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And what does it mean for combat in a game?

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A "Death Spiral" is something that can happen in games where your combat skill is affected by your health (or similar attribute). If you take a hit, your combat skill decreases slightly (making it harder for you to hit the opponent and/or easier for the opponent to hit you).

While there is a certain realism to this, it can often quickly lead to the "death spiral" where each hit makes it increasingly unlikely for the loser to come back, as they are getting consistently worse at attacking and/or defending.

It can lead to very lopsided combat, even against some seemingly well-matched opponents.

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something like in D&D a force drain which affects the melee to-hit bonus. –  Stefano Borini Aug 21 '10 at 13:20
    
@stefano: or an energy drain? :) –  Tsojcanth Aug 28 '10 at 7:44

The death spiral is the process where a given character continues to lose ability to fight when they take damage due to injury penalties.

Some games have a profound spiral; the first guy to do any real damage develops a large and widening ability gap over the opponent. Some of the most profound include Traveller (CT, T4, and MGT editions), Burning Wheel, Shadowrun, White Wolf's Storyteller system, and Cyberpunk 2020.

Others have a delayed Spiral, where damage doesn't apply penalties until a heavy amount has been taken. Examples include: Warhammer FRP (1E, 2E), Dark Heresy, Rogue Trader, Pendragon, several BRP variations using hit locations.

Many others have no death spiral at all; you fight full up until you drop. Examples include all D&D editions, most Palladium Books games.

While realistic in a sense, the death spiral often isn't any fun.

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You may want to add Shadowrun to the profound spiral category. Especially Spirit combat. You fight a force 6 spirit and gain a hit, it's now force 5... and since you roll (in SRII and SR3) a large handful of d6s, that spiral can hit fast. –  Pulsehead Feb 2 '11 at 14:34
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Agree with Pulsehead. In the editions I played, at least, because of the pretty much completely broken mathematical behavior of Shadowrun's D6-based target number system, the +1 penalty from a light wound was usually utterly lethal. (Except when it did absolutely nothing because your target number was a 6.) –  chaos Feb 2 '11 at 16:11
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@aramis: I'd say that the 3.x editions of DnD do have death spirals. If you die and get raised (ignoring true resurrection for a moment), you lose a level which in turn makes it more likely to die again when fighting monsters that are of average difficult (compared to the party's level). Also: ability damage/drain (depending on which ability is hit you lose numbers from attack, damage, AC/saving throws, spell slots, hit points, and possible fall helpless or die outright). –  user660 Feb 3 '11 at 23:05
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@bael the post-resurrection nerfing. A deliberate 1st ed design decision to make it sting a little to get your character killed. But not a death spiral. A resurrection-nerfing spiral, yes. It's a spiral. Just not a Death Spiral as the term's been used in RPG gaming in general in the last 30 years. (Damn, I have been gaming too long.) –  aramis Feb 7 '11 at 5:58
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@aramis: I see. I was just used to a different definition of the term from my environment. For me "death spiral" means any self-stacking effect - no matter if it originated from direct damage or some other source the character is exposed to - that increases the chance of subsequent deaths. Sorry if I sounded a bit aggressive there, no harm intended. :) –  user660 Feb 7 '11 at 22:26

The bad thing about a spiral is it can make getting in the first whack exceedingly important. In a game with a long, slow death spiral, this can result in spending a lot of time as character who really lost the fight in the first round of combat is slowly whittled down in a death of a thousand cuts.

The good thing about death spirals is that they do tend to be slow, and that means players can quickly grasp that they're in a bad situation and start looking for ways out before it's too late.

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