Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Level Drain

Over at Pits Perilous, there's a great post about using the Holmes Blue Book as a complete game. This is actually a follow-up to and expansion of an older post on the same topic. I highly recommend reading both posts, as well as this thread, where Geoffrey McKinney makes a similar proposal (though its specifics naturally differ). There's a great deal of food for thought in all of these, even if you're not sold on the idea of limiting the game to levels 1 through 3.

A good case in point is the rule regarding death, which read:

Should a character die, whether in combat or similar misfortune, they fall unconscious, losing one level.  If recovered by their friends (within a reasonable amount of time), they awaken with 0 HP, but very much alive, and may be further healed, although never beyond what their new level allows.  First-level characters aren't so lucky and die, an all-too common fate, noting that lost levels may only be recovered through further adventures.
I find myself intrigued by this, since the matter of levels and level drain have long been matters of debate among players of D&D (and, sometimes, players of other games as well). I've never really had a problem with level drain in principle, which I think puts me at odds with many of my fellows. As an attack, it's appropriately dangerous and makes high-level undead genuinely frightening. To the extent that I have any issues with level drain, it's that it breaks the imaginative frame of the game by focusing too much on game mechanics. A level, after all, isn't something that actually exists in the game's setting. Characters and NPCs don't talk about having levels; they're a convenient mechanical way of representing experience, ability, and power, but don't really have an independent existence. Given that, what then is level drain supposed to do to a character?

One of the things that makes Empire of the Petal Throne so interesting as a game text is the way that M.A.R. Barker adapted OD&D's rules to his setting. For example, there's a spell in EPT called petrifaction, which, as you might imagine, turns its target to stone. What's interesting about the spell is that its primary effect is automatic, but a saving throw is still permitted to determine whether the target also loses one hit die in addition to being turned to stone. This actually came up in my House of Worms campaign, where one of the characters – Znayáshu – was turned to stone by a strange sorcerer they encountered beneath the Naqsá city-state of Miktatáin. Znayáshu was eventually restored to flesh, but he lost a hit die and the hit points that came from it. This is a permanent loss, meaning that, even after Znayáshu gains a new level, he will still be down one hit die from where he should be.

After reading the blog post above, I began to wonder if something similar could be used in the case of level drain. Rather than inexplicably (from an in-game perspective) sapping a character of experience points, perhaps drain simply steals hit dice, which levels the character permanently weakened, unless a spell like restoration is restored. That makes more sense from the perspective of the game world, with the undead employing the literal touch of the grave to enervate the target. It's a serious disability that has lasting consequences but not one that strips the character of level-based skills and abilities that, to my mind anyway, shouldn't evaporate simply because an undead being has touched you. 

It's not a pressing question for me right now, since I'm not playing D&D, though there will be undead in Urheim that have traditionally had level drain. My mind isn't made up one way or the other. All I know for certain is that I don't want to abandon level drain without finding a different approach that's just as fear-inducing.

22 comments:

  1. One thing to consider: several of the level-draining undead turn their victims into more undead when they reach 0 level...

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    1. and now they turn their victims into more undead when they reach 0 hit dice. which is actually scarier, now you have a zombie who still has high-level spell slots or whatever...

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  2. My personal take on it is that it is a mechanic designed to simulate the "sense of weakness" that inexplicably overcomes pulp fantasy heroes from time to time. I prefer to drain ability scores instead and describe the sense of weakness accompanying it.

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    1. I think that this works better, picking a random stat and then draining the same number of points as damage from each blow. Can even describe withering injuries from the drain.

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    2. Whether it's true or not, it's a pretty widely-held consensus in OSR circles that level-drain is there to be an "associated mechanic." In the same way that XP-for-GP makes the players as greedy for treasure as their characters ought to be, level-drain makes players as frightened of spooky undead as their characters ought to be.

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  3. I think 3E and 4E both do a better job with "life drain". 3E causes some penalties to all D20 rolls, possibly ability score reduction and after time a Save to see if the loss is permanent.

    4E uses the reduction of "healing surges". I made (as a houserule) these losses also require a save during the next overnight rest to see if the healing surge loss was permanent. I used Healing Surges in 4E as "in game currency" for lots of things- making your way through a blizzard without exhaustion, swimming a raging river, Electrical traps that zap your vitality etc. Makes the game way more deadly. 13th Age also incorporated this idea.

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    1. Unless the healing surges are lost permanently or semi-permanently (possibly with something similar to the disease mechanic) it is not a good analog and not really all that scary for the players.

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    2. Perhaps you should read my post again.

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  4. I've used permanent HP drain and/or permanent ability score drain in place of level drain for a few years now. Avoids having the deal with 'the maths' of level drain with respect to XP points etc. Also less wailing and gnashing of teeth from the players ... they really hate losing hard won levels.

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  5. I like this rule; it has permanent consequences for being attacked by high-level undead, but the consequences make more sense.

    I've rune with level drain, but my house rule is that if you destroy the creature within one day per level drained, you gain the levels back. Also, if you do not defeat the creature, if you immediately get complete bed rest, you get a saving throw versus Death each day of rest for one level drained; if you make the save, you get the level back.

    I think I will combine these with going with HD drain, instead. Gives the players who got drained a reason to go hunting the monster that drained them, and the reward is even bigger for victory...

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    1. “if you destroy the creature within one day per level drained, you gain the levels back.” — I like that house rule. That is a good principle indeed.

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  6. I'm much happier with my undead since I replaced level-drain with specific abilities unique to those undead. In most cases, I swapped level-drain (frightens the players) for magical fear effects (frightens the characters), with specific levels or gradations (fear merely leaves characters shaken so that they fight at a penalty, terror causes them to flee and not willingly return, horror roots them in place as if mentally paralyzed).

    In addition to these effects, for the four classic level-draining undead (wights, wraiths, spectres, vampires), I added specific unique abilities that tie them to their literary or pop-culture roots. Wights got the ability of Tolkien's barrow-wights to lull their foes to sleep and to mysteriously replace their armor with burial-shrouds. Wraiths have a poisonous touch (think Frodo on Weathertop). For spectres, even though they're actually supposed to be D&D's answer to Nazgûl, I drew upon the most famous spectre in pop culture, Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, and gave them some hellfire and a short-range teleport. Vampires were the easiest to tweak: just give them the ability to actually suck blood for their attack (lots of other critters in D&D have that ability, vamps definitely should too!) along with the usual spread of pop-culture vampire super-powers.

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    1. That's good stuff, especially about the barrow-wights.

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  7. Agreed on the weirdness of it, though the big sticking point was always the book-keeping. I can barely remember what I rolled for hit points last time I leveled up, forget three levels ago. :p

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    1. You can just roll one, two or three hit dice and substract the result to the total hit point .
      (or just reroll all hit dice)

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  8. I had independently come up with a "lose a level after raise dead" house-rule, and it seems to work OK. If anything, my players are over-cautions/risk-adverse.

    Level-drain seems to work fine for undead too in a 0e/1e setting. I try not to overthink it since "levels" are already pure mechanics.

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  9. Lose a HD is a pretty elegant solution. No need for record keeping just have the player roll the appropriate die and take away that many hp.

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  10. I've always thought of level drain as a sort of whole-body malaise where XP loss is a reflection of parts of your body literally necrotizing away. Like... muscle, tissue, organ, and brain cells die off, which naturally makes you less capable and less hardy.

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    1. More or less like what happened to Frodo after the Nazgul got stabby on him...

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  11. The mechanically easiest way might be just to say the hit points of damage they do are permanent, barring a Restoration spell. Doesn't even need an extra die roll, and certainly should get people's attention.

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    1. I've done that before - I've also given out a -1 to hit/saves for each level drain which I think models the loss of ability caused by the touch of the undead pretty simply without having to audit the entire character sheet.

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  12. Level drain is the scary thing sucking out a piece of your eternal soul. It take a little piece of you. You're no longer the man you were- you can't summon the wherewithal to cast that powerful spell anymore etc.

    I don't see how that is any more focussed on game mechanics than a sword strike reducing some HP. It's just as literary or cinematic or imaginative as any other form of attack & damage.

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