After I read this article about Item Decay over at Elder Game, I wrote about a somewhat-related concept of “character decay.” Then, just a little while ago, I wrote about NPC Social interactions (again inspired by an Elder Game post), and I think I figured out a starting point for integrating item decay into a game. It was methods of regaining hit points that actually got me on the train of thought.

Hit points are an abstraction of a character’s effectiveness in battle. Oftentimes they’re used to represent physical health and stamina, but that isn’t all they’re good for — they can also represent magical power and they can sometimes represent things like how well fed or rested your character is (see Fallout 3 and Mabinogi for examples). Eating, drinking water, and sleeping can replenish hit points in Fallout 3.

To contrast, eating food in Mabinogi increases your maximum hit points, allowing you to fight longer and harder when you’re out saving the world. (At least, it did when I played.) The longer you played, the more your maximum HP dwindled, until it reached a point where you spent almost as much time resting to recover your strength as you actually did adventuring, which encouraged you to eat when you could afford it.

Item durability also makes an appearance in both games, but they’re of a “break when it runs out of hit points” kind of durability. You have to keep the items in good condition to keep going. Guild Wars has a completely different approach to damaged armor, in the form of a removable debuff called “cracked armor.” Now, there may be something in these approaches that can strike a balance that appeals to players.

First of all, if you’re going to break a player’s items, they’re going to need to be able to work without them, regardless of how important the task. You can’t have huge events that require items that can break. Maybe some niche skills, but nothing huge. It sucks to be disallowed from participating in an event just because you don’t have your sword, or your staff, or your flint and steel, or your musical instrument.

Then, have item decay come out of a player resource they use often. If an enemy attempts to sunder their sword, it should take away from hit points. The sword might take on a “damaged” condition that makes it difficult or impossible to regain those hit points unless they swap to another weapon (in which case, they can just heal), or they repair the weapon. Even attacking might cost hit points.

Next, allow some preventative measures for forward-thinking players. Maybe they can use a whetstone (or oiling up the weapon) or perhaps using a fletching ability to build up a store of temporary hit points before going into battle, which using their sword or bow takes from first instead of taking damage directly from hit points.

I’m thinking that sundered/damaged ought to be a binary effect that requires special actions to initiate, but can be remedied in combat as easily as regaining hit points under the right conditions. Perhaps a battlesmith can whip out something to fix a broken strap on a suit of armor, or the mage can cast “make whole” to repair an item up to his or her level. Degrees of decay would be annoying to track.