Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Energy Drain and the Modern Player


Oh October, how I love the month long countdown to Halloween.  In between posts discussing the wide area sandbox, I'll get back to writing about some appropriate monsters (Mythic Monday style) and post more ideas on putting seasonal cheer into your D&D game - and by 'seasonal cheer', I mean fear and horror.  Let's start with a quick discussion on that blight on players everywhere, the Energy Drain.

In most old school games, the dangerous undead drain one or more energy levels with a successful attack.  This reduces the character's experience total to the mid-point of the next lowest level, with a corresponding reduction in abilities and hit points.  It's nasty.  As a result, it's the one common monster ability that players hate the most, and it succeeds in generating a fear reaction whenever an energy draining undead shows up.  The other thing that's totally excellent about energy drain is its complete lack of subtlety.  In fast-moving abstract combat, a monster needs to be able to do its trick quickly and make an impression before it explodes in a shower of XP.  Even if an energy-draining undead is quickly dispatched, each attack has the ability to leave a lasting mark on the characters.

But there's another side to the energy drain argument; a lot of us are in an aging demographic with limits being placed on our time due to work and family; the days of 10 hour D&D marathons on a weekend are long gone.  Weekly games are becoming bi-weekly and monthly.  I have vague memories of playing D&D every day after school in the 80's when MTV was also cool.  People play D&D for entertainment; if a game element proves to be so demoralizing as to remove all fun from the game, you risk losing players, and losing months of real-world effort building up a character is demoralizing.  There's just not enough players out there for the DM to unequivocally turn a deaf ear to all complaints.  I'm just being pragmatic.

And so out come the house rules and the discussions.  The ones I usually see involve alternate abilities for the undead (like replacing energy drain with ability score damage), or changing the level and availability of  the Restoration spell - as in, why is Raise Dead a 5th level spell but Restoration is 7th level?  You're better off dying than getting energy drained.  3.5 style D&D gives you a saving throw against energy drain, and I've seen that discussed as an option as well.

I do love the energy drain for its fear effect, but I also want to see the players return each week; early in the campaign we agreed on a house rule that meets both objectives.  A level lost through energy drain will return for each week of rest in between adventures.

It's been an interesting house rule; psychologically, the players think of the energy drain as being only temporary even though they're carrying it around for a longer period of time - the drained levels don't come back until they take weeks of rest.  In the current game, Forlorn is level 1 (should be 5); Grumble is temporarily 3 from 5; Shy the Fighter is 3 from 6; Starkweather had been drained down to 1 but was then killed by the Banshee.  Week in and week out, the group is actively heading back to Castle Ravenloft to clear out the remaining undead while they have momentum, so there's been no chance to take weeks of downtime - they're starting to accumulate a lot of missing levels.

I tend to think the old approach might have been better for the players, since they've earned enough experience to get those drained levels back.  We'll have to discuss if the "player-friendly" house rule is really better for them - if adventures are short, with long periods of downtime between adventures, it's clearly better for the players to 'heal' energy drains.  Grinding out the crypts of Castle Ravenloft, with its large and varied population of undead, hasn't allowed that rest and downtime and they've carried energy drains longer.

The Nerf Turn Undead poll is over so it's time for a new one - let's hear about Energy Drain; how do you use Energy Drain in your game?

The poll is on the right.