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Quick Musing on HP/MP: Is the system so perfect it can't be changed?

Ok, this write-up turned out quite differently from what I had originally intended but I'm shooting off the hip and don't mind where it went. Although maybe it does prove the point that the HP/MP mechanic is definitely difficult to get away from.

Like many of you here at Destructoid I spent the majority of my childhood absorbed by Role-Playing games, usually of the Japanese variety, but it all started with Rogue, moved on to Bard�s Tale and by Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy I was hooked. I ate everything up from Phantasy Star to Chrono Trigger to Grandia. Anyone remember Secret of the Stars? Today I gleefully geek out at the slightest hint of a jRPG coming across the magical sea and await next week�s Mana Khemia perhaps more than the lot of gamers awaited Super Smash Bros. Brawl.

When it comes to the RPG genre I�ve played about all there is worth playing the past twenty-plus years. Looking at my pile of games still to finish, which features about a dozen RPGs ranging from Grandia 3 to the newly unleashed Crisis Core, it appears I�ll be playing RPGs for another two decades. But also looking at that pile you can tell that I�m not finishing them with the same fever and at the same pace as I once did.

Yes, as we�ve all grown up we�ve realized that other obligations come before aiding our plucky hero in his journey to save the world and get the girl. Saving the world is important but apparently not as important as the customer that berates you every single day. Lady � I don�t care what you think about the price � Alex can�t become a Dragonmaster and defeat the Emperor without me. And if that magic Emperor wins then it�s not going to matter much if you can get that Chinese piece of crap cheaper down the street or not.

As a convention I really don�t mind the whole �save the world� plot outline, even though you would assume that it got tired a long ago. As interesting as it is for an RPG to do something different in terms of story, only a handful have ever attempted it and I�m not sure Valkyrie Profile was that overly successful. So something�s got to be right with saving the world. Sorry, but I can�t find myself engaged in bringing grandma a cake by traveling throughout the land. Who the hell is going to stop you in delivering that cake? Maybe the Big Bad Wolf but how did it end for him?

Hey, you know � that doesn�t sound half bad. Why � because there�s conflict. Saving the world and bringing grandma that cake might be the furthest things on the scale of importance but either way limbs are going to be rend from their bodies by steel. Be it Big Bad Wolf, Big Bad Empire or Big Bad Mentor Turned Bad.

Combat. It�s the one thing we can�t escape in RPGs. Something always has to oppose us and we always have to smash it over the head with a mallet. Or stab it with a blade. Or kill it with fire. We have to have our bloodlust fulfilled in white numerical values. It really doesn�t matter the plot � I sat through Kingdom Hearts II after all. Save the world. Save grandma's cake. I just need a battle system to be happy.

Coming up sometime in the future I would like to explore non-combat possibilities in RPGs, but just for right now I want to look at combat in RPGs. Specifically I want to look at HP and MP.


Now all RPGs may require you to smash an orc-thing to death (or until it vaporizes,) but that bludgeoning can take on many different forms.

Dragon Quest dolled out the doom via a very basic menu system.

In the early Ys you rammed Adol into the enemy until either you or the monster died.

Final Fantasy introduced the active-time battle system to keep us on our toes.

Games like Shining Force, Tactics Ogre and Disaega put a slower �tactical� spin on things.

Grandia showed us a nice twist on the formula with the IP guage and canceling out enemy attacks.

The Tales series took a page out of Street Fighter 2�s book and keeps tweaking the Motion system into one of my favorite real-time RPG systems.

Final Fantasy XII�s gambit system offered automated combat for better or for worse.

I essentially could go on for quite some time on the different systems out there but that�s not going to help the point. If you think about it all of these systems are what could be considered a �new coat of paint� over the old tired and true RPG convention � the HP and MP system.

How do you define an RPG? Well most people start with the words �Role-Play� � a game where you play a role. Well you do that in every game which essentially means every game is an RPG if you look at it that way. But as I tell my girlfriend (who happens to not be the biggest RPG fan) if you see the letters HP next to any numerals or inside a life-bar there�s a good possibility it�s an RPG.

Alongside this measurement of health you usually have another that represents that number of times you can use certain special abilities, be they magical attacks or special attacks well above normal attacks in strength. Occasionally you�ll see magic and special attacks get their own separate battery, but there is always some numerical limit placed on attacks outside of the norm.

It is these numbers that everything in an RPG is based upon. It is these numbers that determine if you make it from point A to point B and how big of a baddie you can bludgeon to death. The entire goal is to reduce the enemy�s HP to zero while preserving your main stats. HP/MP � they�re practically inescapable when playing an RPG and any battle system built around them is just a new coat of paint on this basic system. You can throw in all the other stats you want to make the system seem more complex but in the end HP and MP are the only things that matter.


Of course I�m not trashing that fact and I for one will seemingly never get tired of Tales games. I�ve played the original Final Fantasy from start to finish at least a dozen and a half times. I consider Grandia Xtreme, which threw away that silly thing we call plot and focused almost entirely on the Grandia combat system, to be the proverbial �bee�s knees.�

I�m fascinated in level grinding just to watch those numerical values grow and grow and grow. A new coat of paint doesn�t bother me so much, but can we think of something better and still have an RPG? Is the current HP/MP system just so damn good that there�s no way to truly do it better beyond minor tweaks on how HP/MP is used?

It's not 'bad' persee as the mantra of "if its not broke, don't fix it" rings clear. But that's just it -- do we need things to be broke before we try something new? Are we going to be playing the same type of RPG twenty years from now? I'm not sure I'd mind it as long as we get over this teenage angst, bishonen, Nomura-putting-zippers-everything hump we're in.

It�s certainly flexible as it can be used in so many different ways. It�s easy to understand � if your HP reaches zero you�re dead and if your MP reaches zero you can no longer use special attacks. It can be expanded on through things like Breath of Fire 3�s Master System or Persona�s well, Personas. Jobs, Materia, Guardian Forces, Sphere Grids and anything else you can think of have helped to keep the system from getting too stale.


What alternatives are there? Just about every game has some value to measure health, and those that don�t, like Animal Crossing, don�t feature combat usually.

Obviously with the level of combat featured in your typical RPG a one-hit system such as the one we use to see in old arcade games like Pac-Man and Asteroids wouldn�t fly. How many battles did you fight in the last RPG you played? How many battles do you think you fought your first time through Final Fantasy IV? Could you imagine what that would be like if your characters were KO�d every time they were touched or hit with a spell? You better stock up on Phoenix Down.

Even Super Mario Bros. power-up system wouldn�t be practical where you could survive a hit only if you had a certain item. That item would be lost after being hit. It works magically for platformers as we saw Sonic modify it slightly using rings and I always sort of felt a bit angry when they decided to give Mario a life meter (or life-pizza as I dubbed it) in Super Mario 64.

Life bars and life meters like you see in other platfomers and in fighting games are really just another way to represent the same data that the numerical values of HP does. And I remember people freaking out when Mystic Quest used a life bar instead of numbers to show your health. Yet what�s that there in Crisis Core? Sure there�s numbers but that appears to be a bar too.

You can't escape it if you have some sort of combat in your game, and that's 98% of games out there, you need some way to measure how much damage you can take.


But then we come to what I think could be a possibly interesting way to measure HP in an RPG. And honestly, I�d hate to bring it up as there�s already enough posts about Super Smash Bros. Brawl on the internet but what about the damage multiplier as a way to measure your damage in an RPG?

For those living under a rock lately I�ll explain. Smash Bros. uses a percentage meter to measure a character�s vitality. At the start of a regular match that meter reads zero and as he/she/it is hit by an attack that percentage goes up. And as that number increases the further attacks send your character flying off the stage. The percentage can go higher than 100 but as long as you can make it back onto the stage and aren�t smashed into the background, then you can continue fighting on.

How about this system for RPGs? The lower your number, the less likely it is for your character to be KO�d but hitting 100% doesn�t automatically result in a KO, making it possible to survive devastating hits. Maybe you survive to fight on. Maybe you do get "smashed" and require a Phoenix Down.

Remember in Earthbound where your HP was on a rolling counter? If you were hit the damage wasn�t automatically subtracted from your HP but the counter would roll down to that number. It was possible to have been hit for fatal damage but if you could finish the battle before the numbers rolled down to zero you could eek out a victory. It was exciting and some battles put you on the very edge of your seat. How much would this put you on the edge if you never knew exactly when you were going to bite it on a certain attack?


As you probably have already pointed out, there still are some flaws to this idea. The first being that it is still another coat of paint in a way, just slightly more random.

And the other flaw is in its randomness. Gamers love when random occurrences give them the edge. I can�t be the only one that gets pumped up any time one of my characters delivers critical damage to an enemy despite the fact that it was completely random. On the other hand we all curse the screen when critical damage is dealt to our characters or a random status aliment hits our entire party. We hate not being in control.

It�s fun for Smash Bros. because its wild and silly and fun�and you usually have another stock or are playing a coin match. You also didn't just trek all the way up the Slyx Tower to get creamed by five of the most pain-in-the-ass bosses in Final Fantasy history -- all with your last chance to save being the enterance to the Slyx Tower, forty-five minutes ago.

But RPGs are so steeped in cold mathematics where everything is controlled and displayed numerically. It�s ok when something positively affects a gamer's cause but watch out when something out of their control adversely affects them. How much of a fit would your typical RPG gamer (or gamer in general) throw if they were KO�d by a move while they were �only� at 85%? It happens from time to time in Brawl.


This same system from Brawl could also be used for MP (or even a third bar such as SP.) Safe, low level spells would raise your MP percentage only a tiny bit, while a giant spell rivaling Ultima or a summon like Shiva would shoot the percentage up considerably. The higher the percentage the more chance a spell has in failing or even backfiring. Stronger mages have their percentage go up less and thus can cast more spells before risking backfire or massive failure. Your typical ether or gummy would result in bringing down your percentage of backfire much like your potion or herb would bring down your percentage of being KO�d.

As I said the system is just another coat of paint but there is potentially more wiggle room that what we�ve explored in RPGs since their humble beginnings. And yes, that sort of magic system was explored in Mage: The Ascension but that�s one RPG in a sea of thousands that at least attempted something different.

And of course the biggest flaw to this system, and to any system that attempts to mess with the standard HP/MP formula -- people hate different. Look no further than SaGa or the leveling system used in Final Fantasy 2.

So I posit this to you fine people here at Dtoid � is the HP/MP model flawless without any room for improvement?

Is there another model we can use to breath some fresh air into the genre?

What RPGs do you feel at least attempted something different when it comes to the HP/MP mechanic? Maybe one of the SaGa fans could shed some light on what they may or may not do differently.

Would you be interested in a Smash-esque RPG or do you need to have everything calculated?
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About Tug Your God Outone of us since 8:34 PM on 03.20.2008

Apparently I'm a gamer -- hence being here. I've had the Donkey Kong theme stuck in my head since about 1995. It's not as cool as it sounds. It's kind of like hiccuping for that many years.

I'm pretty much a deadbeat Liberal Arts graduate from U of Illinois -- uhm Springfield campus. Started off as a computer science major and switched to English Literature. Why? Because I'm an idiot and I'm still looking for the job that made the switch worth the time and money. I did take a year of Elementary Japanese, so maybe I can BS a translation job. But only if I'm talking to school children. How insulting -- "your understanding of the language is that of a retarded kid!" So I guess that skill only comes in handy for catching one out of four words in any anime I watch and a good laugh when people mispronounce words.

Just finally in August joined the high-falooting "next-gen" with a purchase of the 60gb 360. I always said if a Tales game came to the 360, I'd finally buy the damn thing. Had to eat my words but I'm enjoying it so far.

Systems own: N64, Dreamcast, DS (x2), PSP (x2), 360 (finally), Wii, PS2, and a TG-16 (unfortunately not working)

Apparently I'm a huge Tales of fan -- hence getting the 360 for Vesperia and my Klarth avatar when I signed up. But Repede's too awesome to pass up.

Currently playing: Tales of Vesperia, Viva Pinata, Soul Calibur 4, Final Fantasy IV DS, Mana Khemia, Out of the Park Baseball 9, Sam and Max Season 2 (yeah finally got around to that), Downstream Paniac

INTRODUCTION POSTS (if you're looking for even more about me)

Intro #1
Intro #2
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