Monday, July 27, 2009

Death Spirals and Life Spirals, and the Importance of Being Stunned

Death Spiral is the internet RPG shorthand for any mechanic which uses life-status point (HP/Constitution/Life Points/etc.) thresholds to add penalties. The implication of the name is that once you start getting damaged, it becomes harder and harder to break out of the spiral, which ends in character death. At each threshold of the Death Spiral, the character's penalties for doing anything become more and more severe, to the point that any action becomes essentially futile. The goal then would, by implication, be to be the first to deal damage and lock your opponent into a death spiral while avoiding this yourself.

Contrast this to the Shop 'Til You Drop mechanic used in many RPGs. The character suffers no impairment no matter how low the life-status points drop until the character dies. This has no death spiral, but is essentially bizarrely unreal, unless Life-status points are thought of as not cuts and bruises, but abraded luck and accumulated fatigue. This goes against the convention of calling a success in combat a "hit" - a hit should mean you hit the opponent. Anything else is counter-intuitive. Perhaps using a different word - "success" or "threat" or something like that - would make it more acceptable as a model. With this change in approach, the Shop 'Til You Drop model becomes much a more reasonable abstraction.

There's also a variant on this - Shop 'Til You Fall Over. Sometimes a small negative life-status threshold is added below the zero threshold - if you hit this point, you are unconscious, with various penalties - possibly bleeding out, possibly comatose, etc.

Another mechanic used in RPGs is Buy Now, Pay Later, where the character suffers no impairment from wounds until combat is over, whereupon the bill becomes due. This is an interesting compromise between the Death Spiral and Shop 'Til You Drop. The penalties of a Death Spiral still acrue, but payment is postponed until pressing business is finished and the adrenaline wears away.

My games use another variant of the Death Spiral, which I call a Life Spiral. In this variant, your different thresholds of Life-status points trip differing conditions, not further penalties. In my games, the first threshold incurs a condition - Hindered - in which a small penalty is assessed to all actions. The second threshold incurs a different condition - Stunned or Unconcious - in which the character must make an appropriate skill or stat check in order to continue fighting. Otherwise, the character becomes disoriented and is out of action until roused by another. the third threshold - Seriously Wounded or Critical - incurs another condition in which the character falls over, cannot be roused, and begins slipping away unless tended to by another. The second threshold is a warning. You can continue, but things are getting dangerous. The third threshold is a limit. You cannot continue any further, and you may lose it all. These separate conditions serve to keep characters alive at the expense of dropping them out of combat.

Why is this a Life Spiral? Here's something anyone who ever ran an RPG knows - The Party Will Never Surrender! The only way to defeat a party is to kill them all. Consequently, the corollary to the party never surrendering is that Defeat == Death. The GM plays the opposition the way the party plays itself - the only surrender is death. Thing is, people survive losing combats all the time in real life. One side is almost never wiped out.

This brings me to The Importance of Being Stunned. Stunned characters are not responsible for surrendering. They can live without taint of cowardice or whatever it is that motivates the "never give up, never surrender!" zeitgeist which imbues PC parties. They can be captured, and they can maybe eventually escape and still win in the end. Defeat becomes temporary, not final. Since they can be captured, there's a reason for not wiping out the enemy when they are helpless - if you get a rep for killing prisoners, the enemy will do the same. If you want to live through a defeat to ultimately triumph, treat your prisoners decently.



  1. There's also a few Damage Is Empowering mechanics out there... Not, like, piles. But some.

    F'rex, Werewolf had a bit of this in Rage pools (though it *also* had a death spiral).

  2. Hi Levi!

    Yep! Forgot about that! Werewolf was a bit weird on many levels. Dragonball Z was the epitome of this.


  3. I rather like doing something "different", for example D&D has always suggested that Hit Points are also how "fortunate not to catch a fatal sucking chest wound," yet doesn't quite work that way. I am playing that up in Derelict Delvers, despit its otherwise Old School aims. Heroism Points are what they are, and when they're gone you can catch such a wound if hit AGAIN. Of course these HP can be spent in other ways.

    High Valor uses pretty much a "save or suffer" mechanic. You roll to to see the outcome. High Stakes mean high chance of death. Low stakes mean chance of injury or being stunned. You the player can set part of the stakes, choosing to risk less, but that's the same as hiding behind rocks and only shooting an arrow or not putting yourself much into the fray.

    As for other games it varies on the genre. H&S uses stress, and that turns into all sorts of fallout, stunning, injuries. Most settings it won't ever be death unless it is a heroic sacrifice--but that is comic books for you.

    I tend to focus on the genre a lot. An interesting thing I'd never noticed before is that Traveller lets your attributes work as health. Which means the penalties are the aim, not a side effect of being injured. Truth and Justice uses a similar concept but with more abstraction to make attribute hit become fallout for you to suffer.

    Sometimes though its interesting to look at a game and see where it goes with its wounding system. I've found old games like Marvel Superheroes having some unexpected concepts in it: For example how well you fight, goes into your HP. Which means it is SKILL which helps keep you alive even without a dice roll. Agility also impacts Health. Add to this you get some active rolls to avoid wounding and you've got a double layered mechanic. (Of course it has stunning, KB and other systems in the game as well, separate from health but tied to Endurance.)

    One of the things I've been looking at for some games is very much a Life Spiral, you get more interested in surviving and so get better (a little) at your aims because of being driven further along. The problem is how to do this and how to keep everyone from leaping into the fray to get injured. Just for the bonuses. Albeit, I think it might be interesting if a characters goals being opposed helped spur them on. (H&S does some of this, but I might need to improve its clarity.)

  4. Based on the research I’ve read, “Buy Now, Pay Later” is perhaps the most realistic.

    And for the cinematic route, the PCs should actually gain bonuses as they get injured.

    I’m not sure about your “importance of being stunned” point. But then, the people I play with will retreat. Or get out of a fight as soon as they accomplished what they’re there for.

  5. @ Tim:

    You have always managed to use offbeat but interesting and effective mechanics in your games. I can't wait to see what you are coming up with next! :D

    @ Robert:

    As Levi pointed out up-thread, bonuses for damage is not all that unusual, and should have been included. I just plain forgot about it for this post. :P


  6. I enjoy the Buy Now Pay Later the best. One of the very first systems I wrote was a percentile one, you had a Toughness score (average of Strength, Fitness and Confidence), which was essentially hit points. Every time you got hit you had to roll under Toughness, if you failed you fell over, if you fell over you had to roll again or be knocked out. If you weren't knocked over and out you could fight on.

    This gave a nice explanation of why some people are punched in the nose and fall over, while others are shot three times in the guts but keep charging on, bayonets fixed...