The discussion thread from SUWT #6 has quite a few interesting comments re: the XP/level segment.  One of the tangents that has come to my mind as a result has been an attempt to review the various ways that games limit your options as a player at each/any specific conflict during play.

This was prompted by comments mentioning Guild Wars, to be specific, which I have actually tried several times (most recently during a bout with insomnia last night) but never been able to really get comfortable with.  The reasons vary, and are mainly questions of personal comfort zone: some of the character movement and camera control specifics are just different enough from what I’m used to that I find them disruptive, etc. 

One of the big ones for me, however, is the restriction to having just 8 skills/techniques available at any one time.  For some reason, it just shatters my sense of immersion to know that I have 15-20 and more such skills learned, but I can’t use the majority of them because I didn’t happen to slot it.  I had the same problem with Vanguard’s diplomacy system… if I have this skill/ability, why can’t I use it?  And yet, I am more forgiving of D+D’s original Wizard spell memorization system than many, presumably because I’ve bought into the “memorization” rationale.  Amazing how the mind works sometimes, eh?

Contemplating all that led me to cataloguing the various methods that games use (or could use) to restrict the range of options a character has at any specific moment in time.  And since I’d already spent a fair amount of time contemplating it, I figured I’d record the musings for posterity’s sake.  For the purposes of this post, I’m largely avoiding what I would term “vertical” limitations, limitations based on level/amount-of-activity/time-in-play, and concentrating more on “horizontal” limitations, those that would essentially limit options at nearly all levels of play, from newbie to expert.

Why bother?

Perhaps the first question to answer is, why bother restricting options to begin with?  There are a few reasons I can think of, and probably several more that I’m overlooking (feel free to chime in).

First, restrictions create opportunities for character distinction.  Consider the Ultima Online phenomenon of the tank-mage, for example.  While UO did actually have some restrictions, they were loose enough that a single character could fully master and simultaneously use both melee combat and spell casting, leaving anyone who had only one or the other ability at an extreme disadvantage.  Very quickly, everyone was specced to be relatively identical.

Second, restrictions create opportunity for constructive interactions with others.  The now-ubiquitous tank-healer-DPS triumvirate is an example.  Each player has a defined role to play, and contributes something specific to the group’s achievement of the objective, whatever it may be.

Finally, gameplay itself is usually about working within some set of limitations to achieve a goal.  Chess wouldn’t be half as engrossing if every piece had the same movement options as the queen.  If you could just choose where your piece was moving to next in Monopoly, or could arbitrarily choose how much rent another player was going to have to pay for landing on one of your properties, the game would usually be over rather quickly.  It is the limitations and restrictions that make it a challenge, a “game”.


Classes/professions/etc. are the most common method of restricting the character’s set of options, obviously.  In most current games, this is a “hard” restriction: if you are a warrior, you will never cast spells like a wizard; wizards cannot sneak, backstab, find traps, or pick locks like a thief; and so on. 

Alternatively, some games (DDO, Guild Wars, Horizons) allow “multi-classing”, such that you are given the opportunity to combine the abilities of two (or more) sets of class abilities into a single play style.

Preparation/Planning (Activity Slots)

Another common restriction applied is via requiring some sort of preparation or planning, usually prior to entering a specific instance/adventure.  The spell memorization of D+D/DDO wizards is one example of this.  Similarly, Guild Wars requires the selection of a maximum of 8 skills from those you have gained access to, which can only be changed under certain circumstances. 

CoH/CoV might be considered to be somewhat in the same vein, but the current limit of 30 “action slots” is so large in comparison to the number of options generally available that most players won’t run into any decision making requirements until very high level, if at all.  Also, powers can be swapped in/out at any time (tho attempting to do so in mid-combat is usually not the best choice.)

Preparation/Planning (Consumables)

Essentially another form of preparation/planning, this is expressed in the form of requiring certain consumables (materials, components) in order to use a specific technique/skill, a common element of many spell-casting paradigms, for example.  UO and DDO are examples here.  Ammunition (arrows, bullets) for certain types of weapons is another implementation of a similar concept.


A relatively common element in many games, this is the concept of a “cooldown” or “recharge” period where an ability is simply unable to be triggered for a certain amount of time after it has been used.  This creates a situation where the player will see his available options quickly shifting from one moment to the next, generating opportunities for “tactical” prep/planning, as opposed to the more “strategic” planning options delineated so far.  Abilities with 5, 10, even 15 minute or more cooldown periods can be found in many games (CoH, EQ2, WoW)


Certain actions may have prerequisites of various types that must be met.  This might be as simple as needing a certain amount of “mana” or “stamina” to fire the ability, or requiring a certain combat stance to be active, or as complex as requiring other members of the group to have used certain abilities in a specific order (activity chains in EQ2).

Equipment in use

Certain abilities might be made available/unavailable based on what equipment the character is currently wearing/holding.  In Ryzom, for example, the tool you have in hand determines which set of skills/abilities you are using (harvesting, combat, crafting). 

In a high fantasy game, magic use might be tied to having a wand in hand, ala Harry Potter, while switching to a weapon would make melee combat actions available instead,  grabbing up a holy symbol would unlock clerical abilities, and so on.

Situational/Environmental elements

Another possible set of limitations could be based on situational/environmental factors.  For example, a character might be blocked from using fire spells unless there was some source of open flame in the area; a character fighting in a bog might be blocked from using certain types of dodging/evasion type maneuvers; visual stealth actions (stalking) might be disallowed in open, well-lit areas; and so on.


Well, there’s a ton more I could write, but I wanted to get this post out this week, preferably today, so I’ll end it here.   Commentary?