Avoiding Death Spirals WHILE making damage count

Pedantic

Legend
Some examples: Most PCs have between 6 and 10 AP, depending on class and level. Doing anything costs an AP, such as:
  • Most medium-sized humanoids can move 15 feet per AP spent (smaller sized might have a rate of 10 feet, while something like a horse might have 30).*
  • Attacking with light-rated weapons costs 3, medium 4, and heavy weapons 5*
  • Spells costs between 3 and 6, depending on complexity
  • Dodging costs 5
  • Disengaging costs 4
  • Disarming a trap costs 6
  • Drinking a potion costs 4
  • Using a response (like reaction in 5e) costs 1 or 2 if you have them available

* This varies, as there are class abilities you can take to increase movement or reduce the weapon cost (like the swashbuckler specialty)

Desperation actions are:
  • Damage Resistance: Gain Damage Reduction of 2 points until the end of your next turn.
  • Burst: Increase your movement rate by 20 feet until the end of your next turn.
  • Focus: Gain a bonus die level equal to your Chapter level+1 when you attempt any Challenge roll.
  • Recovery: End a negative status on you.
  • Arcane Boost: Spells cost 1 spell point per your Chapter level less than normal until the end of your next turn.
  • Desperate Strike: Gain a bonus WD per your Chapter level. Apply this as bonus damage to an attack roll you have successfully landed. Use this trait after landing the attack.


So desperation points are much more impactful than a single or two loss of AP. They are to represent that "the fight is going really hard, you’re beaten down, and in desperation, you are able to tap into resources to achieve extraordinary tasks."
This puts me in mind of Jeff Vogel's CRPGs published through Spiderweb Software: Avernum (used to be Exile), Geneforge, For the Queen etc.

They all use a very similar action point system, with the caveat that you can take any action as long as you have 1 AP left, your turn will just end thereafter if it would take you over the maximum. They also had some interesting incentives, where items tended to be lower power than spells/abilities, but took only 2-3 AP to use, so working a wand/potion into your combat routine made a lot of sense. Those games use a point buy system with some primary attributes that serve as prerequisites and provide increasingly inefficient scaling to a large quantity of skills, and the skill that ups your action points is usually in high demand. They also did stuff like offering a chance to swing more than once once when you attacked, or items that occasionally made an action not take points or messing with the point efficiency of specific actions/movement and so on.
 

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@Sacrosanct your ideas have merit, you're thinking of porting this into 5e or creating something on its own?
I find myself in this headspace a lot. When I'm leaning towards the latter, I often think how I would simplify the magic system and then I jump to class features and balancing of class features in an excel document and before I know it 30 minutes to an hour have passed.
Then I play my next game with my D&D group and hopefully its a good session and my passion drifts towards the campaign storyline and character arcs, until again the urge to retool 5e or create a new heartbreaker grabs me and I summon a new excel spreadsheet. I have a dozen+ spreadsheets with ideas littering my PC.
 
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innerdude

Legend
Yes that's intentional.

I think Gygax even mentioned hit points are meant to model the sort of fighting you would see in a Erol Flynn movie (kids you might want to google that), where there is a lot of back and forth as the fight continues until one party lands a fatal blow (taking that last hp). So until you lose that last hit point you've not suffered any actual physical damage, besides perhaps a nick or two and some bruising, you are just running out of luck or stamina.

Of course then calling your hp restoring spell Cure Wounds, does really fit.

I think this was a bit disingenuous of Gygax, in a sense. Beyond maybe character level 3, hit points cannot reasonably be claimed to model actual body/health/injury status. Claims that it does are dubious at best.

So of course it's only modeling "action hero fighting logic."

I've said it before---hit points are a carryover from tactical military combat games, which abstractly represent a fighting unit's overall ability to remain nominally effective. Once the unit's "combat effectiveness" (i.e., hit points) drop to zero, the unit can no longer perform at even marginal effectiveness, and can no longer be considered a participating force in the battle.

Well, how do you translate that from a broad-scale military unit, with multiple interconnected components indicating "combat effectiveness" (personnel, equipment, supply chain, ammunition, leadership, weather conditions, terrain) to a single individual?

At the individual level, the measures of a unit's overall "combat effectiveness" is training + physical condition. But at a game mechanical level, the training aspect is largely abstracted outside of hit points; it's measured in terms of BAB/proficiency bonus, weapon bonuses, feat bonuses, etc.

So to really represent a D&D fight between say, an 8th level fighter with 97 hit points and a dire bear, any time the dire bear "hits" on an attack, what the GM should actually be saying happens is, "The bear swipes at you, but at the last second you roll away and swipe at its paw with your sword. You avoid getting raked for serious injury, but you lose 17 hit points."

But as we've seen time and time again on these forums, "damage on a miss" is utter and complete anathema to the "trad" contingent of D&D.

So . . . here we are 50 years later, and no one really knows what a hit point is, other than "the GM decides" as it occurs contextually for every attack.

Which honestly was one of the big reasons I switched to Savage Worlds in 2012. In Savage Worlds, once my character knows (s)he's hurt, (s)he's hurt. And yeah, the death spiral isn't fun. It isn't what as a player you'd choose. But it's consistent. And the "soak" mechanic in Savage Worlds using metacurrency at least is willing to acknowledge what D&D never has, which is that hitpoints have always had a huge "meta" aspect to them. Savage Worlds does it right, in my opinion, where the metacurrency aspect and the actual physical health aspect of the character are completely separated from each other. Resolve whatever metacurrency spend + checks up front. But once that resolves, if you're character's hurt, (s)he's hurt, and it's represented in the fiction that way.
 

JohnSnow

Hero
<SNIP>...So to really represent a D&D fight between say, an 8th level fighter with 97 hit points and a dire bear, any time the dire bear "hits" on an attack, what the GM should actually be saying happens is, "The bear swipes at you, but at the last second you roll away and swipe at its paw with your sword. You avoid getting raked for serious injury, but you lose 17 hit points."

But as we've seen time and time again on these forums, "damage on a miss" is utter and complete anathema to the "trad" contingent of D&D.

So . . . here we are 50 years later, and no one really knows what a hit point is, other than "the GM decides" as it occurs contextually for every attack.
I think the fact that we call them "hit points" lends to this confusion. If they were called "luck points," "fatigue points," or something similar, people might be more willing to accept losing them on a miss. It also dovetails with D&D's "armor makes you harder to hit" mechanic in such a way that sometimes, it should be an actual hit that is turned aside by your armor and soaked by you (i.e. lost hit points). All of this abstraction makes combat very hard to narrate descriptively, which leads to people falling back on "I miss, he misses...I hit, he takes 20 hit points," because game rule level descriptions are all we have left.

Which honestly was one of the big reasons I switched to Savage Worlds in 2012. In Savage Worlds, once my character knows (s)he's hurt, (s)he's hurt. And yeah, the death spiral isn't fun. It isn't what as a player you'd choose. But it's consistent. And the "soak" mechanic in Savage Worlds using metacurrency at least is willing to acknowledge what D&D never has, which is that hitpoints have always had a huge "meta" aspect to them. Savage Worlds does it right, in my opinion, where the metacurrency aspect and the actual physical health aspect of the character are completely separated from each other. Resolve whatever metacurrency spend + checks up front. But once that resolves, if you're character's hurt, (s)he's hurt, and it's represented in the fiction that way.
I too have switched to Savage Worlds (albeit more recently), although I'm still trying to run my first game. I like that Savage Worlds models well the differences between hits and misses, although I wish armor was both more effective, and hindered movement more. But the system of tracking wounds that can be healed is nice. And the soak damage being a meta currency representing the whims of fate is nice.

There's some glitches with the Savage Worlds system (swinginess, mostly), but overall, it hews much closer to my ideal mechanics for handling this than D&D does. Although if I have any complaint, it's that I really miss getting to use my beloved d20s.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
@Sacrosanct your ideas have merit, you're thinking of porting this into 5e or creating something on its own?

Something on its own. Here is the working doc (keep in mind this is just a rough draft of my ideas, and will most likely change). Also keep in mind I've only included one specialty for each profession, when I've actually got several sitting in the wings (like the brute, ancestral warrior, and soldier for the Warrior profession, and the Hunter, Swashbuckler, and bard for the Operator, and the telekinesis and Psychometabolism for the Psionist)
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
First, as a DM and when I get to play, I love death spirals... they are "real" and so increase my sense of immersion in the game.

Second, any system is a compromise between simplicity and accuracy IMO. While the suggestions in the thread might increase the accuracy factor, they also decrease the simplicity factor too much for me to get behind them.

Now, I am all for a two-level system such as Vitality and Wounds from d20 SW. It was a simple system, with only minor death spiral implications, allowed for PCs to feel really threatened by any critical hit, etc.

My adaptation (at one point when tinkering around) was this:

  1. Hit points work as normal, but you do NOT add your Constitution modifier each level.
  2. However, when you roll HD to recover HP, you do add your Constitution modifier to the rolls. (i.e. Higher CON means you recovery quicker and more easily).
  3. Each time your HP = 0, you make a check to remain conscious. Any remaining damage is applied TO YOUR CONSTITION score!
  4. If your Constitution score drops to 6 or lower, you suffer the following effects:
  • CON 6 = Disadvantage on ability checks
  • CON 5 = Speed halved
  • CON 4 = Disadvantage on attacks/saves
  • CON 3 = Hit point maximum halved
  • CON 2 = Speed reduced to 0
  • CON 1 = Unconscious and making death saves
  • CON 0 = Instant Death
Those should look familiar to you (yes, same as Exhaustion effects), because this concept made it so "gaining a level of exhaustion" was instead losing a point of Constitution. If your Constitution got too low, you suffered the effects above and could die.

Since the "overflow" damage from going to 0 HP goes directly against your Constitution, your Constitution can drop quickly! For example, suppose your fighter has CON 16 and is down to 2 hp when an orc hits you for 9 damage! Your hp = 0 and you have 7 points of extra damage, applied to your CON 16, reducing it to 9. Another hit of 9 damage would kill you.
 

Sacrosanct

Legend
Second, any system is a compromise between simplicity and accuracy IMO. While the suggestions in the thread might increase the accuracy factor, they also decrease the simplicity factor too much for me to get behind them.

I'm confused, because you say this, and then say:
Now, I am all for a two-level system such as Vitality and Wounds from d20 SW. It was a simple system, with only minor death spiral implications, allowed for PCs to feel really threatened by any critical hit, etc.

My adaptation (at one point when tinkering around) was this:

  1. Hit points work as normal, but you do NOT add your Constitution modifier each level.
  2. However, when you roll HD to recover HP, you do add your Constitution modifier to the rolls. (i.e. Higher CON means you recovery quicker and more easily).
  3. Each time your HP = 0, you make a check to remain conscious. Any remaining damage is applied TO YOUR CONSTITION score!
  4. If your Constitution score drops to 6 or lower, you suffer the following effects:
  • CON 6 = Disadvantage on ability checks
  • CON 5 = Speed halved
  • CON 4 = Disadvantage on attacks/saves
  • CON 3 = Hit point maximum halved
  • CON 2 = Speed reduced to 0
  • CON 1 = Unconscious and making death saves
  • CON 0 = Instant Death
Those should look familiar to you (yes, same as Exhaustion effects), because this concept made it so "gaining a level of exhaustion" was instead losing a point of Constitution. If your Constitution got too low, you suffered the effects above and could die.

Since the "overflow" damage from going to 0 HP goes directly against your Constitution, your Constitution can drop quickly! For example, suppose your fighter has CON 16 and is down to 2 hp when an orc hits you for 9 damage! Your hp = 0 and you have 7 points of extra damage, applied to your CON 16, reducing it to 9. Another hit of 9 damage would kill you.

Which is a lot more complex that what I have written lol.
 

DND_Reborn

The High Aldwin
Which is a lot more complex that what I have written lol.
Not really IMO...

This...
Here's how it looks
Each PC has Vigor and Health. Vigor is a lot like traditional hit points. Health is much less, being around 1 point per level (not really, but for simplicity of argument)
When your current vigor gets to zero or less, reduce health by 1, take a desperation point, reduce your Action Point pool by 1, and recover some vigor.
There are two statuses: Rested and Wounded. Rested = full vigor and health with no negative statuses. Gain a benefit based on class description while in a rested status. Wounded = 1/2 or less of your health. When wounded, you can spend your desperation points on things once per turn (like boosting speed, gaining a bonus to your rolls, etc.).
Some classes have abilities you can choose that keep you from reducing AP when you take health damage, so you as the player have a choice to avoid a death spiral if you want.

Avoiding the 5 minute workday
The players certainly can’t be blamed in wanting to be at full rest all the time. A way to mitigate this is to ensure you’re running the game as a living world. That is, the NPCs, monsters, and the clock don’t stop because the PCs are resting. Oftentimes the PCs may not have an opportunity to get that rest in, because they are being hunted, or there is a tight timeline in place.
is more complex to me than what I presented. You are talking about Vigor and Health (no problems there!), but then you go on to discuss "desperation points", "Action points, and somehow you recover Vigor? You also have two statuses... Rested and Wounded, which impact benefits from your class, etc. and you are spending desperation points on top of everything else.

Mine deals with Hit Points and Constitution, and effects when Constitution gets too low. How is that more complex than what you have written??? 🤷‍♂️
 
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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.
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.

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?
I don't address the problem before, so much as after.

There is usually sufficient healing that by the time someone goes down, they can be brought back to 1+ hp fairly straightforwardly. That's when the penalties kick in.

I use a variant of the Wound / Vitality point system (Grit / Health). Grit comes back pretty quickly, Health slowly. Healing magic restores the unconscious quickly by granting 1 Health and however many Grit. But, you only get back 1 Health per day of rest, or expending a die of healing for 1 point. Furthermore, a save must be made when dropping to 0 hp for some sort of maiming. Often it can be just an impressive scar, but you could lose a hand or eye. (This also puts a mechanic into the game were people can lose body parts that allow for magical protheses.) In short, the characters go down at the same rate, so to speak, but they don't just bounce back to normal after that clutch potion or healing touch. I cann go into more detail if desired.
 

Matchstick

Adventurer
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".
This is my answer as well.

Like a few of the above posters I mostly GM Savage Worlds and much prefer its system of Shaken and Wounds, as do my players. The risk to their characters from combat means they play less murderously and what one player calls "more charactery" and the bennies and the inherent advantages of being a Wild Card moderate the death spiral (somewhat). They bribe, sneak, ambush, persuade, and if they see combat on the horizon they consider whether it's avoidable and if needed prepare and plan.
 

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