On Finite and Limited Resources

Ever since the Oil Crisis in the '70s (I was a young lad, but I dimly remember the ridiculous lines for gas stations back then), we've heard that we're running out of oil. Between clear-cutting forests, overfishing once-fertile waters, and strip mining, humanity has done an excellent job of depleting the planet's resources over the centuries.

What if we bring this idea into a fantasy RPG? What resources could you limit or make finite that would directly impact your party of PCs? How would the PCs deal with it? How could the PCs alleviate the problem?

Natural resources could work, but they tend to impact the overall story more than the actual day-to-day play. Sure, prices might go up and a once-mighty mining city may lose half its population, but parties can always fall back on magic and superhuman skills to fill the gap and keep them afloat.

What if we go one step further and strip the PCs of their favorite tools?

Now in hardcover.
My favorite example of this idea in AD&D comes in module A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. The PCs have been captured, stripped of their equipment, and dumped into a dungeon. They have no light, no armor, a dagger, and a scroll with a few spells to keep the magic-user from committing seppuku on the spot. Sure, the fighter can almost always hit, but a rock has crappy base damage. It challenged the players to overcome the limitations of their situation and emerge triumphant to challenge the slave lords.

What if we went further?

What if magic had limits?

What if the Aether dried up? What if the infinite planes started running out of creatures to summon? What if the god of magic died and the infinite fountain of arcane power started sputtering as mages tried to cast spells?

Do your spells fizzle?
Try this tiny blue pill!
I've seen this done most easily through the premise of a missing or captured god. In AD&D parlance, nobody had access to divine spells over 4th level, since the power granting those spells couldn't reach the faithful cleric praying for spells. Scrolls became highly desirable and expensive as high-level clerics needed to fill the magical power vacuum. But once the scrolls ran out, chaos reigned.

What if we went even further, into the rules and the nature of randomness?

What if the players had a limited pool of die rolls to choose from?

What if they could choose their die rolls, but they needed to use every d20 result once before they could use a number again? Or what if they were cursed by Lady Luck who only let them have a limited number of die rolls in an adventure before every die roll comes up 1? Would they spend their limited die rolls on combat hits or saving throws?

Welcome to the Gedankenexperiment. If you have experience with any of these ideas, or if you introduced limited resources into your game, please let me know how it worked for you in the comments.

Thanks for reading!


  1. This cripples [or at least severely dampens] all modern versions of D&D, as PC "power," and resultant strength/viability against certain challenge-levels of monsters, depends largely upon having a 'level-appropriate' collection of magic armor/weapons/etc.

    For example (citing 4E here, you'll have to retrofit to 3/3.5), a level 10 or 12 combat char's defenses (Fortitude, Reflex, Will, AC) will hover somewhere in the 24/26/28 range. Two or three of those bonus points (11% to 13% of total) are furnished through magic items, such as the ubiquitous "neck slot" or "armor slot."

    Similarly, two or three of that char's to-hit bonuses come from magic weapons; that number could be (slightly) higher, say, +4 or +5, if boosted by situationally-appropriate magic (items/spells/etc.), representing 11% to 33% of total attack probability.

    Take away this "built-in bonus," and the existing D&D challenge-level is skewed. PCs can't cut through the monsters at the expected rates anymore; conversely, PCs can't weather as many hits (due to lower defenses). A numerically-skilled GM can "fix" this, by removing one or two monsters from every pre-gen encounter, or recalculating the challenge level to N-2, or what have you, but, whatever the remedy, the "equilibrium" of the system has been disrupted (maybe shifting to a lower state of equilibrium).

    In this particular case, WotC seem to realize this quantitative 'feature,' and acknowledge it as part of their design -- hence the (optional) notion of "innate bonus," where a character gets pseudo-magic-weapon-like addons to hit, to defense, etc., as he/she levels up. Doesn't seem like a satisfying fix, but at least there is awareness.

  2. But perhaps you were referring more to qualitative game-world characteristics, rather than quant mechanics.

    I admit I've never been fully comfortable with "simulating" the macroeconomic-cultural effects of a magic-rich fantasy world.

    One starts with the flying carpets and airborne palaces of Aladdin and Scheherazade, which is pleasing to the imagination; one ends up with the 1930s Weimar Republic (where loaves of bread became valueless, or, conversely, infinitely valuable, because 'currency' and 'sustenance goods' had become irreparably disjoint from one another), or, worse, Resident Evil's Umbrella Corporation (where the "godlike innovators" have "won," and there's effectively nothing left outside their massive holdings).

    Maybe I'm impressing too much real-world economy/belligerence onto the system -- from my personal vantage point, I don't see how "infinite snap-your-fingers prosperity" can continue forever without cataclysmic explosion(s) or paradigm-changing invention(s) periodically wiping the slate clean.

    So I've almost completely danced around the question. =)

    Some "positive" models of magic on the economy seem to be Star Trek: the Next Generation (wherein citizens strive to "better themselves" rather than "accrue techno-magical power," though inter-species conflicts do still surface concerning the use of said techno-magical powers), and, more intriguingly, Gibson/Sterling's _Difference Engine_ novel, depicting an alt-historic Britain wherein Byron/Newton/Babbage's great clockwork calculator-machine has become the commodity and global standard -- "Chancellor, we require three thousand yards [of temporary use of Babbage-counting-gears] for our wartime ship-building efforts," "Chancellor, the [surveillance-of-the-people] program you suggest will require one hundred thousand yards, more than have ever been constructed in the history of the Empire."

    I think THIS (Babbage-gear) model is sort of interesting, because it more readily translates into a liquid techno-magical "currency." Nation X has 350 magicians, and can thus generate roughly 2450 "dweomer-force units" in a given day, 900,000 in a year. Nation Y has 220 magicians, but they exist in a constant drug-stimulated state such that they can stay awake and conjure longer, yielding 1980 units per day, and 722,000 per year.

    Lest this sound too much like an economics lecture, consider the broader implications of this. Perhaps Nation X steals Nation Y's drug-stimulant formulae, boosting their own magicians' capacity. Perhaps a caste system of magicians ("the pure" versus "the lotus-eaters") emerges, with revolutionary consequences. Perhaps human magicians become resistant/tolerant to the drug-stimulant, such that their magic abilities wane. Or perhaps over-harvesting of the drug-stimulant flower causes the natural ecosystem to fall out of balance, which in turn dampens all spellcaster abilities by 65%. Imagine, THEN, the impacts on our 1930 Weimar and Star-Trek civilizations, as citizens can no longer 'replicate clothing' or create foodstuffs.

  3. Keep in mind that limits largely depend on circumstances. You may have no limits on your magic, but the society outside is likely lacking a few things. Think of what a city watch could do with numerous Sleeps in the case of a riot or uprising.