Resources, pt.2- What it do

February 7, 2008

So why have numbers and tokens and points and powers and items anyway? What does any of the crunch do for a game?

Resources exist to set up choices and/or pace play.


Pacing is actually the easiest part to see.  Pacing resources are used to limit how often something can happen or when a specific event/condition to play occurs/ends.

You can see resources pacing play everywhere- “Initiative determines turn order in combat”, “Hitpoints determine when a combat is over”, “Fate determines when a character’s story is over”, “Experience points determine when a character gets access to more power or options”, etc.

Figure out how often you want something to happen in play, and build your resource economy around that.

The two key phrases you want to start with are “Always” and “Never”. If you want something always to happen, or never to happen, try to make sure the rules account for it.  Pacing mechanics are based on “Always”- you want something to always happen, the only reason to throw numbers/tokens on it is to ask, “When will it happen?”, not “If it will happen?”

The next two key phrases are “Often” and “Rarely”.  This is where you’ll use resources and build economies- you’re looking at making something common or scarce depending on that “Often/Rarely” scale.  That’s where you’ll want to look closely at the maximums, minimums, rate of expenditure, rate of replenishment, etc.


If you have to choose between having more sword fighting or more magic, you’re choosing between two resources. If you’re debating whether to spend dice to achieve your ambition, keep in the good graces of the Sultan, or get freedom, you’re making risk assessment based choices.

If there are two or more resources worth pursuing in a given choice, you create a point of interesting tension.  Anytime some behaviors are encouraged over others, based on resources, you create a form of reward mechanic.  Maybe it’s “Get more XP by fighting monsters” or “Avoid these conditions which raise my Fate score”.

The interesting thing about these kinds of resources is that they can be used to promote any kind of playstyle- you can limit choices by genre appropriate things, you can limit choices in such a way to produce tough personal choices, you can reward people finding combat strategies that use the least resources for the greatest gain, etc.

Often you will find many games layer resources in a fairly obscure and complex manner- the skill then becomes trying to navigate the economy of the game and figure out the optimal resource choices, or at least, the optimal ones for the moment.

Dead Resources as non-choices

Dead resource choices are those that never affect game play.  Or ones that people would never choose.

Dead resources are what I’ve called in the past, “Bunk Choices”.  They’re dead end choices that work like dead ends in a maze. While that is the point of a maze, it’s crappy rpg design, because they appear to be legit choices and you don’t realize they’re dead end usually until you’ve played a bit, or a lot.  It’s often a terrible pitfall for new players, and always for people who aren’t inclined to navigating abstract economies and building strategies around them.

Real choices involve trying to figure out between two or more legitimate options, while dead choices are basically trick questions, there’s often not a point in asking the question in the first place, except to exist as a “gotcha!”.

Value based economy

So it’s easy enough to set up “If/then” based economies of resources- “If hit by sword, subtract 1D8 hitpoints, if 0 or less hitpoints, then dead”.   In this case, resources have a hard, and definite value- each resource produces a definite effect, each time for a specific behavior.

But what happens when you say, “When player A chooses between Loyalty or Love in the judgment of player B then B awards Pathos Dice”?  Now resources are exchanged based on value judgments made by the players to each other.  You create an economy of resources that function on player interaction, and reward players for paying attention to each other, and meeting the values of each other.

This is a powerful tool for helping a group of players reach better play- you’re having them use the resources as a means of communication in order to optimize play towards what they, themselves think is fun.

For your own design

Here’s my basic rule of thumb- whenever I’m thinking about something I always/never/often/rarely want to have in a game, I look for another game that has something always/never/often rarely happen and look at it’s resources to see if there’s something to steal.

For example, in Polaris, the knights always end in corruption or death- it does this by advancing a resource (Zeal/Weariness) until it hits the end.   In Primetime Adventures, characters can never die without the player wanting it so- there are no rules for death and no resources around it.  In Riddle of Steel, you often pursue your Spiritual Attributes, because they often come into play as rewards and bonuses.  In Burning Wheel, you rarely spend your Artha, because it often is difficult to acquire.

I look at how things are set up, rewarded, discouraged, spent and then ask if I can make a parallel with whatever game idea I have.

For example, the Emperor’s Heart owes a bit of it’s Trait economy to Trollbabe and Stranger Things- their color lists work well because you can only spend each item once- it causes players to have to find ways to bring in the other bits of color, to be creative.  I did the same thing with Traits- you have to show off more than one aspect of your character to get full access to your resources.

Remember, resources are a powerful tool towards building choices and pacing.  They are not the end-all, be-all of either field, but they do serve as an excellent framework or engine on which to build to consistently get certain effects in both choices and pacing for your game.

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