Thursday, May 13, 2010

Energy Drain

I've never really had any serious problems with level-draining creatures in D&D. Granted, it's a very deadly form of attack, but I think there ought to be some very deadly attacks in the game. That said, perhaps under the baleful influence of RuneQuest, I've started to question level-draining on two fronts.

1. On the purely mechanical level, I'm slowly coming round to the point of view of Dan "Delta" Collins that most, if not all, magical effects ought to grant a saving throw. I think saving throws tend to be undervalued in D&D and should be used more broadly. There are plenty "save or die" effects in the game, so why should something like level drain not grant a save as well? I certainly can see arguments against granting one -- and that's how I currently use level drain -- but I'm not convinced that the danger the attack is supposed to have is lessened by the possibility that a character might, with a good enough roll, escape it this time he's struck by a wight.

2. On a naturalist level, what exactly does level drain represent? It's here, actually, where I find the case against the current implementation of the ability to be strongest. I really like the notion that some types of undead are so evil and reality-warping as to be able to wreak devastating damage on their opponents, but level drain seems very mired in game mechanics. No characters in the settings of my campaigns talks about character levels; they're purely a construct of the rules (unlike spell levels, which I at least take to have a meaning within the game world). So, what precisely is it that a level drain is doing within the context of the world? How can you explain it without recourse to the rules?

I don't have any answers to these questions yet, but I'm increasingly leaning toward both allowing a saving throw for level drain and substituting something other than levels for the drain. I don't think this is unwarranted and, done correctly -- permanent hit point or ability score drain, for example -- the effect would be just as deadly and more (potentially) explainable within the context of the setting (Yes, yes, I know hit points are a problematic concept too; I'm just thinking out loud here).

Still, there's also a part of me that rebels against the notion of changing level drain. It's one of the few attacks in D&D that genuinely puts the fear of God into even the most foolhardy players and encourages cleverness to avoid it. I like that and would hate to lose it. But it feels like such a clunky, frame-breaking mechanic that I have find myself wanting to find a way to make it work in ways I find less problematic.

Anyone else have any insights here?


  1. I don't like level drain at all and have been substiuuting hit point drain and ability score drains for various undead. The hit point drain is pretty ruthless - a cleric in my campaign ended up getting a fair amount of hitpoints drained by a vampire and even as an 8th level cleric is pretty delicate. I did say that killing the master vampire would restore those hit points but they haven't managed to do that yet.

  2. Anyone else have any insights here?

    Only to cheer you on with regard to level drains. Levels have always struck me as an intrusive game mechanic that shouldn't be visible in the game world. One of the earliest major changes to AD&D I made when running a game was to change level drains to stat drains, temporary for lower-level critters, permanent (but reversible via magic or miracle) for more powerful monsters.)

    "Naturalism" is a good word for this. I've often thought of it in theatrical terms, as in "seeing the set hands at work behind the scenes," thus breaking the illusion.

    I hope you experiment with this; I'd be curious to see what you think after a trial.

  3. I don't know if this helps your process, but...

    I currently play Pathfinder, not that I want to, but with my group, it's what I'm stuck with. We're playing Rise of the Runelords. After accomplishing our mission, we discovered a mausoleum. Three of our group decided to raid the sarcophagi inside. (I refused to enter the mausoleum myself.) One of the sarcophagi had a wight, and for a party of third level adventurers, you know that can give you a bad day fast. It scored three hits, but every saving throw was successful. The group never took any special precautions. They just absorbed the blows, and came away with the treasure at the cost of a few hit points lost and the impression that messing with the undead is in no way foolhardy.

    If it were me, I'd leave the saving throws out. It makes certain forms of undead scary. It gives players a reason for caution.

  4. I always liked the draining of constitution in place of levels. Really powerful undead might drain 2 or 1d4 or even 1d6 points!

    I also allowed a saving throw to resist.

  5. I have been famous in my games for not using level drain in the past, but lately that has slowly changed.

    The reason being, as you mentioned, James, that level drain really is one of the few things that make my players take pause and go "Oh crap!", which can be a magical moment ingame. Surviving the encounter leaves the players with a much more satisfying experience than one where they expected to survive.

    I do, however, allow for a saving throw. I think I didn't know I wasn't supposed to with my first D&D set and I have carried on from there.

  6. I'm not sure that hit point drain or ability score drain is any less "a construct of the rules" than levels. What if it were an experience drain instead? That is to say, the touch of the undead affects the mind/spirit whatever of the PC in such a way that they "forget" their most recent experiences? This kind of level drain could have father reaching effects than just mechanical - forgetting how to get out of the dungeon, command words to recently acquired magic items, etc. Granted it's really fiddly, but I, too, am just "thinking out loud here."

    Just an idea.

  7. Another vote for stat draining over level draining. You are probably using a rules-light approach, but if you have any sort of skill system at all (necessary for stealth mechanics), rolling a level back is a mess.

    The reason why level draining was so feared was because there was no easy way to undo it. I would prefer an instant death to a level drain because at least I could resurrected if I was high enough level. In 1st ed/OD&D, it often took a solid year of game playing to progress a level once you hit name level. Loosing 2 or more of those levels really hurts.

  8. Level draining simply represents the sapping of the character's will to live - their energy, their zest and elan. The touch of the strongest undead opens a vision of the beckoning grave and the ultimate end of everything the character has and is; it literally sucks the life out of a person.

    Normal people succumb almost at once; heroes take a little longer.

    I've no problem with it as it stands.

  9. Level drain is just like instant character death. Both rob your players of hard work put in the game. Both put real fear into players - more so than all the chain-rattling and Ravenloft atmosphere you can throw at them. Neither should be a feature of a randomly rolled wandering monster on the 4th level.

    I do see a certain irony in disliking it because levels are abstractions, and then proposing ability score drains.

  10. One way to interpret level drain in a "naturalist" way is a loss of experience. Not as in experience points (well, that, too), but as in a loss of experiences. Memories. Training.

    You get hit by the wight and suffer amnesia. You can't remember that technique you learned with your sword after the battle with the pirates, or that spell you studied before this quest. If hit points are not "health" but instead an abstraction of your ability to resist blows, then you've forgotten some of the ducking and weaving you've instinctively been doing as you've gained experience fighting.

    If you're a fan of level drain, but feel a saving throw is in order, try this: On a failed save, your levels are drained. Gone. No getting them back except through experience. If you succeed, your levels are gone for 1d4 days, or some formula based on the difference between your roll and your save, etc...

  11. I do see a certain irony in disliking it because levels are abstractions, and then proposing ability score drains.

    Why? I can easily imagine a character saying that his encounter with a wraith "sapped me of my strength" or something similar, whereas I'm not sure how he'd explain a level loss, unless, as suggested above, it represented amnesia or something similar.

  12. One thing I did with Level Drain, before 3e came along and sorta copied me, was to allow the undead to decide if it was going for a 'quick-kill' or slow sinking-in of the level, and the PC to decide if he was accepting or fighting off the undead's drain. The undead drain then took +/- it's HD +/- the Character's Level in Hours to affect the Character. 0 or less and it was immediate. If the negative levels swirling about a character ever equalled (or more) that character's level, Bang, Frak I'm dead.
    At the end of the duration of the drain, the PC made a save (vs. death ray at -1/ 2HD of the Critter) to shake off the effect. Fail and lose a level (Not actual memories, but weakened muscles, organs, 'lifeforce' etc. that resulted in a loss of combat effectiveness and ability to cast/channel spells).
    It worked quite well. The drama of having 4 levels 'swirling' around the 8th level fighter going into the final battle with Strahd in Ravenloft was quite entertaining for me. (and the players, though they'd never admit it.)

  13. Yet it bears noting that ability score and HP draining are more permanent than level draining, as gaining levels is easier than gaining these other items.

  14. Levels = an overall gauge of one's experience, steadfastness, and ability to deal with a dangerous world.

    Level drain = life-changing trauma. The kind of thing you have flashbacks about for years afterward, that affects everything you do--and it takes months or years to become anything like the person you were (i.e. regain those levels).

    Call of Cthulhu has Sanity points. D&D has level drain.

  15. I like level draining as is and would never grant a saving throw against it. Just like gaining hit points by going up a level is an abstraction, so can work level loss through the touch of negative energy monsters. I'm cool with it.

    Still, here is another option to consider: instead on a complete level loss, why not have undead knock off a random number of xp per hit? Weaker HD level drainers could instead drop, I dunno, maybe a couple hundred xp per hit, while something like a vampire could cause a character to lose in the thousands of xp per smack. Just a thought.

    Word Verification: Comacist. "Momma said knock you out!"

  16. I use permanent loss of Hit Die, rather than the entire experience level. In some ways it's nastier; you can gain experience and get the level back, but only powerful clerical magic can restore life energy that has been ripped directly from a character.

    Good point about saving throws and mechanical consistency. I'm tempted to allow a save vs. Death (Seems most appropriate, and clerics usually have one of the better saves against it, making it doubly so.)

  17. It had never occured to me prior to reading it on this forum, but the idea of having experience point drain instead of level drain is a really good one that I may implement in my campaign.

    A 1-level drain could be 4,000xp.
    A 2-level drain could be 8,000xp.

    Each subsequent hit by the same undead in the same fight could cost twice as many xp, so if you get hit once by a spectre you lose 8,000xp, the second hit takes 16,000xp, and the third hit takes 32,000xp.

  18. Level drain is kind of clunky as it can require recalculating HP and spells and a host of other things. Also it creates the "if everybody is level0 one wraith means an army of wraiths" what 3x calls Specter bombing

    Its not worth the trouble.

    being a generous type I use Taint, which functions as level drain in that if you reach L0 you turn into undead however it doesn't actually lower anything. Just as scary but less permanent.

    This taint can be removed with rest and time and sometimes holy water.

  19. The biggest problem with the level draining energy drain is the paper work. It can be a pain to alter the sheet to reflect the change in level. Of course with less complex old-school games there isn't that much paperwork to do so it's not as big an issue to me.

  20. Level Drain as an attack might be better phrased as life drain. It saps the life from the defender and their will to continue surviving (in this case surviving is fighting).

    Draining the life in this case is represented by the loss of HP.

    Draining the will to live is insidious and is represented by the decrement of attack and saving throw numbers.

    That is how I've always viewed it and justified it.

  21. I've always taken it as sort of a withering, life-draining attack.

    In the past I've allowed saving throws and interpreted it as a way to age characters.

    Depending on the severity of the attack a character could grow twenty years older and lose 1d4 on a random attribute, explaining that INT goes down from senility, CON means you're not as healthy, CHAR from looking old an haggard with shocking white hair, etc.

    I've also allowed a strong RESTORE or Greater Healing spell to reverse the process, but always at some sort of cost.

  22. I was going to argue about this but got preempted by your leading with a reference to my own writings. Foiled!

  23. I hardly ever use level draining undead. I have used vampires a good bit in the past, but I don't have vampires do a level drain. They just don't seem "negative energy" creatures as much as wraiths and others.

    As I'd like to do a campaign against Tegel Manor some time next year, I suppose I need to think on this.

    I for sure don't think high level characters should be more afraid of undead than lower ones, but they are as the rules stand.

  24. Why? I can easily imagine a character saying that his encounter with a wraith "sapped me of my strength" or something similar, whereas I'm not sure how he'd explain a level loss, unless, as suggested above, it represented amnesia or something similar.

    "Suddenly ... I'm not half the man I used to be..."

    As stated by others, levels = life force, fate-heaviness, heroism. You get them through experience - but they are not the experience.

    I guess what doesn't make sense, then, is the loss of XP together with those levels. But that would make for really cruel outcomes. Imagine ending up at 2nd level and needing 24,000 xp to make third ...

    That would be an argument for having level drain be temporary, or curable by spell.

  25. Energy draining is not a "deadly" attack, it's the WORST attack a D&D player can face in his career.

    It saps the very essence of the game: gaining experience and becoming stronger.

    I would rather have my character die than losing 4 or 6 levels. Period.

    Nevertheless, it makes most undead terrifying foes, and so they should be. That's why I never bothered to explain the reason for level draining. Who cares? It just happens. After all, why does the Medusa's gaze petrifies people?

    As I'm not a cruel Dungeon Master, I tend to offer a few ways to recover lost levels to my players.

  26. I don't think level drain is scary but just plain sucky. It nullifies your previous success and imho is a cart-load of unfun.

    In 3.x I changed level drain to permanent negative levels - you'd get -1 (to rolls & effective character level) per neg. level until you somehow remove them. Even with the house rule, I rarely impose it on my players and I'm not completely satisfied with it. Heck, I don't really even know what it is supposed to represent. Your magical soul or lifeforce leeched away?

    I'd probably represent that with a condition (weakened, drained, dead) or just make it negative levels that are temporary and heal naturally. I'm also all for ability damage.

    If I wanted good-scary and not suck-scary, the foul undead creature may be replacing the drained character's "essence" with his dark, corrupt "essence" (ie. soul, lifeforce, chi, negative energy, astral waves, whatever). The putrid stuff could have psychological effects (changing alignment) or maybe it animates the character after his death. The chance could depend on the amount of corruption.

    One other possibility that comes to my mind is taint from L5R. It's like the above corruption but infectious and advances on its own.

    Slow path to inevitable doom is IMO scarier and more fun than losing your rewards (ie. xp).

  27. JackFool said: Level drain = life-changing trauma. The kind of thing you have flashbacks about for years afterward, that affects everything you do--and it takes months or years to become anything like the person you were (i.e. regain those levels).

    This is it exactly and links in very nicely with why characters lose levels for changing alignment (DMG p25, for those that have forgotten that one) - that sort of crisis undermines confidence and all the things that allow PCs to have levels of ability far beyond ordinary people. Visions of the unending death of the undead get under your skin.

  28. I see it similarly to stealing the life force out of the characters.

    The undead has stolen a portion of your life,
    you're less potent/experienced/powerful.

    I guess you could also have a similar effect
    by aging the characters.

  29. Except for stats, which at least begin as a function of chance, the rest is up to the player to gain, maintain and even lose. If though play, I can lose my money, gear, repuatation, even my life, what makes levels sancrosanct?

    Although I don't mind giving players means of redress for the loss through saving thows, restoration spells, and the like, Levels and XP are just one more valuable resource for the player to gain, and lose at their own risk.

    And just what is a level anyway? In my setting, a PC's level is the embodiment of their experience, reputation, and more importantly, their own personal legend. Isn't that the whole point for level titles anyway? As a PC ventures and gains XP, they grow, and the growth is not just concrete, but metaphysical and life-affirming. It's that growth: physical, mental, and spiritual that makes characters bigger, better, and harder to kill.

    Level draining erodes that growth and power until there is nothing left, turning itself inside out and becoming the opposite of life-affirming (undead).

  30. Level Drain is flat out idiotic as it stands in D&D, and I've felt like that since I started playing D&D over 15 years ago. No game I've ever played it/DMed has EVER used level drain as is. Actually, that's not true. We used it in several ways. One way was to use it almost as is, but make it TEMPORARY. Another way we used it was to have it drain attributes (most often CON), but still, that was TEMPORARY. I forget the "healing" parameters we used for level/attribute drain back then, though. I once heard from one of my players back in the day that someone made it permanent hit point drain, and I remember thinking that was even harsh. These days, I'd probably go with this last option, come to think of it...anyway, that's all I've got...

  31. An interesting aside, I was rereading the Basic rules recently (Mentzer version I believe) and noticed for the first time under the description of the Heroism potion that level draining attacks remove these temporary levels before affecting the character's levels themselves, making the Heroism potion a good source of protection against such undead.

    I had never seen that before and not sure if it is something that was carried over in other rulesets.

    I believe a save should be allowed. If you want to keep the fear level up, adopt the 3e version as another poster mentioned, where you do not make your save until later, so are not sure if the level loss is permanent or not.

    I still go back and forth between actual level drain and stat drain, so this is a very interesting discussion for me.

  32. I'm with Le Baron, mmaranda and others on keeping level drain as is and the reasons for it.

    I recall OG on rpgnet (Mike Monard?) also chiming in how level draining undead were the most feared monsters from the beginnings.

    I'd suggest NOT changing it to experience points. While precious, a few experience points change in magnitude as characters level. If a wight drains 1000 xp, that means a lot more to low level adventurers than higher level ones. For my tastes, the undead should stay feared and not dismissed.

    Regarding ability point loss: for those that do decide to have ability drain, don't use strength. Depending on your edition, there are items (Gauntlets of Ogre Power, Belts of Giant Strength) that simply set your strength to a value thus negating the drain.

  33. @Harvicus - the Rules Cyclopedia has the same description for the potion of heroism, but it isn't useful for the elf, cleric, magic user, mystic or thief!

  34. I don't have a problem with level drain as it stands. That said, I also see no reason that level drain must be the only way undead affect their victims. It needn't be tightly bound to undead, as a category. Instead, some undead level drain and some might affect the PCs in other ways, like Con drain or whatever.

    Monsters and their categories are just tools, to me, not rules. The infamous and dreadful vampire, Lord Valos, might drain levels. His vampire-bride might drain Con. Another vampire might drain levels but grant a save. Whatever works for the kind of threat I want to present. No need to lock it in with "undead no longer level drain," or "undead do level drain."

  35. No need to lock it in with "undead no longer level drain," or "undead do level drain."

    And of course it all boils down to the Golden House Rule. Rule unto others that which is best for your game and your group.

  36. Level Drain is flat out idiotic as it stands in D&D, and I've felt like that since I started playing D&D over 15 years ago.

    Some of us started playing over 30 years ago. Not that it matters.

    Level drain makes sense, if you want to emulate the sword and sorcery genre. Case in point: pick up the Savage Sword of Conan comic book anthologies, to see how dangerous the undead are.

    Here are two suggestions. 1. Announce to your players that, from here-on-in, undead will drain levels. 2. Sit back and gleefully watch as the players go to extraordinary lengths to avoid being hit by the undead.

  37. I don't like the D&D concept of a "level" because it is a contrivance of the game mechanic. However, I do see a real world rationale for the "level dreain" by the undead. To reduce level drain to any sort of a"life energy" or hit point drain is a cop out to make things easier on the player. Part of the problem is that D&D war gaming reduces everything to a set of gaming stats and the Monster disappears along with much of the story in role playing. Thus, we lose the undead as alien beings. Skeletons and Zombies become fantasy equivalents of security robots, Ghouls become fast attack corpses, Vampires, blood addicts, and Liches are often reduced to powerful wizards. This kind of monster devaluation takes awayfrom the aliennness and inhumanity, not to mention evil, or a threat that these monsters would represent to humanity (both moral, ethical and spiritual culture) as well as the species if any such creatures had actually existed. Character levels in D&D measure levels of adventuring skills way above those of the average people in the D&D. If average men is a "zero level character" to quote Gary Gygax, and if an army of men at arms in a D&D world would include mostly zero level men, a few would be considered first or second levelfighters, VERY FEW would be third level, fighters, then ANY player character would be the elite of the elite, especially if they have over 10 Hit Points. However, if any player character is a highly skilled professional, than that performance is closely tied to the character’s mental state, much like the ability of Olympic athletes to perform at record setting levels. Furthermore, Gygax himself acknowledges that there is a psychological, spiritual and luck component to Hit Points, anything over 8 or so hit pointspossessed by a zero level man. In D&D world certain beings are alien, monstrous and predatory. In our world, all predators are animals or other humans, but in D&D world you have things that are ALIEN to human sensibilities, and we can only speculate what a contact, never mind combat with these beings will feel like. In our world we don’t even have intelligent animals or aliens to speak with, never mind aberrations, outsiders and the undead creatures. That aspect, the fantastic and the alien gets lost in most D&D games.

  38. @Red: Actually having undead remove EXP as compared to levels may be a very logical change/houserule. The trick is to have more powerful undead remove MORE EXP. Just as a 1st level character isn't going to be able to withstand getting bit by a bulette, he shouldn't be able to take a smack by a vampire using the drain=EXP points model. I personally am a fan of having the amount removed be variable, giving the undead monster the chance to do less or possibly even more EXP damage than with the current system.

  39. Except for stats, which at least begin as a function of chance, the rest is up to the player to gain, maintain and even lose. If though play, I can lose my money, gear, repuatation, even my life, what makes levels sancrosanct?

    I absolutely agree, which is why I'm always slightly reluctant to discuss this matter at all. I don't think the existing rules for level drain are "un-fun." Rather, I think they feel needlessly artificial and am considering ways to make them feel less so, either by changing them or tweaking them.

    But, yeah, I don't see levels as any more sacrosanct than magic items a character spent a long time acquiring, etc. A character can survive without them and, while losing them is a setback, it's not an irreparable one.

  40. When a person gets traumatized emotionally, first thing that person loses is their ability to laugh and sense of humor. Now, consider that higher undead beings somehow feed on human spirit and soul in ways unknown to us. For a human being to encounter an evolved undead being would be a traumatic, faith shattering experience, and that same experience would be mortal to a normal person, who is not ready emotionally, mentally and spritually to withstand rigors of combat. Maybe it's the undead appetite, undisguised lust, hatred, predatory nature or the malevalence, or the partially successful spiritual assault on the character that causes "level drain". In the end the drained character loses faith and confidence, will to win and, and loses confidence to perform at their appropriate level, hence "level drain". Level Drain in our world: A journalist was once trekking to cover a war zone. He was guided by a young peasant boy sympathetic to the rebels. The journalist was experienced and had seen war before. Soldiers approached them, journalist hid in the ditch, the boy had to stay with his wagon. Soldiers questioned him briefly, talked into a walkie talkie to their superiors, non-chalantly and without any ceremony they shot and killed the boy, then talking casually among themselves, they pushed the wagon off he side of the road and threw the boy's body into the ditch. Accidentally or by design, the boy's body landed next to the journalist and sprayed blood and flesh over the journalist's back. Journalist survived, returned home, and for several months he was not able to work, as in not being able to produce any writing. He had therapy before returning to work several months later. This is our own mundane world equivalent of the level drain.

  41. Level draining is far more terrifying than ability score draining because it causes the loss of something previously earned; not something given by luck of the dice. I'd use hit point draining over ability score draining, but I think that level draining does it's job just fine as is.

    It doesn't matter that explaining the mechanical effects of energy drain, if one chooses to do so, requires a certain amount of mental gymnastics: the emotional effect is exactly right. It is the worst survivable attack a character can suffer (only disintegration or something similar is worse) and something to be truly afraid of.

    Remember that the undead that have this power are also highly vulnerable to clerics. Even a 20th level fighter might hesitate to fight a handful of wights, in case of a lucky attack, but a mid-level cleric can turn or destroy them all with relative ease.

  42. And of course it all boils down to the Golden House Rule. Rule unto others that which is best for your game and your group<

    Whew! Thanks James V. Nice to be around open minded individuals, rather than places like the Dragonsfoot 1st edition forum where angry idiots say you are cheating if you change something. For a really fun game the DM needs an open mind before an iron fist. I have always lived my game life by the golden rule.

    That said, I like Philo's comment about variable affect undead. I think I would like to keep some as level draining, and others as having other (and arguably lesser) affects on foes.

    If you were running, say, Monsters!Monsters! for you D&D and the PC's were undead, you for sure could not start them out with a level drain. You would have that start weak (at 1st level sap 1-3 perm hit points, 2nd-3rd a stat point,) get stronger(4th both), then by 5th we can start talking level drain for your 5th level Wraith or dhampyre.

  43. I've always seen Level Drain as an aging effect as far as how it works on a naturalist level. The monster in question is literally draining life energy from the player character and the effectiveness of months or years of experience.

    When we think of 0 level characters as being normal people, a wight hitting one of them would leave us watching the poor victim shrivel up to dust as they were touched.

  44. It's also a pain to do the "unlevel" calculations for the level drained.

    A bit easier to call a level drain as a permanent wound equal to the HP from one level, and a -1 to hit per level drained regardless of the character class.

    But another Undead might drain CON. I could definitely see that.

    We already have a STR-draining undead: the Shadow. Those things are so harsh.

    I suggest NOT allowing a saving throw, or at least, make the save for a lesser amount of drain. That is, if the Vampire normally drains 1d4 CON, it should only drain 1 on a successful save. But I say don't use a save at all, because the monster already needs to roll to hit. That's like having a spell that you need to roll to hit and then the target gets a saving throw.

    Finally, a powerful Energy Drain plus defense against mental and biological attacks are what make Undead powerful. They're balanced by the Cleric's ability to turn them. If you reduce the power of the Undead, you'll probably need to either reduce their XP value when slain, or else restrict turning somehow (probably not more often than once per 10 rounds or something).

  45. Maybe a save to see if the drain is permanent, or if it'll come back in d-whatever turns/days?

  46. I think David's idea here is a happy compromise. Level drain as an immediate effect on success is an important aspect of maintaining the awe effect of undead. A vampire's ability to drain 2 levels with a touch is terrifying -- as it should be.

    But if each level came back after a week of rest -- and characters still became undead if they reached 0 level -- it would still have the desired effects without too much sadness on the part of players. That timeline would prevent them from just "resting them off" during an adventure as they have a timeline to meet after all, while allowing some flexibility.

    One could also have "village cures" that lead to quests for ingredients etc.

  47. One thing that is hard to model in RPG mechanics is irrational fear. (Aside: All my life I’ve wondered why ghosts—and I’m talking generally, not “in D&D”, here—are depicted as intangible and unable to cause any harm yet people are supposed to be scared of them.) Level-drain does that. The players play fear that the characters cannot logically justify. That’s my naturalistic explanation. (Or explanation for why a naturalistic explanation isn’t needed.)

    Yes, there are alternatives, but I like the way that level-drain does it.

    To cut down on the paperwork aspect (and perhaps a bit of the “unfun” feelings towards it), I plan to treat it as an XP deficit. The character keeps his level, but they must re-earn the lost XP before progressing further. I haven’t had an opportunity to test that out yet.

    Ideally, I never will because the players won’t let it happen.

  48. "Life Energy Levels" are referenced in the original Star Trek episode "Operation: Annihilate!" Spock gets a reading on life energy levels on the planet, which rather appeals to me.

    I also think the concept of "life energy" is a fundamental aspect of the Dungeons & Dragons universe, marking out the hero from the common man.

    that any part of a character can be attacked, his level no less than his attributes, hit points, and fighting ability, as well as increased, also appeals to me.

    I have used a saving throw in the past, and record experience point loss as part of level loss, and found there was little additional benefit in the former. Certainly, some less potent undead or other creature might have a version of the attack that does allow a saving throw, but variety of attack forms is good for the game.

  49. I personally have level-draining undead sap hit dice (and the corresponding hit points), Strength, Constitution, and [rarely] Wisdom instead of experience levels. I came across this idea in Dragon #126 ("A Touch of Evil"), which suggests replacing energy level draining attacks with a number of alternates.

    To this end, I usually have incorporeal undead drain Strength or Constitution, and corporeal undead (like vampires) drain hit dice. I like the effect of draining the vigor, the health, or the "very life force" without the requisite loss of the other level-related benefits.

    Since we use the house rule of re-rolling all hit dice when a character gains a level, the loss of a hit die can be a real bugger (since the loss is permanent; a 6th-level fighter who loses a hit die only rolls six dice when reaching 7th level!).

    However, I also allow the restoration of these losses by a sufficiently-powerful cleric's magic, or by undertaking a quest, and so on.


  50. ""As soon as the door was closed, however, the mask fell from her face, and she sank down into a chair with a great sigh, and hid her eyes with her hand. When I saw that her high spirits had failed, I at once took advantage of her reaction to make a diagnosis.

    "She said to me very sweetly, `I cannot tell you how I loathe talking about myself.' I reminded her that a doctor's confidence was sacred, but that you were grievously anxious about her. She caught on to my meaning at once, and settled that matter in a word. `Tell Arthur everything you choose. I do not care for myself, but for him!' So I am quite free.

    "I could easily see that she was somewhat bloodless, but I could not see the usual anemic signs, and by the chance , I was able to test the actual quality of her blood, for in opening a window which was stiff a cord gave way, and she cut her hand slightly with broken glass. It was a slight matter in itself, but it gave me an evident chance, and I secured a few drops of the blood and have analysed them.

    "The qualitative analysis give a quite normal condition, and shows, I should infer, in itself a vigorous state of health. In other physical matters I was quite satisfied that there is no need for anxiety, but as there must be a cause somewhere, I have come to the conclusion that it must be something mental.

    "She complains of difficulty breathing satisfactorily at times, and of heavy, lethargic sleep, with dreams that frighten her, but regarding which she can remember nothing."

    Bram Stoker, "Dracula" (ch 9)

  51. I would point out that level drain is a logistical challenge like any other.

    In a campaign that features level-draining undead (and opportunities to encounter them!), the fair DM would also include the capability of securing the services of a 16th level cleric to cast a "restoration" spell.

    Thus, it's not so much a way of "ruining" someone's character by draining a level, so much as temporarily knocking them down in power, and thus requiring them to make a judgment as to whether or not to continue in the dungeon, and in the process permanently draining off not hit points, but tens of thousands of gold pieces.

  52. Annihilate!" Spock gets a reading on life energy levels on the planet, which rather appeals to me<

    And I suppose we should not forget good ol' DragonballZ with it's energy level reading devices, and later the power to read those levels. The power readings in that world were made up of ability to generate "chi" energy (for those cool energy attacks) the actual physical strenght and agility of the individual, raw combat ability, and their ability to take a beating in general. Hmm...sounds kind of D&Dish, no?

    Energy levels ranges from 10 (zero level human?) to millions (100th level characters?).

    Thinking of my old dumbass DBZ love, I start to have renewed faith in the level drain rule. Makes more sense to me in that context.

  53. Thus, it's not so much a way of "ruining" someone's character by draining a level, so much as temporarily knocking them down in power, and thus requiring them to make a judgment as to whether or not to continue in the dungeon, and in the process permanently draining off not hit points, but tens of thousands of gold pieces.

    Very much agreed.

    As I said, I'm terribly reluctant to open up this topic for discussion in some ways, because, by and large, my reservations about level drain have more to do with extra-mechanical matters rather than any sense that there's something inherently "unfair" about the mechanic.

  54. If you wanted to keep level drain but add saving throws, one thing you could do would be to graduate the effects of the undead based how badly the character misses their roll. For example, a character who misses their saving throw by 1 might flee the encounter in terror and be unable to return of their own free will for xD6 number of turns. A character who misses by 2 or 3 may flee in terror AND lose 2 points of their primary ability (STR for fighters, DEX for thieves, etc.) for a week (or whatever duration.) A character who misses by 4 or 5 might lose an attribute permanently. Character who miss by more start to lose levels. This way the undead still retain their ability to drain levels, but there is an element of randomness to it.

    Another interesting effect of the undead might be to have the character save or shift alignment towards a more chaotic and/or evil alignment. (Paladins, Clerics, and other classes with strong faith in their alignment may be exempt or have a better save). I'm still toying with this but it could represent a state of despair and loss of faith after a nasty encounter with the undead.

  55. Well, I can't speak to the question of having a saving throw (other than to point out that it's sort of contradictory when contrasted with your own second point of naturalism).

    But on the point of naturalism, the Bram Stoker quote I gave before was intended to give something of an answer. The idea of vampires (and, by extension, other undead) "draining energy" must come, as so much of the lore of the vampire and the vampire-hunter, the cleric, from the novel Dracula.

    What does "draining a level" mean in naturalistic terms? Well, it means a decrease in energy. A persistent lethargy. A spiritual malaise.

    Call it a psychological more than a truly physiological effect if you want, but in a game that posits that one can "gain levels" by having experiences that demonstrate one's acumen in fighting, problem-solving, and taking money that doesn't belong to you, I don't find it too much of a stretch to accept the reverse, and that certain experiences can take those "levels" away.

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  57. This is something I've been contemplating - as my players are getting into the levels where it's certainly possible for them to run into the Wight Stuff (as it were) - and I've always, personally, kind of loathed level drain.

    I've been tossing around various alternate solutions - permanent (and/or temporary) hit point loss, stat loss (different stats for different types of undead/extra-planar beings), alterations to abilities (the thief's mild case of palsy - the result of a Wraith's chilling touch - gives her a permanent reduction in Pick Pockets and Disarm Traps rolls, the soul-blight left on the cleric by a vampire's seductive ways has removed some of his allotted spells, etc.), but I'm leaning, at this point, towards artificial aging (since we're using the age adjustment table from the DMG).

    I've not really settled on a system, but it would be weighted by race - so while Elves might be slightly less impacted by the touch of a Wraith than a Man would be, both would be hit by an approximately equivalent level of aging - the decade that the human Magic-User loses would be equivalenced by centuries of aging for an Elf, and decades for a Dwarf (while an Orc might only age three years or so).

    And yeah, I'm thinking that a saving throw would be appropriate (for half-aging?) in most cases - but this is again, my personal dislike for "you just die. No save, you just die" effects - my personal opinion is that there should nearly always be a chance for a save. In some cases, it might not make a difference (Ancient Red Dragon vs 2nd level Fighter - you get a save, but it's for "pile of ash" as opposed to "charcoal briquette"...).

  58. The original idea of level drain made players very scared of undead with this ability. Note that I specifically say players rather than characters because the fear is that will have to redo all the hard work they undertook to get where they are. This gives the level-draining undead an effect much greater than perhaps intended. Whereas many players would unhesitatingly battle a devil from the lower plains (that might, perhaps, be excused for being able to corrupt a character more), they will give second thoughts to attacking a wraith.

    Besides, it's not really much fun, for the players or the gamemaster to have them go to all the effort to build up the character again.

    But what is the overall intention of the level drain? In my estimation it is to reduce the effectiveness of the characters. A form of enervation that saps the élan vital in their presence.

    So I think the best way to handle it in D&D, and your opinion may vary, is to simply consider it a cumulative negative penalty on the character attempting to do something. [And yes, this does make it more effective against magic users than fighters, but fighters are supposed to be tough and robust.]

    For stuff that doesn't require a roll you can also reduce the character's effective level when attempting to access abilities such as spell casting. This is easily explained by the fact that the character cannot readily muster the concentration to access the higher levels of magical thought necessary to cast the high level spells.

    But the most important thing is that the effect is temporary. It should begin to start wearing off once the characters are no longer in the presence of the undead. It should completely wear off after a walk in the sun, a good meal, and a decent night's sleep. Good companionship and bon homme is an excellent way to recuperate. Celebrating life, if you will.

    Another decision you can make is as to whether this effect is cumulative or not. There is plenty of arguments that can be made to say that level-drain may only have a set effect, and that multiple level drains inflicted on the same person won't have any additional effect. You might want to bump up the effect (depending on the general player levels in your campaign), if you use this method, but it is really something in keeping with the heroic nature of most sword & sorcery characters.

    Because it is temporary, you can also use both effects for an "undead aura" in a place. Whereas if you announce to players that they have permanently lost a level by entering a place, they might get ever so slightly upset.

    [to be continued]

  59. [continued from before]

    Of course, not all level-drains represent the same thing, and you should probably treat them differently. For example, I've always considered the blood loss from a vampire's drain to be effectively CON damage,* and limited it to one point a night (how much blood can you drink?) They can still level drain though, but it's by letting their undead nature overwhelm the victim. However they are less effective at doing this than a wraith or spectre.

    Most characters are actually killed by the undead's physical attacks (you might need to allow a wight to actually do damage in this case), after the level drain has effectively incapacitated them. You should probably have additional effects if the penalty becomes large enough, such as being fatigued/exhausted/rendered unconscious (level/twice level/thrice level). One nice touch is that being heavily drained by undead could turn your hair white [wight? (sorry)] overnight.

    I should add that I don't usually allow saving throws against the touch of the undead, as the defence of this mechanic is simply not being touched.**

    Another alternative for players of later editions is to treat it as a "soul poison" and use the poison rules. This is probably a good approach for handling specific secondary effects.

    [* Not quite true, since I consider CON damage to be actual physical damage to a character. For instance actually running someone through with a sword will do 1d8 CON damage, rather than simple hit point damage (which seems to be more of a measure of luck and ability to avoid taking damage through skill.experience). Instead it takes CON nights for a vampire to convert a victim (and if the drain ceases for a night, one is added to the number of nights needed until it is back to CON nights and the character has fully recovered).]

    [** As a norm, characters get to defend against most things, which is the purpose of the saving throw. However this also requires the character to actually do something, such as diving out of the blast radius of a fireball (or hiding behind a pillar), to get the saving throw (even if it is just actively resist the invasion of their mind). If they just tough it out, that's what their hit points are for. Then again I have a dislike of unavoidable instant death effects and never use them myself. Even a poison with no antidote needs to be applied in some manner. And it's much more fun to have it be a slow poison that allows the player to respond appropriately once they have realised their fate.]

    [My apologies for the length of this two-parter comment. I may of gotten a bit more enthusiastic than I intended. But I like undead. <grin>]

  60. I couldn't get rid of it personally - though Robert Fisher's 'experience debt' is really neat. The only change I've made to undead attacks that I thought worthwhile to keep for a while was to apply a curse spell to those unfortunate enough to be at the business end of the undead instead (no save) - this penalty cumulative with each hit and subject to remove curse.

  61. My crazy non-level drain related penalty of the moment.

    If the character is successfully attacked by an energy draining creature, give the players a temporary morale score that may decrease with successive attacks, and failed saving throws. Getting attacked by a wight not just damages the body, but chills the soul, sapping a character's courage. Even if the players want to delve deeper, they quiver at the thought. There's just no guarantee that the next fight won't break their nerve, sending them fleeing in terror.

    I kinda like the idea of an encounter with foul spirits turning a doughty party into a group of quivering shell-shocked survivors.

  62. w2: "Remember that the undead that have this power are also highly vulnerable to clerics. Even a 20th level fighter might hesitate to fight a handful of wights, in case of a lucky attack, but a mid-level cleric can turn or destroy them all with relative ease."

    I run in the other direction with this one: This in particular is among the numerous reasons that I ban clerics from my games. Why you'd want to work to make undead so fearsome, and then give one class a specific unique ability to no-fuss-no-muss insta-destroy them, truly perplexes me.

    So, I feel that one needs to commit to the bit with this one. If undead are supposed to be scary with level-draining, then they have to be horror-movie no-nice-way-out really-honestly-scary.

  63. For me, the biggest disconnect is clerics losing levels to the undead. It's kind of like the cleric's gods are playing mind games with him:

    "Go and destroy the undead, even though in so doing you'll get less and less good at it. Not only will you be less able to turn the undead, we'll give you fewer spells, too. Godspeed!"

    Another consideration is that there are only 4 types of undead in old-school D&D that drain levels: spectres, vampires, wights, and wraiths. A referee having second thoughts about level drain could simply not use those four monsters. There are lots of other undead he can use:

    sheet ghouls
    sheet phantoms
    coffer corpses
    sons of Kyuss
    Carcosa mummies
    mummy brains
    unquiet worms

  64. I agree with Delta about clerics' ability to turn undead. I like what Gary wrote in the original version of Necropolis:

    'Priests and Priestesses have no extraordinary ability to affect the Netherrealms creatures and beings, spirits, Unliving, Undead, and Unalive in this game system. There will be no mumbled prayer followed by a "Vaporize!" or "Shoo!" removing dangers such as these foes in this tomb! Naturally, clerical personas wield many instruments which are amongst the Susceptibilities of these sorts of creatures and beings, but there are no givens ("gimmes") here. Be sure to keep this in mind--and to gently remind players of this too, if they are veterans of game systems which make this sort of fell minions of Evil light-weights to be brushed aside with the wave of a sacred object.'

  65. Some interesting replacements for level drain could include a pool of XP that must be made up before you start gaining XP again towards leveling. Reduction in a key stat as many discuss. A Permanent lost of a hit point per touch. The level drain itself could be a curse that the PC’s have to get removed.

    I think saving throws are a good way to go as well. Just because it gives some characters a better chance to deal with these devils. So then there is some preference on who wants to be near this cold evil thing in the room. So it isn’t one of those every man for himself sort of things.

    I am one of those DM's that like my players buried in lingering handicaps and adversity vs. sudden death. It builds character.

    I always imagined that the level drain was the creature ripping out your life force and memories with it. It is a cruel mechanic. Hit Points are not just a measure of something hitting you physically, but also your stamina and spirit slowly being worn down. The level drain is an obvious punishment in terms of the system mechanics. In that levels are a beneficial part of the game, why not would there be a creature that preyed on this?

    But, not exactly a fun one for anyone involved. I know I had moments of feeling bad about killing a few folks this way, or their character ending up a lot lower level then their comrades when it was over. At one point I toyed with the idea of an entire party drained of levels and turned into wrights continuing their adventures; now questing to restore their place among the living.

    Later editions of the game have maintained the fear of the Wight but reduced its threat of really messing you over in the long haul of a campaign. The dirty word (4e) zaps healing surges from PC’s per touch. I think there are other ways to make it more interesting without it being one of those really harsh moments without the laughs. We all know it’s funny to fall from a cliff in the course of some dumb stunt, but not so funny to perish when you shake hands with the clammy guy hanging out in the basement of the castle.

  66. Energy drain is doing Constitution damage in my games. Constitution modifies hit points, so that is closest to 'life energy' or whatever you call it.

    Energy drained individuals lose overall health and die if their last portion of life is drained. (Constitution reaches 0.)

    Depending on the form of the drain, the health loss can be as subtle as being tired in the case of vampire seductress or as brutal as feeling your lungs rotting away in case of a wight.

    In game terms, it's easier to track lost maximum hit points than hit points, thac0, spell, special abilities, saving throws and all.

    So it might brake the old school feeling, but makes book-keeping easier, which is always a plus.

  67. On the primary subject, I often think of levels as being similar to RQ Power. It is a representation of the character's strength of soul and spirit, of the life energy that the character feels flowing through him. Loss of this is a matter of intense psychological depression (to use modern terminology) or "soul theft" (to call it by a semi-traditional "shamanic" term).

    Mechanically, I mandate that there must be some equivalent to the Cleric spell "Restoration" available to alleviate the losses, making level drain into yet another drain on character resources. I'd suggest a house rule that only one level can be drained from a character by a single undead figure per day (which fits the genre if one considers Dracula to be a part of it). I might also allow for a saving throw (but a successful save simply means that the undead figure gets another chance - a save won't protect you for the rest of the day!), as that could also fit the genre conventions. Or it might not. Different undead types already have different effects than level drain available (mummies have their disease curse; shadows, if they are seen as undead, have their strength drain; ghosts age the victim unnaturally; and so on).

    For those who find level drain to be "un-fun", I suspect that you and I have different ideas of what constitutes "un-fun". That's fine, of course, but Old School fun is a different sort than you are having, I think.

  68. What is the 4e solution?

    While I'm asking, I'd like to mention that the energy drain matches the mythical description of both the vampire and the succubus very well, IMO. I can see an argument that the lesser undead should or could have a lesser effect than the vampire and certainly the JRRT barrow-wight seemed to have a draining effect which simply wore off if the victim did not succumb.

  69. I and my group always hated level draining. We found it decidedly un-fun. We also disliked instant death. None of it's heroic. A good death is sad, but makes the game exciting. Bad deaths make players drift away to other games.

    There are a great number of alternative ideas here, thanks everyone. Personally I avoided those four level-drainers when DM'ing, unless prepared with nearby temples to restore the levels, at the cost of the vast majority of available treasure in the dungeon.

    But I truly like all these alternatives, and will have to give them some thought. Thanks!

  70. What I dislike about level drain AND attribute damage is introducing multiple "damage tracks". I prefer to keep hit points as my sole damage resistance pool. Of the three kinds of undead attacks -- level drain, attribute drain, or aging -- I prefer aging. For a very small number of monsters -- vampires and succubi, mainly -- I might give them an additional attack that is basically just a permanent wound to the soul, with three successful drains equaling death/loss of soul. I'd allow a save against this effect.

  71. I was typing quickly this morning, and so would like to amend what I'd said in the mechanical "house rule" options I mentioned: limit each undead to one successful level drain, of however many levels is appropriate to the undead, per day (instead of one level, as I originally wrote).

    As for Restoration, since I am looking at S&W Whitebox for my next campaign, I will probably make it a 5th level Cleric spell (after all, it should be no more powerful than Raise Dead).

    Baron Greystone: One of the things about the Old School perspective on heroism that I like is that a character is not guaranteed to be heroic. It requires skillful play to make it as a hero. It is quite possible that the character may be the sidekick, the tragic loser, instead of the hero of the story. But even more, since the "story" comes from after-the-fact rationalization, heroism is a matter of the telling. That is to say, the events of a game, like those of life, are stochastic. On that meaningless array of events, we are free to impose meaning, or story. In that active creation of meaning, we can create heroes as we are inclined to do. Me, I don't want a game to tell me, by fiat, who is heroic, I want to be an active participant in my understanding of heroism.

    HaHA! Theory. </Phil Sebbin>

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  73. I never liked level drain. I always drain CON instead, when I'm GM. Why should I all of a sudden be somehow less skillful at swinging a sword or forget my spells just because I got hit?

    A save never occurred to me, but having to quest to find the ingredients for the correct restoration potion was an adventure that wrote itself.

  74. Some mechanics truly do make the characters more the cannon fodder than the hero.

    Did you ever run a solo player who wasn't playing an Elf up against Ghouls? There is a good chance your campaign just became an outtake from some modern torture horror movie. As the beasts slowly nibble his paralyzed flesh hit point by hit point to nothing.

    And I am not against monsters that players avoid and loath. Its just that now I'm obsessing over why Level Drain? It is a mechanic, fair enough. But, if I wanted to mimic the devouring of the living life force. I wouldn't use this mechanic. Since level in many senses is an abstract concept of life experience and skills. I can buy the event being so horrific that it causes lost of confidence in your abilities.

    The only way it does make sense to me in some ways. Is that a character is usually converted into an undead if killed in this fashion. On that thought, then the level drain represents their very personality and self being devoured. So that the husk eventually rises as the undead. And as they say in the movies, "That is not your Fighter! Not the man you knew. He is dead. That thing is not him."

    I can buy that level drain as is measures up to the challenge of the game. I just have to wonder if it is the right mechanic. The large amount of house ruling listed here makes it obvious many people like to deal with it in other ways.

    Also the threat depends on the style of play. A campaign with lots of retainers make this a bit more trifle for players. Throw some henchmen at it to absorb the fearsome effect.

  75. fauxcrye: What if XP and Levels measured something like Mana, instead? That is, it is a measure of the potency and "successfulness" of the character, not experience and skill, per se. Would that make the energy drain make more sense?

    As for the house rules here, that's largely due to tweaking the basic mechanic into something that fits more precisely what we are hoping to simulate. The idea of Mana is why I want there to be a save, and the desire to simulate something like Dracula is why I'd limit the amount drained per day.

  76. Level drain is a direct attack on the players' work - their investment in the game. I think that's why it causes such fear. FWIW I'm inclined to make levels much more obvious inside the game world - have them written on the characters' skin, like kill marks or notches on a whaleman's iron. And these obvious marks could be effaced by the wight, perhaps because it takes them backwards on their own personal timeline. Perhaps the attack of the wight is infantility.

  77. richard said: "Level drain is a direct attack on the players' work - their investment in the game."

    That may be so, but then so is taking anything at all away. Charging characters taxes, tithes, tolls, etc (to draw on a famous phrase from early gaming) is taking away from their work and, in fact, giving them nothing back in return, not even the vicarious thrill of fighting against a terrifying monster. It is, however, necessary for the sort of fun that happens in an old school type of gaming environment (to do otherwise will cause the characters to become too wealthy far too quickly). Character death is taking away from the players' work and investment in the game, but the threat of it is necessary to make the activities of the characters heroic.

    Sure, we could sanitize the game, cushion the players and their characters from the potential consequences of their actions. We could have a game in which we worry first and foremost about what will make the players happy at every moment, instead of happy over the course of the game. Some games do that, but they aren't old school games. One could make an argument that this denatured sort of gaming, where the risks to the characters are only as real as the players are willing to let happen before they walk out, was a significant part of the change between what we see as Old School and Modern gaming styles. Having the risks be mostly outside of the control of the players is a part of what makes the heroics of their characters more valid. It makes their decisions more real and immediate, rather than just something that furthers the predetermined Heroic Story.

    The argument, as I see it, between Old School and Modern play is one about where story originates. Modern play believes that events derive from the story, and so, presumably, story originates with the players (and GM). Contrariwise, Old School play sets the origin of story in the events, developing from the (as I mention elsewhere) stochastic events of play, upon which the observers (largely the players and GM) can impose an after-the-fact story developed from a rationalization of those events.

    Is either way "better"? I doubt it, in any objective sense. But if one is looking for an Old School type of play experience, one must overcome the tendency to assume that a character deserves to be a hero just by the fact of the player sitting down at the table and grabbing some dice. In Old School play, as I understand it, heroism is something earned, not granted, and this makes it more precious.

  78. Geoffrey said:

    "Another consideration is that there are only 4 types of undead in old-school D&D that drain levels: spectres, vampires, wights, and wraiths. A referee having second thoughts about level drain could simply not use those four monsters."

    I think that's an important point. Those are pretty powerful creatures. Low level characters shouldn't be encountering them and high level should be able to retreat safely until they can come back with some Negative Plane Protection (UA, Cleric 3) and ranged attacks. It's the mid-level that's dangerous, but even a fifth level Cleric gets NPP and a decent chance to turn Wights and Wraiths.

    Yes, it's unfortunate that the mechanic is uneven (going from Thief 4 to Thief 3 is much less of a loss than Ranger 10 to Ranger 9), and maybe that should be evened out... but my gut tells me that a lot of the general disdain for level drain is from bad planning (i.e. charging into a group of wights for hand to hand combat).

  79. New to this place but figured I would chime,

    I recall, a long time ago, running it as:

    - a negative xp bank equal to 1/4 the old level with four semi-perma effects:

    --- a single hit point penalty and
    --- a -1 to all to-hit rolls
    --- a -1 to all non-spell damage rolls
    --- a -1 to all die rolls for spells

    Those extra effects were non-cumulative.

    No new xp could be earned until the the negative xp was earned back and once the negative was earned back the penalties would disappear.

    Kept record keeping minimal, retained a healthy sense of 'fear' in the players and didn't leave anyone feeling like they had just wasted weeks of gameplay.

  80. @ Faoladh, I'll respectfully disagree with your conclusions about what makes old school gaming. Since that's my era, I can say that we had both short and long term consequences, what makes participants happy is subjective rather than era-dependent, and the stories were planned out in advance. (Although individual events might not be, and end results might not always have been as expected.)

  81. Miscellaneous thoughts:

    "Did you ever run a solo player who wasn't playing an Elf up against Ghouls? There is a good chance your campaign just became an outtake from some modern torture horror movie..."

    Yes indeed, within a year or so of my getting the Holmes Portown adventure. Although I think all the other solo adventurers I ever DM'd also died or got imprisoned.

    The level-drain mechanic did provide my friend Paul with a great jumping off point: Making an elderly wizard PC for our 1st-level game, formerly high-level but drained to the edge of death, haunted and pursuing lost glory.

    I suppose if you were looking for alternate mechanics you might go in the direction of "if the undead brings you to zero hit points, no recovery or raising is possible, come back as undead". That would be moderately scary if you're used to having negative hit points and raise dead available. Possibly boost attacks otherwise to make up for the immediate tactical loss. (I'm not in favor of stuff much more complicated that.)

  82. I've always used AD&D level drain as written and didn't acquire UA until very late so once those levels were gone, they were gone and no spell could restore them.

    Level drain is painful for players because, unlike stat drain or equipment, which are resources acquired randomly or through treasures edited by DM choice, experience (and levels) are neither random nor moderated, but stem from layer upon layer of player choice. Level drain erases the consequence of dozens of successful player choices over long periods of time. It is the un-fun.

    As a DM, though I used level drain "by the book" it was frustrating on two levels:
    1.) Players began behaving differently because of game mechanics. In a low/no resurrection game, they'd step up to battle after battle, but turn craven in the face of a wight.
    2.) A successful drain broke the flow of play. The party is in show-down mode w/ vampire overlord. He drains the MU. Play stops. We recalc HP, saves, available spells. Play resumes. Vampula tags a fighter two rounds later. Play stops. We recalc again... it's like a little bit of 3E has snuck into the mix ;)