Lessons from the Classics: MP Alternatives

We’ve all played a game or two (or twenty) with this system: each character has a finite amount of MP used for spells, more powerful ones cost more MP, and if your MP runs out you need items (or “rest”) to replenish it.

I find many implementations pretty tedious (buying/using MP restorative items constantly, or saving all magic for the boss), but preferences aside, its just plain boring when so many games do the same thing.

Now I happen to think there’s still a lot to learn from older games, so let’s look back at some alternatives to the typical MP system and imagine exciting future possibilities. (Let’s just define “magic” and “MP” broadly as “special moves” and the “special points required to use them.”)

You may already know much I love the Paladin’s Quest/Lennus games, where MP doesn’t exist. In these two games, spells cost HP. It’s an exciting twist that changes the dynamics of casting and healing, and I wrote about it in more detail here. Considering it’s the only game I know of to do this, I think there’s still a lot to explore here.

Rather than bothering with MP, some games just limit the number of times each individual spell can be cast. Final Fantasy 1 and Chrono Cross do this (this was one of the highlights of CC for me, personally).
battle ability list
Choosing which “element” to use in Chrono Cross- only one shot for each!

In a sense, this goes for any game where items can be used to cast a spell. I always want this to be fun and functional, but for some reason items usually cast weak or “just average” spells and aren’t worth keeping track of. (However, bombs in Dark Chronicle 2 are super useful *wink*).

On this note, I always liked the concept of the “Chemist” class (from Final Fantasy 3/6 and others), who can use items more effectively. That coupled with magic/attack items that actually deal damage would be fun!
FF’s Chemists can also “Mix” items and get special results.

The Draw system in FF 8 is a weird case where you can infinitely “Draw” the items needed to cast magic. The catch is that you infinitesimally weaken your character each time you use any Magic that is “Junctioned.” I enjoyed this, but nevertheless ending up getting frustrated as I spent hours obsessively trying to Draw Magic. In the end, I think the combination of “limited number of casts” and “infinitely available through cumbersome chore” was not such a good idea.

Fire Emblem KIND of does this… Every physical or magical attack wears down the weapon/spellbook used until it breaks. So, in practice, every attack is a “special” attack (ie limited in number), but at the same time characters generally use the same attacks all the time, so nothing is really “special.” The interesting thing is that “magic” is just another weapon, no different from swords or bows, just with its own pros and cons.
Battle animations in the SNES and GBA Fire Emblem games are wonderful.

I’m talking about all the Limit Breaks and Overdrives out there. They become available either when you are low on HP or have filled up a bar by taking enough damage (though Final Fantasy X lets you fill up the bar in various ways, which was neat).

Lufia 2 had an additional interesting twist on this system where the abilities are provided by equipment. That was a really fun additional consideration when equipping armor and weapons.
When the IP bar (below MP) fills up, you can choose one of the IP techniques of your equipped items.

The Dagger’s IP Technique!

I loved how in Final Fantasy 9, a certain combination of characters in the party makes some abilities available. I just thought it was so endearing that Steiner could use elemental Magic Swords when Vivi was there! (Unfortunately I never used Steiner…)
Steiner performs Fire Sword with Vivi’s help.

I think there is a lot more to explore with this “special situation magic”…

What if a character could only use certain spells when their HP was above 90%? Or only when an ally was low on HPーor only when the enemies have over 50% health?! Just imagine!!

When it comes to traditional mages, don’t you hate having to choose between a powerful spell that uses up precious MP, or totally worthless physical attacks?

Well, in Romancing Saga 3, mages generally have a relatively effective 1MP attack, but also a -1MP bonus to magic. So you get a free attack that is actually effective.

Now, the only game I know that did this with the “MP” is Romancing SaGa: Minstrel Song (though they call it “BP”), where it starts at the same base level and increases throughout each battle. Breath of Fire 4 is similar, in that you start with a minimal base amount of AP that replenishes throughout the battle (but only if the character isn’t being used).

The nice thing about these systems is that you are saved (at least partially) from the tyranny of “Ethers” (cough, Final Fantasy, cough).

Romancing SaGa 3 resets HP to the max after every battle, which is a huge relief and allows for consistently challenging enemies. This could be really interesting if also done with MP…

It’s standard fare in Action RPGs, obviously, but Final Fantasy 3 also implemented it with Sabin, and Legend of Dragoon used it in a pretty fun way, too.
You must hit buttons precisely to rack up damage in Legend of Dragoon- but if you succeed, the character yells out the name of the attack with hilarious voice acting!

You have to memorize Sabin’s combos (what is this, Street Fighter?), but then you can use them to your heart’s content.

For me the memorization of fast-paced buttons to mash kinda clashes with the RPG vibe. I mean when you want action, you want consistent action (not light action spread awkwardly through parts of battle), and when you want RPG, you usually want atmosphere, strategy, planning, and whatnot- not to be suddenly asked to input fast buttons.

Now this is a wild fantasy of mine but… what if not only did spells use HP, but HP was shared for the entire party? Different characters contribute different amounts, and their spells use different amounts. They could even KO at different points as it decreases…?!

Or, what if the stage where you fought supplied the MP- a limited amount shared by all characters? Some areas are rich in magic, others barely have a shred!? And what if this “Mana Pool” (still MP, haha) was also shared by ENEMIES?

What if performing special moves involved putting your characters in certain locations relative to enemies in a grid-based fighting game (forming an unbroken “Square of Doom” or “Healing Trapezoid,” for example)? Some kind of Geomancy/Feng Shui-based magic system…??

My fantasies are endless… And you probably have your own, too. I’d love to hear them in the comments section!

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15 Responses to Lessons from the Classics: MP Alternatives

  1. François P says:

    The roguelike “Tales of Maj’Eyal 4” has several MP systems for various classes, but my favorite by far is the Paradox resource for Time Wardens and Paradox Mages. It’s a measure of how far your character is bending the rules of time and reality. it starts at zero, it has no real upper limit, and using spells actually adds to it by various amounts. Once it reaches a certain threshold, you start having a % chance of failing to cast spells, and if it goes even higher you occasionally produce space-time anomalies (like all characters in the area being teleported randomly) or even have spells actually backfiring. So it stands to reason that you want to use your abilities in moderation to keep your Paradox low, but many spells also become more powerful when your Paradox is high (more damage, longer status effect durations, etc.), so you’re always trying to maintain a fine balance between having Paradox low enough that you can cast your spells reliably and avoid nasty repercussions but high enough to get bonus effects.

    I grew up on the old-school Dragon Warrior games so I’ll always have a soft spot for plain MP, but it still really tickles me when games break the mold and explore new resource systems.

    • wzackw says:

      Now that sounds interesting! Thanks for mentioning Maj’Eyal.

      Kind of reminds me of Sanity in Eternal Darkness. That didn’t build up from casting magic, but it did cause surreal, unexpected things to happen.

      The system you described sounds fun to play with. Knowing me, I would jack it up high just to see what space-time anomalies will occur!

  2. Garth Barley says:

    I made a magic system for a Fate RPG where all spells would either create, transmute or destroy mana in the environment, and that mana was used by everyone. This meant that you would usually use low level conjuration spells to build up the magic in the area, then transmute it to the mana type you needed (fire, water, etc…) then destroy a large amount of it in a massive attack spell.
    I quite liked that, even if no one else did :P.

  3. Gorogorosama says:

    Magic the Gathering (and I guess now Hearthstone is the popular comparison) sort of does the opposite of standard JRP’s where the mana you have available each turn increases instead of decreasing. This makes each successive turn potentially cooler than the last since you have more awesome spells available.

    Also there’s the “cooldown” system, which each spell / ability, in addition to costing MP, cannot be cast again for a given amount of time.

    And of course Chrono Cross had the “field” thing where after three Fire spells were cast in a row, the field would become red and all Fire spells got a boost.

    • wzackw says:

      Escalating mana sounds neat! Getting more powerful instead of less throughout the battle…

      Chrono Cross’ field is nice except it’s almost impossible to have a chance to cast four of the same element spells in a row, considering that you only have three character so the fourth spell is bound to be a different element cast by the enemy. Though last night I managed to make it work because the enemies weren’t casting anything, but that’s rare.

      • Gorogorosama says:

        I agree the field never came into play in the game, so was rather a waste. It was easy enough to get the field red if you were fighting Fire enemies, but of course then it would help them more than you.

        BUT, that doesn’t mean the idea couldn’t be better implemented in a new game.

      • wzackw says:

        Actually, after your comments I tried using the field and actually made it work a few times, since if you are only fighting one enemy that sometimes physical attacks (ie some bosses), you actually have a chance.

        I managed to summon Frog Prince on Lynx, and pump up spell power in a few random battles. It’s def a cool idea at least.

  4. Jules Defoy says:

    A lot of Shin Megami Tensei games have the “HP as MP” option for using physical skills, although it used a percentage of your total HP instead of a set amount. On the one hand, it means you had to balance healing with attacking when using physically-oriented characters. On the other, you could use super-powerful moves from the start on New Game+ (and then couldn’t heal afterwards because your MP wasn’t high enough). It worked fairly well, but since I used magic-heavy builds, I didn’t make full use of this myself.

    • wzackw says:

      That sounds neat, and I like the idea of using your physical energy for attacks. I really need to play those games.

      I sometimes think characters should somehow swoon or be exhausted when they run out of MP, if that is supposed to be their spiritual or mental energy.

  5. Juan says:

    Hello! New reader here. Great post, This is a very interesting topic for me too.

    One of the most original MP alternatives I have seen in an RPG lately can be found in Warhammer Quest for iOS. The game itself is very underwhelming; but I liked that the amount of mp your magician had available on each turn was completely random to emulate the chaotic nature of magic in Warhammer. Your guy could have 7, 5 or even 0 mp on any given turn regardless of what he had before or if he used any at all in the previous turn. Since you can only equip a limited amount of spells, it forced you to put some thought and prioritize the spells you were going to carry. I mean, sure you can pack all the super powerful spells, but since those take a high number of mp to cast, chances are your Mage won’t be able to use them that often. There was some equipment in the game that allowed you to carry over a few unused points from one turn to another, or guaranteed at least 1 or 2 mp in every turn, but of course that meant you were not equipping something else, so at least choices mattered. Too bad the game itself wasn’t very good.

    If I can make a suggestion for a future post, I would like to read your thoughts on alternatives to grinding and leveling.

    • wzackw says:

      I was just thinking of a post about leveling, as well as one about the way magic systems are set up (alternatives to the same old fire vs. ice all the time). The problem is that these posts are starting to show my limitations because I talk about the same games over and over! …I have played just about every SNES RPG ever made though, so at least I know I’m not leaving any out in that era.

      Anyway look for that post sometime soon!

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