Tink-Tink-Boom vs. the Death Spiral: The Damage Mechanic in RPGs
  • Tink-Tink-Boom vs. the Death Spiral: The Damage Mechanic in RPGs

    Broadly speaking, every traditional role-playing game has some sort of system for tracking the health and well-being of its characters. Classically, as in Dungeons & Dragons, these are expressed as Hit Points. Other systems such as Savage Worlds or Vampire: The Masquerade use some sort of qualitative wound mechanic. For the purposes of this article, which will compare the relative merits of each approach, we’ll call the former approach Tink-Tink-Boom (or TTB for short) and the latter the Death Spiral.

    Regardless of the particular gloss, all systems with a damage mechanic fall into one of two categories: an attritional model (TTB) where you are fine until you aren’t (either falling unconscious or dying) or a system of gradual decay (Death Spiral) whereby accumulated wounds seriously impact your ability to function.

    The biggest advantage of the TTB approach is simplicity. You (generally) have a bank of Hit Points. Things do damage to you that deplete that bank. When you hit zero Hit Points, you die. Some systems, like those derived from Basic Roleplaying such as Call of Cthulhu or King Arthur Pendragon, introduce a tripwire point that triggers unconsciousness prior to death—if your character takes enough damage to reduce them below that threshold, you simply pass out. Other systems, such as the Palladium Books family of games, Champions, or Dragon Heresy, break Hit Points into two categories representing mere shock or bruises on the one hand and life-threatening injuries on the other. (Often in these systems, characters have far more “shock” points than “vitality” points.)

    These elaborations on the basic TTB system were presumably introduced in an effort to add a dash of “realism” to the mechanic, as that is the fundamental downside of the classic Hit Point arrangement: in real life, people who suffer repeated injuries tend to feel the effects well prior to expiring.

    And thus the Death Spiral.

    Whether as a result of wanting to treat injury more realistically or (somewhat paradoxically) to move the system in a more narratively-focused direction, qualitative wound categories have been around for decades. Early White Wolf games like Ars Magica and Vampire: The Masquerade helped pave the way with their hierarchical wound categories. More recent systems such as Apocalypse World and its many offshoots use variations on this approach as well, albeit often through ticking off boxes or filling in a track on the character sheet.

    What these systems all have in common is that, as more boxes are ticked or wound categories are marked off, more and more penalties accrue. Perhaps in a dice pool system you lose dice out of your pool; in a system that relies on single dice rolls, you likely suffer a penalty to your roll. You might also suffer shock effects, lose actions, etc.

    The point is: getting wounded slows you down and makes you a less effective fighter. It also tends to speed up your headlong rush towards the final curtain as the penalties accrue—hence the term “death spiral.”

    Although there’s much to be said for the increased realism of this approach, it also must be said that it comes with an increased burden of modifiers and conditions to keep in mind. Although this may not weigh too heavily on a player’s shoulders, I can say from personal experience that keeping track of NPC wounds is often an onerous imposition for already-harried GM brains.

    What do you say, gentle reader? Is the simplicity of the TTN system not worth the loss of realism? Is the Death Spiral too brutal, or is it grimly satisfying? And is that grim satisfaction worth the extra variables required of the players and GM to track?

    On a final, personal note, this will be my last UGC article for EN World. It’s been a lot of fun writing these game theory articles, as well as the Storyteller’s Vault and Statosphere Roundups, and I’m looking forward to continuing to read the excellent output from UGC contributors both present and future!

    This article was contributed by David Larkins (sirlarkins) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program.We are always on the lookout for freelance columnists! If you have a pitch, please contact us!
    Comments 95 Comments
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Deleted - wrong thread.
    1. EthanSental's Avatar
      EthanSental -
      Who wrote this? talien or sirlarkins?

      as a player and dm, the idea of added realism appeals to me but as the article mentions, prefer the simplistically of TTB.
    1. Banesfinger -
      I think traditional Hit Points (TTB) tends to break-down at high level due to player's suspension of disbelief:
      "I have over 100 HPs so I can easily walk off that 300-foot cliff."
      "I have over 100 HPs so I can have 20+ arrows sticking out of me like a pin-cushion from that line of archers"

      Both systems (TTB and Death spiral) need to make 'exceptions' to their own rules for "mooks" (bad guys who can be taken out by one hit).
    1. Particle_Man -
      TTB wins for me. That said, a cap on hp a la E6 can mitigate the walking off a cliff issue.
    1. Blue's Avatar
      Blue -
      Like many, I fiddle with the mechanics of my own RPG system. (Well, more than one, but for here I'm talking about what I label as "My crunchy one" as opposed to "My narrative one".)

      First, I use a more hybrid mechanic, with a quickly replenishing reservoir that was used both to resist and power your own high end abilities. So it had elements of "Tink".

      If you didn't use that reservoir (either it's out or your saving it to power your abilities), wounds (physical, emotional, etc.) would have impacts on your characters, though nothing so all encompassing as a straight penalty to everything. Which the article labels as "death spiral" though normally when I use that term it also includes making it harder to resist damage like in Shadowrun, which I was careful not to do.

      Conditional penalties push people out of their comfort zones if they impact their normal tactics, fostering creativity in a "necessity is the mother of invention" sort of way.

      However, all PCs (and certain foes muhahaha) also get a free ability call "When the Going Gets Tough...". Basically, when you're down to your last legs you get a large boost to what you can do, enough to be a good boost for the ways you aren't wounded and partially offset where you are. And in this, resisting damage is boosted.

      This was intended to help GMs boost tension. Before that point there are penalties, no one wants to get hurt as it either wounds you or takes from you points to activate cool powers. And the players feel it as their characters get wounded with penalties, ratcheting up tension. But the final divide between "really hurt" and "down for the count" (or dead) is a lot bigger than it looks like, so a GM can push and still know that a single bad roll won't run though the buffer and kill them off.

      Though that ability is like an adrenaline high - it'll get you through whatever is happening now, but you're still badly wounded and you need to take that into consideration in your future plans.
    1. jhilahd's Avatar
      jhilahd -
      Yeah, I like both systems for each of their merits and their horrible effects on game play.
      Hit Points are something I have to remind players, who sudden start pulling back after taking 90% damage, that they are just as effective with 1 hp than if they were at full.
      Be a hero.

      And Wounds(ala Savage Worlds/L5R/7th sea) or aka death spiral is great because the effects are felt as you are injured. Players in those games, for the most part, realize that combat isn't always worth it. And that a simple encounter may kill you.
      And that the death spiral is sucky too. It cripples your game play, but adds a certain amount verisimilitude to the game. (I think I spelled that correctly...)
    1. Ralif Redhammer's Avatar
      Ralif Redhammer -
      Generally speaking, I prefer the abstracted TTB to the Death Spiral mechanic.

      I think that the Death Spiral mechanic is further complicated by the recovery mechanic. I don’t want to spend an entire gaming session gimped with no possibility of recovery, having to recalculate how awful I am each time it gets worse and worse. And when you’re running the game, that can be a lot of enemies with conditions to keep track of.
    1. Philippe Marcil's Avatar
      Philippe Marcil -
      This is a pretty good idea that appear in many games, I great to offset the death spiral sometime lack of dramatic comeback.

      Quote Originally Posted by Blue View Post
      However, all PCs (and certain foes muhahaha) also get a free ability call "When the Going Gets Tough...". Basically, when you're down to your last legs you get a large boost to what you can do, enough to be a good boost for the ways you aren't wounded and partially offset where you are. And in this, resisting damage is boosted.

      Though that ability is like an adrenaline high - it'll get you through whatever is happening now, but you're still badly wounded and you need to take that into consideration in your future plans.
    1. Philippe Marcil's Avatar
      Philippe Marcil -
      I think the distinction between TTB and Death Spiral is arbitrary. As discussed some system but mark or threshold in TTB that give you penalty or reward opponent (ex.: being blodied in 4 edition).

      But ultimately is not realism that we grave in our rpg but dramatic feeling and gameplay impact.

      Death Spiral tend to make the PC`s cagey (as noted by Blue) which is good in some game/genre (ex.: Horror Genre) but is terrible for other (ex.: High Fantasy).

      As such hybrid are interesting as they should bring out some other genres. That also why some game system fall flat for some genre - D20 Modern felt a bit weird when your character could soak a shotgun blast without flinching like in a video game.
    1. tomBitonti -
      There are some nuances here I think which are worth noting:

      D&D, once you add in level loss and ability loss, becomes a hybrid system, since these losses bring a corresponding loss of effectiveness. (And can be a bit broken. Some creatures, for example, shadows, can be more lethal than is appropriate for their rating.)

      Even using just hit points, when characters face high damage opponents, they will shy away from a fight once their hit point buffer diminishes to below the expected damage. This has a similar effect to shying away due to loss of effectiveness.

      Sunder can be looked at as a Death Spiral type mechanic. Breaking a character's weapon can dramatically reduce their effectiveness.

      I'm thinking, a part of the problem of Death Spiral mechanics is their implementation: Say, if the spiral winds too quickly to a point where a character is negligibly effective. One of the ways that can happen is when the spiral takes away too many options from a character.

    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      regarding falling damage...EGG originally intended falling damage to be 1d6 per 10' cumulative (Dragon #69). That amounts to 10'=1d6, 20'=3d6, 30'=6d6, etc.

      We played it that way for years, and it seemed much more realistic and made falling a real threat!
    1. Banesfinger -
      There is also a very cool "optional" death spiral in the rpg "On Mighty Thews" (by Simon Carryer).
      Like a normal death-spiral system an "injury" comes with game penalties (these are not cumulative with multiple 'injuries'). However, these penalties are not mandatory: a battle might be too risky to take the penalty. In that case you describe the character as gritting their teeth, or ignoring the pain.

      So why would you ever take the penalty?
      For each scene you accept the penalty, an injury is healed at the end of the scene. This is a great narrative device, since some injuries fester for days/weeks (not taking the penalty) while others heal right away.

      So why not just ignore the injuries forever?
      Because once you've suffered more than 3 injuries, your character is out of the scene (dead, knocked unconscious, etc).
    1. RSIxidor's Avatar
      RSIxidor -
      I think TTB is exceptionally a problem in systems where your HP grows as you level, especially if it grows at a significant rate. I was really excited about the idea of "bounded accuracy" in 5th edition (and still am, really) but was hoping a similar system would exist for HP. I'd prefer a system where even the toughest of creatures don't have HP that passes double-digits. Dungeon World did a pretty decent job at this. Your HP still grew but not at the rate it does in most games with TTB.

      That said, the thematic element of death spiral is quite nice. My favorite implementation of this is one where you check a box on your character sheet next to one of your stats or abilities and that stat has a simple penalty (such as -1/-2 or something akin to 5E's disadvantage), or in the case of an ability, either a similar penalty or perhaps you cannot use that ability at all until you've recovered a bit first.

      It seems like there could be a middle ground, in which you have a pool but take one of those penalties when you cross certain thresholds. The issue there is deciding how the threshold should be determined but I'm sure there's a way to make that work.
    1. dragoner's Avatar
      dragoner -
      Looking at things from the Mythras/BRP side, while it is a TTB type damage system, it varies from D&D as it is static and location oriented. In general, the combat is different between D&D and Mythras, and hard to compare two damage systems, in general, D&D feels less crunchy. Mythras in it's own way is more simulationist, even in the TTB way there are differences, which is probably true for the death spiral as well.
    1. Alzrius's Avatar
      Alzrius -
      I like death spirals in theory.

      I like TTB in practice.
    1. zhivik's Avatar
      zhivik -
      One quick note - Death Spiral systems usually have much fewer hitboxes in general than TTB ones (starting from 4-5 and rarely reaching a dozen), which simplifies tracking. I can speak only for World of Darkness and Shadowrun, but both sysems are pretty straightforward and tracking is less complicated than it appears.

      However, I do agree that High Fantasy settings favour a TTB system, because you usually have plenty of enemies, magical damage and healing spells flying around all he time, so it is much easier to keep a track on all this if you simply have a health box count and nothing else.

      Yet, I like Death Spiral systems for making players take account for how dangerous situations may be and that recklessness has consequences. It works the other way around, too, as you reduce the chance of being wiped out by a lucky enemy with only a couple of hit points left.
    1. AmerginLiath's Avatar
      AmerginLiath -
      Like others here, I prefer TTB to Death Spiral simply because how it ends up working. The idea of systematizing injury in a game is appealing and has long been sought after (look back to all the critical hit tables in late-70s games and magazines meant to be grafted onto Hit Point systems, long before any Damage Track systems came about), but there will always be a debate on how granular to make it, how tight to zoom into reality and how any injury effects the character (likewise, tighter damage tracking demands more detailed determination of how damage is done, creating an odd juxtaposition in games with abstracted combat systems but detailed damage trackers).

      TTB to me is like Strikes and Out (or Downs and Turnovers), it’s the game mechanism that cleanly marks a character’s movement in and out of play without overly complicating the paperwork. Just as three strikes means the team is out and the other guys go to bat, X number of HP damage means Bob the Fighter is dead and Bob 2 the Thief enters the dungeon in his place. It’s elegant and allows the folks at the table to focus on other things (just like simple turnover mechanisms in sports allow players to focus on their game and not what constitutes whose turn at bat).
    1. Celebrim's Avatar
      Celebrim -
      In my experience, what it comes down to is that realistically, getting injured sucks.

      What that means is that if the game tries to track injury in anything like a realistic fashion, the experience of play of being injured really isn't that fun and doesn't particularly enhance the story.

      In fact, the term 'save or suck' as applied to D&D basically means 'save or be injured', since its mainly only with conditions that D&D models anything to do with injury (and generally keeps injury and wounds as separate unrelated categories). Games with wound boxes or injuries as conditions are essentially inflicting 'no save' conditions on the PC that largely take that PC out of the game for some length of play time.

      So what I prefer in practice is almost all 'TTB' ('plot armor') with only a small percentage chance of going to a death spiral, usually as some sort of 'close to death' effect as a very small nod toward realism.

      For example, my homebrew D&D version has an increasing close to death progression of:

      1) Staggered
      2) Unconscious
      3) Dying

      Where the second and third stages are somewhat resistible, allowing a character on the brink of death to still struggle to try to survive. Additionally there is a chance that after taking dramatic levels of damage or being reduced to dying by some dramatic event like falling or a critical hit, that a debuff is applied to the character representing broken bones or the like.

      The result is a system that is about 80% TTB, with the last 20% turning into a combination of TTB and death spiral.

      Pure death spiral IMO is only appropriate to very rules light narrative focused games were all failures are represented by inheriting an abstract condition that is a standard debuff of some sort, or extremely gritty games where PC survival is not an expectation of the session - such as horror games or realistic crime, military or espionage sims (but those might be redundant categories).
    1. Superchunk77's Avatar
      Superchunk77 -
      I'm heavily vested in Savage Worlds so I prefer Death Spiral, naturally. Hit points, while mechanically simple to track, tend to break the immersion in the games I've played in. It has a lot to do with my players as well.

      The narration of damage in Savage Worlds is just so much easier for me as the GM. I have mental images associated with the various conditions (Shaken, Wounded, Incapacitated) that I can narrate on the fly very easily. 5e games are way harder for me.

      A good example is a PC shooting an arrow into an Orc (mook).

      In Savage Worlds, the attack either misses, hits for no damage, hits and Shakes the Orc, or hits and kills it. For the Shaken scenario I would narrate that the arrow knocks the orc's helmet over it's eyes, or pins his vambrace to his shield, something like that. The benefit here is that the Shaken condition imposes some minor penalties on the orc until it can recover but doesn't rely on any sort of physical injury being inflicted. The other scenarios are self-explanatory, with kills being narrated by the PC.

      In 5e, the scenarios are the arrow misses, hits and causes damage, or hits and kills the orc. The one shot one kill scenario is usually only likely on a critical hit. The hits for damage scenario is where the problems arise. If the arrow hit but didn't do enough damage to reduce the orc to less than half hit points, then you need to be careful about the narration of the attack. You could use the narration examples I noted above for Savage Worlds, but then the PC might wonder if his attack actually did damage, or is the orc "Blinded" or "Grappled" or one of the various other conditions. It just gets confusing. Then of course you run into things like boss fights where creatures have hundreds of hit points and you just need to grind away at them while they seemingly suffer no ill effects until hitting zero. I find this type of mechanic works better in video games than tabletop games.
    1. Lanefan -
      Death spiral mechanics are fine provided players are willing to have their adventuring parties do something rash like stop and rest for a few days - or even go back to town - to allow the injured a chance to recover.

      And in time-sensitive adventures they provide a wonderful choice for the players/PCs - do we stop and risk running out of time, or do we press on and risk running out of characters. Love it!

      The system we use ends up more or less like @Celebrim 's in practice: most of the time you're in TTB land but if you get really clobbered you're into death spiral territory. We also have a potentially-unconscious range between fully functional (above 0 h.p.) and dead (at -10 h.p.). I'd like to bring in some sort of staggered mechanic; the problem there is finding a simple way to make it work equally well at very low and very high levels, I haven't found one yet and so this remains but a theory.
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