In Defense of Level Drain

I can’t believe I’m going to write this.

All my gaming history, I’ve hated level drain.  The idea that you would take away a character’s hard earned experience just never sat well for me.  First off, it was like you suddenly forgot how to do things you used to know how to do (this is especially worse in versions of D&D with skills or proficiencies).  Why does getting hit by a vampire make you forget abilities you had learned how to do?  Why did undead attacks make your memory worse?  Why does an undead’s attack steal your closeness to your diety (in the case of divine casters).  It didn’t make a lot of sense to me.

So why did I end up using it?

Then, as I came back to Old School games, I’ve read a lot of DM’s come out in defense of level drain.  At first, I was resistant to the idea, but my resolve began to weaken.  There were some good ideas, and reasonable rationales that made me reconsider where I stood.

Since I started to play ACKS, at first I was hesitant to let level drain work in a traditional fashion.  I even toyed with some house rules that would make it a bit like 3rd edition.  But, when the rubber hit the road, I kind of threw it out the window and just went with the rules as written.

In the most recent session (Session 16 actually) a hireling got level drained from level 2 to 1.  I was apologetic about this, but the player took it in stride and said, basically, at least it wasn’t a save or die effect that killed them.  This prompted a discussion among some of my friends, which led me to the odd position of defending this mechanic that I’ve always hated.

But this guy here will eat your soul. I think he loses something if he can’t.

There were a lot of concerns kicked up.  One was that level drain was worse than death, and screwed up a character worse than simply dying.  Also was the idea that if a character is close to leveling, they’ve effectively lost two levels.  Finally, another point made was that some people would do anything to get a Restoration effect for the drained party.

Ok, here is how I’ve come to think about Level Drain.  When a character suffers drain, they aren’t forgetting what they once knew.  Their entire essence is weakened.  Things that once came easily too them are now harder, if not impossible.  They’ve not forgotten how to perform a skill, or fight better, but instead, their spiritual reserves are now flagging and weakened, so they cannot perform tasks that once came easily to them.  Like someone suffering from a disease, depression, or other infirmity, they simply cannot do what they once could.  But, unlike a permanent debilitation, energy drain is something you can overcome by doing what you do anyway; adventuring.  You regain your confidence, you overcome the weakness that infected you, the harrowing fear of the death you faced and survived, and now return to the abilities you lost.

As to the other issues, here’s how I see it.

Back in the older editions, where there were no guarantees of being able to purchase spells, a dead character was potentially completely gone, unless the party had the means themselves to bring the character back.  So months of play were potentially wiped with a failed saving throw.  Even if you could get a raise, you lost a point of constitution.  This was an almost IRREPLACEABLE loss (barring extremely rare magic and items).  This could decrease your HP, system shock, and all manner of rolls (depending on which edition you were playing).

Comparatively, all you needed to do to overcome level drain was get out there and gain more xp.

In ACKS, you don’t lose Con when raised, but instead roll on a table.  When you come back, you can come back…wrong in various ways.  Your body may be whole, but your soul isn’t necessarily intact.  And you probably owe the church a quest of some kind.  Again, barring powerful magic, these effects are permanent.  According to the designer, most of the permanent ends to characters came from those who’d come back from the dead too often and were warped and twisted in ways that made them either commit suicide or retire.

You better hope these guys roll well… or else you’re coming back with a fish-soul or something worse!

With the way experience works in OSR games, the character who loses a level or two will regain their levels quite quickly, compared to their higher level companions.  OSR games already have Bounded Accuracy, thanks to not every level giving you a bonus to hit or saves, which means that characters of different levels can easily adventure together.  Your companions who are a few levels above you, need such a large amount of experience to gain a single level, that will easily see you back to where you were before the undead attacked you.  The only time this changes is when everyone hits name level and needs a constant amount of experience.  That will see the difference being fairly permanent, but levels after 9th often don’t provide as much benefit, usually, so while annoying, it’s not the end of the world (and far better than losing a character you’ve played for months or years).

An ironic side effect of level draining, at least in OSR games for earlier editions, since treasure equals experience, your drained PC will end up richer than his companions at an earlier level.  So if you get drained several levels, by the time you are ready for your domain, you will end up being able to afford a much swankier place than their companions can.

As to the Restoration effect is very high level.  In ACKS, it is not even a spell, it is a ritual, requiring lots of gold to perform (and with a chance of failure).  So much so, that low level characters are basically denied it.  By the time they had the gold to afford it, the hireling would be back up the level they lost (and possibly more).

I do agree that the fact a character does lose more than a simple level, depending on when they are drained.  That’s a big problem with design I think.  A character might be one experience point away from their next level, and when they get drained they are dropped much further than the PC who had only just leveled and was one experience over what they needed.

If I were to fix this, I might have a level drain cost 1d4x500 xp per level of the character drained.  So a first level character would lose between 500-2000 xp.  A fifth level PC would lose between 2500-10000xp.  A vampire, or any creature that drains 2 levels, would drain 2d4x500xp.  The downside to this is that at higher levels, level drain becomes less scary (a 10th level character faces only a loss of 5000 to 20000 xp per ‘level’ lost…annoying, but not nearly as frightening).

I do wonder what they will do in D&D Next for Energy Drain.  I doubt they will keep it, though maybe with Bounded Accuracy, they might.  We’ll see.  As a player I’d hate facing it, but if Save or Die effects are kept, which looks to be the case, things could be worse.

9 thoughts on “In Defense of Level Drain

  1. D. says:

    Yeah, I went with something a bit more 3E-ish (from what I understand since I’ve never played it) – a cumulative -1 penalty to Hit, Damage, and Save. Reading this, I really like your rationalization of what level drain is – so I might “re-introduce” it some other version of a “greater energy drain” so that I can have th best of both.


    • Wow, thanks!
      Out of curiosity, how did you have people get rid of your version of negative levels? And yeah, you are right, that’s basically how they worked in 3.X.

      • D. says:

        Two simple ways, I let Monks, Healers, and Tantrics heal it “mundanely” through essentially Chi-Manipulation (pick your pseudo-mysticism) and then the Restoration spell.

        So slightly easier to get rid of, but not much. Plus the “mundane” method had the chance of making it worse on a fumble. I did want it to be somewhat less of a downer to have happen – but still a major kick in the teeth and one that could not be ignored.

        I should probably write that up for all of the House Rules I’ve been adding to my blog…

        Oh, one other thing – you could only have ED up to your, well, for straight AD&D we’d say Constitution (I use Power, one of my two extra attributes). At that point you died and turned to undead – same thing if you died via damage with some ED. That was another huge limiter that made it a “get this fixed NOW” sort of thing rather than “big deal, I have a high Strength” sort of thing.


      • Cool, thanks for the details. Yeah, you’d want to get rid of it fast… if for no other reason than removing the damn negatives!

  2. PolaroidNinja says:

    When we did level drain we simply noted the percent of XP to the next level the character had attained (so if a character needed to gain 1000xp total to hit the next level and they had already gained 800xp, they were 80% complete with that level) and then gave them that percent of the last level they got drained to.

    It can be a little bit of math, but in the end you never end up with a character getting hosed on a level drain.

  3. […] Drain requires a Restoration ritual or a Lesser Wish. So it’s even more difficult (sort of) to get rid of than death or a […]

  4. […] all of your PCs to level up if they clear it out — plus some extra to account for PC death, level drain and hidden caches that they fail to discover. Too little treasure and they can’t level up; […]

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