The RPG Death Spiral

Possibly you’ve been here: the heroic PCs, on entering a village, smell something suspicious. They were meant to smell something suspicious, but they get the wrong end of the stick somehow, decide that the headman is a doppelganger spy, and attack him. The villagers react poorly to this, and someone throws a fireball; within three rounds, the players are hightailing it out of the burning town on stolen horses, and now the baron who was meant to give them their next quest is obliged to muster his troops and hunt the PCs down like dogs, or else look like an ineffectual sucker for letting them get away with it. The players are in a hole and the only responses they can come up with involve digging.

That’s the death-spiral. The characters make one mistake, compound it into a really big mistake in trying to get out of the first mistake, and put themselves in an impossible situation. Very often, it’s because they’ve committed some transgression that cannot be concealed and that’s serious enough to make them pariahs.

There are some RPGs, like Fiasco or Polaris, where the death-spiral is the intended story arc, plain and simple. You know that the protagonists are going to ride it all the way to the bottom, and the challenge is to pace that descent and provide some cool twists and flips along the way.

But there are other games where you actively want to court the death-spiral without committing to an endless plummet; you want to ride it for a while, then return to something approaching stability. Monsterhearts, for instance, is all about the characters fucking up, losing control and causing damage – but that damage needs to have brakes, somewhere, because it’s not really a game about all-out war or life on the run. You need to be able to make things right, or at least right enough that the PCs can still have emotional and interpersonal conflicts rather than focusing on the details of fighting, running and hiding. And even in a game that takes the death spiral to the bottom, it’s possible to dive too early: I’ve played a good number of Fiasco games in which the climax ended up being dragged out over many redundant scenes.

There are a number of approaches that don’t so much solve the problem as work around it. You could let the characters hit the bottom and keep going. Your life in prison or on the run might be a good story, if everyone’s up for it. But that seems like an edge case to me, like killing your character in the first act and playing yourself entirely through flashbacks thereafter; it can work, but a lot of the time there’ll be too many reasons against it. If only one character’s spiraling, it’s liable to split the group.

Similarly, you can always retcon, rewinding the story to an earlier, less messed-up point and trying again. This is particularly useful when the death spiral has involved irreparable damage to the whole identity of a PC – maybe they did something horribly out-of-character, or maybe they did something so bad that the player, on reflection, isn’t wild about going forward with them. There are lots of obvious problems with this – in a game where hidden information is an important element, for instance, replay might not work at all. And retcons, like UNDO or save-reloading in computer games, can make it hard to remember which version is the ‘real’ one, so the players get muddled up. Still, a lot of the instinctive reasons against retconning are not as serious as they appear, and it’s worth considering.

And you can hit the bottom and take that as an ending. Which might mean ditching everything and playing a new game, or having the affected PCs make new characters. This, too, will often not work: you might be very attached to some of the things you’re throwing out, or the death-spiral might imperil not just the PCs but the entire premise, or you might be only halfway through a game with a set structure. But the new-character thing seems pretty applicable to a lot of games – particularly if the problem isn’t ‘the cops are beating down the door’ so much as ‘after the things they did, nobody is ever going to speak to this character again.’ Turn the PC into an NPC, make an new character.

But those are all, basically, options where you make the best of an inextricable situation: what about ways to overcome it?

Monsterhearts has a built-in method for plunging a character into the death spiral – the triggering of their Darkest Self, a state in which the character is uncontrollably self-centred and destructive. (How that manifests is a reflection of character type.) Darkest Self goes away once certain conditions are met, so at least you’re not accelerating downwards at this point, but by the time that happens the spiral can have some powerful velocity. Do the conditions it offers provide any clues about how to level out the death spiral? Here’s a sample:

The Queen: ‘…when you relinquish part of your power over to someone more deserving, or when you destroy an innocent person in order to prove your might.’

The Mortal: ‘…seeing the pain that you’re causing your lover.’

The Chosen: ‘…when someone comes to your rescue or you wake up in the hospital.’

The Vampire: ‘…when you’re put in your rightful place, by someone more powerful than you.’

The Werewolf: ‘…when you wound someone you really care about or the sun rises.’

The Witch: ‘…you must offer peace to the one you have hurt the most.’

These are all intended to furnish dramatic, character-shaping moments that relate to the core dynamics of each skin; they’re mainly concerned with curtailing the uncontrolled destructiveness of the player character, and with establishing a price. That’s important, sure – a big element of a death-spiral can be characters fiercely clinging to the thing dragging them down. But they offer fewer clues about how to deal with external forces – the mob debt, the police investigation, the ever-expanding circle of witnesses, the friends you’ve hurt too badly for any plausible hope of reconciliation.

So, step one, just so we’re clear about this: the character needs to stop accelerating into the spiral. Sometimes, this is all you really need! I’ve seen many games where a character death-spirals because their player is doggedly fixated on a particular aspect of their personality, to the exclusion of all else. (Sometimes – particularly in oneshots – it’s fun to do a straightforward character-flaw arc, about a character who is consumed by ambition or greed or revenge. But when you do that you’re accepting that they’re disposable, and that you’re going to hit the bottom and take that as an ending.) Most real people aren’t dominated by a single all-consuming quality; they’re curtailed by the other things that they care about, or their priorities change, or they just get tired. Sometimes this is just a matter of letting your character be human. (Which is hard. It’s easier to play a character who only has one mode, particularly if the current plot foregrounds that mode. Some players just can’t let go of a particular vision of their character, even if that vision spells their inexorable doom.)

This is a good place for a dramatic character moment, with change coming at a cost. Shooting the Moon dramatises that shift in character as the Sacrifice move, in which a character permanently loses a defining character trait and gains a new, opposing one. The Monsterhearts examples often emphasize a shock – when you do something so bad that it shakes your single-minded focus, or when something really bad is done to you. (But that’s not invariableCharacters don’t require dramatic trauma to become self-aware.)

Let’s say you’ve identified the problem, and shared it with the other players; you agree that you want to level off a bit, and the character isn’t actively accelerating the problem. But often that leaves a lot of external factors that need fixing before the spiral can end. What next?

  • Penitence, restitution, redemption. Well and good if you can swing it. There’s not always sufficient space in between “unconvincing token gesture” and “sacrifice so great that it makes the character impractical (or no fun) to play any more.” You may be too far gone for this to work, or your enemies may not be the kind that would plausibly give a damn.
  • Rescue. Someone more powerful intervenes to avert the crisis. (And now you owe them, even if that’s not why they did it.)
  • Cover-up. Generally, if you’re in a death-spiral, it’s too late for this: for cover-up you need control. Often attempts at cover-up are what made things so bad in the first place. But worth a thought.
  • Serendipity, dumb luck, deus ex machina. Potentially sort of weak, if it’s just an excuse to wriggle out of things. But it seems as though there’s potential value here if you focus on how the characters react to it – are they going to learn anything, or repeat their mistakes? what does luck that you don’t deserve do to you?
  • The bad thing happens, but it’s not as bad as expected. There’s a cost, but you can live with it. You end up with community service and an ankle-tag rather than prison, an ass-kicking rather than an execution; your friends think you’re a drunk, a coward and a fool, but they have their own reasons to minimise your real transgressions.
  • Temporary reprieve. Do you really need to fix things, or just delay them and calm things down for a few plot-beats?

Anyhow. I feel myself inexpert on this. I am very interested in other people’s perspectives on good ways to approach this.

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9 Responses to The RPG Death Spiral

  1. Jason Dyer says:

    Are there any RPGs where retcon is an essential part of the game?

    (There’s the board game Tragedy Looper, but that’s all I can think of.)

  2. cvaneseltine says:

    I’ll throw out one more option, which is to flip the game world. Since the players have only seen a few cards in your hand, you can rearrange the cards they haven’t seen yet, and racing toward the bottom transmutes into racing toward the top. It’s the “yes and” approach to GMing.

    From your example: the players blasted the headman out of his boots? The baron is hunting them down like dogs? Well ACTUALLY the previously established big bad of your world is the frontman for the baron, who is More Evil Than You Could Possibly Know, and now the peasantry is rallying behind them to help them. Or the baron is working for the big bad, and no one knows it until the players uncovered it (well done, players!) Or – you get the idea; there are a lot of ways to swing it.

    After all, while *you* may know what’s going on behind the scenes, they don’t. They only know what you showed them. And that means you have all the power over your world.

    Two disadvantages to this approach:
    1) Your players will learn nothing. If you want them to learn that they can’t run around blasting anyone they feel like – well, this will reinforce the opposite behavior.
    2) You have to be ready to think on the fly. If you rely on heavy planning and organization beforehand, this has the potential to leave you utterly stranded. One way to handle this is by pushing the downward spiral for the rest of the session, and then taking time to rearrange the world pieces before the next session.

    Two advantages to this approach:
    1) It reduces the potentially adversarial relationship between GM and player. Players don’t want to feel like they’re being punished, and the downward spiral can definitely feel like that, *especially* if the players don’t think their spiral-initiating actions were as unreasonable as you think they were.
    2) The players feel like badasses. They think they’ve been screwing up, and ACTUALLY they got it right, they were getting it right all along – that can be a really powerful feeling, the kind of thing resulting in high-fives and joy around the table. (Of course, until the game ends, you can’t really admit that they botched your plans and you were scrambling, or you’ll sour it. But GMing relies on hidden information anyway, and this is just one more piece to add.)

    • Yeah, almost all of the games I play lately are No Myth, and a high proportion are no-GM – the baron example is actually kind of unusual in relying on hidden knowledge. So this is absolutely a thing worth considering. But it’s perfectly possible to get death-spiraled from the combination of player actions, established things about the world, and narrative honesty.

      I’ve introduced narrative twists to try and arrest a character’s spiral before, but most of them have involved giving them something else to focus on (to stop them accelerating).

  3. Pingback: Guys, Listen, I Have So Many Opinions About Monsterhearts Skins | These Heterogenous Tasks

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