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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!
 

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tomBitonti

Adventurer
Thanks for explaining that; I do have a better understanding now of what that means.

However, I still feel the original article is being too simplistic in its divisions of systems into one of only two options. Yes, Rolemaster and MERP can have death spirals. But what the original article leaves out is the fact that, in these systems, there is often no 'spiral'; there is just instant death. I have had characters die at full hits from a critical that cut their head off. There's no spiral here; there is just instant death. That doesn't really seem to fit the 'spiral' model to me.

Rolemaster is an interesting system, which was my preference in the mid 80’s to early 90’s over AD&D. The possibility of instant death presents a third option: Just Boom. Although, D20 has this partly with the possibility of high damage crits. High strength barbarians wielding great axes being the goto example. And AD&D has a lot of Just Boom with high level instant death spell effects.

We have, then, three distinct combat processes: Just Boom, Tink Tink Boom, and Death Spiral.

Thx!
TomB
 

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Particle_Man

Explorer
Four if you include those instances where one gets more powerful and capable when closer to death or risk of death. Some 4e bloodied effects are like this, as is the game Don’t Rest Tour Head. Sort of an extinction burst. Maybe tink tank boom?
 
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GMMichael

Guide of Modos
We have, then, three distinct combat processes: Just Boom, Tink Tink Boom, and Death Spiral.
I'm a fan of Tink Tink Westley, myself. You know, where the player-character ticks off "hit points," but after he runs out, he doesn't Boom; he and the GM choose what would be best to do for the story.

In Westley's case, it was to become Mostly Dead until such time as the rest of the party could revive him.

View attachment 100570
 

5ekyu

Hero
Good-aligned characters might feel obligated to capture enemies who surrender, and then spend an hour deciding what to do with them instead of just moving on with things. Nothing slows a party down quite like a wagon-train full of prisoners to care for. If the party does need to interrogate someone, they always have the option of taking someone alive if they need to, but having the enemies surrender can force them into that situation even when they don't want to. It can get to the point where the only reasonable solution is to not be a good person.

Less-good characters may feel obligated to chase down anyone who flees, out of the very real fear that one escaped minion could put the entire dungeon on high alert. It's the same reason why you can't just release someone who surrenders - it's a massive security hole in your operation. Chase sequences can also take a lot of time to resolve, though, especially compared to a single round of combat.
While it might make for an interesting narrative element, you've just sidelined one or more players for a significant period of time. Unless you're meta-game contriving an excuse because the player is going to miss the next session, splitting the party is a sure recipe for someone to become bored.
Ye gods... the prisoner quandary. Definitely potential quagmire for many groups, especially with a mix of heroes and non.

But, quagmire aside, fight to the end of run/surrender is to me a matter that is divorced from damage system - unless I suppose the damage spiral makes running impossible and so encourages swinging your last gasp if you think they will kill you anyway.

Still prefer damage saves over HP but HP over spirals of those are the only two choices.
 

Jhaelen

First Post
Yeah, I like both systems for each of their merits and their horrible effects on game play. :D
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...)
That's pretty much my take, as well.
I love the D&D HP system because it allows me to play epic tactical battles (especially in 4e).
But I also greatly enjoy the more realistic and thus 'gritty' systems in Ars Magica and Runequest. They result in a totally different gameplay experience. Combat actually becomes a last resort and is usually avoided, if possible. It creates a completely different challenge and works better for telling certain kinds of stories.
 

zhivik

Explorer
What I believe some of the people discussing here miss is that the two health track systems are designed for very different settings. The TTB system goes very well with an epic fantasy setting as D&D or Pathfinder are (and many others, naturally). It is an essential part of an epic fantasy setting that you may have heroes fighting as well at the brink of death as they do when they are unharmed. The settings that use a Death Spiral system are much more nitty gritty, they bet on more realism so threats are much more immediate and it makes sense PCs to start feeling the effects of taking too much damage. Both of these approaches have their pros and cons.

The best part of the TTB is that it encourages bold, heroic play, which is what you would expect from an epic fantasy. This can be a lot of fun and there is nothing wrong in that. A Death Spiral system encourages more tactical play because a rash action could have very serious consequences. It favours encounters that are of a smaller scale, rather than the hordes of enemies you start facing at higher levels in fantasy settings (or the larger-than-life antagonists, like ancient dragons, for instance). Along that line of thought, a Death Spiral system isn't as punishing as it appears, as you don't bleed out immediately after you have your last health box filled with damage - in most cases, you have to roll to stay conscious, which is similar to how levels of exhaustion work in D&D 5e. Speaking of that, you could easily introduce a house rule that gives you a point of exhaustion if you go below a certain hit point threshold (for instance, 20%) to account for the fact that you have difficulty holding it together.
 

Aenghus

Explorer
Death Spiral systems can exaggerate the effects of an effective first strike. Such systems can push the players towards a "paranoid ninja" style of play which is all about being the people who escalate and ambush first, or conversely, severely discourage any combat at all.

Sometimes a GM wants one of these results, and instead gets the other. Stereotypically they hope to discourage combat by making it deadly and instead end up with a bunch of tooled up hyperninjas and long range snipers, optimised to take advantage of the deadliness of combat.

This illustrates the dichotomy of Death Spiral systems - they can discourage combat except as a last resort, or make ambushes so effective as to encourage them as the only "winning tactic". I'm convinced a lot of players who want deadly combat in RPGs desire it to permit effective ninja one-strike takedowns, something that hit point systems struggle with.
 
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tomBitonti

Adventurer
Four if you include those instances where one gets more powerful and capable when closer to death or risk of death. Some 4e bloodied effects are like this, as is the game Don’t Rest Tour Head. Sort of an extinction burst. Maybe tink tank boom?

How about Escalation, or Heroic Escalation?

Thx!
TomB
 

I cordially dislike the TTB system; it's very simplistic, so I play games that use it, but it just always feels so silly: "I shoot the guy in the head with a shotgun and it has no obvious effect"

It also means we lose a lot of the classic adventure tropes; you never have to help out an injured colleague, as your friend is never injured. No-one ever hobbles slower, no-one is bleeding out and needs a medic. Sure, they have a low value of "points" and they may need their points increased, but it never feels like they really are hurt.

The commonly cited reason against it is that your character is suddenly useless, but, really? A -1 penalty to attack for a D&D character has about a 50-50 chance of having an effect over a full evening's play. Any player who is unwilling to play with that might be over-reacting a bit.

For me, the role-playing and simulation aspect of injuries makes it a win over the simpler gamist approach of no injuries. If you prefer the more gamist approach (which is probably more the case in D&D players) then the simpler approach is the way to go.
 

But, quagmire aside, fight to the end of run/surrender is to me a matter that is divorced from damage system - unless I suppose the damage spiral makes running impossible and so encourages swinging your last gasp if you think they will kill you anyway.
Traditionally, a death spiral will make fighting impossible, such that surrender or fleeing remain the viable options. Without a death spiral, continuing to fight seems like a more hopeful prospect - especially if attack rolls have binary resolution, and you really can hope that you'll hit and they'll miss.
 

The commonly cited reason against it is that your character is suddenly useless, but, really? A -1 penalty to attack for a D&D character has about a 50-50 chance of having an effect over a full evening's play. Any player who is unwilling to play with that might be over-reacting a bit.

For me, the role-playing and simulation aspect of injuries makes it a win over the simpler gamist approach of no injuries. If you prefer the more gamist approach (which is probably more the case in D&D players) then the simpler approach is the way to go.
It's less that a -1 penalty makes the character useless, and more that the -1 penalty is a fiddly little modifier that is often not worth tracking. D&D would use the Advantage/Disadvantage system for that sort of thing, except it doesn't apply to any penalty that would be less severe than -4 or so.

After all, is it really worth tracking that -1 and remembering to factor it into every check, if there's only a 50% chance that it will ever matter over the course of the full session?
 

5ekyu

Hero
Traditionally, a death spiral will make fighting impossible, such that surrender or fleeing remain the viable options. Without a death spiral, continuing to fight seems like a more hopeful prospect - especially if attack rolls have binary resolution, and you really can hope that you'll hit and they'll miss.
It depends on the mechanics of the spiral.

Most of the spirals i have seen do more than degrade your offense. Many or some affect the stats useful for escape as well. As a matter of fact, i would off the cuff say that its quite often that a movement penalty is an early item on tbe death spiral chain since it shows an impact that limits you but doesnt hit success/fail that much.

If you have a death spiral that only degrades your offense then your position is correct but imx they more often also affect movement a lot and defense often.

Thats why i prefer damage saves - they tend to increase risk and apply brief penalties to actions - but the penalties are quickly transiet in the combat while the risk remains - allowing the choice of "stay at great risk" or "get away" pretty commonly if you can get even one turn of respite - likely thru distraction from ally.
 

pemerton

Legend
I'm convinced a lot of players who want deadly combat in RPGs desire it to permit effective ninja one-strike takedowns, something that hit point systems struggle with.
In 4e, the solution to this is to allow one result of a successful skill check (or perhaps skill challenge) is for a creature/NPC to be "minion-ised", thus becoming vulnerable to a one-strike takedown.
 

Shasarak

Banned
Banned
I cordially dislike the TTB system; it's very simplistic, so I play games that use it, but it just always feels so silly: "I shoot the guy in the head with a shotgun and it has no obvious effect"

That does not sound like a problem with a "TTB" system, that sounds like a problem with your descriptions.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Traditionally, a death spiral will make fighting impossible
Not necessarily impossible, just a varying degree more difficult. Quite a big difference between these.

Also remember that your foe is in theory going through the same death spiral, assuming you've hit it a few times, meaning the disadvantages are more often than not going to more or less cancel out.

After all, is it really worth tracking that -1 and remembering to factor it into every check, if there's only a 50% chance that it will ever matter over the course of the full session?
Darn right it is, and there's no way you'll ever be tracking it for a full session: you'll either get more hurt or cured up (or both!) long before then.

pemerton said:
In 4e, the solution to this is to allow one result of a successful skill check (or perhaps skill challenge) is for a creature/NPC to be "minion-ised", thus becoming vulnerable to a one-strike takedown.
A less edition-specific way of saying this would put it that careful preparation etc. might allow a single strike to in effect be an assassination attempt, bypassing hit point mechanics if successful and instead provoking some other result - save or die, or just die, or auto-unsoncsious and save or die, or whatever.
 

pemerton

Legend
A less edition-specific way of saying this would put it that careful preparation etc. might allow a single strike to in effect be an assassination attempt, bypassing hit point mechanics if successful and instead provoking some other result - save or die, or just die, or auto-unsoncsious and save or die, or whatever.
The only edition to have rules for this in the way you describe them is 1st ed AD&D with its assassination table. (Which all players can take advantage of, regardless of PC class, if trying to kill a non-magically sleeping person.)

I don't think that either 2nd ed AD&D or 3E has rules for assassination attempts triggering save-or-die consequences.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
The only edition to have rules for this in the way you describe them is 1st ed AD&D with its assassination table. (Which all players can take advantage of, regardless of PC class, if trying to kill a non-magically sleeping person.)

I don't think that either 2nd ed AD&D or 3E has rules for assassination attempts triggering save-or-die consequences.
Using the specific term "assassination", perhaps; but the idea of setting someone up for a one-shot kill, bypassing hit point mechanics in favour of some other unpleasant-to-the-target result, is portable across many games and editions.
 

Not necessarily impossible, just a varying degree more difficult. Quite a big difference between these.

Also remember that your foe is in theory going through the same death spiral, assuming you've hit it a few times, meaning the disadvantages are more often than not going to more or less cancel out.
[...]
Darn right it is, and there's no way you'll ever be tracking it for a full session: you'll either get more hurt or cured up (or both!) long before then.
I think that really depends on the implementation. The death spirals with which I'm more familiar tend to progress more quickly than -1 on a d20 (like -4 on 3d6), such that the first person to get hit is unlikely to get many chances to return fire. I think it's something about chasing verisimilitude, that the sort of designer who really wants to implement wound penalties, is also the sort of designer who wants someone to fall within the first three hits from a sword.

As for myself, I consider it inefficient design if the magnitude of a modifier is small enough that it's unlikely to make a difference over the course of the expected number of rolls.
 

Particle_Man

Explorer
I don't think that either 2nd ed AD&D or 3E has rules for assassination attempts triggering save-or-die consequences.

Well, for 3.5 there is this guy's death attack:

http://www.d20srd.org/srd/prestigeClasses/assassin.htm

If the assassin sets it up right, and hits, then it is a fort save or die.

Pathfinder gives that ability out to other classes, including the 20th level rogue, and 10th level ninja and slayer (if they take the right optional ability).

IIRC there was The Last Days of Constantinople (third party), which for some reason gave a ridiculously high CHR (in the high 20's I believe) low-level prostitute the assassin death attack.
 

Starfox

Adventurer
I actually find hit points just as or even more realistic than the death spiral. People who take significant wounds go into shock and are out of the fight. If you don't go into shock, adrenaline and stress keeps you going at more or less full capacity. Only someone VERY high can continue fighting after suffering a wound that would mechanically impair them, such as the loss of the use of a limb.

There are of course exceptions, people who have gone on fighting when physically impaired. But they are exceptions.
 

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