Death Spirals: When Losing in a Fight Ensures You Will Lose the Fight

I’ve been playing Betrayal at Krondor a bit over the last week, and it’s had me thinking about death-spirals in RPGs.

One of the major mechanics in Betrayal at Krondor is a two-tiered HP system consisting of Health and Stamina. You nominally have a 1:1 ratio between these, I believe, but it’s generally something like 2:1 due to the fact that you can only fully heal by resting at an inn. The first bucket of HP that gets depleted is your Stamina—once this is gone, you start losing Health, which begins to directly affect your performance. Each subsequent hit makes it more difficult for you to attack and defend. The effect of this is a potential for a death spiral in which your characters have no chance of suddenly turning the tides of battle because with each round their performance diminishes. Worse is the chivalry which prevents characters from fleeing if one party member is KO’d.

Coupled with the “Near Death” mechanic that makes HP recovery incredibly slow until you’ve crossed a certain threshold of Health regained, Krodor’s health system can lead to some dire straits. I spent a decent few hours wandering in the hills, trying not to starve to death as my rations dwindled.

Our homegame has something similar, in that it uses stamina (in the form of “Grit”) in place of health largely to reflect the difference between taking minor and serious wounds, however we’ve used (until recently) a single bucket. (The new bucket is very shallow and very expensive because it replenishes on a roundly basis, mostly as a way for tanky characters to mitigate ping damage). Once “Grit” is depleted, all damage begins being applied directly to the character’s body parts as wounds and injuries. In most cases, these are either so bad that they lead the character to bleed out before anything can be done for them or they result in debilitating injuries that can lay the character up for weeks or months in-game.

One of the big differences is that there’s not this lengthy dwindling death that a party dies as it loses HP. Despite being semi-two-tiered, G3’s mechanics usually mean that almost any injuries grievous enough to damage beyond HP are going to down a character in a way that puts them down for the rest of the fight. Typical activities that restore HP are not going to be enough to negate the actual injury as opposed to offsetting the fatigue tracked via Grit. It’s a bit easier in a tabletop to mitigate the negative effects of a character being out of commission than it is in a CRPG. In G3, a character gets hurt so bad that he’s out of commission for a few months, we can easily roll up a replacement and, if we don’t want to just retire the old character, pick up the injured character later after he’s had a chance to heal. Not quite as detrimental as being told “these three dudes MUST stay alive AND must stay fed AND need two-three weeks rest in the wilderness before they start healing normally”.

It really is a mechanic I find interesting and am always tempted to find more things to do with. Even if works out wonkily in something like Krondor, sometimes keeping a party at knife’s edge of fight-ready, I think it can add some cool drama and tension. But I also don’t think that it should be a vacuum that will inevitably suck a party down in defeat once a certain threshold has been crossed.