Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 27, 2014
About ten months ago, I wrote about consumable / expendable resources in RPGs. More recently, Matt Barton penned an article about how much he wants to get rid of consumable items altogether in “Down with Pots!”
Well, I’m gonna answer both him and my younger self. At least in part. Actually, I’m gonna write three answers as to why consumable / expendable items are a Good Thing in RPG Design.
Resource Management. It can be fun. No, really!
Early RPGs were all about resource management. That was a major element ever since D&D. You had hit points, you had spells, and you had items. You’d spend the first two and some of the third on every adventure. Note my wording: spend. It’s weird to think of “spending” hit points, but in effect, that’s what you are doing with every encounter.You may not have exact control over how much you spend (or risk), but in a non-trivial fight, the expenditure – potential or realized – is going to happen.
In classic RPG gameplay, managing the “big picture” was, like the Kenny Roger’s song, “The Gambler,” perhaps the greatest point of skill in the game. Random chance did its thing, but if you were careful, you could manage your risk — if not for your own character, than for the party as a whole. The early D&D modules (I’m thinking specifically of the G series – Against the Giants) even had suggestions for the changes that the monsters would make in response to attacks by the players, once the players decided to pull back. It was a constant tug-of-war between pushing your advantage of surprise against an unprepared foe vs. existing supplies. Eventually, you’d be low on spells, potions, scrolls, charges, and “uses per day” and would have to retreat and resupply. And when you came back, the enemies would be ready for you…
I am very disappointed in the modern RPG trend of having (almost) everything replenish over time, once you get a break from combat. Sure, you still have to manage resources – or at least timing – in the middle of a fight. And I of course recognize that there are limits to how much you want to ask a player to be patient in their entertainment choice. But I also believe attrition of longer-term resources (which would include items – consumables) and the associated risk / reward management control the player can exert is a very enjoyable play mechanic – particularly for more experienced players.
Magic Should Be Magical (Or: Not another +1 sword!)
So here’s another argument: For upgrades (magical or otherwise) to really feel like upgrades, they should be noticeable. If a player is hitting 60% of the time for 20 points of damage, a sword that makes them hit 65% of the time for 21 points of damage is not a noticeable upgrade. So you are able to kill an Advanced Fang Beast in an average of 17 rounds instead of 18? Um, yay?
That’s really what those kinds of upgrades do, in an RPG. They allow you to kill faster. Which means less expenditure of those other resources – your health and endurance / mana / whatever. Combat in RPGs is generally an inverted race to zero hit points. Whoever gets there first loses. Even those items with really cool special abilities – the final, long-range mechanical effect is to allow you to go slower in that inverse race between you and your opponents. It’s better if they have cool effects that require some skill to take advantage of rather than being just another +1 sword.
The thing is … if you want to frequently provide upgrade rewards to players, then one of two things happen. Number one, the players escalate in power very quickly, so that the fights are really not about skill but about Level + Gear. This is sort of the Final Fantasy approach, with characters starting out with single-digit damage values at low level and doing triple-digit damage a couple dozen levels later. The other option is the Diablo approach, where the player is barraged with “junk” items that they must parse through to find the one that is an actual upgrade, ignoring or selling the rest.
I’m not fond of either approach, nor do I want to require too much patience from the player to get their next equipment upgrade.
The answer to this is to have powerful, exciting powers with limited use. Consumables are perfect for this kind of thing. But again – they need to do more than simply provide an “edge” in combat. They should feel like game-changers. Not to the point of being instant-wins, but definitely a major supplement. Healing potions are like that in most games. A couple of well-timed potions will often feel like the difference between a reasonably easy victory and total failure. Forget potions that just give you another +1 in combat. How about a potion that doubles your damage? Or even increases your damage by 50%? I’d be drinking one of those at the start of every single boss encounter! It would be one of my favorite “loot drops.” Yet, while they’d definitely change the dynamics of major fights when I chose to use them, in the context of the whole game, they probably wouldn’t make that big of a difference.
Choosing a potential equipment upgrade with a permanent effect can be a really interesting decision. Or not. If it’s a difference between a +3 Sword of Smiting and a clearly inferior +1 Sword, it’s not so much a decision as a straight-up reward. But with the more complicated weapon stats of games like the Diablo series, it’s an interesting decision of the kind Sid Meier credits as being the heart of gameplay.
The thing is, this is an interesting decision you make occasionally. Once you get some halfway decent equipment in most RPGs, the choices are trivial and uninteresting – you aren’t going to find upgrade candidates very often. And sometimes, your interesting decision will be to keep what you are already using…. maybe it’s inferior in some ways to the potential upgrade (which made the decision interesting), but overall you felt better about the known advantages of your existing equipment. That’s all good. That’s a fantastic RPG decision right there.
But the problem is that this kind of decision only comes occasionally. With consumable items, you are making a similar decision in every combat. “Do I use this Potion of Rage now, or save it for later?” Or, “Should I use one of my charges on this wand of fireballs now, in a less-than optimal enemy arrangement? Will I ever get a completely optional arrangement?” If the answer is “no,” it simply means that the option remains available for the next fight (or for the next round).
But on the Flip Side…
While these are all desirable features in an RPG, there are trade-offs.
Hoarding is one problem. Players (including me!) are reluctant to use one of those precious charges on that Wand of Fireballs against trash encounters. By the time we realize the item would have been useful, the time to employ it has passed.
A decision forgotten about it is not a decision at all. When players opt not to use an item for so long, they will forget the option even exists. That’s not a good thing, either. That’s why we often end an RPG with backpacks full of stuff that would have made some of the later battles far easier. There have been a couple of times where I finished an RPG with consumable items in my inventory that I was unclear on exactly what the things did.
Another problem is that too many potential decisions can overload the player. Different players have different thresholds, but generally speaking, humans tend to have a tough time with more than two or three viable options, to the point of prematurely dismissing even better options for the sake of simplifying the choice.
These are unquestionably issues with using consumable items in RPGs, and I do not believe there’s any magical design that will make these problems completely go away. But I do suggest that getting rid of consumables entirely in an RPG design is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
Filed Under: Design - Comments: 11 Comments to Read