Ability Losses

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The event of losing the abilities of performing certain actions in a game.

Games do not have to let players have the same possibility of actions the whole game. This can be done by removing abilities during gameplay. Such Ability Losses may be penalties for failing goals, the effect of enemy actions, the lack of resources, but may also simply be due to different play modes available at different times during the gameplay.


Respawning in multiplayer First-Person Shooters is typically done without any weapons, and the special abilities they provided, gained in earlier gameplay. Dying in Eve Online can have similar effects if one does not have up-to-date clones in that one loses experience points which can translate into skill losses.

Game masters in Tabletop Roleplaying Games such as Dungeons & Dragons or GURPS can sometimes be forced to invent events that are unavoidable to the players to strip them of equipment that disrupts the game balance. Temporary Ability Losses are however much more common due to combat effects, e.g. being frozen, paralysis, blinded, or knocked unconscious. When done as actions by players or enemies, these effect are called debuffs in World of Warcraft (as is effects that lessen the effectiveness of enemies).

Disasters and attacks by enemies in Space Alert can destroy various components of the ship, which effectively creates Ability Losses since the actions they provide can no longer be done. Being exposed to high levels of ultraviolet radiation in Ursuppe can force players to have to discard gene cards and the abilities they provide; similar Ability Losses can be caused to rockets by solar flares in High Frontier. Taking damage in RoboRally does not make actions impossible, but lock what actions one has to do in particular phases.

Using the pattern

The design of Ability Losses consists of deciding what actions are lost and what the reason for these losses are. While one reason for Ability Losses can simply be to give Penalties for failing goals, Ability Losses may also be the natural closing effect of Temporary Abilities. Ability Losses can be temporary due to running out of Energy needed to activate them, but this becomes permanent Ability Losses if the Energy used is a Non-Renewable Resource. Other common causes for Ability Losses, which can be seen as specific examples of how Ability Losses can be Penalties, include Spawning as part of Death Consequences or being part of Role Reversals where the losses of some Abilities are usually countered by New Abilities in other Competence Areas. Suffering the effects of a Vulnerability is another cause for Ability Losses. The Penalties of Ability Losses can be mitigated by having Time Limits or by giving players New Abilities within other Competence Areas. Units modulate Ability Losses since the Ability Loss may actual only become a loss if all Units with the ability are removed from gameplay.

Specific causes for Ability Losses include Environmental Effects and Game Items. The may be Traps, e.g. cursed Game Items, but that these cause Ability Losses may also be known in advance so players can expose themselves to them as part of Trade-Offs or Risk/Reward choices. Another type of cause for Ability Losses is to create Cooldown periods for Abilities - this is simply combining an Ability Loss with a Time Limit after that Ability has been activated. In great enough amounts, Debuffs, Decreased Abilities, and Deterioration can effectively give Ability Losses. In games with Character Alignments, not following ones alignment can be the cause of Ability Losses. Diegetic Social Maintenance or Diegetic Social Norms can be used in a similar effect to penalize agents in Game Worlds that do not live up to social conventions with the people they have relationships with or share Factions with.

The creation of Safe Havens can be a consequence of combining Ability Losses of aggressive Abilities with Location-Fixed Abilities, i.e. making the aggressive Abilities possible everywhere but within the Safe Havens.

In games with Game Masters, Ability Losses may naturally occur as the outcome of Negotiation with players in order to restore Player Balance. Although not popular, it can also be part of Evolving Rule Sets in order to provide Balancing Effects between different strategies.

Narrative Aspects

Ability Losses are not commonly used to advance Narration Structures unless they are Ultra-Powerful Events, since players may see goals in resisting the loss, especially in games that support Save-Load Cycles. One reason for enforcing these types of Ability Losses in Predetermined Story Structures are when they are important parts of Abstract Player Construct or Character Development. When the losses are part of the game story, they do provide a form of Varied Gameplay, as players have to adjust to a Limited Set of Actions, which may be used to maintain Challenging Gameplay. Half-Life has this as it at one point strips players of their equipment and the Dead Money Expansion to Fallout: New Vegas does it through temporarily removing all equipment when the Expansion is played.

Selective Ability Losses may be enforced by a game design as an alternative to Actions Have Diegetically Social Consequences, for example, making it impossible to attack shopkeepers in the Dragon Age series when it is possible to attack monsters or making it impossible to shoot allies in Doom 3. This saves production costs in dealing with unwanted narrative developments, and can from the perspective of Narration Structures as enforcing Thematic Consistency but from the perspective of Roleplaying as breaking Thematic Consistency.


Ability Losses are common as Penalties, e.g. those caused by as the whole effects of Damage or those that are Critical Hits which cause Ability Losses besides reducing Health. Losing Abilities naturally creates or restricts a Limited Set of Actions for players and thereby players' their Freedom of Choice. This most likely negatively affects any Exaggerated Perception of Influence players may have and can make it difficult to have an accurate Determinable Chance to Succeed. When Ability Losses are temporary in the sense that they somehow can be regained, the pattern creates Gain Competence goals.

The losses can be on an Avatar or Unit level or be applied on a player generally. Ability Losses may cause Competence Areas to be lost, but in the case of Abilities possessed by Units the Abilities become Limited Resources that only lead to losses of Competence Areas when all of them are lost. This may however create Competence Areas for others as they may be the only ones left competent. When Ability Losses are related to Abstract Player Constructs or Characters, these loses can be seen as (negative) Abstract Player Construct or Character Development; Ability Losses can also modulate other Character Development, e.g. having some actions being taboo after having joined specific Factions. In extreme cases, Ability Losses may cause players to have Downtime, which is equal to Player Killing if the loss is temporary and equal to Player Elimination if it is permanent. However, Ability Losses may reduce the complexity of a game while increasing the difficulty, thereby being able to modulate both Complex and Challenging Gameplay.

A loss of Abilities can affect Player Balance. If the lost Abilities were possessed by most or all other players or Agents this is a Penalty, but if the Abilities were Privileged Abilities, the losses can affirm Player Balance and be Balancing Effects if explicitly designed into the game. When Ability Losses are combined with New Abilities, this pair can be balanced in itself and require players to consider both the Risk/Reward and the Trade-Offs associated with losing one Ability to gain another.


Can Instantiate

Balancing Effects, Competence Areas, Damage, Downtime, Environmental Effects, Gain Competence, Penalties, Player Elimination, Player Killing, Predetermined Story Structures, Risk/Reward, Thematic Consistency, Trade-Offs, Traps, Varied Gameplay

with Abstract Player Constructs

Abstract Player Construct Development

with Characters

Character Development

with Damage and Health

Critical Hits

with Location-Fixed Abilities

Safe Havens

with New Abilities

Risk/Reward, Trade-Offs

with Time Limits


with Units

Limited Resources

Can Modulate

Abilities, Avatars, Challenging Gameplay, Character Development, Complex Gameplay, Death Consequences, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Freedom of Choice, Game Items, Limited Set of Actions, Player Balance, Units

Can Be Instantiated By

Character Alignments, Debuffs, Decreased Abilities, Deterioration, Diegetic Social Maintenance, Diegetic Social Norms, Evolving Rule Sets, Game Masters, Role Reversals, Spawning, Temporary Abilities, Vulnerabilities

Energy together with Non-Renewable Resources

Can Be Modulated By

Time Limits, Units

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Competence Areas, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Thematic Consistency


An updated version of the pattern Ability Losses that was part of the original collection in the book Patterns in Game Design[1].


  1. Björk, S. & Holopainen, J. (2004) Patterns in Game Design. Charles River Media. ISBN1-58450-354-8.


Marcus Antonsson, Karl Bergström