Goodbye to Resource Attrition

By | August 24, 2013

Hello again,

Today I’d like to talk about a specific piece of feedback we received during a recent public demonstration of the Infinite Earths ruleset.

I was going over the different pre-generated characters when I explained that a character’s Resolve and Mana (if any) both return to full after an encounter if the character has a chance to catch her breath.

Resolve is a measure of a character’s ability to continue fighting and is reduced by successful attacks and other threatening circumstances. Basically, hit points without explicitly requiring physical damage, as Resolve can be depleted through means other than violence.  Mana is a measure of how much energy a character has to manipulate known Arcana to produce magical effects.  Arcana are rote, quick-use spells available in combat.

I ended with this simple statement: “We’re not building a resource-depletion system.” Two of the five players who were completely new to the rules immediately exclaimed: “Thank God.”

This might seem like an unusual decision for a game that owes some of its inspiration to the granddaddy of them all: Dungeons & Dragons. Tracking weight, from every pound of rations down to the last crossbow bolt, along with hit points lost and spells cast is an intrinsic part of the roleplaying experience for many people.

This isn’t true for all games, of course, not even all those descended from Gygax. Each edition and each table has a different set of rules meant to best produce the experience desired by those playing.

For example, the use of random encounters has changed over time. Random encounters with monsters in dungeons were central to the rules of D&D. Players could take apart each room brick by brick hunting for treasure, but that increased the chance some unknown horror would stumble upon them. In that way, random encounters encouraged players to think of time as another commodity to be used carefully.

That design element was either lessened or absent from future editions. This made it easier to rest and restore hit points and spells, allowing players to handle dungeons at their own pace. That decision, along with other changes, had the effect of making spellcasters more powerful than before.

Spells were still balanced around the idea that random encounters could even disrupt the party’s sleep, especially for those who chose to barricade themselves inside a dungeon. But not everyone chose to play that way, which meant some characters had fewer limits than before.

There is nothing that prevents GMs from using random encounters in any game. But as rules focused more on how many and what type of encounters a group could reasonably engage in a day, random encounters were seen as an throwing a wrench in those figures.

Time is a valuable commodity for everyone. A website loses viewers for each additional second it takes to load. So it’s no wonder that random encounters began to seem like less of a timer and more of a waste of time to some Players and GMs.

I’ve played in many kinds of games, from sandbox exploration to episodic threats to grand schemes that continue even if the players wander somewhere else. All of them were fun so long as everyone had the same basic expectations for how things were going to work.

We decided that our system would not burn down player resources slowly over multiple conflicts until they either died or were forced to retreat. This is meant to make to the rules compatible with a wider range of playstyles. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

  • There can be a different number of encounters from session to session if the Guide does not have to wear the players down to an “appropriate” point for the climax.
  • Players cannot “go nova” against their opponents by unleashing an entire day’s worth of resources at once. All Players can contribute in each type of encounter without dominating it because they are at full strength.  Full strength, though, does not mean as much to as many as it does in some other games.
  • There is no tracking of hit points or spells from week to week (or longer for those who game once a couple times a month).
  • Players who tend to hoard resources such as spells gain no benefit, and thus are more likely to use their abilities earlier.
  • Enemies are tougher than some other games to ensure that combat always remains a risk. Exploding damage dice help make each attack something to worry about. A dagger might only do 1d4 damage, but it has a 25 percent chance to explode for another roll of the dice. That means there is a 6.25 percent chance that a successful hit with a dagger will do at least 9 points of damage.
  • The pace of the game is set by the story being told and the Players’ decisions on how they interact with those developments. No more interrupting the flow of the story just to deal with bookkeeping issues or resting to regain spells needed to advance the plot.
  • Abilities reset by encounter, allowing as many or as few encounters per day as the story and the players demand.
  • Attempts to avoid combat, enlist allies or make peace do not threaten to throw off the delicate behind-the-curtain mathematical balance.
  • Our rules give the Guide an idea of how dangerous a fight will be based on the number of actions the opponents can bring to bear each round rather than on ever-increasing bonuses to dice rolls.
  • Adventure design is much easier since the Guide only has to worry about how powerful one encounter is, not how everything fits together. This also encourages Players to be more judicious, since triggering multiple encounters can quickly overwhelm them.

Obviously, there is no right or wrong way to enjoy role-playing games. A good ruleset, though, should encourage and support the style of play it is designed to produce. We want every combat to carry the chance of defeat and possibly death without relying on overly complex charts or guesses as to how many fights there will be each day.

This approach helps us focus on making each encounter with the unknown feel threatening and heroic without sacrificing its tactical edge. Why build a system that assumes only some encounters – combat, social or exploration – will be interesting?