Tenkar's Tavern is supported by various affiliate programs, including Amazon, RPGNow and Humble Bundle. Your patronage is appreciated and helps keep the lights on and the taps flowing - Your Humble Bartender, Tenkar


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Looking for Alternatives to "By the Book" Level Drain

I'm using my time away from the hustle and bustle to brainstorm some possible adventure locations for my Swords & Wizardry Campaign. I've got an idea for an adventure that will feature some level draining undead, but I don't want to desiccate the party.

Some things to know:

- in the first adventure, my players / PCs inadvertently killed all of the heroes above 5th level within hundreds of miles. There is no one to cast Restoration for them.

- if they found a scroll of Restoration, it would be many levels above what they would normally hve access to.

- the party lacks a cleric (actually, both groups I'm running lack clerics - go figure). So undead will be even more dangerous than usual.

I've never liked level drain, either as a player or as a DM. I do like, however, the palatable fear it puts the players in.

So, have you swapped out level drain for other debilitating effects on your players? How has it worked in play?


  1. Withering/ageing is a workable replacement; it's permanent(ish) and ultimately fatal, but works on a different "axis" to levels. Depending on the setting, reducing your physical age might also be possible in a number of ways (more or less corrupt and/or dangerous).

    A good system to work out the effects of ageing, such as in LotFP, is a good thing to complement this with.

    1. We use aging instead of level drain in my group. It works quite well; my players are rightly-terrified of wights, and ever-watchful for fountains (or potions) of youth.

  2. You could do weakness.

    Something like 1 level of energy drain applies a -1 penalty to all d20 rolls. Restoration can fix it instantly but if you don't have access the clammy grip of death wears off in a week per "level" drained or day per "HD" of level draining monster.

    So you carry the weakness for a while but you can get better be taking a break in the village and resting between adventures.

  3. I saw a house rule somewhere that imposed a random (d4) drop in a random attribute per level drain and you acted as the level below from then on (not below level 1), this wasn't permanent and wore off in 4 weeks. Get hit a couple of times and this isn't very amusing. Have a stat go below three and something bad happens (i.e. strength below 3 you drop into a coma) not as debilitating or punishing as a real level drain, but sufficiently nasty and lengthy to effectively require an expensive magical solution if you have time constraints in your campaign. Can be even more painful if if you're using lots of skill checks against attributes.

  4. Level drain never made sense to me, since level is based on "experience". Ability score drain seems like a better method. Or a "max hit point" drain, like level drain but only lower the character's maximum hit point number (and current hp number if they are at max already). That will eventually lead to death and has a similar health effect on the PC without the stupid "somehow you suddenly forgot stuff you used to know" effect. Then you can still have some method for restoring that lost maximum (or some method for the characters to just reroll their hps and hope for better).

  5. The simplest solution is to have the level drain effect wear off after a set period, maybe 1d4 weeks. That actually brings it back to its origin (Dracula) where rest would eventually restore the energy (blood) that the vampire had drained from the victim. It's not so much a loss of *knowledge* so much as the loss of the strength to be able to do the cool things you were able to do before the unfortunate encounter occurred.

  6. Level drain to me always represented specialized memory loss - (e.g., muscle memory, etc.). You could do a sort of "effective" or modified level drain, where all actions are at the lower level (including limits on spell availability) and XP isn't technically lost, but the memory must be "regained" before progressing further (resting will not do this, only true activity will return), but the character's XP "memory" could be "restored" at an increased rate based on INT (e.g., 9 or below=normal XP rate, 10-12=2xnormal XP rate; 13+=3xnormal XP rate) before allowing the characters to continue their normal Xp progression from the point where they were drained.

  7. I generally use stat drain in place of level drain. Hits drain X of a specific stat. For recovery I allow an appropriate saving throw or roll-under stat check once every N days to recover one point of the drained stat. Of course you have to adjust modifiers as needed due to stat drain, so fighters might lose hit / damage bonuses, mages may not be able to cast high-level spells, etc.

    Stats of 1 or 2 cause serious consequences. A stat dropping to 0 is death.

  8. I've never used level drain. I think it's a laborious rule for an effect that should be relatively simple. In substitution I've used corruption points. Every time a PC has an encounter with a dreadfully evil, supernatural, otherworldly entity they can possibly acquire corruption. Get touched by a ghost? Speak candidly with a devil? Get bit by a vampire? Been carrying the One Ring for a month, or have you looked at the One Ring, or have you touched the One Ring? Each involves acquiring a corruption point. Corruption points are like anti-levels, in the sense that they can be applied as a penalty to any kind of saving throw when dealing with evil or unnatural things (undead!). If a PC gets as many corruption points as they have levels then they must struggle daily to keep their mind and personality intact. Succumbing to corruption means the character becomes an evil NPC of a type appropriate for whatever their last encounter involved.

    1. Keep talking, keep talking I'm still recording all this for theft ... I mean borrowing.

  9. Another recommendation for stat (preferably Constitution) drain-- I find about 1d3 for 1 level or 1d6 for 2 levels works about right.

  10. Good comments above. Someone a few years back had a whole list of level drain alternatives, so you might want to do some googling (sorry, couldn't find it myself).

    If it were me, there'd be three options:
    1 - Aging, for the reasons above. This seems more apropos for ghost and other spectral undead who scare people to death in folklore and fairytale. For vampires and their ilk, I'd instead use...
    2 - Prime requisites. A Fighter loses Str, a Thief Dex, a Mage Int, etc, the very source of their vitality. These would most likely regenerate after some time, but a fighter doing less damage, a thief with poor AC and dex based skills, and especially a mage who loses access to spells due to temporarily lowered int would all feel the pinch. All this without the resentment of levels lost, which is a real-time inconvenience and breaks immersion, IMHO. Finally, for special undead such as liches, I might use...
    3 - Vitality, specifically the ability to naturally recover hit points and spells. Unlike the above, PCs would have to slay the undead who took their vitality or get some clerical aid. This would provide a hook in itself.

    Best of luck!

    1. Ted great ideas the slay to recover rule could also be used with Patrick's corruption rule and other types of disability.

    2. Ted great ideas the slay to recover rule could also be used with Patrick's corruption rule and other types of disability.

    3. @Chris
      I always try to link a mechanical rule to some story hook. That's why I think 'Shields Shall Be Splintered' is the greatest houserule to come out of the OSR. It gives players agency, it makes for a great story ("I'd have been a goner if it wasn't for my shield!"), and creates a minor hook - i.e. find a new shield! 'Slay to Recover' from drain and corruption gives a similar type of feel...

  11. I'm planning on using d3 CON drain and a -1 on all rolls, per level drain.

  12. I used stat drain... also even the "sanitized" d20 version of level loss still scares the crap out of players - even if you strip out the potential for permanent loss.

    Also, this http://rpgcharacters.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/labyrinth-lord-uniquely-undead/

  13. First a shameless plug: You should check out my free adventuer over on my blog "Three Knocks at the Crypt Door" for some undead fun.

    Wisdom drain towards insanity and eventual NPC-dom is something I've typically used over level drain. I've done similiar with Constitution Drain (i.e. you've become so weak and feable you can no long even gather the energy to pick-up your sword) for the same effect.

    I once based a form of undead off the main badguys from Stargate Atlantis. Every successful attack had a 50% chance of healing them 1d6 hp and aging the character 1d12 years. The one time I ran a game, the players became very, very afraid of them.

  14. I've always replaced Level-Drain with HP-Drain. Damage dealt by a level-drainer leaves the PC weakened and withered, a former shadow of themselves. The Damage dealt cannot be recovered, essentially lowering their Maximum HP, until the being in question has been slain. Leads to some fun recurring villains and vengeance quests.

  15. Forget CON drain have it be CHA drain. Once one becomes an ennui wracked feeble nothing (CHA 0) evil spirits can overhwlem them and they become undead their feeble meaningless husk occupied by the undead spirit.

  16. I like level drain because it's almost like you have a monster that gives negative XP. It challenges the basic assumptions of the game (monsters give you XP) and forces players to reconsider how they approach it (probably by avoiding it).

    I like Pathfinder style negative levels. Make a Negative Level a special type of enchantment that gives you -1 to attacks, -1 to saves, and -3 max hp (or whatever). If you want a compromise with old-school permanent level drain, say that the negative level wont go away until you either cast Restoration or "pay an XP fine" comparable to a level.

  17. Well, you could just use the d20/3.5 negative level system that at least gives you a shot at bucking those negative levels at the end of the day. Just substitute a save vs Death for the Fortitude save.

    Yes, yes, I know I'm committing OSR blasphemy.

  18. I've decided to do XP debt. So when a wight hits a player they do 1d4x1000xp drain. After the battle a player took 6000xp in damage, they would remain the same level (because who the hell remembers the hit points they rolled and its just a huge pain in the ass), but they now have a debt of 6000xp and they cannot gain another xp until it is paid off completely.

  19. Level drain works fine the way it is. Have your players encounter an NPC cleric who wants to join their party or remind them their PCs can always take up farming or other safe professions.

  20. What Mark Thomas and Brett Slocum have said - Stat Drain.

    I would however modify this general statement by saying the Stat Drain should be unique to each major undead type. So for instance:

    Ghost - Ages PC when save is failed. Aging enough years reduces Stats.
    Wight - A mere successful touch attack reduces Dex by d4/touch.
    Greater Wight - Same but d6 or d8.
    Wraith - Stat drain is Str.
    Specter - Con.
    Vampire - Cha.

    Other considerations:
    -- hp loss from undead (non-weapon) attacks cannot be healed by CLW or similar low level magic and/or by low level clerics.
    -- Stat drain recouped with normal rest at 1 pt/hour or 1 pt/day or 1 pt/week.
    -- Certain powerful undead could cause permanent Stat drain unless Restoration magic was employed.
    -- Reducing a Stat to 0 causes the death of the PC and its immediate "resurrection" as an undead-thrall of the type that reduced said Stat to 0.
    -- Some undead types could drain more than one Stat simultaneously.
    -- Necromancers/undead Bosses might have Stat draining spells other than Enervation.

    You get the idea. It keeps the players guessing and makes for some creative solutions.

    For example: No cleric in the party? Wraith threatening to drain your Str? Quaff a potion of Bulls Strength and the Stat drain comes off the magical buff before counting against the PCs base Stat. Maybe an after-the-Stat-drain potion will "heal" the damage - DM discretion.

    Another example. Maybe those quirky "home remedies" really work for certain specific kinds of undead. Garlic against Vampire? Well, maybe it has to be (1st level spell) Blessed garlic, and it only protects against the Cha drain, or only gives a nice bonus to save vs Stat loss or...

    There are loads of ideas that get away from the lame and nearly impossible to adjudicate Level Drain accounting (how to keep track of hps, saves, skill points or non-weapon proficiencies, etc).

  21. I'm another DM who likes having level drain heal over time. If you survive the encounter, your levels will slowly come back. I use a shorter span of time, a level per day is fine, possibly requiring full rest or ministrations.

  22. I still use level drain. Sure, it can be a big pain, but it IS SCARY to players. :) I've found that unless the whole party gets walloped, the drained adventurers tend to recover their levels quickly because the whole party still gaining a lot of experience over time. The non-victims gain levels at a slower rate (due to doubling) so the drainee catches up again rather quickly. I think at the end of my CotMA game, all of the PCs were the same level despite the paladin and the barbarian getting level drained at some point.

  23. I haven't read all of the comments so I'm sorry if I repeat something already suggested, but how about going the CoC way and replacing level drains by sanity checks/insanities? Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque has OSR rules for those. It seems to be like a good fit, encountering undead could scar someone's mind!

  24. Life as a Ghoul ain't that bad. At least that's what Squidgy the Ghoul reckons. Undead characters have plenty of scope for role-play. That theme is continuing today in books and on screen.

  25. Also, OD&D and B/X both allow magic users and clerics to cast spells of any level when read from a scroll.


Blogs of Inspiration & Erudition