Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Why I Love Energy Drain

I do…I really do.

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]


  1. If the level drain pulls you down some major rung of your class abilities, it's a much bigger deal than you mentioned, like our Dwarf going from 7 to 6 giving him an effective -3 penalty on attacks. Unless he has a +10 sword and always needs a 2 or better to hit, there's no making up for that. Or a spell caster losing an entire level of spells (like the cleric can't raise dead anymore, magic user can't fireball anymore).

    But the bummer about level drain isn't the game mechanics effect so much. XP is a measure of your progress in the game and level drain can erase that progress. It yanks away a lot of real time investment in your character, months if you're not a 13 year old that plays 16 hours every weekend. D&D isn't one of those 100% narrative games and I'm sure a good chunk of its players play at least in part to watch the numbers go up (xp, gold, level).

    I agree something as scary as level drain is great to have in the DM arsenal, but it should only be used judiciously. It's the DM's nuclear option. An effective use is something like "Oh no, discarded stakes and garlic on the ground. We must steel ourselves for the soul sucking vampire". Energy drain is super scary if you know you have to face it. If you prepare yourself and still fall victim, bummer but at least there's some drama.

    My beef with how it was used in the White Plume game is that it came from a randomly rolled wandering monster while we were sleeping. I wasn't even sure how we got surprised if we had a watch going. No forewarnings, no initiative rolls, just BAM your characters kinda suck now. Felt arbitrary not scary in that particular case.

    Also, and this is really minor point but a good one Josh mentioned to me, S2 was written for AD&D. The spell Restoration at least exists in AD&D (and doesn't in BX) which might have been a consideration for the author to put wights in the wandering monster table.

    Just to be clear, I think Jonathan is a super awesome DM. His enthusiasm and orthodoxy for BX is really intriguing. If I didn't like his game I wouldn't show up every week, and being able to bitch and moan on his blog is a fun bonus feature.

  2. I'm fine with energy drain. But then again, I referee almost exclusively. As you noted, on an abstract level it's not particularly different than many other game mechanics. Getting hit with a poison attack and missing one's save is analogous on an abstract level to an energy drain succeeding on the attack matrix - the dispositive d20 is just getting rolled at a different time by a different person.

    I do, however, usually "flag" areas with energy-draining creatures as somehow corrupt and blighted. From a(n un)naturalistic standpoint, I find it unlikely that something like a Wight exists in a region without having some disruptive effect on the surroundings. It's one thing for the Undead to inspire fear - they should - but it's moot if the characters can't factor that fear into an intelligent decision-making process and either avoid the area or make appropriate preparations. Fear for fear's sake strikes me as the old "sadistic DM" boogeyman.

    Of course, sometimes the dice just buttfuck you.

  3. Nerdy comment about orcs - in Lord of the Rings, they were bred into several subspecies, some of which were roughly hobbit-sized (remember Frodo & Sam blending in with the orc army on the march to the Black Gate). So dwarf-sized goblins in the Misty Mountains are probably what was going on.

  4. and I put this comment on the wrong post, didn't I... whoops

  5. I've never been a big fan of Level Drain as a player or GM. But you know, the rationales you give in this post are quite good. I also DO appreciate the fact that such an attack is probably one of the most 'frightening' things to a player- even if it is partly a 'metagaming' fear, it still translates well into how a character would be feeling in-game.

  6. I have to admit that even though the characters we were using sprang forth fully formed at level 7, it was still seriously unnerving to face having one of those levels disappear on a roll of the dice. It definitely upped the "fear factor" of the encounter by an order of magnitude. Getting scared and surviving is fun! Getting scared and then getting your level drained completely sucks, though.

    I like the idea of their sheer unnaturalness giving you a bit of warning from Scott's post above... I'd consider taking it a step further. Something along the lines of "You can't be surprised by a nasty that can level drain because the sheer wrongness emanating from them makes everyone uneasy from a distance."

    Either way, I have a more healthy respect for the undead after that encounter... or should that read "unhealthy?"

  7. I have different rules than everyone else for Energy Drain, as recounted on my blog. I just simply assess a -1 penalty on every roll, that can't be cured except by a high-level spell none are likely to possess. And Scott's idea is great about the blighted, corrupted areas.

  8. @ Steel: that's not bad...I use similar rules for aging in my B/X Companion. However, in some ways its even more debilitating than actual energy drain...after all, a character reduced in level can always earn more experience points. You're talking about "gifting" a character with a permanent, cumulative curse!

    Actually, the more I think about it, the more I like it.
    ; )

  9. As a DM for a year long running campaign I once decided to try and introduce level draining to the party of 4 level 7-9 characters. A few wights shouldn't do much right? Wrong.

    A entire year long campaign was ruined because of some bad rolls that ended with the main fighters of the party with 5 and 7 drained levels each and the one with the least drained levels was the thief who ended up at level 6. Now this was back in AD&D in a low magic campaign (high level clerics with restoration on the planet could be counted in one hand) and now months of XP has been stripped and the party ended up dying after trying to escape the dungeon and running into a pre planned monster that would have been easy if they haven't gotten drained of most of their levels. The players were so furious that one offered to be DM and I was voted to step down so we could start a new campaign. Never seen another wight or other level draining monster again.

    1. @ Sudo:

      I have since (somewhat) softened my stance on level drain, though for slightly different reasons. None of my undead in 5AK (for example) have the ability to drain levels. I think there are better, cooler ways to model a "draining of life-force."
      : )