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.


  1. I don't run old-school D&D so this is pure speculation, but would it work to have the drain be permanent -- or as permanent as it ever is by the book -- but for it to be a one-off effect? As in, a single monster can only drain one level from each single character. Another monster could also come in and drain a level, but the first is limited to one; perhaps it's once per day so if the players go away and come back again the next day, they could get hit by the same thingie again, but in the original battle they can only be drained once each.

    Would that work?

  2. @Kelvin
    would it work to have the drain be permanent -- or as permanent as it ever is by the book -- but for it to be a one-off effect?
    The problem with this particular solution is that it tends to nullify one of the cool consequences of energy drain — those killed by it are transformed into the creature that drained them.

  3. I don't use D&D, so my system doesn't support level drain. I do use "level drain" undead with nasty touch-based attacks that are hard or impossible to resist, take a long time or take special conditions to heal*, and which turn you into One Of Them if they kill you. That's nasty right there. I don't see any reason you couldn't do that in D&D, either. Instead of a wight knocking off a level, why not have it knock off 1 HD worth of HP as unhealable damage, only repairable by a Cleric of X or higher level. Or only repairable by bed rest. Or only repairable by a (hard-to-get) elixir made of special (quest-worthy) ingredients? It can still be nasty and hard without being "lose that level you worked so hard for."

    * And what is Restoration except "cannot be healed except after a high-level cleric fixes it?" Special conditions right there.

  4. Wraiths have upwards of 10,000+gp in their lair, that's enough to put a serious bump back into a PC's level.

  5. Without "save or die" or level drain what you're left with is 4e and the only way to defeat a PC is to whittle down their hitpoints.

    Perhaps the answer is for DM's to stop only giving rusty sword +1, 10gp gems and buckets of copper peices to PC's and staet rewarding PC's for the danger their facing. If they're fighting level draining undead, shower them with gold and xp, this idea of taking 10 years to get to 6th level is the problem, not level draining.

  6. You could give religious orders the ability to restore lost levels, for a rather hefty donation or geas-type quest, or even taking on their religion (different religions could demand different terms).

  7. I think a good first step is to give enough clues that the players damn well know what they're getting themselves into.

    Decent xp rewards and maybe a nearby NPC Cleric, say a weeks travel away, are good ideas as well. I follow the AD&D rule of giving xp for magic items, though it's all lumped in with group xp, just like gold. 10% of the items gp value.

  8. I'm using a modified Swords & Wizardry: Whitebox, so I have to make Restoration more accessible (and, you know, introduce it from Core). I've made it a 6th level spell (I've gotten rid of the Cleric class and combined the spell lists), because I want Level Drain to be one of the things that are worse than death in the campaign.

  9. I think what I'd be tempted to do is have energy drain remove XP without removing levels - so you can be drained from level 4 all the way back to level 1 and have to re-accumulate all the lost XP from levels 1-4 before you can advance to 5. It's still a pain in the arse and would still have people cursing energy drain whenever they see it but it lets 'em keep the abilities they've earned and, in theory, that makes the lost XP a bit easier to recover.

  10. As James said, what I've always tried to do is give the players hints that a creature has energy draining attacks before they pile into combat... wights with a sinister blue glow around their hands, for example, to differentiate them from any other "walking corpse" type undead. For more meaningful undead like vampires or liches I wouldn't give such hints, but only fools would come into deliberate contact with such creatures without doing a bit of research about their powers first!