MP: Avoiding Design by Default

in Design

One thing I’ve noticed a lot, is that in video games, especially turn based RPGs, there are some things that are just done, because they are done. They are implemented without a lot of thought, its just the default design. In this article, I’m going to focus on one of those individual mechanics: the standard resource economy of Magic Points.

Now, I’m not saying that it doesn’t work. MP or its equivalent is used in plenty of games that I truly like. But, its focused around the idea of attrition mechanics, and tends to create one style of gameplay. It does work well, and if looking at it, you decide its the best fit for your game, I’m not going to stop you. But I do think changing the resource economy of your game is one of the fastest ways to make it stick out from the pack.

Of course, we do have some other defaults, especially in RPG Maker, since we have the charging TP bar as well. Its a new twist, but it too has gotten a bit of the “Default” in RPG Maker just due to the mechanics being built in.

For inspiration, I’m going to look outside of video games, and reach for my other hobby: Board Games. Board games have a long history of turn based alternative resource mechanics. I’m going to talk about two alternatives myself, but there are plenty of them out there.

Dice Assignment

Two games I’ve picked up recently, Roll for the Galaxy, and Dead of Winter, use what I call “Dice Assignment” as the main driver behind the players available actions.

Also, the Roll dice look suspiciously candy-like.

Also, the Roll dice look suspiciously candy-like.

Basically, at the beginning of your turn, you roll a set of dice, and then you assign those dice to actions based on the rules. The two games work a bit different in the assignment part, and I’ll talk shortly about them.

In Roll for the Galaxy, each die has different sides representing each action. You can do that action once for each die you have assigned to that action (there are more rules on whether an action will even occur in that turn, if it doesn’t you can’t do them, but I’ll avoid that part of the discussion to avoid overcomplication).

In Dead of Winter, you have normal 6 sided dice. Characters will have attack and search traits written like “2+” or “4+” or any other number between 1 and 6. This means that you have to spend a die of that number or above to perform that action.

Now, I know what you are thinking: That sounds super random. And if that was all it was, it would be. But both games mitigate it to some degree: In Roll, your selection of dice effects likelihood of each side (different colors have different numbers of each side), and it also features a lot of ways to move dice to other actions. In Dead of Winter, there are options that you can always spend a die on, no matter the number, that are good, even if they are not 100% ideal, and also has special actions that can let you reroll dice at times.

This is a mechanic that I could easily see fitting into a turn based RPG. Roll dice, assign dice to character actions. Stronger actions need rarer die sides. Add in ways to manipulate the dice and you have a neat working system that is almost completely unique when it comes to video games.

Action Recharge

This is done in two games that I have in my collection, Space Hulk: Death Angel and BattleCon: Devastation of Indines, and I think it works really well to keep the game rounds from feeling “samey” each turn while not relying on a resource like MP.


Devastation of Indies also happens to be the most intimidating game I’ve ever opened. Actual shot of me organizing it for the first time. Not all of the contents of the box are in shot.

In both games, it behaves very similar. When you play a specific card/card combo, you mark it in some way to prevent using it again for a set amount of time. In Death Angel, you can’t take the same action two turns in a row, in Devastation, the cards you play go into one discard pile, which then moves the two cards in that into another discard pile, which then moves the two cards in that pile back into your hand.

In video games, this has been implemented in minor ways. A few skills may have recharge times. But imagine a game with no MP costs, but EVERY action had recharge times, even standards like attack and guard. Imagine how much more dynamic the gameplay could be when you had to do different stuff every round. You would constantly have to think ahead to which action you would need next turn. As long as you kept each action similar in power, you could have all recharge times identical. Or you can take advantage of how much easier this mechanic is to do in digital space and have different recharge times for different skills based on their power.

There are plenty of alternatives to the normal MP/TP style system that everyone uses. Find your own. Pull inspiration from anywhere you can. Do you have any ideas about new ways to implement the standard resource economy to make it feel fresh? Share them with us in the comments section below.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Armando Aulia Ndoe

    There is this ‘Global Cooldown’ which is quite popular in recent MMORPG. Every skills executed doesn’t need Energy/Mana/MP but it could share the bar as stamina, meaning that every moves/skills we make (and if executed carelessly) would reduce our aim/speed/etc.
    There is also this element from Chrono Cross that I like. In Star Ocean : Till the End of Time, MP is also serve as a health bar, meaning that if we runs out of MP, we die. There are others as well, but as casual RPG goes, it’s hard to think outside of the box and hope people enjoy it.

    • Yeah, MP killing certain bosses was one of the easiest ways to get some of the trophy things. Because it was faster and you could do it easier without getting hit (Star Ocean: Till the End of Time)

  • The World of Warcraft minis game made use of a “cooldown” mechanic, and while it did mean keeping track of “time ticks”, it worked pretty well as a way to balance abilities. There’s also the Heat mechanic in BattleTech, which lets pilots gamble with “alpha strikes” or fight for the long run with sustained firepower at lesser intensity.

    Alternatively, FFT had MP, but spells themselves had a “warm-up” timing mechanic, which meant that planning their actual *use* was more important than MP management.

    • I’ve not played Battletech, but always thought it looked neat.

      I think that the time mechanic in FFT though was wonky. There was no way (beyond support abilities) to speed up how fast they went, while speed of the character steadily increased. Eventually if you optimized, any character would charge would have their turn come back around before their spell went off.

  • Michael Marsigne

    Awesome article 😀

  • Michael_Ponder_JR

    phantasy star 4 there are skills.. each level you go up the skill
    increases the amount of times you can use it, Kinda like items. In order
    to refill each skill’s number of uses, you sleep at an Inn. So you
    might have a Fire skill that when you first get it, has 3 uses… after
    it hits 0 you gotta sleep somewhere.. as an example. Each level or few
    levels it increases in numbers. RMVX Ace could use a system like that, i
    been WANTING a system like that, but i’m not a scripter so i have NO
    clue how to make such a system. But i would use such a system if i could find one.

  • Final Fantasy XI does this to some degree, each magic attack has a certain cooldown to it. For instance, one of my favorite (Being a Blue Mage) is Bludgeon–it’s a triple attack based on how much TP your character has. IF I had the Red Mage ability “Chainspell,” I could spam it over and over until I ran out of MP. As is, it has a several second cooldown–and in many battles at my level, those several seconds can mean life or death. You’ve also got to wait a full second before casting ANY spell after you cast one–and that takes up your attack action as well.

    At least, that’s the way the mechanics seem to play from playing it.

  • Leevan

    Xenoblade Chronicles has an interesting mechanic in that skills had no cost but everything had a real time cooldown, including the attack command. It was really well executed.

  • Lannie Neely III

    Chrono Cross was innovative in that spells had one-time use in battle, but recharged for the next. Moreover, each spell had the same cost, but that cost was Stamina instead of MP. Stamina affected not only when your next turn was, but how many of EVERY action you could take that turn. So MP was fundamentally merged with a Speed stat to create a whole new idea. It’s a system I don’t think I’ve seen since.

  • Beamlight

    World of Warcraft has been mentioned below here at least once, but they have numerous energy systems for each class to handle, mana being one of them. My favorite is the death knights, where they have “runes” that go on cooldown after an ability is used; so you would have an Unholy, Blood, and Frost runes, and using a spell that used a frost spell would put that rune on cooldown for 10 seconds.

    I think its a clever way to guise cooldowns.

    I could write a whole research paper on the subject. I think giving a player multiple energy systems can be a lot of fun.

  • this style of brainstorming, mixing and matching things across genres and mediums, is one of my favourite things to see. tabletop games in particular have become excellent at chopping and remixing the old standbys, and I’d love to see that same spirit of experimentation spread. the less that people feel pressured by the weight of the genre to compromise their decisions, the better!

    even small mechanical hooks can change a game’s flavour enormously. Guadia Quest, a deliberately by-the-numbers RPG sub-game in the Game Center CX DS title, gave each weapon a different selection of ten ‘cards’ that, chosen randomly, determined the strength of each attack in place of a numerical Accuracy or Critical stat. it didn’t change much of the flow, but made the system feel much more transparent.

    … I’m also wondering, now, if anything recently-made uses something like Vancian casts-per-level. on paper, it sounds like it handles a few of the problems that crop up with normal MP, but there might also be a very good reason people stopped using it after FFII.

  • Joshua Warhurst

    We’re actually experimenting with this in a strategy RPG my friends and I are working on. No MP, but each skill has certain advantages to using it over other ones. For example, the basic attack is a 100% hit attack against someone nearby. But another attack has hurts anyone in the spaces in front of you, but lowers your DEF for a few turns. Another one has a huge spell range, but makes the character have to recharge for a few turns, making them unusable. Without using MP, each of these attacks has reasons for using them and considerations.

    Really, taking this whole post into account, the most important thing isn’t just MP: What do we need in an RPG? Do we need separate Magic and Attack stats? Do we need HP even? Could we have an RPG where the goal was to beat an enemy within a time limit, for instance, without having to worry about dying because of HP? In that instance, the strategy would be less to worry about HP management while killing and more to change the strategy based on what the enemy is doing. Enemy puts their shield up? Use attacks that “break” or “knock away” the shield. Enemy “hides”? Use abilities that search for the enemy’s location? I dunno. But there’s a lot of options out there if we look.