Monthly Archives: June 2012

Dexterity Influenced Initiative

My understanding of 3E and 4E initiative is as follows. Each character or monster has an initiative bonus, which is influenced by the dexterity modifier and other situational modifiers (including things like the improved initiative feat). Each character rolls initiative which is 1d20 plus the bonus, and then all characters act in the order of highest to lowest. This is only rolled once, at the beginning of combat, and then the order is followed statically for every following round, and is modified only if characters decide to delay their action (and thus voluntarily place themselves later in the order). Monster initiative is often done as a group, to simplify the referee’s job.

In terms of the math, this type of initiative system is much like achieving surprise: it can benefit you in the first round, but never afterwards. To see why this is, consider a simple initiative order with four entities, acting in the following order: A, B, C, D. Thus, assuming no entity is removed from the combat or delays, the actions would go:

  • A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, A, B, C, D, …

It is clear that A, B, and C have some relative degree of advantage at the beginning of the combat, but after that it is much less clear. For example, the following initiative orders are all also true if ignoring some or all of the first round (as they are all subsequences):

  • B, C, D, A
  • C, D, A, B
  • D, A, B, C

Thus, not much dynamism or potential character advantage is actually gained by using this system, which is relatively cumbersome at the table (all the numbers have to be rolled, written down, and then reordered). Mechanical aids can help; I’ve seen (but never used) magnet systems, smartphone apps, and small whiteboards designed to help with d20 initiative. If you know the initiative bonuses of all combatants beforehand, you could precompile several sample orders, but that seems like a lot of work to me (with little benefit).

Given that, why not just let the character with the highest dexterity go first, and then go around the table? For added impact, seat players around the table in order of dexterity score (or initiative bonus, if you are playing a game that uses such a thing). The referee could use a Holmes-like system and roll 3d6 for monster dexterity at the beginning of combat, and then have a roll-off to determine if the cycle would start with the monsters or the PC with highest dexterity (the advantage here is 2 rolls per combat rather than N rolls, and no need to write down the order or bounce around the table).

For comparison, it is also worth mentioning the AD&D/segment “count up” system, which is similar to, but more elegant than, the d20 system. In the “count up” system, everyone rolls 1d10 and then subtracts their dexterity bonus and adds things like casting times and other penalties. The referee then counts up from one until every entity has acted (thus, lower is better). The advantage here is that weapon speed factors and individual dexterity can contribute to the order of actions without needing to write down an initiative sequence. Since everyone tracks only one single number, it can even be rerolled every turn, so that characters with quick weapons or high dexterity scores will go first more often than not, but nothing is guaranteed (making combat more interesting and less predictable).

It seems to me that the d20 style of initiative is a clear example of a misapplied core mechanic. Roll a d20, higher is always better just doesn’t seem to be convenient for the problem of determining initiative order. I’m probably missing some subtle awesome stuff that can be done with delaying actions in the d20 system. If so, please enlighten me!

Personally, I am quite happy with the Moldvay D&D method of rolling d6 per side every round (I even used that system with Fourth Edition), but I was thinking about this and just wanted to get my thoughts down. The dexterity bonus is only applied to initiative rolls in Moldvay for one on one combats; otherwise, it is a d6 roll unmodified by any character stats.

Excursion Format

Back in high school, we sometimes played D&D in a format that we called a house game. This format was so called because every adventure was required to begin and end at a home base (the “house”). We did this because it allowed us to rotate DM duties, and slowly develop the campaign world jointly, rather than requiring a large time investment upfront by a single DM. This was the way we ran the Blackwater Falls campaign.

This is somewhat similar to the way I see many games being run online now (ConstantCon, FLAILSNAILS, etc), though the primary concern is not rotating referees, but rather a changing player roster. The PCs in the next session may not be the same as the PCs in the previous session. In other words, it is assumed that PCs return to town (whatever “town” means for the particular campaign).

This can raise a problem of logical narrative. What happens if the PCs end the session on, for example, dungeon level 3? Jeff Rients addresses this with his Triple Secret Random Dungeon Fate Chart of Very Probable Doom. Basically, if you are still in the dungeon at the end of the session, you need to make a roll (50% success) adjusted down (-10%) by dungeon level and up (+10%) by character level to see if you escape without mishap. If you fail that roll, you are sent to the Chart of Very Probable Doom to see what happens (the name says it all).

Jeff’s approach and table are inspired, but I am modifying the method slightly for my own use. First, rather than making a percentile roll and adjusting for level, the character makes a saving throw (the most favorable save may be used). This models the increasing competency of being higher level and reuses the numbers that are already on the character sheet (not that Jeff’s percentages are hard to remember; I just like saving throws). You may also add your single most favorable ability modifier as a bonus. Penalty is applied by dungeon level as per Jeff, but only -1 (5%) per level (I may change this to -2 in the future). Second, regarding the wilderness. The number of hexes away from the nearest known point of civilization is equivalent to dungeon level in terms of penalty. Third, the expected consequence of failure is death. I may have a table with other options, but its contents are confidential.

Note that whatever system I happen to be running, it is likely that the main setting assumptions of B/X D&D will hold: the wilderness is a perilous place. You might run into a dragon. I stock the wilderness map without consideration of PC levels. Merchants and other travelers generally move in large, armed caravans. Maybe you should stick to the dungeon for the first few levels (not that that’s any guarantee of safety either).

This post is not intended to be in any way original. I just want a page that I can reference describing the way I plan to run a game.

9 July 2012 edit: Well, look at this, an ODD74 thread from 2008 (Starting my Jakalla Megadungeon) that features a “table of despair” for characters that have overstayed their welcome in the dungeon.

Diegetic Character Options

Last year I wrote about about backloading complexity, specifically applied to skills. In response, Jeffro wrote an excellent post about extending that idea to magic-users; in Jeffro’s Infocom-inspired system, magic-users begin with only one spell, read magic, and must discover all other spells by finding scrolls. This is also a way of backloading complexity (because the players of magic-users do not need to know what the various spells do before the game starts or choose between them), but it is something more as well. It is diegetic in the sense that it ties the game mechanics to in-game events and situations. It is meaning first.

I think this principle can be extended even further. What if learning new skills or feats required finding a teacher or some other quest? For example, if you want to learn the mounted combat feat, perhaps you need to complete 1d4 missions with the local cavalry, and maybe you must journey to the steppe barbarians to learn mounted archery. Under such a system, feats would become a form of treasure, or at least an adventure hook.

Why not use this approach for race as well? Elves could be available as PCs once Elf-Land has been discovered. This is the way that Evan plans on handling reptoids in his Uz setting. Other nonhumans could also be accessed in this manner. In a sense, this is similar to the idea of “unlocking” options in video games. To take this to the logical extreme, what if you could play any race if you could convince one of them to first be a retainer (riffing off the traditional idea of being able to promote retainers to full PCs)? Thus, want to play a dragon? You first have to find and make friends with one. It would provide a nice incentive for parley, too. And give the referee an opportunity to show through play how a given species behaves in the particular setting.

One could even imagine having almost nothing at the beginning, and discovering everything through play (even class). Some modes of zero level play approximate this ideal, but in reality most of these systems allow players to plan things out and just make them wait for it (which is why I think many people don’t like zero level play). What I am laying out here is a stricter idea how zero level is usually played, as spells or other mechanical bits may be entirely unique to a given campaign (though the two ideas could be profitably mixed).

This structure privileges exploring game worlds over exploring mechanical options. Players might not even know what feats were available until they have experienced the game! I realize this kind of game is not for everyone (there seems to be a sizeable contingent of players that groove on character optimization, if forum post volume is anything to go on), but I think this is a mode I would enjoy both as player and as referee. Exactly where one draws the line between character creation options and diegetic options is a matter for individual groups and referees to decide upon together.

Chaos Titans

Chaos titans are powerful beings from other worlds or dimensions who derive pleasure and nourishment from strife and conflict. They are not gods. Thus, they cannot shape reality in the way that a true god has authority over a domain such as light, or love, or death. Nor do they exist outside the bounds or rules of the material universe. However, in most cases, practically speaking, they are immortal and invulnerable.

It is possible to destroy them, but the correct rituals to do so are difficult to obtain and may even have been truly lost. It is easier to banish or imprison them, but even such limited tasks are the work of a legendary hero. It is unknown whether chaos titans were created by mad gods, ancient sorcerers, or are birthed naturally from maelstroms of chaos.

Chaos titans can grant powers to mortal servants in the manner of divinities. They favor powers of destruction and awe. They are often the patron of rebels, and may pretend to be gods unconnected to chaos. They communicate only telepathically, at a range of several thousand feet. Thus, they often reside in caverns deep below populated areas, where they can cultivate followers, though they have also been known to hide in storm clouds, volcanoes, or powerful rivers. They enjoy causing natural disasters periodically.

The physical presence of a chaos titan may mutate creatures nearby, though this radius will vary from titan to titan and can be controlled to some degree. Chaos titans dislike any kind of stability, and are likely to betray followers if they feel like their power is being used in the service of order. They will also use their followers to undermine any other source of law. They have little sense of time of consciousness, and thus little ability to plan; they exist mostly in the moment.

When in physical form, chaos titans often appear as giant chitin-plated humanoids, 50 feet or more in height, but may take any form that pleases them of approximately the same size. Metamorphosis between forms takes one turn, and is terrifying to behold. Anyone witnessing such a transformation must succeed on a morale check or flee (this does not apply to PCs, but does apply to all retainers and NPCs).

AC as plate, HD 20, # attacks 2, damage 3d6, immune to non-magical damage, movement 24 (levitation). They may cast the following spells at will: ESP, confusion, invisibility, levitate, pyrotechnics, lightning bolt, transmute rock to mud, part water, all cure spells. They can also grant these spells to followers of the appropriate level that are within telepathy range. Individual titans may also have access to other spells; this list is merely a suggestion.

If defeated in combat without the proper destruction ritual being performed, the chaos titan will reform in 1d4 weeks, often growing in a surviving follower or nearby beast.

Iron Heroes & Adventure Motivation

Recently, I have been sampling the d20 book Iron Heroes. This is a “variant player’s handbook” that presents new classes and rules for 3E D&D. I am indebted to noisms for originally bringing Iron Heroes to my attention. My understanding is that the original motivation behind IH was to create classes that would be competitive (in terms of power levels) with the core classes without relying on assumptions about magic items and healing magic.

The game is thus mostly built around martial classes (with the exception of the arcanist) that have interesting tactical and combat abilities. Classes include archer, armiger, berserker, executioner, harrier, hunter, man-at-arms, thief, weapon master, and arcanist. Some of these are obviously derived from standard 3E classes (e.g., man-at-arms = fighter, berserker = barbarian, thief = thief) with tweaks to make them fit the desired style.

Though this may seem, from the above description, to be similar to many recent high power, heroic games, the actual atmosphere is swords & sorcery, enforced by a lack of magical items and a highly dangerous magic system for the one class that uses magic. This is a system for Conan stories, not for teleporting elves. The art is also perfectly in tune with this vibe.

There are many great ideas here for specific mechanics, and the magic system is wonderfully evocative. It uses mana points, and each school has methods with guidelines about how to create effects, based on a character’s level of mastery. A d20 “casting roll” is required (with difficulty based on the amount of mana spent and the power of the ability) and failures can cause minor or major disasters (for example, a major disaster when animating the dead causes the newly created creature to immediately attack the creator arcanist). It is a complicated system that requires calculation for every effect, but it looks like it would be very enjoyable once learned.

Iron Heroes was written by Mike Mearls in 2005, and thus predates Fourth Edition by three years. Many of the concerns that would inform the design of 4E can be seen here in proto form, though the style of the implied game world is very different. Check the following quote (page 248):


When creating adventures, be sure to come up with interesting situations that allow the player characters to use their abilities. Try to avoid fights in plain, empty rooms.

Battles in Iron Heroes tend to last longer than in other games, since the characters have more hit points and more complex abilities. Thus, you must ensure that there is more to the fights than merely two lines of opponents standing still and smacking each other. Throw in lots of interesting terrain to encourage creative, active play.

When designing adventures, remember that you cannot offer magic items to the party as a reward. Gold and jewels also lose some of their value in terms of character power, because the PCs cannot use them to purchase magic items. The onus is on you, as DM, to come up with interesting stories, villains, and enemies. The characters need motivation other than the simple accumulation of treasure to push them ahead to adventures.

Entire books have been written about adventure design, leaving far too little space for the topic here. However, you’ll do fine if you remember one important thing: The characters should always have a good, compelling reason to do something. Whether it’s a noble desire to defeat an evil overlord, a selfish need to escape the law, or some other reason, you need to create a clear and interesting rationale to drive the action forward.

The first two paragraphs outline exactly the kind of play expected by 4E. Creative play is reacting to and using terrain elements tactically. Encounters should be designed to allow characters to show off their abilities. Fights in plain rooms are discouraged, and movement is considered the essence of dynamic combat. This is quite different than traditional D&D, but I don’t mean to highlight it pejoratively. I’ve learned some interesting things from Fourth Edition combat, and though I have come to the conclusion that as a complete system it is too cumbersome and slow, there are aspects of it that I think deserve a place in more freeform and fast-paced combat systems, particularly forced movement and support actions (e.g., things that allow fighter-types to protect other characters if they so desire).

However, there is one aspect of the above advice that I think in retrospect is downright harmful, based on the kind of game that it encourages. Specifically, the bit about characters needing motivation to push them ahead to adventures. Why should players demand “compelling” reasons to do something? Is not the point of the game to have adventures? A referee already has to spend a nontrivial amount of time and energy either familiarizing themselves with a module, writing their own material, or improvising it at the table. Why put this additional burden on the referee? Is the existence of interesting locations and scenarios really not enough?

There is nothing wrong, of course, with using character motivations (revenge, fear of the law, a common enemy, whatever), but it is this sense that the referee is required to convince the players to go after the adventure that bothers me somewhat. Why should the ref need to push the players ahead to adventure? Haven’t they indicated that they are interested in adventure by sitting down around the gaming table?


I have found that I don’t much like rolling on content-generating tables during play. I rarely do it (I would usually rather just improvise), but every once in a while it comes up (like a treasure table in a module that I didn’t bother to roll on beforehand). The box label generator in the Lamentations module Tower of the Stargazer is a good example of this. Rolling those names during the game just killed the sense of immersion, and made it seem like none of the results could possible matter.

Whenever this happens, I feel like it slows down the game and exposes pieces of the machinery that are better left hidden. My most recent face to face group, especially, seemed to become uninterested in content if it looked like the random variety. They wanted to find the “real” content.

There have been a few posts on the blogs recently that have touched on similar issues. For example, Beedo over at Dreams in the Lich House has been talking about how he is using spreadsheets to pregenerate content for his Black City game:

And, Jim at Carjacked Seraphim has been posting about his system for DM prep. He has some useful-looking ideas there, like prerolling on which turn encounters should happen, so that you can tick off bubbles as the turns progress and then just cross-reference the appropriate encounter column. Check them out:

This also brings an aspect of fate into the game without actually limiting player choice at all, which is sort of fascinating. It’s like looking down from the corner of a high building at a road intersection and seeing two cars speeding towards (but oblivious of) each other. You have seen their future (the crash) without reducing their free will.

There are also tools like Meatshields! that can help.

The principle is also a bit like vancian casting: you want to prepare the content so that all that is left is the final command word. Note that the content in question can still be loosely bound. Like, you might not know exactly where you are going to need the next barkeep, but having one ready is useful (especially if you are as bad at remembering improvised details like I am).

Magical Affinity Draft

Here is a reworked version of the magical disciplines system. This iteration is slightly more limited (there are only 12 disciplines) and they subsume the common cleric functions using a colors of magic system. Vitality magic risks causing aging (though I have some updated and streamlined mechanics for this inspired by Talysman that I will post separately).

The spell metaphysics and descriptive parts are heavily influenced by The Dying Earth, which should probably be obvious. This is part of something that is rapidly evolving (to both my dismay and delight) into a full-blown heartbreaker (that is still entirely compatible with the traditional game). Thus, there may be several references to other aspects of the system that are not explained herein. Apologies for that, but I suspect things should be pretty clear from context. Posting smaller parts as blog posts helps me make progress on the whole.


Worm-eaten books speak of hundreds, or even thousands, of spells in the past. In these degenerate times, only twelve spells remain. Each has been handed down through the ages, hand-prepared laboriously (for each individual must make their own copy to fully understand the mysteries). For example, though most sorcerers have knowledge of the dread tome of necromancy, actually procuring a copy can be far from easy. This is compounded by the fact that white magicians commonly destroy the books of black magic and vice versa. Spells are not mere manipulations of reality using arcane techniques. They are actually a type of hyperdimensional creature that exists sideways to reality. Preparing a spell involves binding such a creature, and imprisoning it inside the sorcerer’s consciousness. All effects within a single domain are actually manifestations of the same kind of bound creature. Generally, spells work against sorcerers, which is why “higher level” effects are harder to accomplish (and more dangerous). Forgetting a spell means the sorcerer has lost control of the creature in their head.


All characters have a rank in each discipline, ranging from 0 to 6, where 0 indicates no familiarity and 1 indicates basic competence. Magic-users may “safely” attempt effects of level equal to or less than their discipline rank. When casting a spell, a magic-user must make a saving throw. Upon success, the spell goes off and they may use spells from the discipline again in the same day. Upon failure (but not fumble) the spell still goes off, but the magic-user may use no spells from that discipline again until they have had a good night’s sleep and studied their magic books. If a fumble is rolled, the spell fails or backfires in some inconvenient (and probably dangerous) manner (use the spell fumble or corruption system of your choice). A roll of 1 is always a fumble.

Higher level effects may be attempted, but at greater risk. The same procedure is used as above, but the saving throw takes a penalty equal to the spell level, and the save must succeed for the spell to go off. A roll of 20 is always considered a success. Also, the fumble range is extended by the level of the spell. So, if a 4th level magic-user (max spell level: 2) is attempting to cast a 5th level spell, they roll their saving throw with a -5 penalty and the spell backfires on rolls of 1 through 6. This same procedure will obtain until the caster reaches 9th level, when the save penalty disappears and the fumble range drops to 1. In other words, the progression is not linear (though the base save versus spells does improve at 6th level and 11th level); this is intended. You don’t get it, and don’t get it, and then it finally clicks. Thus, magic-users may attempt any effect at any level, though doing something like conjuring an elemental at first level will almost certainly result in disaster.


Magical affinity ranges from -6 (chaotic) to 6 (lawful). All characters begin at 0. Whenever a character casts a black magic or white magic spell, affinity shifts one step in the appropriate direction. For example, if a sorcerer casts charm person, which belongs to the domination discipline (black magic), affinity shifts one point negative. Affinity cannot be higher than 6 or lower than -6, so ignore any further shifts in either of those cases. Affinity serves as a penalty to casting spells from the opposite end of the spectrum. For example, a sorcerer with a magical affinity of -4 (chaotic) would take a penalty of 4 when casting white magic spells. In addition, black magic is forbidden in most civilized areas (“malfeasance”) and is punishable by branding and banishment (at the very least) or death by burning (more commonly).

Magical affinity encodes some aspects of what would be considered alignment in other games. It has nothing to do with morals or behavior, however; affinity only measures a character’s relationship with the cosmic forces of law and chaos. Characters with affinity scores of more than 3 in either direction may start to be affected by, for example, protection from evil. They may also manifest their affinity in other ways, including mutation or physical changes.


Characters that choose the path of SORCERY begin play with one spell book (determined randomly or by player choice). All other spells books must be discovered through play. It is possible for adventurers on other paths to gain competency in spells also, but it is twice as difficult. Sorcerers may learn no more than 1 plus their intelligence modifier disciplines, and other classes may only learn a number of disciplines equal to their intelligence modifier. No adventurer may advance more than one point on a single discipline per advancement period. (I’m still playing around with several other schemes for advancement limitation, including limiting the total spell ranks to the intelligence score, and providing “retraining” rules.)


Discipline 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th
Turn Undead skeleton zombie ghoul wight wraith mummy
Vitality cure light wounds slow poison cure disease neutralize poison cure serious wounds raise dead
Warding prot. from evil prot. from evil 10′ radius dismissal banishment
Stasis hold portal web hold person hold monster
Shield shield
prot. from missiles minor globe of invulnerability avoidance anti-magic shell
Arcana read magic
dispel magic remove curse
Divination detect evil locate object clairvoyance wizard eye contact higher plane true seeing
Transmutation enlargement shatter polymorph rock to mud stone-flesh
Domination charm person forget bind familiar confusion feeblemind geas
Destruction magic missile acid bolt fireball flame strike disintegrate
minor demon demon elemental invisible stalker
vampiric touch animate dead death spell

There are legends regarding spells that can manipulate gravity, or bend space (allowing travel over great distances with a single step). This magic has been lost. However, it may still reside in mouldering tombs or hidden deep in lost ruins.

This table is still a work in progress. You will notice that a few of the effects are new, and one or two have had their level adjusted. I am considering having the necromancy and turn undead spells more directly mirror each other (see also my necromancer draft from a while back). I really like the idea of maintaining the traditional spells (both by name and effect) in this system, so I don’t want to stray too far from that ideal. Or maybe I do. Who knows where the muse will take me.

I am aware that some of the terminology is less than ideal. On the one hand, I like using multiple words for magic-users (wizard, sorcerer, wonder worker, etc), but on the other hand, using fewer terms is likely to cause less confusion. I am leaning towards standardizing on sorcerer, as it also matches “the path of sorcery,” which is the analogue to the magic-user class in this system. Perhaps falling back to the more general magic-user in some cases, since it is possible (though harder) for other kinds of adventurers to use magic. Also, there is some problematic overloading of the word “spell.” Following Vance, I want to use that word for the entire discipline, but other fantasy games use the word spell for individual effects. Right now I am still inconsistent on this.

The magic books will get better names. The book of necromancy will probably be The Necronomicon, for example, if that term is now in the public domain.

Malfeasance as a term is from English law, but was borrowed in this context from The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.

I’m extremely happy with the cosmic reinterpretation of alignment as affinity. The new term should help avoid arguments about ethics and moral philosophy. It also manages to apply only to those classes that are tampering with the cosmos (clerics and wizards).

Sturluson’s Dwarves

Snorri Sturluson wrote The Prose Edda, a telling of Norse mythology. He lived from 1179 – 1241. Here is an excerpt about dwarves.

Next after this, the gods enthroned themselves in their seats and held judgment, and called to mind whence the dwarves had quickened in the mould and underneath in the earth, even as do maggots in flesh. The dwarves had first received shape and life in the flesh of Ymir, and were then maggots; but by decree of the gods had become conscious with the intelligence of men, and had human shape. And nevertheless they dwell in the earth and in stones. Modsognir was the first, and Durinn the second; so it says in Voluspa.

1916 Brodeur translation, 2006 Dover edition, pages 25 and 26.

Cantrips as Encounter Powers

Some time ago, I bought a copy of the Pathfinder Beginner Box (reviewed here, here, and here). I still think about running it as a complete (E5-style) low power game, perhaps with a d20 supplement such as The Lost City of Barakus (that might be a fun G+ campaign). The one thing that I have decided that I absolutely must change is how at-will magical powers work. The same is true of the recent D&D Next playtest materials. The chassis is something I would enjoy playing, but I really dislike limitless powers, from both style and gameplay standpoints.

First, I would just remove cantrips that solve resource problems (such as light). Second, all other cantrips would require a short rest to prepare. Five minutes each, so two cantrips could be prepared per turn (important for things like torch duration and wandering monster checks). Diegetically, cantrips would be exactly the same thing as other vancian spells; they would just require less work to prepare. In game terms, they would function like Fourth Edition encounter powers. Thus, your PFBB wizard would get one free force missile (or whatever it’s called; I can’t be bothered to look it up right now) per combat.

I readily admit that this is not meaning first design, but it is “meaning based” design. And yes, this decreases the power of the magic-using classes. I don’t see that as a bad thing. In essence, there would be two kinds of vancian spells: the kind that require deep concentration and a fresh mind to prepare, and the minor cantrips that can be prepared given a few minutes.

Youth as a Resource

Yesterday, The Dragon’s Flagon had a post about using hit points as spell points. One of the common (though not insurmountable) problems of a system like this is that it increases the utility of healing effects, which are already potent. In addition to allowing adventurers to take more punishment, healing would also allow magic-users to cast more spells. I call this the “mana battery” problem.

When thinking about this, the following idea came to me: what if each hit point of magical healing aged a character by one day? I have PCs recover one HP per day when tracking natural healing, though hit dice are re-rolled between adventures. Thus, there would be a symmetry between magical and natural healing. At one stroke, healing magic becomes problematic while still being available, a reason is given for why healing magic is not used frivolously, and magic gains a greater sense of enchantment. I am considering implementing this even in games that don’t use HP to power magic.

Also, this morning while reading John’s answers to my 20 rules questions, I came across this:

Level-draining monsters: yes or no?

No. Monsters that would normally drain levels instead age you.

This is much better, in my opinion, than ability score damage (the 3E method), which is both not very scary (because it recovers quickly) and a hassle (because you need to recalculate several other derived statistics). Aging is irrevocable without being catastrophic in most instances. And, you have adventurers returning from raiding barrows strangely aged, which fits the atmosphere of undead. 2E (and maybe AD&D, I’m not sure) sort of did this with the restoration spell which restores drained levels at the cost of aging. I might even use level drain and aging together if I was running a game using a proper traditional rule set (as opposed to the 4E hack I’ve been playing recently).

There are some other spells that traditionally age spell casters as well. Gate, for example, ages the caster five years, as does wish. I’m sure there are more.

The downside is that you need to track an extra number per character (effective age). This was sort of true before, but it has come up so infrequently in games that I have played in as to basically not be required.