In Defense of Level Drain

The always-interesting RPGPundit has a post over at his blog that takes aim at the level-drain mechanic. I was going to reply there, but my reply became so long I figured I’d turn it into a post of its own. While I agree with the main point of his post (that nostalgia for its own sake is not necessarily a good thing), I’ll take a stab at defending the level drain mechanic. Specifically, he says:

But let’s think about this: is there anyone who actually LIKES level-draining no-save monsters? Really?  I think no one really likes these. Its stupid. Its not a clever mechanic, the kind of risk it creates is not an exciting in-game risk (like poison, or attribute drain, etc), but rather something that steals away your accomplishments.  Its a hassle for GMs too, to put these monsters in the right amounts, knowing that if things go badly one of them can seriously disrupt your campaign… or end up doing fuck all.

I would argue that level drain makes a lot of sense in the type of campaign that was prevalent at the beginning of the hobby, and which has made a comeback in certain corners of the OSR. It’s a perfect embodiment of the logistical challenge-type game, where difficulty in the dungeon is assessed (roughly) by how deep one is and succor is available for a (high) price. I speak of course of the megadungeon-with-nearby-settlement game.

For example, a group adventuring on level 7 of a dungeon, which is suddenly decreased in experience level from 8 to 6 by wights, has gone from being slightly overpowered for the level to being slightly underpowered. This represents an unexpected logistical challenge that the PCs will then have to overcome; do they go back to the surface to regroup, move to a higher (= less challenging) level of the dungeon, or do they press on, knowing that they’re now somewhat outclassed? In that sense, it does indeed add to risk in the game.

Bear in mind, too, that level drain is no more permanent in such a game than is character death. How is losing a level any more “stealing away accomplishments” than losing an entire character? Level drain is, in such a game, an opportunity to skim large amounts of g.p. from characters (by hiring a cleric to cast the spell restoration), just the same as character death is relatively easily solved by hiring a cleric to cast raise dead or resurrection. Such wealth-draining opportunities are a time-honored tradition of the game.

Now, in a more modern-style game, where encounters are more individually tailored (and which are more often arrayed sequentially to further a particular plot), it may well be that energy level drain becomes a problem, although I might argue that, even then, it becomes yet another challenge to be overcome.

I would say that it presents more of a problem in games where ready access to high-level spell casters willing to be hired to cast spells such as restoration and raise dead is not necessarily a given. But again, how is losing a level any worse than losing a character? In that sense, level drain is a much preferable alternative to death. Does losing a level seriously disrupt a campaign any more than killing a character by poison? In a game where restoration spells are available (even if they are very expensive), the answer is no.

It’s one thing to say that level drain doesn’t work logistically in a plot-driven game. It’s quite another to say that it doesn’t work in *any* style of game. It works well as a mechanic in the type of game I run, because it fits in with the other mechanics around it. So yeah, I like level drain, but not for the sake of nostalgia or atavism.


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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

16 thoughts on “In Defense of Level Drain

  1. Well, there's an idea. Give players whose characters have been hit by a level-draining monster an option: lose the level, or have the character die. See how many take the "death" choice.

  2. I never liked level drain as I could not accept the logic of losing skills (as opposed to attributes). Kudos, though, for a well reasoned defense of the idea – it's forcing me to rethink my views on the subject.

  3. I do not like level drain.

    If my character gets killed, I get to roll a new character. That's cool. I honestly don't mind when my character gets killed. I get to make something new.

    If my character gets crippled somehow (i. e., loses 3 points of strength), that too is something new. Now my character is new and different, so that too is fun.

    But if my character loses some levels, it is not new. Instead, it is "encore". My 8th-level character is now 6th level? Then I have to re-tread the same old ground I did in getting him to 8th level. I have to repeat. THAT is what I don't like.

    In a nutshell: I like NEW things happening to my character. I do not like to have to RE-DO things with my character. I would rather roll a whole new character than have to re-do some levels with an old character.

    (Of course, others like level drain, and I am perfectly fine with other people liking something that I do not.)

  4. My problem with Level Drain is . . . "wights."

    The whole idea comes from our own real world mythology. There was this "fearsome" castle which was home to a "vampire."

    It was NEVER home to a Vampire Lord, six "lesser" vampires and their forty-two "vampire spawn." I doubt a city with the population of New York could survive such a vampire community for long.

    Every time I play — as opposed to DMing — the DM throws countless such Undead at us, sucking our "levels dry," or just outright killing us via Level Drain.

    I don't like a game where there are a "dozen" wights — all in the same room — waiting for the adventurers. That's not "adventure," that's TPK, plain and simple.

    For me, that's not a fun game and those types of gaming experiences have put me off of the whole "Level Drain" idea. Level Drain is seldom used with discretion. It's almost always "over-kill."

    But that's just me.

  5. My 8th-level character is now 6th level? Then I have to re-tread the same old ground I did in getting him to 8th level. I have to repeat. THAT is what I don't like.

    I don't think you read my post carefully, Geoffrey. Nothing says that level drain is permanent. It lasts only as long as it takes you to find a cleric to cast restoration.

    You may be powered down while you're still in the dungeon, but the challenge comes from making the decision whether to keep exploring and then return to the surface or escape immediately to find said cleric.

    Mystic Scholar: Sounds like you don't have a problem with the mechanic itself so much as how a particular DM applies it. You could say the same thing about just about any mechanic in the rules. Everything is open to abuse by a crappy DM. Don't blame level drain specifically for that.

  6. Joseph spot on about the logistical challenges level drain allows, and let's not forget that they have an impact on the battle while it is happening as well. Usually characters are full strength until they are dead but with level drain they can be weakening and less effective as the fight progresses, which is awesomely dramatic and nail-biting.

  7. Joseph, I forgot to mention that I do not include the Restoration spell in my regular games.

    We occasionally play for a change of pace a game of Gygaxian OD&D (i. e., the 1974 rules plus Supplement I: GREYHAWK), in which case we include both level drain and the Restoration spell, so your point is well taken. 🙂

  8. I see the game rationale for level draining, but the nitty-gritty math of de-powering a character is a pain.

    In my Fantasy Core rules, energy-draining takes away experience points, but leaves the character intact. It does take away the immediate danger, but means it's going to take a lot longer to level up again. At 0 XP, your character is either dead or a thrall to an intelligent undead type. No Restoration spells.

  9. I like your point on how level drain is no more disruptive to the long term campaigne then death. Also there is little diffrence between a TPK from wights with level drain and vipers with poison.

    However I have never understood how to quickly handle level drain, (I should go check the ADD rules on it) generally it seams difficult to figure out where all your abilities are at. Although this is likely because I handled level drain more frequently in 3.x where you have to figure out what spell and feats and BA and ect you have now that you lost two levels.

    If anything I said is inaccurate, remember I said my problem is I don't understand two to handle it.

  10. I support level drain. I made a comment on the thread Pundit made that was also on this topic, but I'll reiterate (though I paraphrase) here:

    I like it, but you must limit it. I don't have every hit take a level, but I might take a level from every character depending on how many are actually attacked.

    This keeps all the conventions in place without having your 8th level nerd pounded down to 1st level after getting hit 8 times by a vampire in a 12 round melee.

  11. For level drain I've been borrowing negative levels from 3.x. Drained characters don't actually lose levels, they instead take a -1 penalty to attacks and saves, lose 5 max hp, and lose 1 spell slot, starting with the highest level. The penalties remain until the pc gets a Restoration and the pc dies if they ever have more negative levels than actual levels. Just as, if not more, deadly than a standard level drain, but the perception of getting drained is less annoying since having an applied penalty helps the player remember it's only permanent until they pay a cleric to heal them.

  12. I like level drain and I like no restoration of the drained levels except by extreme rare magic – like Wishes.

    It makes players fear Undead in a way that their characters should.

    And if the alternative would be "death without chance of resurrection" then energy drain is actually a mild and reasonable design decision.

    That is, the monster needs to roll to hit to energy drain you. It's like having a dragon breathe on you and it doesn't need to roll to hit but you get a save. If you require an attack roll plus the victim gets a save, that weakens the monster considerably. Especially against high-level players. But with Undead draining on a hit, high level PCs are even more scared of Undead because they spent so much effort to gain each of those higher levels!

    Of course as a player we think "oh no that's unfair, etc." but we'd say the same thing about an NPC M-U casting Forcecage or Sleep that neutralized a PC without a saving throw. But PCs use such magic with impunity. What's good for the goose is good for the gander. If players can gain access to awesome abilities, why not give some monsters terrifying abilities?

  13. Anyway, the Undead should be scary and players should think twice about tangling with them. An Undead monster of 6 HD is NOT just like any other monster of 6 HD. It's scarier than even a Hill Giant or something. You pop open the door and see a Hill Giant, maybe you think, "yeah we can take some damage but we're cool". But if it's a Spectre you're going to think "dang even if we win someone's gonna lose a couple levels." And while the Undead treasure is usually good, is it worth it?

    Ideally, players spot some Undead and they slam the door shut and run for it even if there isn't a save vs. fear.

    That said, Undead still aren't an impossible challenge. You could Fireball and Magic Missile them into oblivion. You might get lucky and have them miss their attacks. Your Cleric exists to fight Undead and to heal you and swing a mace when he's not fighting Undead. You really have a lot of tools to use against Undead. It's just up to the players whether they want to make the choice to fight that monster.

    That is to say, the game is designed (with encounter tables and such) that players who attack everything will fail pretty quickly. This isn't Final Fantasy where you just hold down "attack" until the victory music.

    So what if the Wights have some treasure? Or they're guarding a thing you want, or a lucrative shortcut, or one way down to the lower dungeon? It's still up to you whether you fight them, and how you fight them. You should back off so only two can attack your frontline Fighters at once, and everyone pelts them with spells and missiles while the Undead all burn under holy water and flaming oil. If you just stride in and let the Wights all surround you and beat on the M-U in the back, it's kinda your fault for poor play. Maybe the next character you roll up with be played smarter and have a better chance of survival.

  14. If you're using level drain as part of an intentional TPK, you're a crappy game master. If you're using level drain as a punishment for stupidity or as an adventure hook, you might be in the right track.

    It all comes down to "why"…

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