve got like, 53 of ‘em, and since we’re like, completely out of ale… and the buzz off these ain’t bad at all!” *drinks another healing potion*
    Chloe: “Ben!!!”

  • Xenovore said,

    “…harass the player…”: To clarify, I’m suggesting that occasionally a character in the party could say something like “Holy crap, we have a lot of healing potions! Maybe we should starting using those up, or sell some soon.”

  • McTeddy said,

    I just thought of another reason that sometimes makes me use items. Encumbrance.

    I can’t tell you how many times I’ve realized my inventory was full or I was weighted down only to start chugging potions to fix the problem.

    Obviously, this is not a solution to your own problem but it did pop into my head.

    Also, Arkadesh, now that you mention it I’m even worse with skill points. When I’m not sure which path to go down I just hoard my points and fight enemies without skills. Usually, I adapt to the “Weaker” position and then get bored when I eventually level up and fight equals.
    Besides, it far too common for me to reach late game and have some jerk designer say “You can’t proceed until you have Lockpick 5″. I try to keep enough skill points handy to avoid the annoying grinds.

  • Maklak said,

    It’s not just consumables. At certain point some routine things that used to be lifesavers become just tedious overhead and I stop doing them. For example in HOMM, you can visit windmills for cash and creature dwellings for creatures, but I always stop doing that eventually. Another example is swapping equipment for something better suited to current enemies. It is so much of a bother that I forget it or if I do it, it just prologs the unfun part of the game.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Wow, lots of comments. Well, I’ll read them when I get a chance. Hopefully someone else hasn’t already said this:

    I definitely have the hoarding compulsion. For the intro dungeon of Frayed Knights, I’m pretty sure I died at least once, possibly by not really using expendables. Here is one in-game reason I didn’t though…

    Chloe’s wand. She refers to it as a really nice wand in dialogue, so I got the idea it was associated with her in some way and also valuable or rare. So, I was afraid to use it, lest it run out before I _really needed it_ (the hording), and lest it not be around when I needed it for Plot. It was referred to in dialogue — surely it was something I had to hang on to!

    That said, I need to finish that game, as I am not remembering how the wand mechanics actually worked now.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    The wand thing for Chloe came about somewhat as a joke, as I was rebalancing spells in the alpha. There were dialogs and back-history referring to Chloe’s little habit of blowing things up. But at that point, at her starting level, she didn’t actually have any spells that were that powerful.

    So the wand ended up fulfilling a joke role, a plot role, and a game balance role all at the same time. It made her backstory work. It gives the player some access to “emergency” firepower early in the game, as battles against larger groups was (*smacks head*) as challenging as I’d actually intended them to be when I was working out the rules system, and the fact that Chloe had nearly used up a wand of fireballs that was supposed to have more charges than anybody was expected to use in an entire lifetime was funny. To me, at least. :)

  • Edward Hamilton said,

    I always remember using up consumables in classic RPGs from the 80s, or in the console titles I played twenty years ago. I think that they were another casualty of autosave and quicksave functionality. At some point, it became “easier” to just sell all the consumables (to buy amazing armor) and then save-and-reload your way past the harder fights with multiple attempts.

    Consumables were originally something I used only when I found myself “in over my head” and wanted to come out alive. This was often the source of a lot of wild fun, escaping after blundering into somewhere that the party was terribly out of its depth.

    Now that’s not so much an issue, since walking into a bad fight never costs me more than five minutes of time. I’d waste more time than that on inventory management, if I didn’t sell the consumables.

  • Dan Barber said,

    Hi, I’m Dan, I’m a RPG item hoarder.
    *Hi Dan*
    Hi guys. I’d like to say I hoard because of having been burned in the past as others have mentioned, but I’m not at all sure that’s true. I don’t really know why, and I’ve actually thought about it. I too have gotten to the end or near the end of an RPG to notice that I’m carrying enough consumables to take on a third-world country.

    I wanted to echo what David W said above though. I know, as a developer I recognize this means potentially more item possession-dependent coding, but it seems like in your games having Dirk yell out “Ariana, we’re getting killed here, did you forget that wand” might be a possible solution. I kind of like the idea of gentle in-game nudges, rather more gentle than that flashing “your health/mana are getting low” thing.

  • Rob said,

    I’m terrible about saving all expendable items. This really shows up at the end of Final Fantasy games. I’ll realize I have 29 Aeros and 30 Fire Spells. I could have used those on the boss weak to fire and air magic. But no, my Magic Users was already stacked. So it just sits in my inventory.
    I like the flexibility of expendable items. The problem I see is they are typically scarce and I only rely on them in life or death scenarios. Which in an RPG, if I’m on the way down, an expendable item probably isn’t going to save my life anyway.

  • CdrJameson said,

    I’m not sure I hoard consumables, but I will never use one unless I’ve got at least one ‘spare’.

    I don’t like using these temporary advantages to beat bosses. Big encounters are gating mechanisms, and if I need all my consumables to beat something then I’m unlikely to be strong enough for the routine encounters in the next area.

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