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