Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Level Draining Sucks

Yeah, it's Halloween, so I figured it was a prefect opportunity to focus on the undead and their much-feared ability to level drain.

I've always thought that level draining was a particularly unfair game mechanic, since it robs the characters of hard-earned expereince levels in a "cheap" and arbitrary way.  It's entirely possible that a high level character could lose expereince that took years worth of play-time to aquire.  Especially when if that character is fighting creatures that drain multiple levels at a time.

Needless to say, this violates the "Rule of Fun", and leads to player resentment.  It's the sort of thing that could easily cause players to just quit playing altogether.

Yes, a Restoration spell could restore the lost levels, but it's not exactly easy to find clerics with access to level 7 spells... 

A 1st edition cleric doesn't get access to restoration until 16th level, and it will only restore 1 level per casting.  A 2E cleric can cast restoration at level 14, but it ages him two years to do so (although it also restores all lost levels, not just one per casting).

I don't know about your campaign, but in mine top-level clerics are pretty damned rare, and they're not exactly happy to have adventurers bugging them unnecesarily.  Especially if they're asking for something that's going to shave a few years off of their natural lifespan.

Needless to say, getting a restoration spell for your character is a monumental challenge, and he'll be feeble and weak until he can make it happen.

And this is assuming your character survived the encounter in the first place.

Because level draining drains levels, you lose hit points for the attack, AND hit points from the level drain, AND class abilities, AND proficiencies, AND spells every time you get hit, so your combat ability goes down much faster than it does in a typical combat.  God forbid you're up against something that drains multiple levels per hit.

Which brings up one of the WORST things about level draining... the book keeping.  It's a royal pain in the ass to keep track of every level bonus you get when you level up, and then you've got to subtract all of that stuff and recalculate for every single hit. 

And if the DM didn't keep meticulous records, he's going to have to fudge it, which makes players even more unhappy, becuade they stand to lose more than they would have otherwise.

What a fucking pain in the ass!

When a game mechanic kills the fun for player and DM alike, it probably needs to be shitcanned.

It's particularly bizarre that energy draining (ie, experience loss) is not an really an ability that is associated with undead, especially vampires.  Vampires might drain enough blood to leave you feeling crappy, and they might leave you with some side effects, but if the vamp dies, the victims usually recover just fine.  The notion that a vampire would punch you and all of a sudden you've forgotten the last few years of your life is NOT a part of any vampire myth.

As near as I can tell, the energy drain concept comes was inspired by Tolkien's Ringwraiths, who inflict a kinda-sorta similar malady on those who come into contact with them (the Holmes version of the D&D game flat out states that Nazgul would be considered spectres in case you needed a more explicit connection).

And you know what?   I have no problem with them taking some inspiration form Tolkien.

But I do have a problem with the fact that they greatly exaggerated the effects.  Unlike the horrendous energy drain of the D&D game, the Ringwraiths affliction is easily cured by Aragorn using some herbs he found.

And it's worth noting that the Ringwraiths were not random, wandering monster-grade chumps, like D&D spectres.  No, the Nazgul were Sauron's elite death squad.  These guys were incredibly badass by the standards of Middle-Earth.

So the fact that they had a much weaker energy drain is particularly significant.  Yes, the Black Breath was lethal if left untreated, but it least it was a slow death that gave the character's some time to come up with a cure, and it didn't require 14+ level clerics to magic up an antidote.

Likewise, the barrow-wights were not nearly as dangerous as the D&D wights.  They made the hobbits sleep, but they didn't drain levels, or leave them permanently incapacitiated.  In fact, after Tom Bombadil rescues them, they turn out to be completely uninjured.

To make matters worse, though, this dodgy level draining mechanic was applied to all kinds of undead, not just the wights and spectres.  The crowning moment of excess is probably RQ2- Thoughts of Darkness, a module which features vampire Illithids and a boss vampire that drains 5 levels at a time.

Amazingly, the energy drain mechanic survived for 30+ years before it was removed from 4th edition D&D (probably the only thing they did that I agree with).  The current 5E playtests appear to be tinkering with it in a more limited fashion.

I have long been a proponent of ditching the energy drain completely.  Undead can be plenty scary without having to resort to "cheap" special attacks that screw the players over in an unnecessarily ruthless manner.

Vampires, for example have super-speed, super-strength, the abilities to fly, shapechange, charm, spiderclimb, turn into mist, and command creatures of the night.  They also have resistance to normal weapons, special immunities, and regeneration.  And immortality.

That's plenty scary and plenty dangerous without adding a "screw-you" mechanic like energy draining.  All you have to do is treat the vampire as an NPC instead of a stupid grunt-level monster.  Seriously... if you can't scare the player with all of that, you suck as a DM.

Likewise, you can change the abilties of other energy draining undead to make them a little more player-friendly without sacrificing their scariness. 

Wights for example, could inflict wounds that can't be magically healed, and take double the time to heal naturally.  This makes them a serious pain in the ass, but it makes it a more manageable threat and it doesn't kill the mood like the energy drain does.

Or hell, just bump up the wight's damage.  There are a lot of ways a creative DM can tackle the problem.  The important thing is to remember that the game should be FUN.

                                                                  Happy Halloween!


  1. Me and the Mrs were talking about this today, as you do, and wondered if it would work to make the level drain temporary in some way. An affected character loses hit points, spells, and fights at the new lower level. But this drain of life effect is reversed with 8 hours of rest and some good food (kinda like some business meetings I've been in) Not tried this approach - but its the best we came up with

  2. That's certainly a less painful approach for the players, but it still has the hassle of rolling back all of the level bonuses, and the record keeping nightmare that entails.

    That was why I suggested getting rid of it entirely and just adjusting the monsters on a case-by-case basis.

    Take wights for example: The wights in "Game of Thrones" are plenty scary without having energy drain. They're almost immune to normal weapons, and they are terribly strong and come in great numbers. Their only real weakness is fire.

    This allows them to still be plenty scary (they're a sort of super zombie), but it makes it much easier for the DM by eliminating the paperwork involved with level-draining.