Balancing items: Do they invalidate magic?

BloodletterQ

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Since I've been thinking of how item usage is going to be important in my game, I must ask the general concensus regarding items.


In my game, they're supposed to correlate with basic spells while the casters have more powerful abilities with their effects such as multi-target effects.


Often an RPG will favor one or the other and not both. How do you guys feel about balancing items? How would you balance items and magic.


I thought of making MP recovery rare. Worse comes to worse, I'll cut out direct healing or restrict it to higher levels even.
 

Lord Semaj

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One of the best games for item use was Final Fantasy 6.  MP recovery wasn't extremely rare because it didn't need to be.  Casters would empty their mana pools relatively quick if they were spamming their best spells and be forced to waste turns on potting up, which in a pressing boss battle there simply isn't any time for.  Recovery items help players get through dungeons without starting all over because they're out of MP.


Dungeons and Dragons balances it the way you suggest.  Consumables only replicate lesser magic.  The player has access to much grander forms of spells.  In this scenario, though, a non-caster or someone who hasn't wasted spell slots preparing them can bring lesser magic that is cheap to purchase and bring along.  It works because there really isn't much time in a turn to be wasting them constantly on pots and scrolls when you have better abilities you can be using.  They're just utility for the right situation, a form of extra preparation.  Kind of like making sure you have plenty of Antidotes before going into a poison boss fight.


In both cases, items are balanced by ensuring there's a price to pay in the form of Time.  Skipping a turn in these games matters a great deal and that potion or scroll or whatever you just used had better be a gamechanger or a sign of desperation.  So to balance items just make it very hard to find a time to actually use them.  It exists for desperate situations, moments where you absolutely need it right now, but it's rarely the most efficient selection for your turn -- and efficiency is absolutely critical to those games.
 
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Vox Novus

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That's sort of the point of items, they provide a resource free alternative to using a spell that would consume mp. In a game where mp recovery is easy to do (just using an item outside of combat to restore mp) their significance is greatly reduced.


They also can provide an alternative for a non-spell caster to perform actions outside of their normal means. It let's other characters function as a healer for example and frees up the main healer to use other actions. This goes well with the fact if you give your main healer viable attack or support options; it should be a weighty decision every turn whether you need to use their superior healing capabilities or if performing a non-healing action would be a better decision that round.


One other option is to restrict things like healing spells to be combat only. This allows items that heal to maintain a level of usefulness because they are the only way to heal outside of combat.
 

Waterguy

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There is also the matter of cost.


MP is recoverable, either with an item or through regen or even using an inn to recover both it and hp. Items are bought, and thus limited by the gold the player got.


On the other hand, use of stronger magic is also limited by the max mp.
 

Vox Novus

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@Waterguy Don't forget you can find items as well; either from chests, etc... or monster drops; in that case you aren't expending your monetary resource to obtain the item. You typically don't just find mp ( you find things that restore it or enhance it).


This goes along with why I don't like the idea of being able to recover mp by simply popping an item that restores a bunch of it, such an item should be limited to like a once a dungeon find or something or extremely expensive to purchase. It just breaks down the chain of value on things; mp itself ceases to be valuable if easily restored, High cost skills tend to become less valuable/rare to use, other items become less important because they don't need to be used nearly as often to circumvent mp loss. Getting an item drop from a monster or finding it in a chest isn't as nearly as great of a boon as it would be otherwise.


When a resource ceases to be limited its value as an actual resource is greatly diminished.
 

Lord Semaj

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Whether the resource should be limited depends on how easy of a game you want to make.  Items that resurrect fallen party members exist to undo careless mistakes like mistiming your healing order.  Elixirs and full health pots exist to let fighters heal themselves when the priest is too busy trying to catch up on all the buffs he should have cast at the start of the battle which you suddenly realize you need.  Players are frequently engaging bosses and difficult enemies with no prior knowledge of their mechanics and rather than playing it safe, they fail miserably.  You could have a punishing game that doesn't handhold and forces them to repeat the battle from the last save until they figure out how to get it right.  Or you can have a forgiving game that throws consumables around as Cheat Codes to get you through a tough battle with brute force.  If done well, you can even create boss fights that are so epic they depend on cheat codes to succeed (like Omega Weapon from Final Fantasy 8).
 

Aoi Ninami

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I find items a pain because (1) restocking typically takes more real time than replenishing magic; (2) money is usually better spent on equipment; (3) if I don't restock but rely on the items in chests, the supply is typically adequate for emergency uses (as Lord Semaj described), but low enough that using them in regular combat feels like running myself out of a resource I may need later on. So these are the three problems you would have to address to make item use more of a viable strategy.
 

omen613

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To give anything value you have to make it provide something another cannot. And the other provides a value the first doesn't. 


if you want to balance items and skills then treat them as equals.


If items are your source of healing, then make healing from skills just be less reliable (require 100TP or performing a combo or something)


If skills are your main source of healing, then make items fill another role. Maybe they inflict status effects like Sleep, poison, or blind that aren't found from skills.


Big armored golem that resists 80% of your attacks? toss that Bomb in your inventory that kills armored golems or removes their def buff or something. 


When you give humans two options that do similar things they always choose the most efficient option. How many RPGs have you played where your inventory had 99 potions antidotes and revives? Most likely you had so many was because you didn't need them and were efficiently winning battle to battle without the need of such items.


Give the player a reason to want to use your items over their skills by making them fulfill a role the skills do not.
 
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PsychicToaster

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What I've done is use Yanfly's Limited Skill Uses to make powerful spells very limited, like 3 times per encounter for many of them. I've also implemented mechanics that make casting stronger spells more difficult but rewarding. 


Example:the Mystic class can cast Prismatic Rift, a huge AoE that deals Elemental damage to an entire enemy row. The thing is, the Mystic must consume Prismatic Orbs to do so. 


Passive:prismatic Orb-casting lesser spells generates 1 Prismatic Orb, granting the Mystic increased spell power and action speed in combat. Can generate up to eight orbs in total. 


So basically, you manage Prismatic Orbs to increase your power, then dump the orbs into a single huge spell. There are some spells that require more or less orbs. It's a trade off between dealing heavy damage or casting strong buffs(the mystic is more a control/support class), or powering up your lower cool down spells by holding onto your Orbs. All strategic management of his passive. 


So you see, you can balance the skills without even worrying about items. Of course, this may not fit with your vision of your game. For classes that don't use a different resource pool, I just give spells varying cool downs based on their power. Items at this point serve more to lower cool downs, increase stats, and proc effects. Mana restoration isn't a problem anymore because it doesn't matter how much mana you have if you've blown cool downs you might have needed to save. Limited skill uses per battle really makes the player think about how he or she has to use the stronger abilities. 


Yanfly's's row formation really makes magic better, because you can have pure casters in the back row that simply wouldn't do well in melter range because they can't take the hits. I've also limited items to classes so you can't just make some all-powerful spell slinging melee god by stacking items.


edit:I realize you were referring to items that cast spells. Derp. I'm smart. Yay for reading comprehension. PoE has scrolls and such that don't invalidate magic because A)they're limited and rare and B)They take up time in combat. Just make these items something you'll want to save because they are more rare. 
 
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bgillisp

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What I've done is most of my items replicate much higher level spells that you don't have access to early in the game. For example, in Chapter 2 I let the party buy an item that removes all status aliments, but they won't learn the spell to remove all status aliments until probably Chapter 4.


Granted, near the end, the items are equal to the spells (as eventually they do catch up), but since I have 8 types of magic in my game it still lets the player have one character cast a spell they can't usually cast. You know, for those times when you *really* need to cast Fireball 2x in the same round.
 

omen613

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edit:I realize you were referring to items that cast spells. Derp. I'm smart. Yay for reading comprehension. PoE has scrolls and such that don't invalidate magic because A)they're limited and rare and B)They take up time in combat. Just make these items something you'll want to save because they are more rare. 


Doh, after reading your edit realized I made the same mistake lol


oops.
 

Milennin

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For HP/MP recovery consumables, I prefer them to be either very limited (more as a safety net than anything else) or none at all. I never found potions interesting when it comes to managing resources. It's just stacking up on as many as you can find, and if you're one of those players who does all the extra stuff, you usually end up with more than you know what to do with. It doesn't reward planning ahead, because as long as you have potions in your inventory, you can keep on getting your HP/MP back in an instant. I much prefer having skills that do that for me, because skills generally have a cost attached to them or have interesting secondary effects that can influence your choice in battle.


Using potions outside battles is also something I dislike, because again, it doesn't reward playing well. As long as you live through an encounter, you can heal back up to full, no matter how much you suck at the game. It devalues resource management and playing well. For me, the less reliant on potions I am in a game, the better.


Another thing that can backfire with making players reliant on potions is that when a player runs out of them, they just have no way to proceed unless they walk all the way back to town and buy some more. Again, this isn't something that should happen if you have skills that let you manage your resources.


I also simply dislike the idea of having the heroes needing to rely on something like potions, I'd rather have them solve battles using their own abilities.
 

Waterguy

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I'd like to point out that in Bravely Default at least one class is made to use items. Its main focus is that while other classes use mp it uses consumables.
You can combine two potions to double the effects, or use different ones to make a regen, or create a magic-like attack, or make the item be group-wide instead of single target.


That shows that you do not need to choose one or the other, they use separate mechanics of consuming. It is the same as MP and TP.
 

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You can consider the Dragon Age:Inquisition method of only permitting you to equip X amount of flasks at a designated station in a city and you can't refill them unless you go back. Also opens up new mechanics when it comes to crafting unique potions and using them strategically in battle. 
 

Lord Semaj

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When you give humans two options that do similar things they always choose the most efficient option. How many RPGs have you played where your inventory had 99 potions antidotes and revives? Most likely you had so many was because you didn't need them and were efficiently winning battle to battle without the need of such items.


This actually reminds me of another balance mechanic.  A lot of games have ATB and using an item is faster than using a skill.  Either because spells have cast times or because using an item recharges your bar faster.  Which actually makes item use more efficient for battle than normal skills because you can use the healing and then get back into the fighting with reduced wait time between the two.  Using items in such games is MORE EFFICIENT than bringing a healer since the items can replicate buffs, cures, healing, revives, all the usual stuff while costing you less time during the battle.


In fact, I can't remember which game it was but there was a boss battle that you literally could not win without using items.  You could have all the best equipment for your level, you could be five levels above the boss, but you would still face an impossible challenge because your healer wasn't fast enough to keep up with his damage and debuffs.  The only way to solve the fight was to use items because they were inherently faster and more efficient than skills.
 

Basileus

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@Milennin


I guess it's just a matter of taste, but I actually prefer the opposite. I believe the use of items out of combat is a very important resource management system that many games just don't do properly. 


Dragon Quest has a long history of making the player rely on Herbs to restore HP in the early game. A huge part of the "feel" of the game comes from the sense of risk (the series Director being rather infamous for his love of gambling). You may finish one fight at mostly full HP, but you'll gradually watch your health drop the more you fight. Healing from abilities is limited and MP is low early in the game so it can often be better to just use an Herb or 2 after a fight and save your MP for battles. It isn't that you're "bad at the game" for taking damage, damage just happens and how you prepare for it is what matters. If you shun all items then you will run out of MP fast and you will probably die or be forced to run back to town. From a gambling perspective - the game wants you to "weigh the odds", to decide if you have enough to continue on or if you should "cash out" and try again after restocking. You can only save in Churches back in towns, so you have no hope of saving mid-dungeon. You watch your resources dwindle as you press on and items play a crucial role in keeping for MP for when you really need it. Every time you need MP to heal, remove poison, etc. is MP you won't have in the next fight. And all of the gold you spend on items is gold you can't save up to get better weapons and armor. The important thing here is that death is not Game Over; you go back to the last Church you saved at but you keep all of the levels and items you've gained. The catch is that you lose half your gold and then have to spend more gold to revive your fallen party members and stay at the inn to heal up the hero (who is at 1 HP after a full party wipe). And then buy even more items if you blew all of them on fights you couldn't win. Resource Management is one of the key elements of the game, and the game is very good at forcing you to thinking about how you want to use items and gold to proceed.


The Tales series tends to do something a little different. Instead of the flat heal items like Herbs that Dragon Quest uses, the Tales games use "Gels" that do % healing so the items stay very relevant all game. That Apple Gel that heals for 30% HP does okay in the early game, but it still comes in handy late game if you hold on to it that long. There are also cheap items that can cure Magical or Physical Ailments (negative status effects) which are available long before you get spells to do the same. Then there is the Panacea which can cure all Ailments but is more expensive - and since you can only hold 15 of a given item it can sometimes pay off to keep some of the earlier, less effective items in case of emergency. Life Bottles, which revive fallen party members in combat, are essential since you will not get a Revive-type spell until mid-game. And since only dedicated healers get spells like that - and there's only 1 dedicated healer in the party - they are the only way to revive the healer if something happens to them. Having an Action Battle System also means that there are things like casting time on spells while items are instant use, so items that can be used by anyone are SUPER useful if your healer or mage is in the middle of casting a spell.


The question of items "invalidating" magic really comes down to: "What do you want items to do?"


Are items meant for casters to recover MP or other resources?


Are items meant for non-magic classes to achieve similar effects?


Are items meant to be common while magic is rare and expensive?


Are items meant to be rare and expensive while magic is common?


Are items meant to be a gold sink for the player?


Are items meant to restrict the player early in the game?


Are items meant to be useful all game?


Are items meant to force the player to choose between items and equipment?


Are items meant to be found as monster drops so they player always has them but doesn't have to buy them?


Once you can answer all of these kinds of questions, I think you'll be able to find the right balance for your items. Hope it helps :)
 

Zeustiak

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I always liked Earthbound's system where the bottle rockets and whatnot were just rare enough, and just powerful enough to be very useful when you needed them.  


I think if you can make an item system that isn't just another Mana Bar then you will have made something that is useful and memorable for the players.  
 

AMGLime

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One of the best games for item use was Final Fantasy 6.  MP recovery wasn't extremely rare because it didn't need to be.  Casters would empty their mana pools relatively quick if they were spamming their best spells and be forced to waste turns on potting up, which in a pressing boss battle there simply isn't any time for.  Recovery items help players get through dungeons without starting all over because they're out of MP.


I want to correct this, Final Fantasy 6 was actually terrible for item balancing. The game is my favourite, but the entire game is entirely broken lol. Items were very strong when your only sources of healing was Terra and Celes, so the early game. Once you're able to actually use Magic, Items like Ethers and Potions are basically useless because you can just Cure to heal, and Osmose to get MP back, and 99% of the enemies in the game you were able to drain MP from. Sure you'll use them between battles to set up for boss fights if you aren't near a save point for tents, and even then you could just Osmose during battles cause unless you were critically underleveled Final Fantasy 6 had no challenging fights. The game was incredibly broken once you learned how to use magic, and was broke even more if you used Esper Stats properly.


THAT being said, Items are still important. Look at Legend of Dragoon, Items were super important in combat. It was your main source of healing, how you did elemental damage when not in Dragoon phase, and where majority of your buffs came from. Healing Potions found early game, were still important at the end of the game because they're percentage based so you never risked only healing for 200HP late game with a Potion like you do in Final Fantasy.


It comes down Items or Magic, one or the other will be better but they don't have to invalidate themselves. You could have items be stronger in the early game, slowly get passed by Magic and then have a new set of item (like Hi Potions) become frequent and pass Magic again until Magic scales up again. If you're having Items and Magic fill the same role, you could have Character Abilities be stronger versions of the Items, ie. Fireball VS Fireflask, one does 200 damage one does 150. But have the items somewhat common, while MP Restoration is rare at the start so it comes down to if you wanna use the item, and save the MP or use the MP to end the fight faster. Or you can follow the Legend of Dragoon route, have most items be single target spells, while Character abilities are AoE or offer something else on top of it, but MP management is rough early and the game isnt balanced around it. Honestly with what you've said, I'd look into Legend of Dragoon and see what you think of how they handle items.
 

BloodletterQ

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I want to correct this, Final Fantasy 6 was actually terrible for item balancing. The game is my favourite, but the entire game is entirely broken lol. Items were very strong when your only sources of healing was Terra and Celes, so the early game. Once you're able to actually use Magic, Items like Ethers and Potions are basically useless because you can just Cure to heal, and Osmose to get MP back, and 99% of the enemies in the game you were able to drain MP from. Sure you'll use them between battles to set up for boss fights if you aren't near a save point for tents, and even then you could just Osmose during battles cause unless you were critically underleveled Final Fantasy 6 had no challenging fights. The game was incredibly broken once you learned how to use magic, and was broke even more if you used Esper Stats properly.


THAT being said, Items are still important. Look at Legend of Dragoon, Items were super important in combat. It was your main source of healing, how you did elemental damage when not in Dragoon phase, and where majority of your buffs came from. Healing Potions found early game, were still important at the end of the game because they're percentage based so you never risked only healing for 200HP late game with a Potion like you do in Final Fantasy.


It comes down Items or Magic, one or the other will be better but they don't have to invalidate themselves. You could have items be stronger in the early game, slowly get passed by Magic and then have a new set of item (like Hi Potions) become frequent and pass Magic again until Magic scales up again. If you're having Items and Magic fill the same role, you could have Character Abilities be stronger versions of the Items, ie. Fireball VS Fireflask, one does 200 damage one does 150. But have the items somewhat common, while MP Restoration is rare at the start so it comes down to if you wanna use the item, and save the MP or use the MP to end the fight faster. Or you can follow the Legend of Dragoon route, have most items be single target spells, while Character abilities are AoE or offer something else on top of it, but MP management is rough early and the game isnt balanced around it. Honestly with what you've said, I'd look into Legend of Dragoon and see what you think of how they handle items.
LOD was precisely what I was thinking of for items being valuable. Of course, there was also that limit that forced you to strategize.
 

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I tend to find the same problems that @Aoi Ninami and @Milennin mentioned as their reason for disliking consumable items.


Therefore, what I usually try to do when I include consumables is to make them into "Trump Cards" - expensive, uncommon tools that you can pull out when you really need them to win a tough battle.  I don't expect the player to ever be able to stock 99 of an item, or to be able to use them so often that they become blase.  Items in my games are precious - relatively hard to obtain and not to be used frivolously.


As compensation for their rarity/expense, my items tend to either be:

  • Very powerful, considerably moreso than skills that have similar effects, or
  • Completely unique, granting benefits that no other skills or mechanics replicate, or
  • A useful stopgap to achieve healing, damage, etc. for free when the player is too low on MP, in my games where skills are very MP-expensive but MP regenerates quickly

While I have never done this myself, I have seen several games that treat Items as an instant action that doesn't cost an actor's turn, which I think largely follows this same spirit of Items-as-Trump-Cards.  I think it's a good approach!
 

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