Friday, February 5, 2021

Random Roll: DMG, p. 119

The Dungeon Masters Guide devotes three paragraphs on p. 119, right before the descriptions of magic items, to "Energy Draining by Undead or Device." When my eyes came across this section, I knew immediately it'd be worth examining. The matter of level drain remains one of the most contentious topics in all of D&D and AD&D, right up there with alignment in terms of spawning debates and disagreements, even after more than forty years. I've touched on this topic several times previously and in those instances it generated a lot of comments, suggesting people have strong feelings on the subject. I've personally never had any real issues with the rules as written, but, even so, I remain keen to see if there are details and nuances about it that I might have missed.

Gygax begins his discussion of this topic in the Dungeon Masters Guide by stating that "when a character loses a level of energy, he or she loses an experience level," adding

he or she loses hit points equal to those gained with the acquisition of the former experience level (including bonus points for constitution), all abilities gained with the experience level now lost, and experience points sufficient to bring the total possessed to the mid-point of the next lower level. 

What immediately strikes me is that the drained character only loses half the XP between the previously earned level and the new, weakened one. I can't recall ever seeing that rule before or, if so, I'd long ago forgotten it. In the years since, I've always docked a drained character all the experience points earned between the previous level and the new one. Thus, a 5th-level fighter struck by a wight would drop down to 4th level and 8001 XP, according to my scheme, while Gygax says that the fighter would have 13,001 XP. Apparently, I've been doing it wrong all these years. I think this takes a little of the bite out of level drain, though probably not enough for dedicated opponents of the mechanic.

That first paragraph goes on to say

If this brings the character below 1st level of experience, then the individual is a 0 level person never capable of gaining experience again. If a 0 level individual is drained an energy level, he or she is dead (possibly to become an undead monster).

This is fascinating to me for what it might imply about a metaphysical distinction between ordinary, 0 level people and adventurers. Does Gygax mean to suggest that no level 0 character can ever gain XP, or does this apply only to characters who formerly had levels above 0 who drop down to that level due to energy drain? He doesn't clarify the matter, unfortunately. 

On the matter of multi-class characters, Gygax explains that the drain always affects the class with the highest level or, if they are equal, the highest experience point total. In the case of an energy drain that steals two levels, one level is taken from each class (at least in the class of, say, a fighter/magic-user; presumably a character with three classes struck by a spectre loses one level each from the two highest classes). 

Gygax also elaborates on the matter of "lesser undead controlled by their slayer/drainer." He explains that, in most cases, "each has but half the hit dice of a normal undead monster of this type." However, in the case of vampires, the situation is somewhat more complex.

Lesser vampires have but half their former level of experience with respect to profession (cleric, fighter, etc.) at the time they initially encountered and were subsequently slain/drained by their now-master vampire, i.e., an 8th level thief killed by a vampire, even though drained to below 0 level in the process, returns as a 4th level thief vampire, as appropriate. However, upon the destruction of their slayer/drainer, such lesser undead gain energy levels from characters they subsequently slay/drain until they reach the maximum number of hit dice (and their former level of class experience as well, if applicable) appropriate to their type of undead monster. Upon reaching full hit dice status, they are able to slay/drain and control lesser undead as they once were.

Though not directly relevant to the overall question of level drain, I found it intriguing nonetheless, since it makes clear how differently Gygax viewed vampires from other undead. As a younger person, I noted that nearly every vampire to appear in a AD&D module had character levels, a possibility noted in the Monster Manual but whose details were never fully explicated until the DMG.


  1. Half-strength undead (created by spectres, wights, and wraiths, as well as vampires) are a very interesting phenomenon, with info split across the DMG and MM.


  2. I recently went through Richard Snider's Additions in Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, and was intrigued that wraiths do not paralyze with their Touch (as per Chainmail) but rather drain one "Life Energy" point per hit.

    I suspect that Gygax ran with this, and wish that I knew a little more about any connection between the two.

  3. Level drain was built into an easy-come, easy-go game - so easy-come there needed to be a rule about not gaining more than one level in a session. It shouldn't really hurt *that bad*.

    When I see people talking about long periods of hard work destroyed in an instant by level drain, more discussion often pulls out a bigger story about how a "hard-to-gain" DM who liked silver standards, realistic treasure, low magic, and slow-burning campaigns paired that dynamic with a level drain mechanic calibrated to the opposite of that.

    A DMing style of changing rules does not, unfortunately, gatekeep for the ability to think beyond 1st order effects. But players suffer for it.

    1. I think you might be on to something with your “easy come, easy go” idea. I got into D&D early in 1990 with AD&D 2nd edition and my kneejerk reaction to level drain has always been something along the lines of, “No! Kill it with fire!” Looking back with the benefit of years of experience both playing and DMing, not to mention a working knowledge of the history of D&D that I most certainly lacked while AD&D 2E was the current edition, and I can see how 2E in general and how I learned to DM 2E played a major role in shaping my dislike of level drain.

      Specifically, I focus on how unlike all previous versions of the game 2E treated the idea of 1gp = 1xp as an optional rule that wasn’t even pointed out in a side bar unlike most other optional rules in the 2E DMG. It was just a small, easily missed paragraph at the end of the group XP section of chapter on experience in the DMG. Consequently, I never used it as a DM, and when I got to college and finally got to be a player (instead of the perennial DM), none of the DMs I played with ever used that rule either. As you can probably guess level advancement with only story award XP and defeated monster xp was slow. We’d run campaigns that would last for the school year and generally see only two to three levels of advancement by the end of the campaign, which makes level drain (even just the 1 level variety) a pretty hefty penalty.

      Now had I or any of the DMs I played with ever awarded 1xp for 1gp of treasure back during those campaigns and as a result the rate of level gain was significantly accelerated, I have no doubt that I wouldn’t have been quite so scared of level draining undead as a player or quite so hesitant to use them as a DM.

    2. How XP is gained does really color how level drain is perceived. I think there is corollary with how highly deadly monster's need a campaign with easily available resurrection magic. Another factor is how infrequently people end up playing - if you're playing once a month it feels like a bigger step back than if you are playing once a week.

    3. AD&D characters get gobs of XP for finding magic items, and they level up fast. I played 1E for the first time in a very long time recently, just to refresh myself on the system, and I ran a small group through module T1. I was amazed to find that by the end of it, everyone had gained at least one level (two for the thieves) and were 1 XP shy of the next level because they had run afoul of the one-session-one-level cap, something that practically never happens in Basic D&D.

    4. Right...many people refuse to see AD&D as a rube goldberg machine where everything is interconnected; they want to see it as a box of legos - random game mechanic widgets they can mix, match, and change on a whim.

      It doesn't quite work like that.

      Unstated at the beginning of AD&D is "You, the DM accept my premises. There is room to fine tune the game on the margins, but if you reject my basic premises the major systems won't work together very well"

  4. I've always liked he idea of the e ergo drain but I find that its execution is a bit dull and abstract. I'd rather have so,winning which withered the soul or body of the victim and have toyed with charts to handle this.

    Interestingly if you look at BX there are several slight differences in comparison with the DMG.

    For the wight Moldvay sticks with the idea that you enough XP to leave you halfway between levels, but Cook takes you all the way back to the XP at the start of the lower level (See entry for Spectre. The entry for wraith says see spectre).

  5. The players at my table encountered a Wight last night. I handed the Monster Manual to the two players with cleric characters and told them to read the entry for Wight to themselves. I could tell when they got to the part where level drain was mentioned, because their eyes got big and they looked up at me.

    "Shit just got real," I said. "This is old school D&D. Deal with it."

    They did, but one of the clerics lost a level. And they'll get it back at the end of the adventure when treasure is divvied out. The player will live.

    Ultimately, level drain is a stakes raising element. It puts skin in the game, and it adds consequence to action. It makes being in the front line against such monsters meaningful and courageous, and rationale for being higher on the pecking order for choice of treasure when it's divvied out, and so on.