Well, at least as a DM. As a player I HATED level drain! Of course I did! I was a Teenage Power Gamer trying to get my 1st edition bard to that prestigious 23rd level maximum. Energy drain was the antithesis to this, especially as A) NPC clerics with high-level healing spells were pretty much non-existent in our campaign, and B) the one, high level PC cleric wasn’t a fan of my character (um…"actively working to thwart him," might not be too strong a phrase).
But as a Dungeon Master, I think energy drain itself is a piece of sheer genius. First off, realize that D&D is a GAME, one with definite winners and losers. If the party succeeds in the quest and brings back the treasure, they win. If the party dies, they lose.
And if the DM can somehow spin the game so the PCs died through their own dumb fault or bad luck, then the DM wins! Ha! Just kidding (kind of…)…
No really, the DM is supposed to set-up challenges for the players and the players are supposed to overcome those challenges. If the only way to impact players was to remove hit points, how boring would THAT be? Ask the dudes that invented Magic Cards...all those nifty effects are there to keep the game interesting and challenging and not just, “how fast can we reduce each other’s life points to zero?”
D&D also has non-damage effects: poison, petrifaction, disease, curses, polymorphing, etc. Energy drain is just another one…and a cunning one to be sure.
Rare, thankfully; the number of monsters with energy drain can be counted on one hand: wights, wraiths, specters, and vampires. At least, that’s all there are in the basic game. Fortunately for the players, none of these creatures have multiple attacks, and all are vulnerable to a cleric’s turning ability.
In my opinion, energy drain provides a nice balance to the game…no matter how tough and buff an adventurer, a monster with energy drain can knock ‘em down to size. And it certainly keeps undead scary! Without energy drain a 14th level character would have little to fear from a Nazgul (um…”specter”). With energy drain, the sight of NINE Ring-Wraiths should cause any party to break and run!
While many decry the lack of a saving throw against energy drain, I feel (and have written before) that there IS a saving throw of sorts in the form of the character’s armor class. Unlike a death spell or the gaze of a medusa, a creature with energy drain is required to make a successful attack roll to have ANY effect on a player character.
What does this mean? It means that characters with excellent armor (fighters, clerics) have a much better “save” against energy drain than characters with weak armor (thieves, magic-users). To me, this seems nicely balanced:
- A fighter doesn’t lose much with an energy drain…possibly a better attack roll, but combat abilities (like Strength) and magic weapons make up the difference. Remember that, unlike D20 and 4E, armor classes on monsters don’t scale upwards with characters. A red dragon has an AC of 0 regardless of character level…and I don’t think there’s a single B/X monster with AC better than -1 or -2.
- Clerics don’t lose much with energy drain…similar to fighters, they still get to wear their heavy armor and use their magic weapons. And they have plenty of spell power even at low levels (5th level spells like Raise Dead come at 7th level). Furthermore, clerics have one of the easiest XP tracks, gaining levels faster than any class other than thief (and faster than thieves at high levels).
- Thieves ARE more vulnerable to energy drain due to their weak armor and tendency to “scout ahead.” However, they don’t lose much combat-wise (certainly not much HP-wise with that D4 hit points per level) and their backstab remains constant, regardless of level (at least in B/X). Also, thieves gain levels the cheapest of any class of character up until 10th level or so. Thieves will make up lost levels quick in comparison to other classes.
- Magic-users have it the worst: they have the worst AC, have the most to lose (spell power is their ONLY power), and take the longest to make it up (have the toughest advancement). On the other hand, I have little sympathy for magic-users. The road to absolute power is fraught with peril…if you don’t have the balls to play a magic-user then don’t. Besides, they’re usually skulking behind the fighters and clerics and thieves anyway…
From a DM point of view, besides putting a healthy dose of fear into PCs, energy drain makes hurting the players relatively simple. That is, instead of worrying about randomly subtracting ability scores or something (see ability attacks in D20) or worrying about durations or saving throws, a single straight-forward attack does one simple thing: it reduces the character’s level. Easy-sheezy: there’s nothing to keep track of, just reduce hit points and move on. All the complicated rigmarole of latter editions? Eh…who needs it?
Plus I feel energy drain adequately models the sucking of life energy caused by undead. A character’s increased effectiveness at high levels is a way of modeling prowess, potency, and confidence. All of this is lost by the draining of one’s soul by powerful undead…but all of it can be gained back through continued adventuring, too!
That’s one thing I think some folks forget about: there’s no magical remedy needed to cure energy drain. Life force is sucked from your body…you have to re-build it. If you’re in some weird-ass home-brew campaign world that doesn’t have magic, you can still recover from energy drain…unlike petrifaction, lycanthropy, curses, and death. No clerics or magic-users needed, just good old fashion elbow grease.
Also, I have to say that I love the whole “drained to death creates a new undead” thing. That whole system/mechanic I find to be both simple and elegant (not to mention flavorful). Frodo, the half-strength Ring-Wraith. Dracula’s wives. It’s nice to have a monster’s attack form also be its method of procreating itself…as a Scorpio I appreciate the mixture of sex and death.
I know, I know…YOU all still hate energy drain (especially Luke!). I understand…as I said, I wasn’t a big fan back when I was a PLAYER in the game. However, there are very few (if any) ways I’d ever consider “nerfing” the effect. Certainly, I wouldn’t go the D20 route with “temporary negative levels” or whatever the hell that shit is. And I hate the idea of giving PCs a saving throw to see if they “resist level drain;” that’s a little too “Harry Potter” for my taste (“think of happy thoughts to fight the dementors!”).
About all I’d consider (besides a high level cleric spell, which I HAVE included in my B/X Companion), is a looong period of rest and recuperation…similar to the two week period of rest after being RAISED from the dead. As a model, consider Frodo’s recuperation at Rivendell after the Nazgul attack. HE spent a week or two in bed, and was STILL weaker after the procedure (though perhaps not quite as weak/dead as he would have been). Consider the following house rule for a B/X campaign:
An elf Wizard-Lord (i.e. a Name level elf) that has a forest stronghold and access to the remedies found in Nature may treat a character that has been afflicted by an energy drain attack. The character must do nothing but remain abed, resting in the elven stronghold, and the recovery time is one week per level restored, and the character will only be restored to the XP total necessary to reach his prior level (for example, a 4th level fighter with 9,865 XP is drained to 2nd level. After two weeks of treatment and bedrest, he is restored to 8,000 XP, the minimum necessary to retain 4th level).
A character that has been completely drained can be prevented from turning undead, so long as he can reach the Wizard-Lord’s stronghold within a number of days equal to the character’s original level. A character so grievously wounded cannot be fully restored and can only be healed to a level one below his prior level (for example, a 4th level Halfling is struck twice by a specter, draining him completely; assuming his companions can bring him to the Wizard-Lord’s stronghold within four days time, he can be healed. However, he can only be restored to a maximum of 3rd level).
[yes, I know this isn’t a goblin post…they’re coming]