Thursday, March 23, 2006

What is a Death Spiral?


A lot of game design jargon gets tossed around sometimes. And sometimes it’s not explained all that well and there exists a certain amount of trepidation in those who don’t understand the meaning. Asking for a definition is sometimes intimidating because it seems like everybody already knows. And who wants to be left out? I know that people feel this way, because I am someone who has felt that trepidation many times.

Toady I’m going to talk about Death Spirals. First, what is a Death Spiral? It’s a game mechanic involving the resolution system that somehow creates diminishing capabilities of the character and makes it more likely for the character’s capabilities to further diminish. That is to say, suffering an initial failure makes the second failure more likely, which makes the third even more likely and so on. There is virtually no escape from a Death Spiral once it’s begun.

What about an example? Risus is a good downloadable example, but rather than make you read that and then come back here, I’ll give you a hypothetical example (do go download Risus, though). Okay, pretend for a moment DnD3e had a Death Spiral. Whenever your character takes damage in combat it would not only decrease his Hit Points, but also diminish he Strength and Dexterity. This means, not only is he closer to dying, but his ability to hit, deal damage, and avoid damage are also lowered. This makes it harder for him to defend himself and/or kill his opponent.

So what makes this so bad? Shouldn’t characters suffer penalties for losing? Sure, but here’s the thing about Death Spirals that make them so bad. After the initial exchange, none of the further exchanges have any meaning. The stakes of the situation have already been decided! Go back to the above example. With an opponent’s Atk, AC, and Hit Points lowered, the chances of your harming him again are much greater. The chances of him harming you are less. Baring a great stroke of luck, you will harm him again. Then his STR and DEX lower even more. Making him even easier to hit and less likely to hit you. Will further exchanges change the course of the future for that character? No. So after the initial hit, the fight was decided. People just ended up wasting a lot of time rolling more dice. That’s boring.

A second kind of Death Spiral is a Party Death Spiral. If you have ever played an MMORPGs then you know exactly what I mean. But let’s look at DnD again. I’m going to make up a typical party: Fighter, Cleric, Wizard, Thief, and Paladin. The party happens on a four orcs and combat commences. The orcs suddenly have a shaman show up with them and prove tougher than the PCs or the DM first imagined. So tough that the Paladin goes down. Okay, so we now have 5 orcs vs. 4 PCs. The fighter can at best keep 2 busy. The cleric can handle one, but the thief and wizard are made of paper. The wizard gets shellacked next. Now one of the party’s major damage sources is out. The thief goes down next, there’s too many and his HPs are low. Perhaps by now 2 of the orcs are dead. However, we’re down to the warrior and cleric. Before long, the cleric bites it and with no one to heal him, the fighter is doomed. The party wipes out. All because one character, the Paladin, died first.

What we’ve just witnessed is a Party Death Spiral. In MMORPGs, as soon as one of or two of the party members die in an encounter, the rest are sure to follow. Tabletop RPGs that have strict niche protection and defined roles for characters can risk the same fate. As soon as a group’s Meat Shield, Damage Dealer, or Healer goes down, the party is at severe risk.

So how does one avoid creating a Death Spiral? Well, the easiest way is to make sure that losing an exchange does not affect the character’s ability to avoid further losses or inflict a loss on his opponent. Hit Points are an excellent example of how to avoid a Death Spiral. Yeah the character gets closer to death, but his Atk and AC are not affected. You can also make losing an exchange in a contest not dependant in whether or not the character succeeds at the action. My own Holmes and Watson does this. As far as Party Death Spirals go, one can avoid designing these by making sure that characters are diverse. I personally don’t think niche protection is all it’s cracked up to be. So, don’t be afraid to drop it in your game. Having a lot of overlapping abilities will help insure a party’s survival even if one or two go down in combat.

Anyhow, the main point of this essay was to just get out there what a Death Spiral is. If anyone needs further clarification, feel free to post :)




Ben said...

For a positive example of the death spiral, check out Matt Snyder's Nine Worlds.

Basically, the winner can continue conflict, with an advantage, to get more goodies from it. However, the loser always stands a chance of winning. So while your chance of winning is increased by winning, there is always the possibility of turnabout.


Stefan / 1of3 said...


Your analysis is not bad, although it misses the ways to make good use of a death spiral.

1.) There must be a way out. If the spiral makes it harder to win, you must be able to flee. This option must be mostly unaffected by the spiral.

2.) There should be still something to gain. Even if you cannot win you should be able to gain something, if you choose not to flee.


Troy_Costisick said...


Sorry for not responding sooner guys, I've been on vacation :)

Stefan what you wrote for #1, I like very much. I call it a "release valve" for a Death Spiral. To me, technically, it's not a true Death Spiral just because it does have a way out. It's evolved.

I do think that a Death Spiral with a release valve or with something like "fallout" is an excellent design tool. Thank you for pointing them out. Also, what Ben said about having a spiral with a "turnabout" is also a solid design mechanic. Maybe I should do a follow up article on positive ways to implement Death Spiral-ish mechanics. :)



Garthan said...

Another way of dealing with a party death spiral is to allow a player to continue to contribute even though there character went down.. a downed ally in movies is an inspiration to his comrades the camera pans to one ally who first notices insert flashback and ally rushes slow mo in a charge to defend the fallen, next round another ally gets a big flurry of anger inspired multi-attacks ... and so on. Basically the downed pc becomes a source of party buffs to offset his own precense (these can be controlled/selected by the player so as to keep him involved in the action.

Troy_Costisick said...

Heya Garthan,

Thanks for posting. I love that idea! Thanks! I just might use it in a design I'm working on right now. :)



Garthan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Garthan said...

Oh and the idea was itself inspired by the D&D4e Warlord class and some of its abilities.

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