Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Undead And Level Drain

I've been thinking a bit about the concept of Level Drain mostly inspired by a post on "A Horrible Night To Have A Curse" (you know, the site where Porkins is his Co-Pilot).

I've taken a peek through the internet as well and it seems that the concept of Level Drain has been debated and dissected and analyzed since Sir Fang roamed Blackmoor.

Since our campaign has revolved around the vampire Zenopus, undead level drain has always been in the back of my mind.

I like the concept of the draining of a life-force but the mechanical execution of it is quite the pain in the ass, not only for the players but for the GM as well (and we're playing a rules lite S&W).

Being touched by the undead has always been a creepy and detrimental thing - as it should be.  From Ghouls paralyzing touch, to a Shadow's strength drain to diseased Mummies.  Undead should strike fear into the hearts of players.  I know mine have had just about enough of Ghouls!

But when you get to Wights, Wraiths and Vampires we get into Level Drain.

Again, I have no problem with the concept of draining the life force from a character.  As mentioned in the link above there are plenty examples in fantasy literature (The Earth Sea Trilogy and the Wights and Wraiths in The Lord of the Rings), but in game it's a momentum stopper.  I agree with some of the criticism as it goes directly to the mechanics of the game (loosing character levels and all that goes with it).   There also doesn't seem to be much of a consensus on how to 'solve' this issue.

On the one hand these Level Drains or Life Drains should be deadly, feared and avoided, but mechanically in the game it's just too much work.  And for our campaign that has taken three years just to get to levels 4 and 5, it just might be too much to ask for the players to take.

So how to fix.

I've been thinking of changing the term from Level Drain to Life Drain but how should that be reflected mechanically?

A drain on Constitution?
It would make a character's Life Force practically the same throughout his career. Which may or may not be a bad thing.
How would you recover constitution?
Complete bed rest and one point per week?

A loss of the Character's Hit Die per hit
Hit Dice are a reflection of a character's Life Force.
When touched you loose a roll of the character's hit die per hit.
MU loose 1d4 per hit, fighters 1d8 per hit.  Gives them a little bit of a fighting chance.
These losses can't be recovered easily.  Maybe a remove curse spell for each hit die recovered, or restoration per hit die lost.

Drain on Constitution and Hit Die damage
A combination of both ideas that I kinda like.
Constitution can only be recovered at one point per week at complete bed rest.
Lost Hit Points can not be recovered until all constitution is recovered.
Loosing hit points can cause death but loosing constitution can turn the PC into the creature.

I don't know.  Does anyone see any issues with these ideas?  Have you tried some of your own solutions?  I'd love to hear what some others have to say.

UPDATE:  Another fantastic take on the concept of level drain and undead in general can be found over at The Other Side Blog here.
Exactly who you DON'T want to run into in some dark gloomy chamber.


  1. I did Con (and other stat drains) in several systems towards the fiddly end of spectrum, 3.5, C&C. It's fair. It's main effect is scaring high level characters (who have come to rely on large buffer of hitpoints) and adds new "managed resource" to higher level play where the amount of and plentiful healing make hitpoints not so scarce.

    In all systems I've had ghosts and their ilk drain strength. This is seems right and it impacts to-hit/damage and carrying capacity. Which are interesting wrinkles and potentially devastating without being instant death or as harsh as losing tens of thousands of xp. I wouldn't use it for vamps though. Vamps need something unique.

    Lot of movies 3 drains were needed for fang boy to enslave the damsel. So, get hit multiple times (possibly combined with some increasingly difficult save) character becomes thrall. To be freed only upon death of vampire.

    In my current campaign, characters reroll their hitdice (when resting/healed) and take the higher of that roll or current hp. So, now I really like idea of drains reducing total hitdice. These deep psychic/soul wounds do not recover naturaly. Like Frodo's Mordor blade wound.

  2. Hmm, permanent hit point drain sounds like a pretty good idea. It still carries severe consequences for the player/character, but is much easier to manage mechanically (and probably psychologically for the player!) than full level drain.

  3. Personally I really dig the idea of energy drain as aging, as hinted in this post. Sounds very pulp and appropriated to me, plus you can still have a Remove Curse spell to age the character back. The only problem I can see with this would be demi-humans longer life-span.

  4. Everyone seems to want to fix HOW energy drain works but no one seems to address fixing WHEN to use energy drain.
    I think most of us playing pre-4e rules see combat as an abstraction instead of a blow-by-blow. And since not every "hit" in abstract combat is indicative of a sword cutting flesh, not every "hit" by a vampire should mean level drain, especially if the damage die indicates a "1".
    I'm also in favor of a very pulpy or cinematic use of monsters, and taking 2 levels of drain every time a wight snags a fingernail on my fighter doesn't seem very interesting, or worse yet getting drained when the vampire in bat form lands on my wizard's shoulder.
    In a movie, novel, or comic, the scene in which the undead menace drains the protagonist involves the hellish horror grabbing our hero with both fleshless hands, a blank yet oddly penetrating stare from it's empty eye sockets, the overwhelming stench of the grave, and a blood-curdling scream of pain cut off mid-breath, followed by silence as the darkness envelopes him. . . .
    Not: I rolled a 17, that's 4 points of damage and 2 hard-earned experience levels down the drain. Next round, roll for initiative.

    Mechanically speaking, here are my suggestions:

    Longer Action: The undead cannot move in the same round it delivers its level drain attack.
    Embrace of the Grave: The undead must grab and hold the target for a full round while draining.
    Critical Strike: The undead only drains energy on a natural 20.
    Make it Hurt: The undead only drains energy when rolling maximum damage.
    Alternate Attack: The undead only drains energy when rolling minimum damage. Ignore the damage completely and inflict the energy drain instead.

  5. The more I look into it I'm definitely leaning towards something with CON drain. And I do like the loss of HD as well. I came across this post which had some great ideas about Life Drain as well as the living dead in general. http://timbrannan.blogspot.com/2012/02/undead-i-dont-like-level-drain.html

    He applies ability drains to almost all the undead. I kinda like that concept.