Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

RPG Design: The Positive Potential of Potions

Posted by Rampant Coyote on August 27, 2014

DungeonMasterInventoryAbout 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?

MagicSwordMST3KThat’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.

HardChoiceLots of Interesting Choices

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

  • Damjan Mozetic said,

    I believe in less is more.

    All the troubles with hoarding and insignificant weapon/armor upgrades can be solved simply by having a smaller variety of items, but each a significant upgrade to the previous one.

    Take a look at the good old RPG Betrayal at Krondor and see what I mean.

  • Mattias Gustavsson said,

    I think a possible solution for the hoarding of consumables, is to make the number of inventory slots limited. When I play a game where potions/scrolls stack up in the same slot, I tend to hoard in excess – barely ever using them, for fear I will need them later. When I have more limited inventory space(and where consumables don’t stack), like for example Dungeon Master, I use things much more freely, as I would hate to have to leave some loot behind. It becomes a “use it or loose it” kind of deal.

  • Mephane said,

    As I mentioned in my comment to the other article about consumables, the issue, at least for me personally, is the finiteness of a given type of item or resource across the entire game, but especially the finiteness of the total sum of resources.

    I.e. if every resource in a game is finite, this has a very peculiar consequence:

    We assume a game has exactly 1000 identical enemies, which in total will drop 100 health and 100 mana potions. This means, in order to succeed in your quest, you need to be able to defeat an average of 10 enemies per health and mana potion consumed. In a typical RPG, you don’t know the odds, however, and your primary measure of whether you are doing fine is whether the amount of potions you have is increasing over longer time spans, or decreasing. (This can be through the proxy of the gold with which you buy the potion.)

    This issue also arises in every traditional FPS with non-regenerating hitpoints, no enemy respawn and finite ammo resupplies. You know you are doing badly when health and/or ammo exhibit a clear trend towards 0. Since the amount you can carry is always limited, you know you are doing fine when you are regularly capped up on ammo and health.

    I understand many people like this type of gameplay, but I hate it. If a game offers no pressure valve, no single resource you can always rely on to be replenishable no matter what, no fallback when everything else runs low, then there is a failure state that does not say “you died”, but “you are stuck on a useless savegame with too little resources and no way to recover”; the very possibility of this puts me under real stress, so I avoid it at all cost.

    This is what made me never finish Darksiders. I absolutely loved the game, but eventually I came to a point where the difficulty of every encounter meant that I would regularly lose more health in a fight than I could ever recover from what I can get back; when I realized this downwards trend, I immediately quit and uninstalled the game, because there is no point in keeping playing when I know that the very act of playing slowly corrupts my savegame into uselessness anyway.

    (I think, in retrospect, if you died you’d always respawn at the start of a zone, with half your total health pool, and therefore you could basically heal up to 50% simply by dying at the start of a zone, which is a tactic I might indulge in occasionally, but not all the time.)

    So the gist of what I am saying is if you design your game about finite resources, always include at least one fallback resource that is effectively unlimited. Some games have mana that regenerates, but health doesn’t (learn a healing spell and you can always use quiet stretches to patch yourself up), in other’s it is the other way round. Many FPS now have health that regenerates after some time of not getting hit, others feature one weapon (a pistol, a melee weapon) with infinite ammo.

    There is also one clever way to add such a pressure valve without having anything regenerate at all, but it does not work in all games – respawning, non-scaling enemies. If worst comes to worst, you can retreat to easier areas of the game, kill enemies there for gold and loot to fill you up again on potions, med kits, ammo, etc. The Borderlands games, for example, follow this approach, if you are low on health or ammo you can go to a vending machine in the next town to fill yourself up, and if you can’t even afford that, you can go to a low level area to kill a few easy mooks for their cash first.

  • Cuthalion said,

    I should probably read the post first, but I’m going to be bad and comment first.

    Prince Caspian (Narnia #2) had a discussion about this when they were trying to decide whether to use Susan’s horn or wait until a time when things were even worse. This’s been around probably ever sense we first found something we could only use once.

    Personally, I find it a stressful decision and always end up just hoarding unless I know a) it’ll give me a permanent benefit, which turns it into a similar decision to which character should take the ninja class, or b) I can get more if I want.

    I’m also the person who never throws anything away in real life.

  • Cuthalion said,

    It doesn’t help that sometimes I wonder if I’ll need it for a quest, if it’s the first time I’ve encountered the item.

  • chris said,

    I’m pretty passionate about this issue. It pains me to read these rpg-heads complaining about a game giving you a REASON to go back and do a better job. Anyway, they’re entitled to their opinion – it’s just games – but I love potion management. It can get old, and FAR too many games seem to start out getting you thinking about potion management, only to abandon it halfway with far too many potions or no real use cases for 90% of the potions (name five games where you really got the chance to use up your potions of XX resistance). But when the game is made by a Real Designer, the interplay of potions (or equivalent) as “emergent” solutions to every battle – that is one of the highwater marks of RPG gaming. The post MMO era of rpg design sees timing/recharging challenges as the key to balance, but they are essentially just making every rpg into an rts.

  • Xian said,

    The flip side of the flip side has come back to bite me more that once – using something then finding out that I really should have held on to it until later, so that only tends to increase my hoarding. For instance, in Dungeon Master, when you were doing the final boss fight against Lord Chaos you had to trap him within a flux cage, basically casting a spell on all 4 sides of him then fusing the cage together. He was very illusive though, always managing to slip out before you could surround him. Earlier in the game I had found several cubes that froze time, but had used them. The 2nd time I played the game I saved them to the end and final battle was much, much easier.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Ok, after reading the post, I very much agree with Mephane.

    You mention some things that consumables do to make the game interesting, but for me it stops being interesting when it becomes stressful instead. 🙁

  • Noumenon72 said,

    What they need to do is take away the memory and complexity issues with prompts. Fighting an enemy you know had a fire attack? “Press Up to drink portion of fire resistance.” Shopping? Press Up to drink potion of mercantile. Then you’ll be able to feel good when you win without the potion, because you were reminded you could have used it.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Ooo… I like Noumenon’s idea. Curious how hard that would be to implement. I guess it could be done the same way any other context-sensitive prompt is done. But with more data entry to add all the options. 😛

  • McTeddy said,

    I think it’d be pretty tricky actually. Things like “Potion of Mercantile” could be easy but battles are another monster.

    How often have you been in a battle where you are only a single type of monster? Most of the time you’ll be facing 2 or 3 different types that each require a different tactic.
    When I press the button should it use the fire potion or the poison resistance? Both are technically valid… but the AI has to know which I wanted to use.

    I’ve played plenty of games that automate the “Press RB to drink a healing potion” but rarely use it. Even with the single choice of “Drink Small, Medium or Large potion” is complicated and the AI usually fails me.
    Either it drinks a large potion when I only needed 1 HP or it blows a medium potion when it would wiser to use multiple small ones to save my big potions for combat.