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Open question: mana restoration

Rather than describing the existing design of Forgotten Gates this time, I'm going to talk about something I've been pondering adding to it, and hopefully get some helpful discussion going. FG, like most RPG Maker games and indeed most RPGs in general, makes use of the game mechanic of mana or MP, in which certain actions require expending a limited numerical resource. The question is, what ways should be available for this resource to be restored?

I should probably mention up-front that this is really just one facet of a larger problem I face with FG's general design. I'm planning to have self-contained "quests" that must be completed before the player is allowed to leave the quest area (think of it as a "dungeon"). This means that the player must have enough resources to get through the quest from start to finish, regardless of how long and difficult the particular quest is. The tricky implication of this is, there could be a ceiling at which the length of a quest starts to have too much influence on the difficulty of the quest. Once the player runs out of resources, the difficulty of the remainder of the quest (not to mention the time it likely takes to slog through it) takes a sudden jump. What's worse, the player has little way of gauging how they should ration their resources to try and last out the quest, while not wasting them holding way more in reserve than they need. All this, though, is assuming that resources are only depleted as a quest goes on. If resources, most significantly mana, can be restored through smart play, even if it's overall less than the depletion rate, then the length of a quest can be a great deal more flexible.

Safe rest (inn)

Let's get some obvious methods out of the way first. First is "safe rest" mechanics. If the player is able to reach some particular spot, traditionally an inn, they can restore both health and mana. Often there is a monetary cost associated with this, but it's usually comparatively small. This is a good way of establishing a sort of anchor point for safe progress through the game. The player knows that if they can reach a safe rest location, they don't (or at least shouldn't) generally need to worry about being set further back in the game than that point; even if they wander into something bigger than they can handle shortly after the safe rest spot, they can flee back there and get back to full strength at minimal cost. They can also grind in the surrounding territory if need be, sticking close to the safe rest spot for security. Depending on the desired feel of a particular game, this can be a good or a bad thing, but most RPGs seem to value it.

In FG, I'll probably restore the party's health and mana automatically and for free in between quests, making anyplace outside of a quest area essentially a safe rest zone. In addition, quest areas can have rooms with fairies that restore health and mana, functioning as in-dungeon safe rest spots. I was expecting to have these be free as well, just because that's how they traditionally function in Zelda games, but thinking about it now, maybe I should give it some cost, possibly even a significant one. Having a spot within the danger zone where the player can easily restore everything over and over could make long-term dungeon crawling too easy, or worse, too dependent on finding and exploiting the fairy room. Carefully used, they might function as reset points for the bearable length of a quest, breaking it into a series of sprints that can be individually balanced. That's difficult to ensure if the dungeon is randomly-generated, though, which a fair number (maybe even the majority) of FG quests will be.

  • Allows balancing of game segments to be done relatively independent of each other
  • Provides relief of built-up tension for player

  • Encourages grinding
  • Provides an excuse to not design the ratio of resource use to restoration well for ambiguous dungeon length and difficulty
  • Random dungeons with inconveniently placed safe rest locations could be unfairly difficult

Restoration items (potions)

The next obvious method of resource restoration is items, traditionally food or potions. These allow the player to control their own resource restoration rate to a degree, essentially keeping a pool of inactive resource in their inventory and moving it to active as needed. In a way, this moves the "safe rest" to "anytime outside of battle", since using items in battle typically costs an action, but using them outside of battle only costs the items themselves. That cost too can be significant, although it depends on the balance of how frequently such items can be found lieing around the game world, obtained from enemies, or bought from merchants (and for that last one, how expensive they are). In a lot of RPGs, items end up accumulating in the player's inventory faster than they're used, ironically since there's a sense that they're less expendable than mana which can be topped off cheaply at the safe rest area.

FG probably will include restoration items, if only because they're a traditional thing to have both in Final Fantasy-style JRPGs and in Zelda. I could cut them out if I decided it would improve the gameplay, though. On the plus side, they do provide a relatively organic way of tieing resource restoration to the length and difficulty of a quest. The longer and harder a quest, the more and better items the player will receive from enemy drops, and the more money they'll accumulate to buy extra should they run into a merchant. On the minus side, this only works if all of the monsters drop items of this sort, or at least the proportion of monsters that do drop them is high enough in any given quest. Also, one could argue that using items between battles is a tedious chore for the player.

  • Ties restoration potential to length and difficulty of dungeon, organically adjusting
  • Matches the theme

  • Can be tedious to use or make the player reluctant to expend them
  • Drop rate and item type per monster or battle could be very tricky to balance well

Automatic regeneration

One slightly more modern approach is to have mana regenerate automatically over time. With this approach, items are only needed in situations where the player wants a quick boost while under pressure, and safe rest areas are anyplace where they can literally rest safely while their mana returns. If done literally in real-time, this can be a bit tedious, but in a turn-based context it can be skimmed through fairly quickly -- in fact, if there's no possibility of being attacked again once battle is done, the designer may as well top off the player's mana automatically anytime they finish a battle. This has a number of attractive qualities, the best of which to my mind is that it encourages the player to use their mana frequently. After all, if they have full mana and aren't using it, they're missing out on the points they would regenerate over the next few turns. Thus they have a reason to pull out those fancy special techniques and spells, which is more fun and varied than just using the basic attack over and over. The downside is, if mana really does fully restore in between every combat, then any combat which can be blasted through without running out of mana becomes trivial, and nearly any sense of long-term strategy for surviving the dungeon as a whole is destroyed because one combat doesn't do much to tire the player for the next one. This is especially true if health is restored along with mana, or if the player has a skill for turning mana into health (and if they don't have the crucial party member with that skill they'll curse the designer).

In FG, it would be fairly easy to implement mana regeneration in combat, and mana refill after combat would be even easier. Not all of the potential party members have healing skills to convert that mana into health, though, especially at lower levels. This could lead to dedicated healers being overused when the player has a choice of party composition, and frustration when they don't. I could be generous and also restore health at the end of combat, but that would have the aforementioned problem of making the individual combats of a quest almost totally unrelated. I want the gameplay to be viable over both short and long quests, but not for the quests to be simply a string of unrelated encounters. It's supposed to be a Rogue-like to some degree after all, and that means strategizing. I do like the aspect of encouraging players to use mana-burning skills, though.

  • Encourages the player to make use of skills
  • Relieves the need to balance long-term resource restoration

  • Because there's no need for long-term resource restoration, there's also no long-term strategy for the player
  • Awkward if the player has no healer in party

Restore on level-up

Lots of RPGs will restore the health and mana of a character when they reach a new level. It's a sort of congratulatory bonus, and it allows the player lots of fuel with which to try out any shiny new skills which may have come with the level-up. This is sort of useful if you're going for longevity while still maintaining some sense of survival planning, because the player is restored at milestones which are based on how much they've done (experience from beating enemies). This encourages using up mana, especially as the player approaches a level-up, because anything unused at that point is lost potential. On the other hand, it can also make the player reluctant to use items if they know they'll be leveling up soon. The exact timing of the level-up can be rather ambiguous too.

FG could actually benefit from this more than a lot of RPGs because I'm planning to use a very unusual rule: levels do not carry over from one quest to the next. There may be some quests in which I start the player's level higher than in others, but in general, leveling up will be a very visible and critical aspect of getting through any given quest, and will happen relatively often. One could say that quests in which it can be expected the level cap will be reached well before the end would be problematic, since the player would no longer have that restoration mechanic; however, this is easily fixed by adding a manual system that tracks XP earned past the level cap and restores the player at continuing milestones even though they're no longer leveling up. Still, I'm not convinced this would be a good way of handling restoration. As a bonus in a casual RPG that's about getting to the end of the story, level-up restoration is fine; as an intentional mechanic for restoring resources in a Rogue-like, it feels artificial and unreliable to me.

  • Ties restoration amount of enemies defeated
  • Encourages the player to make use of skills
  • Creates cyclic waves of tension as the player starts out strong, runs low on resources, and achieves level-ups
  • Meshes well with FG's temporary leveling system

  • Timing of level-ups could be difficult to sync with player's need for restore
  • Restoration is sudden and somewhat arbitrary
  • Discourages item use shortly before level-up

Instant-use resource drops

This one is sort of a quirky blend of item drops and automatic regeneration. Instead of having enemies drop items that go into the inventory and can be used later at the player's discretion (although that can be done too), they can drop small resource restorations that are applied immediately. This is actually precisely what the Zelda series has done from the start, with randomly spawned hearts on occasion when a monster is defeated and in later games sometimes mana-restoring potions. The genius of this is that it ties resource restoration directly to the things which deplete those resources in the first place, so the more enemies the player has to face, the more they'll be given new resources. It's not a totally one-to-one relationship as there are other factors that come into play; for example, facing six monsters all at once will deplete the player's resources (especially health) a lot more than facing the same six one at a time, but the restoration potential is the same either way. Still, it gives the player more when the game demands more, and doesn't have such easy abuses as time/turn-based regeneration or the mechanics/fiction disconnect of regenerating only while in battle.

I'm thinking this would be a pretty good approach to use in FG. It'll take a bit more work than simple turn-based regeneration, but it would help mitigate the long-term resource drain of both mana and health without destroying long-term strategy or making dedicated healers totally indispensable (although obviously they'd still have significant value). Luckily the lore of Zelda already supports this, although I'll probably need to make the drops a bit more consistent than they are in the canon Zelda games. Turn-based RPGs generally can't afford to be as random as action games about such things. Balancing it could still be tricky, though, especially in tandem with the safe rest and item methods.

  • Encourages the player to make use of skills
  • Restoration is tied directly to enemy amounts and difficulties
  • Works well even if player has no healing skills
  • Fits nicely with Zelda theme

  • Will need to be carefully balanced

Alternative resource systems

It's sort of unlikely that I'll adopt a significantly different resource system than traditional mana for FG at this point, but it's still worth considering what other possibilities there are and what strengths and weaknesses they have.

One possibility is to have multiple resource pools in place of mana. Final Fantasy III (the original one, not FF6 that was initially released as 3 in the US) tried this by splitting mana up into different levels, so that a character could cast for example ten level 1 spells, seven level 2 spells, and three level 3 spells before needing to restore mana. This system is generally not remembered fondly by most, but it does have its fans. If I were going to try something like that in FG, the first thing that springs to mind is to have shared mana pools for the entire party associated not with levels, but elements. One character using a point of Fire mana might cast a fireball at a single target, while another might try to soften the defenses of all enemies with a heat wave, while another might bolster an ally's attack power with an inner blaze, etc. Restoring an elemental pool could be a matter of defeating enemies associated with that element. I'd have to totally revamp the skills of the game to do that, so I don't think I'll pursue that option, but it's an interesting idea. Somebody should totally make a game around that. ;)

Even more extreme in a way is to make every mana pool control a single technique. This essentially translates to having "items" for skill usage. Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time took this approach and I absolutely loved it, because it compelled the player to think carefully about which items to use in which situations and which to save for later. The fact that each special technique item also had its own action mini-game to determine how much value you get out of it helped a lot too. Paper Mario: Sticker Star revived this system and made it even more extreme, requiring an item for even the most basic attacks. I already have a character in FG with a Throw command, which basically works this way on the subset of unused weapon items. That's probably about as close as I'm going to get, as interesting of a system as it is.

Another approach is to eschew mana entirely, and base techniques on something else. Final Fantasy XIII and its sequel tried this, allowing unlimited use of most skills within a character's current class (or "role" as they put it since it frequently changed even in mid-battle). More powerful skills had a greater cost not in mana, but in ATB bars, making it so that they could be used fewer times per turn. Actually, thinking about it now, you could say that this system still is using mana, just a very rapidly regenerating form that you're expected to use up completely at one go. FF13 definitely does suffer from the smaller battles feeling insignificant since very little is carried from one battle to the next, but it does have the upside that the important battles can be as challenging as need be without the worry the player will be too fatigued when they reach them. Also, it takes away a lot of the apprehension of the player to use the full breadth of their characters' skillsets, although those skills have to be generally less exciting and useful than the powerful spells normally gated by mana use. This is somewhat tempting for FG, but I'd rather keep the spells more powerful and maintain that Rogue-like sense of long-term strategizing.

Finally, it's possible to use other methods of controlling how often the player is allowed to use different skills at different times. One way of doing this is with cards, which provide a random distribution of happenstance but keep the long-term frequency of events controlled. Baten Kaitos: Eternal Wings and the Lost Ocean applies cards to the RPG paradigm rather successfully, challenging the player to make the best use they can of the moves provided in their current hand of cards by playing a limited number of them and saving the rest to use with future draws (and taking advantage of numerical interactions between cards, but that's too complicated to describe here). That could certainly be fun, especially if you had one hand of actions for your entire party and cards gave you different effects when played through different party members. That's way more complex and different from the existing design of FG than I'm willing to entertain, though. X) Yet another "somebody else should totally do this" idea. Maybe even combine it with the elemental mana thing, that could be represented by cards easily enough.

What are your thoughts?

I've sorta convinced myself through writing this that I should go with the instant-use resource drops method, along with a sprinkling of dropped/found items and safe rest spots. I'm still very interested to hear others' thoughts, though. Any systems you can think of I haven't mentioned here? Any arguments for or against particular systems, including the ones I'm leaning toward? Any recommendations for the nitty-gritty implementation?


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The actual Zelda games make you refill magic by collecting pots from defeated enemies or by cutting shrubbery and other things. How about making it something like that?
The actual Zelda games make you refill magic by collecting pots from defeated enemies or by cutting shrubbery and other things. How about making it something like that?

That's pretty much what I mean by instant-use resource drops. You beat an enemy, they have a chance of dropping a vial that restores a little of your party's mana (or a heart that restores health, or a larger refill if it was a tough enemy, etc.). It's a good point that I could also include events on the map (the shrubs) that work similarly, though. Thanks for the suggestion. :)
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