Avoiding Death Spirals WHILE making damage count


Mod Squad
Staff member
So what's the answer to that?
How you make hit points, and hit point loss matter beyond that binary >0 or =0 determination while also avoiding death spirals?

If I wanted to do this, I'd take a cue from Fate.

In Fate, characters take Stress (not all Stress is physical damage), and have a small number of Stress boxes to absorb it - a default character can absorb three points of stress, a physically superb specimen can absorb 10. There is no penalty for taking boxes of stress. When you run out of Boxes, ou are Taken Out of the conflict.

If you've run out of stress boxes to absorb the stress, or do not want to take stress boxes for some reason, you can take a Consequence - a form of Aspect, that comes in mild, medium, and severe levels, to absorb more and more Stress.

Physical Consequences often take the form of a description of some injury - "Sprained ankle" or "Bleeding gut wound" might be physical consequences. The opponent may invoke these to give them a benefit (or the PC a penalty) on an action, or may Compel them to add a complication to the scene. In either case, when the injury is used against the character, the character gets a Fate Point.

Fate Points are the fundamental action currency in the game - used to gain benefits on dice rolls, power special abilities, and so on. So, while the character gets a detriment from being injured, it also gives them more power to do cool stuff. It matters to how the fight progresses, but isn't just penalties all the time.

In a D&D context, I might look to an extension of the idea of being Bloodied - being at half your max hit points or less. Maybe, when the character is Bloodied, the GM can assign Disadvantage to a roll, but also gives the character a point of Inspiration.

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Attack the character sheet.

Mausritter (an Into the Odd hack), for example: After you run out of hp, remaining damage goes to your Str score. This doesn't limit your ability to do damage in combat, so you are still effective that way; also, HP can be regained on a short rest. BUT, Str damages limits your ability outside of combat. Also, in Mausritter, when you take Str damage you have to make a save or also suffer an injury penalty, which takes up a slot on your inventory. And you only have eight slots, so that's a meaningful penalty.

I got inspired by Sentinel comics GYRO system and while importing the whole system would be a lot of work, for something like d&d i'm tempted to try the following:

  • Adrenaline Surge - The first time you are hit below half HP all your attack rolls and saving throws have advantage and all attack rolls against you have disadvantage for the next minute.
  • Adrenal Fatigue - after the minute you gain a level of exhaustion

This creates a reverse death spiral at a long term cost. I have seen this work in board games and I like the idea because technically it should give you a buffer as a GM to create challenging fights that don't too easily end in a TPK. Secondly, there is a long term cost in exhaustion, so it's not something that could be spammed all day. Thirdly it creates a long term impact of getting to half HP, so it changes the narrative from "fine-dying" to "fine-exhausted-dying".

I've yet to try it out.


Guide of Modos
An acceptable death tree can benefit from exponential decrease in ability. Which is to say, an evenly -matched fight should have small penalties when one fighter starts losing. The losing fighter can still win, but it becomes more important to have lucky rolls. However, when misfortune mounts, there is a point at which the loser will definitively lose unless she chooses an outcome besides "continue fighting."

This is the numbers version of stress-first -then-wounds.

There are a number of solutions, especially if you're not going to pin the problem to one game. But I'm partial to the real-world treatment: if you start losing, you're probably going to lose unless you get really lucky.


Victoria Rules
At this point I'm kinda feeling like this is the holy grail of Hit Point/Health design. How do you handle a system where taking damage counts, but also avoids the death spiral that most people hate.
Short answer: I'm not sure you can.
A very simple explanation of the problem:
Right now it feels like to make damage feel like it counts, then you would suffer effects other than HP loss when you take damage. The argument of "funny how you have 100% your fighting capacity even at 1 hp, but then 1 tiny wound later and you're unconscious." Right now it feels like monsters and many PCs are just bags of hit points where they don't really mean anything until that last shot.
This isn't a new issue: it was a problem in original D&D (except instead of unconscious, losing that last hit point would make you dead) and hasn't gone away since.
But on the other hand, if you start doing things like wounds, or detrimental effects, you start a death spiral, and based on feedback I've received, no one seems to like those.
Feedback from...?

I ask because if your feedback is mostly coming from sources who got their start in D&D during the WotC-edition era it's going to skew toward a viewpoint where combat is the first answer to just about everything in the game; as that's the WotC way.

The solution is not to do away with death-spiral design. Quite the opposite, in fact. The solution is to somehow educate players (and some GMs) that the best way to avoid death spirals is for the PCs to, where possible, eschew combat in favour of other solutions - negotiation, avoidance, stealth, bribery - and if you must get into combat make good and sure to do everything you can to ensure the opposition feels the pain and you don't. :)

I had a player who would, when asked what his character's hit points were at the end of the session, tell me by saying "I made X mistakes tonight." By that I knew his PC was down X hit points from full, with each one lost being a "mistake".


My favorite hp system is probably Hackmaster's.

It has the standard hp system as D&D, but has Threshold of Pain (ToP) as well. It's a percentage of your max hp.
If you get hit in combat for amount of damage higher than your ToP, you drop to the ground and are defenseless for a number of random rounds modified by your CON.

This has quite a few interesting mechanical interactions:
Large weapons more useful, since they have a higher chance of rolling high enough to drop enemies outright.
CON is more useful, since a few more points added to your ToP can really matter.
Heavy armor feels sturdier since it mitigates some damage and keeps you on your feet longer (but makes dodging harder).
High Dex, light armor characters dodge hits altogether, so fun to see them avoiding ToP checks altogether as long as they stay lucky.

Also, Fighters get a bonus to ToP and Rouges can coup de grâce giving those classes some extra flavor.

Thoughts? Does this achieve a goal of making hit points actually count and taking damage have a factor, while also mitigating the death spiral?
I think the system from FATE that Umbran brought up is a good starting point.
Another one would be systems like Warlock! where you have a stamina value and once that stamina is depleted, you roll on a critical hit table (for the respective type of attack), modified by your (negative) stamina. So basically you can keep fighting, but when your stamina buffer no longer protects you, every hit is going to hurt (a lot!).

There isn't really a solution that I've seen offered over the years that "does it all" The bit about PF2? That's similar to SDC and Hitpoints from Palladium. The Vitality and Hitpoint variant from 3.5 also hits within this space:

Ah, but then you'll have people that suggest that maybe the key is that when more than a certain amount of damage is done, THEN that's when the hurting really kicks in. Also about 20 years old:

In both cases, you've got people that immediately start arguing about housecats and daggers.

Some sort of alternate track? First, you get people complaining about having to keep track of two different sets of hit points [also a complaint to the SDC/Vitality approach] and then people look to the design space of attacking the "non-hitpoint" hitpoint track. So, Star Wars Saga for example had the Condition Track. And while I never played it, apparently it was quite effective to focus on doing Condition Track damage and short-circuiting fights.

I don't do Fate, so I can't comment on Stress and Consequences.

For better or worse, I think you have to decide which approach is going to achieve the feel you want for the particular game/rules. If you're looking at this for a publishing thing, maybe the solution is to offer both [or more] options, with one being the form chosen as representative in the rules, but the other is perfectly viable with [x,y,z] changes. Include specific reasons for picking one over the other, so the game table/GM can decide what suits their tastes most.

For example:
Massive Damage threshold is a great mechanic if you want to highlight certain things. For a modern game, you can use it to highlight the deadliness of firearms. In a fantasy-ish or Wushu sort of game, untrained fisticuffs don't get MDT but people trained in the esoteric arts do. Or maybe your fantasy game, you want to emphasize that certain weapons, attacks, or even fantasy metals are SERIOUS business. They get to tap into an MDT mechanic.

SDC/Vitality systems have the potential to lengthen combats. If you're including other options to go along with your combats [extra actions like higher level D&D, or parry/dodge, etc] that makes combats even longer. But on the flip side, you've got people that feel like the combat is "better" because it's a bit more trading blows etc. Having a method to bypass the "surface" damage and get to the meaty deadly damage is usually going to run into problems similar to what you have with Condition tracks. One thing that can be done with a 2-track system like this though is all the non-lethal people to do all their damage to the "surface" damage track and when it zeros out, their foe is unconscious.

You can always try combining MDT with a 2-track system as well. Attacks and/or damage that exceed a certain threshold then inflict damage to the lethal damage track.

Mixing and matching these, you can tune into a system that should satisfy your needs [at least within a certain spectrum] but you're adding complexity and possibly time to combats in doing so.

As with so many things, you can have things good, cheap, or fast. Pick two. Or maybe in this case, fast, realistic...I'm not sure the third axis, I suspect it varies depending on the reader.


I wrote a hack to 5e a while ago to address this issue. It uses existing conditions in 5e bundled into three wound states; Bruised, Wounded, and Maimed in order to give consequences to taking damage.Part of it is the reduction of hit points to wound boxes based on the three physical stats and eliminating rolling for damage but all that could be ignored by breaking HP into 3 groups each worth 1/3 total HP. Its a free download on itch Here if you use it I would appreciate feed back even if its a mostly abandoned project at this point. As much as I love writing and developing game mechanics the market is saturated and I am busier in retirement than I was on active duty.

I think part of the problem is that these sorts of things are often just imposed on characters as an afterthought, as a negative penalty.

The better angle to take is the old Legend of Zelda "your sword shoots when you're at full health" approach. Have some special things characters can do when they are above whatever threshold and make topping up have rewards rather than penalizing low health.

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