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November 16, 2012

Resource Management in RPGs

To continue the 80s flashback theme from earlier this week, I want to start a discussion about resource management.  Specifically, I wanted to remind my readers that in The Legend of Zelda, the bow was actually pretty awesome...

...but you lost a rupee every time you shot it!

The idea of using ammunition for money is just one concept of resource management that is out there.  In effect, resource management as a game mechanic changes a simple decision:  

Which is the best ability my character has for this situation?

...into a complex decision by adding a consequence that varies depending on hidden information.  Remember, taking a risk means making a consequential decision with incomplete information.  The consequence is losing a resource that you may need later.  The hidden information is whether you will need that resource later or not.

NOTE TO READERS:  This post is more of a game design post than a how-to-GM post.  Don't worry -- I'm going to get to that.  For GMs interested in house rules to fix some of the drawbacks of poorly designed resource management systems, read this post first and then stay tuned! I'm going to talk about house rules next week!  
...And I'm going to use Mind's Eye Theater's Laws of the Night as my running example...

Resource management has a lot of drawbacks.

First, it's a lot of paperwork.

In Mind's Eye Theater's Laws of the Night, the old Vampire: the Masquerade LARP system, a player has to keep track of...

  1. physical traits
  2. mental traits
  3. social traits
  4. status traits
  5. abilities
  6. blood
  7. willpower
  8. health levels
  9. backgrounds (e.g. influence, resouces, herd)
  10. humanity (to be fair, this one rarely changes)

Ten independent trackers!  That's quite a lot of bookkeeping.  It's so much bookkeeping that it's impractical for GMs of Vampire LARPs to use a scrip like tickets or chits to track each item.  "Red chips are physical, white are mental, blue are social, tickets are blood, cards are for abilities and backgrounds, beads are for willpower, and marbles are for health levels.  Got it?"

It's especially compounded because the traits are inter-operable.  Willpower can be spent to regain a category of physical, mental or social traits.  Blood can be spent to gain new physical traits that last one hour or scene.  Lost health levels cause wound penalties to other traits.  Disciplines add un-lose-able traits and health levels, clan advantages/disadvantages modify some of these trackers, and derangements do as well.  Negative traits can alter the rate of loss of certain traits.  Weapons, ability specializations and merits add phantom traits to totals for comparisons, and then there's the bomb.  Look it up.

It turns out that when the stakes are low, complexity is high, and the chances of being caught are low, people cheat a lot -- often unconsciously or without realizing they're doing it.

"Lots of people cheat a little.  We've tested about 30,000 people so far, and we've found twelve big cheaters: people who cheated all the way. Together they stole $150 from us.  And we found 18,000 little cheaters that, together, stole $36,000 from us....  But the capacity to cheat a little bit and feel good about themselves is really more common than you think, and because of that it's much more dangerous.  And because of that also we need to think about how we engineer the environment..." -Dan Ariely
When the paperwork is minimized, and the stakes remain high, cheating is discouraged and the burden of record-keeping is reduced.  Some ways to do this include using chits or tokens, or making expendable resources have more of a dramatic impact.

Second, it's hard to balance.

Let's say you're running a space marines game.  The characters are repelling an invasion.  There's an armory they can go to to get grenades.  Grenades are an expendable resource better than any other attack.  They can carry 4 grenades each.

Naturally the players will go get 4 grenades, use them up as fast as possible, and return to the armory.  They will repeat this over and over.

This is the problem with every edition of D&D up to 3rd edition -- spell casters had an armory full of grenades they could go back to every morning, so they would just toss grenades (cast high level spells) as often as they could, and then rest as soon as possible.  The problem was obviously apparent immediately in the first edition, so Gygax and Arneson added wandering monsters to dissuade players from resting all the time.  Still, they did it.

So how do you balance a game where the players can choose to use big, expendable guns; or else choose to conserve them?  The question is harder if the rate at which players gain (or regain) expendable abilities is random or infrequent -- think scrolls and potions in D&D instead of spells.

It's hard to balance expendable resources, but not impossible.  Balancing them among the PCs is easy as long as all the PCs have the same number of resources.  Balancing expendable with non-expendable resources is a lot harder.  And balancing expendable resources in encounter design can be the hardest to manage.  The best plan is to plan encounters as if they didn't exist; but expendable resources can be so numerous in some games (D&D for instance) that that's unrealistic, and you have to assume some use.

Third, it slows down the game.

Resource management adds to the time your system takes.  The first reason is the added tactical complexity. Players need to decide not just which ability is best, but whether they can afford to use it.  There are three aspects to consider:

  • Is this resource appropriate for this challenge?  I need to read the rules for this resource to be sure.  Since I don't use it often, I am not all that familiar with the rules.
  • What are the chances that I will need this resource later?  I need to think about the future plans we have as a party and what I know about the GM's scenario.
  • What are the consequences of not having this resource later, if it turns out that I need it?  I need estimate the challenge level of later encounters and determine if there's a difficult encounter coming up soon that I can predict with some certainty.

The second reason is the bookkeeping I mentioned before.  Not only do characters have to track expended resources; they also have to manage the system for regaining those resources.  That means trips back to the armory, fortifying a campsite against wandering monsters, going to the temple to buy scrolls and potions, spending time learning the rules for repairing damaged black ray guns, feeding on mortals to get more blood, and so on.

Sometimes that's fun.  Sometimes that's a huge waste of your time.  You can use houserules to speed things up a little; or you can try to make the regaining resources either go fast (hand wave it and eliminate any challenge it presents) or focus on it and make it fun (increase the challenge or impact, or tie in hooks to make it interesting).  Either way, it's the elephant in the room you have to deal with.

Next week I'll discuss house rules.  Stay tuned.

Note of Interest:  Sometimes the system for regaining the resource is the point:  In the examples above, Gamma World and Vampire come up.  In Gamma World, the rules for repairing broken high-tech weapons reinforce the idea of primitive, mutant survivors in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.  In Vampire, it seems like characters always have more than enough Blood Points to do what they want; and the system only limits it to have a constant reminder that the players are playing blood-sucking vampires.  Notice that this limit is lost in LARP, where feeding scenes are abstracted for the convenience of running a 30 person vampire game.


  1. This is vaguely off topic, but does anyone know what the design reason was for losing traits that you bid? There isn't really an analogue to that in the tabletop system that I recall.

  2. No there isn't. It's also not very realistic for vampires to get TIRED, so there's not a good simulation reason. The narrative impetus caused them to NAME the traits so you had to bid a trait in a complete sentence, which is neat.

    Maybe the entire point of losing traits was so that you had to keep changing the bidded trait, for narrative variety?

  3. If there's a simulation reason, maybe it's momentum. Without trait loss, in any given encounter you'd simply win ties or lose ties the whole time. With trait loss, if one side goes on an unlikely run, that side could flip the probabilities in its favor mid-encounter. In narrative terms, maybe characters who do well in a difficult situation gain confidence from their own success or something. Between that and narrative variety, trait loss is probably about as justified as anything else in MET :)