Why do I like Learning Abilities from Equipment?

This is going to be more of a rambling post than I usually do. I just wanted to talk about a particular mechanic that a few games have used that, for some reason, I just really enjoy. That mechanic is where equipping a character with a certain piece of gear gives them an ability, and then they can master the abilities granted by equipment through earing ability points. Once they’ve mastered an ability, they can keep it even if they remove the equipment.

I’ve probably been thinking about this mechanic because I’ve been replaying Final Fantasy 9 over the last few days. Other games that use this mechanic include Lost Odyssey and Xenosaga (at least episode 1, I haven’t played the other two yet). Another related system is where you have one type of equipment dedicated to teaching you new abilities. Examples of this system include magicite in Final Fantasy 6 and Heraldry tomes in the RPG Maker game Forever’s End.
As an aside, these are all really fun games and I recommend any of them if you like JRPGs.

Anyway, I’ve been pondering over the last few days why I like this ability system so much. I think the answer comes back to an idea that I’ve been talking about quite a lot in the last few blog posts: Player Choice.

In normal RPGs, when you arrive at a new town, you get access to new equipment which is basically just the next incarnation of gear that you already have. It will have higher stats, but it will just fill the same role a little better. Sure, some games do avoid this, possibly by having a few different options that fill different roles. For example, one weapon for a warrior might make them better at taking hits for teammates, while another might improve their ability to cause damage. Also, if the developer took my advice, you might not be able to afford everything. Still, most of the time, getting new equipment is basically a formality.

The consequence of learning abilities from equipment is that at least most of the time when new equipment becomes available, you have to make choices. You can immediately switch to the new gear, giving up the chance to master abilities in exchange for better stats, or you can wait to finish mastering the abilities you were working on. Even grinding has some additional choices added into it because of this system. You’ll find yourself wanting to switch between equipment each time a character masters an ability so that they can learn another. It can also lead to rotating equipment between several characters because they can all learn a new ability from it, but you only have one.

This also adds a layer of excitement when you find new gear in a dungeon or as a reward for completing a sidequest. Normally finding rare equipment just leaves you comparing it to your old gear to see if it gives you better stats to make a character better at what they were already doing. Now, getting new equipment means learning new abilities, which can cause you to change your playstyle to incorporate these new options. In addition to all of that, there’s a certain enjoyment that at least I get from seeing how many different abilities I can master in a single playthrough. It’s like getting collectables, but with the added bonus that the things I’m collecting give me additional ways to modify my playstyle.
In summary, this system adds choices to the process of getting and equipping new gear, as well as to the process of fighting random enemies. These choices keep your brain active while performing ordinarily routine tasks, which keeps the entire experience interesting.

So, that’s why I find this particular ability system particularly addictive. Obviously using this system is not required to make a game fun, it’s just a particular mechanic that I happen to enjoy a great deal.

Regards,
Science Viking

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How to Make Abilities Interesting in an RPG

This isn’t a tutorial about how to make abilities in RPG Maker. I might make one of those another time, though the system seems fairly self-explanatory. What this article is about, rather, is how to make your abilities interesting.
The simple question you should ask yourself when designing an ability is: “When will the player use this ability? What is this ability for?”. It is quite common for a game to have abilities that seem interesting or cool, but that you end up never using because there is a more efficient way to get the job done. A type of ability that falls into this category quite often are instant-kill abilities. Most often, these abilities miss so much of the time that it takes longer to kill an enemy by waiting for the instant-death spell to hit then by using conventional abilities that just deal damage.
In order to understand why these kinds of abilities so often fall into this useful-but-useless category we need to think about balance for a moment. An ability that can end a fight instantly could easily be overpowered, so there has to be some kind of limitation to keep the player from using it for everything. However, in order to prevent these abilities from becoming overpowered, developers often either limit their accuracy, so they might work the first time, but they probably won’t, or make the most dangerous enemies immune to these kinds of abilities entirely.
The problem with this method of limiting an ability’s effectiveness is that now, you don’t want to use an instant kill on a regular enemy, because they have so little health that it’s faster to kill them with conventional attacks, and enemies that have enough health that instant kills would be worth it are immune to them. This is a case of the person designing the ability having thought that the ability is cool, but not about when the player should make use of it.
How would we fix this kind of ability? To start, we must remember that the player will naturally gravitate towards the strategy that is fastest and safest. Fastest meaning ending a fight in the fewest turns (players can be impatient creatures, especially with random encounters), and safest meaning the strategy least likely to result in a game over. If the player has a method of ending a fight that is either faster than what you’re offering them, or safer than what you’re offering, then they won’t use the new ability you’re designing, no matter how cool it is.
This might seem to imply that the player will eventually find a single strategy that they use for every fight, but that isn’t the case. Remember, in a good game, every fight is different. If the challenge the player is faced with in two situations is different, then the fastest or safest methods of meeting those challenges will also be different. Instead, when you create an ability, you need to make sure to create a situation where that ability is the best option.
To illustrate what I mean I’ll use the example of Persona 4 (Yes I know I talk about it a lot. It’s a great game, what of it?). In Persona 4, instant-kill abilities are not useless. This comes from three kinds of situations that the game puts you through. The simplest of these is that some enemies are weak against instant-kills, meaning that, against these specific foes, these abilities will hit the majority of the time. The second situation in which these abilities are useful is that there are instant-kill abilities that hit all enemies at once. This means that when you are confronted by a large group of enemies (a fairly common occurrence), you can open with a group-targeting instant-kill which will nearly always eliminate at least one or two enemies, making the rest of the fight faster and safer, but not eliminating the challenge. The final way in which these abilities are useful is that Persona 4 will confront you with single enemies with massive defense, massive health, and attacks that do incredible damage. These enemies are not immune to instant-kills. In these situations, the safest way to deal with the enemy is to use instant-death spells as soon as you can, since these are the only way to end the fight before the enemy brings you down.
Of course, there are also plenty of situations in Persona 4 where instant kill abilities are not the right option. If a group of enemies are all vulnerable to an element you have available to you, you can hit them all with that element, knocking them down and netting you some free attacks. Some enemies that appear alone are fragile enough that it is smarter to use conventional abilities to bring them down, or safer to use status effects to prevent them from attacking while you erode their health. There are even enemies who are completely immune to instant-death. What this adds up to is a game with a great variety of enemies and enemy groups, which each have different “correct” solutions. This variety of challenges, encourages a variety of approaches, and forces the player to think on their feet and keep revising their strategy. This in turn creates a complex and varied gameplay experience, which keeps the player entertained.
In summary, in order to make an ability interesting, you need to create a corresponding situation where that ability is the best option for the player. It is important create a variety of abilities, but to do so you have to create a variety of challenges to force the player to use these abilities. This interplay of new abilities inspiring new challenges and new challenges requiring new abilities pushes you toward a more fun, interesting, and challenging gameplay experience.

Regards,
Science Viking