How I learned to stop worrying and love the death spiral

1.0/ Introduction

Death spiral mechanics are a feature of systems where losing a round of combat makes you less likely to win the next round and thus the entire fight. This means that the moment one opponent is significantly less capable than another they tend to get relentlessly hosed.

Sudden death mechanics are a feature of systems where losing a round of combat doesn’t make you less likely to win the next round but does make you less likely to win the entire fight. This means that opponents hack away at each with no ill effect until one of them drops dead.

Gamers used to systems featuring only one of these mechanics may balk when faced with a system featuring the other. Risus features death spiral mechanics and many potential players seem to be put off by this, asking if there are any tweaks that eliminate the death spiral and make Risus more like the games they are familiar with.

Sudden death mechanics can be introduced to Risus very easily, which enables them to be compared objectively to death spiral mechanics. This article is intended to show that death spiral mechanics work best for Risus while providing workable sudden death mechanics for those who remain unconvinced.

2.0/ A Tale of Two Systems

The basic system for handling conflicts in Risus is very simple. Players roll a number of six-sided dice and the character with the lowest total loses one of their dice, becoming less capable of winning the next round: enter the death spiral. When one adversary has no dice left they are defeated. In a combat situation lost dice might represent injury, but they could just as easily represent fatigue, tactical disadvantage or declining morale.

Risus death spiral mechanics can be easily converted into sudden death mechanics. When a character loses a round they accumulate one knock against their cliché instead of losing a cliché die. When a character has as many knocks as they have cliché dice they loose the fight: enter sudden death. Accumulated knocks represent the same kind of thing as lost cliché dice but they don’t decrease a characters ability to win the next round. They just mean you're one knock closer to defeat.

Risus has a number of supplementary rules that improve a character’s chances of winning when outclassed. These are based on trading short-term gains for long-term losses, with lucky shots and pumping being regular staples. These rules are assumed to work identically using either form of mechanics save in one respect: where they reduce cliché dice when using death spiral mechanics they accumulate knocks when using sudden death mechanics. This ensures each mechanic is internally consistent.

3.0/ The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Where opponents are not equally matched sudden death mechanics lead to a lower overall chance of winning for weaker characters. This makes the outcome of a fight even more deterministic: the exact opposite what proponents of sudden death seem to expect. This is because sudden death mechanics fix any ability gap for the duration of the fight. In contrast death spiral mechanics offer weaker characters a chance of reducing a superior opponent’s ability to a manageable level.

Sudden death mechanics also pull the teeth of the supplementary rules designed to offer a chance of cutting superior foes down to size. With sudden death mechanics these rules cease to be effective as they don’t reduce a foes  ability. These rules are all based on finite resources that cannot be used repeatedly to overcome an ability gap that is sustained for the entire fight.

While sudden death mechanics reduce a weaker character’s overall probability of winning, they paradoxically raise their chances of doing some damage before checking out. This makes players feel like having their characters ass kicked counts for something. While this is a positive feature of sudden death mechanics there is a negative flip side.

Sudden death mechanics leave victorious combatants in worse shape than death spiral mechanics, leading to a reduction in long-term character endurance. Even powerful player characters will be gradually worn down by a succession of minor foes. Where foes are evenly matched the victor will often take a serious beating using sudden death mechanics. In contrast death spiral mechanics often leave the victor completely unscathed unless outmatched, improving character endurance.

As victorious characters tend to lose more rounds with sudden death mechanics, the time spent resolving a fight also increases. With death spiral mechanics a typical fight lasts as many rounds as the least capable character has cliché dice, yet with sudden death mechanics a fight lasts about half as long again. This is a fairly minor issue until you find yourself dealing with large numbers of dice. 

4.0/ The Big Fix

If your only beef with death spiral mechanics is getting hosed without landing a blow, simply use an alternative dice mechanic that softens the ability gap while retaining the death spiral mechanics. This will let you do some damage on the way down, improving your characters overall chance of beating foes they shouldn’t be able to in the process.

One such mechanic that’s seen a fair bit of use in the Risus community is the highest die mechanic, where both opponents roll their dice and the one with the highest single die roll wins the round. This softens the ability gap quite a bit, eliminating the hose-the-loser feel of Risus combat. The flip side is that player characters will lose more fights.

If you’re still not convinced that death spiral mechanics are the way to go, the following tweaks make the sudden death mechanics outlined above work almost as well as death spiral mechanics.

  • Adopt an alternative dice mechanic to soften the ability gap between characters with different numbers of cliché dice, improving the chance of winning a round for weaker characters and making sudden death fights less deterministic.
  • Extend the effect of supplementary rules from a single round to the entire conflict. This restores their effectiveness, offsetting the lack of any lasting impact on an opponent’s ability by making them have a lasting impact on the player characters ability.
  • Clear knocks at the end of the fight as a matter of course to improve character endurance. If a character takes a lot of knocks in a fight, one or more might remain representing actual wounds - unless the character has armour.
  • Have rolls that beat an opponents total by five or more dish out two knocks instead of one. This prevents fights from dragging when using sudden death mechanics, reducing the number of rounds opponents spend hacking away at each other.

5.0/ Conclusion

The perverse thing about sudden death mechanics is that they make the problems blamed on death spiral mechanics even worse, requiring additional tweaks to fix the fix. The real culprit behind the perceived problems with death spiral and sudden death mechanics in Risus is obviously the huge ability gap between characters with different numbers of cliché dice.

Unless you use an alternative dice mechanic to soften the ability gap, fights in Risus are pretty much over in the first round of combat or sometimes before the fight begins. While this makes the ability gap seem like a flaw it’s actually a feature with some rather peculiar beneficial wrinkles. But that’s another story entirely.

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