Improved Abilities

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The event of abilities improving their efficiency.

Players may over time get to have more influence on game states through their actions. While this may be due to their mental or physical capabilities developing, Improved Abilities occur when the game state variables that control the evaluation functions of their actions are modified so that the actions have greater effects. This allows the development of players' actions to be governed by rules and matched to rewards and other events defined by game states.


Tabletop Roleplaying Games often describe players' abilities with numeric values, and succeeding with actions requires players to make various die rolls in relation to these values. Improvement of these skills is done simply by increasing the associated value. Besides gaining bonuses from having good equipment, this is often done to represent character development but can be done in several different ways. In Dungeons & Dragons the improvements come with advances in character levels and players may then choose combinations of new and improved abilities. In Basic Role-Playing, Hârnmaster, and Mutant the chance to improve skills typically depend on actually having used them although pools of advancement points can be given out semi-regularly also (GURPS does this also). These two styles have been carried over to Computer-based Roleplaying Games with Torchlight, World of Warcraft, the Dragon Age series, and the Fallout series being examples of using levels and the Elder Scrolls series an example of improving abilities based on how much they are used.

Chargers and Power-ups in Racing Games such as the F-Zero series, the Wipeout series, and the Mario Kart series often give vehicles a speed boost or raise the maximum speed possible without further affecting players' possible actions.

Examples of Improved Abilities from Board Games include gaining new (ordinary) weapons in Frag, acquiring item cards in Munchkin, gaining family members in Agricola, and gaining new action tokens in Dominant Species.

Using the pattern

The design choices regarding Improved Abilities include what Abilities to improve, how much to improve them, when to improve them, and if players have a choice regarding this issues. The difference between New Abilities and Improved Abilities is often one of scale or perspective: are the abilities activated in the same fashion as before, do they affect the same parts of the game state, and do games' Alternative Realities explain them as being different or the same? For example, does acquiring a new Weapon that does more Damage that a previous one represent a new or improved ability? This can be up to subjective opinion and for that reason it may be worthwhile to consider the options and consequences regarding New Abilities and Improved Abilities together when the distinction is not clear.

Improved Abilities are often easier to explain within a Thematic Consistency than New Abilities, as the pattern can be instantiated as increases in Attributes, Powers, or Skills of Characters or Avatars - possibly through advances in Character Levels or increased access to a type of Resource. For Abstract Player Constructs the introduction of Improved Abilities can also uses these explanations but New Abilities are as thematically plausible as improved ones. Armor, Equipment, Sets, Tools, Vehicles, and Weapons are all ways of giving Improved Abilities linked to the possession of Game Items and therefore fit Characters and Avatars well. The use of Ammunition in itself does not motivate Improved Abilities but can do so when several different varieties of Ammunition exists (as e.g. in the Fallout series). Items in Game Worlds that provide Improved Abilities can thematically be used on Units as well but may functionally be effects of Investments, unlocking parts of Technology Trees, or Upgrading (which may be through Upgrades or not). These latter solutions may also work well on Abstract Player Constructs. Controllers and Environmental Effects (the latter which may be defined by what Improved Abilities they give) do not make these Improved Abilities into Location-Fixed Abilities per se, but make the improvements location-fixed. Power-Ups and Chargers have similar effects but also create Improved Abilities by having Time Limits. Joining or teaming up with Factions can also motivate Improved Abilities and since this is based on social relations the option may be best suited for use with Characters or Abstract Player Constructs when these represent organizations or states. What patterns are best suited to give Improved Abilities to Enemies depend on their nature (are they represented by Avatars, Characters, Units, or Abstract Player Constructs?).

Improved Abilities are quite natural to give to players as Rewards and more specifically as Facilitating Rewards. They can also be the result of Investments (e.g. Card Building or Deck Building) and then let players have the Freedom of Choice of making Trade-Offs between finishing these or making other actions. Crafting can allow players to improve Abilities as explicit actions and thereby can be seen as an example of Investments when they provide this option. For games with Character Levels or Budgeted Action Points for improvements can let players also have Freedom of Choice - in this case of what specific Abilities to improve.

While Improved Abilities may disrupt player balance if given unchecked, Balancing Effects for them can easily be acquired by simultaneously making other Abilities into Decreased Abilities. Another way of introducing Balancing Effects is to include Diminishing Returns so that players with powerful Abilities get less advantages of improving these than other players. Having Time Limits, as e.g. Power-Ups do, is yet another way to balance Improved Abilities. Player/System Action Composites are typically created when Power-Ups provide Improved Abilities that dynamically improve the abilities depending on the gameplay context.

Although any type of action players can perform can benefit from Improved Abilities, actions related to Combat or Movement are probably most common. A more abstract example is providing addition points for Budgeted Action Point systems. Alternatively, players' actions may require fewer action points and this design solution can also be used for any type of actions that requires the expenditure of Resources.

Interface Aspects

When players have a Freedom of Choice of which Abilities should be improved, this is often done outside gameplay time and supported through Secondary Interface Screens in computer-based games. From a pure interface perspective, placing Bookkeeping Tokens can show which Abilities have been improved (and by omission which have not been improved).

Narrative Aspects

Giving Improved Abilities to players (and their Enemies) is a common solution in game stories to allow Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses.


Improved Abilities give players Empowerment by making the Abilities of Abstract Player Constructs, Avatars, or Characters more potent and can through this promote Competence Areas. The improvement is typically Rewards for completing Gain Competence goals or the acquisition of various types of Controllers, Equipment, Sets, Tools, or Vehicles as part of Gain Ownership goals. Even if they help players, Improved Abilities may until players are used to them lower their ability to have a correct Determinable Chance to Succeed.

Gaining Improved Abilities create Supporting Goals as well, as they empower players to influence the game state and create Exaggerated Perception of Influence. When given before gameplay starts, Improved Abilities are a way of setting Difficulty Levels while giving them during gameplay can tilt the balance of Player/Character Skill Composites. Regardless of when they are given, Improved Abilities may go against Challenging Gameplay if given in too much abundance but when given by others (including Dedicated Game Facilitators or impartial rule systems) they may function as Balancing Effects.

When Improved Abilities are applied to Enemies this can give Challenging Gameplay as well as create Boss Monsters. When applied to both players and Enemies, Improved Abilities can, like New Abilities, give rise to Red Queen Dilemmas. This can also occur when competing players can improve abilities during gameplay so that they are equally matched.

Like New Abilities, the improvement of Abilities is a form of Abstract Player Construct Development or Character Development if it is applied on Abstract Player Constructs or Characters. This may give rise to Increasing Rewards, Varied Gameplay, and set up Paper-Rock-Scissors relations (although not as readily as New Abilities may do). When players' are given a Freedom of Choice to affect what Abilities are improved, these effects become more potent and can give rise to Player-Planned Development and the choices can represent Character Defining Actions in games with Characters. In games with Teams, the development also becomes Team Development.

Improved Abilities can create Trade-Offs when players have to choose between several different categories of Abilities to improve. In the case of Abstract Player Construct Development or Character Development this is typically permanent, but having several different types of Ammunition is one example of how players can have Trade-Offs between different types of Improved Abilities on a moment to moment basis.


Can Instantiate

Balancing Effects, Competence Areas, Difficulty Levels, Empowerment, Environmental Effects, Exaggerated Perception of Influence, Facilitating Rewards, Gain Competence, Higher-Level Closures as Gameplay Progresses, Increasing Rewards, Red Queen Dilemmas, Rewards, Supporting Goals

with Abstract Player Constructs

Abstract Player Construct Development

with Abstract Player Construct Development or Character Development

Paper-Rock-Scissors, Varied Gameplay

with Ammunition


with Characters

Character Defining Actions, Character Development

with Controllers, Equipment, Sets, Tools, or Vehicles

Gain Ownership

with Decreased Abilities

Balancing Effects

with Enemies

Boss Monsters

with Freedom of Choice

Player-Planned Development

with Power-Ups

Player/System Action Composites

with Teams

Team Development

Can Modulate

Abilities, Abstract Player Constructs, Ammunition, Attributes, Avatars, Budgeted Action Points, Challenging Gameplay, Character Levels, Characters, Combat, Determinable Chance to Succeed, Enemies, Factions, Freedom of Choice, Movement, Power-Ups, Powers, Player/Character Skill Composites, Skills, Units

Can Be Instantiated By

Armor, Bookkeeping Tokens, Card Building, Chargers, Controllers, Crafting, Deck Building, Equipment, Investments, Power-Ups, Resources, Sets, Technology Trees, Tools, Upgrades, Upgrading, Vehicles, Weapons

Can Be Modulated By

Diminishing Returns, Location-Fixed Abilities, Secondary Interface Screens, Time Limits

Possible Closure Effects


Potentially Conflicting With

Challenging Gameplay


An updated version of the pattern Improved Abilities 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.