Level Drain

D&D wraith (from Wikipedia)

In my OD&D session this past monday, one of the PCs was hit by a wight and lost a level. Miraculously, four first level characters with a few zero level retainers defeated a group of 5 wights (3 HD creatures with numerous invulnerabilities and the fearsome energy drain). Thus, I had to clarify how level drain was going to work.

Talysman posted this interpretation of level drain back in January. When levels are drained, experience points are not decreased, though all level-associated characteristics (hit dice, spell progression, attack rank, turning undead, etc) are adjusted down. Assuming the character survives the ordeal, the lost levels can be regained. This separates the idea of experience points from the idea of level in this limited case, but I don’t think that will cause any major problems.

In Talysman’s example, gaining a single experience point is enough to recover a level, but no more than one level can be regained per session. So, in essence, a drained level forces a PC to be run at below strength for one or more sessions. This is a bit less final than permanently losing all that XP, but still costs the player time. I can see how this would make sense in game world terms, too. An encounter with undead should be a harrowing experience, and characters need some time to recover their confidence and abilities afterwards. I don’t think this weakens level drain too much, as the wickedest aspect of level drain remains: PCs killed and reduced to level zero rise again, adding to the ranks of the undead.

The basic idea works particularly well for Vaults of Pahvelorn, as HP is rerolled every session in any case. So there is no hassle about remembering the previous hit dice rolls. However, it does require a few minor adjustments to fit my other rules. For example, I award XP when treasure is spent, so by Talysman’s rules a surviving PC that has been level drained would immediately regain a level following the session (assuming they had some treasure to spend). I think that PCs should be required to run at least one session at the lower level for the drain to have impact. Thus, rather than regaining lost levels after accumulating more XP, one lost level will return per following session survived. Practically speaking, this is almost the same thing, as it is a rare session that results in zero XP.

19 thoughts on “Level Drain

  1. Keith Davies

    I have considered for some time having energy ‘drain’ actually closer to suppressing life force, much as you describe. It takes away from you immediately (negative level, say) but you can recover over time.

    Whether this means a Fortitude save each day to recover a level (with the negative level penalty applying, presumably), automatically recover per day of rest, or must perform some amount of adventuring at the suppressed life energy (one day adventuring, or one adventure, whatever), any of these could likely work.

    I haven’t tried it yet, though.

    1. Brendan

      Hmm, yeah. A saving throw or constitution check per adventure would be a very nice way to implement the recovery, and would introduce some uncertainty, which is almost always good. Using a saving throw would also make it so that high level characters recover their levels a bit faster, which makes sense. I’m surprised I didn’t think of incorporating a saving throw here!

  2. Talysman

    Good to hear someone’s getting actual use out of this house rule!

    Not allowing a character to regain a level at the end of the current adventure is a valid choice, but I would just let them gain a level. If they were fortunate and lost only one level, they do at least have one setback (finishing out the current expedition st reduced effectiveness.)

  3. John

    The idea of making energy drain temporary is a little troubling to me. I get that we all hate our PC losing a level, but that’s what makes the undead so scary. It’s the player who’s harrowed, not just their character.

    So here’s my question: Do you also attenuate the poison of giant spiders? And if not, why not?

    1. Brendan

      I use giant spiders with save or die poison, though I rarely use monsters directly from published bestiaries, so sometimes I have poisons with other effects. But save or die is the default unless I specify otherwise in my notes. I do make antidotes available though, mostly only effective for particular monsters. For example, from my current game:

      – Wyvern antitoxin (500 GP per dose, limited stock)
      – Giant centipede antitoxin (25 GP per dose)

      There don’t exist antidotes for all possible creatures though.

      A general solution is also available in the form of neutralize poison scrolls, but those are only intermittently available (I roll for this) and extremely expensive (2000+ GP).

      I agree with you that the point of level drain is to scare the players, not the characters. It will be interesting to see if that holds with this interpretation. If it doesn’t, I will likely return to the common draining XP method for future games. It is worth noting that even level drain in the the way it is most commonly interpreted is not permanent, but recovery is slower (as you need to reacquire the XP that was lost). This is just a matter of changing degree, not kind.

      Later games also have restoration spells and wishes to counteract level drain, which are not available in OD&D, so I don’t think this is all that different.

    2. Keith Davies

      For what it’s worth, I’ve always found (both for myself and most players I’ve come in contact with) that permanently losing a level is annoying and not fun.

      Not scary, but annoying.

      What I have found makes it worrisome is that unlike normally damage it puts you on a death spiral (you not only hurt, but become worse at everything) and if you actually die you are likely to come back as undead — no longer under your control and can be used against the PCs.

      That appears to frighten my players rather more than permanently (until you gain enough XP, that is) losing a level.

      Even at that, if you only perhaps regain a level per adventure (or session, or whatever) it can have a hampering effect that lasts long enough to make the player regret it, without having the pain of being totally behind.

    3. John

      @Brendan: Well, it’s permanent in the sense that you never get that XP back – when you earn more, it’s presumably experience that you would have been earning anyway if you hadn’t got drained.

      I don’t have anything against people modifying the rules in whatever way they find fun, obviously, I just find it interesting that energy drain is so often a target while things like poison and dragon breath mostly get left alone.

      @Keith: I don’t find having my character energy drained or killed fun in itself, but certainly the threat of getting killed is vital to making the game as a whole fun and scary. When I experimented with making energy drain temporary, we found it reduced the scariness of the encounters quite a lot. Instead of a dire threat, my players viewed it as, like you say, an annoyance. (We now have permanent energy drain but allow a saving throw.)

      I just don’t get why there’s such widespread dislike for it. Getting drained a level sucks, as does any negative consequence, but it’s hardly the worst thing that can happen to your character. Someone who’s died and had to start over at level 1 is way more “behind” than someone who got drained. What am I missing?

    4. Brendan

      I think poison comes up for just as much revision as level drain.

      It is an interesting question. Why is level drain considered worse than dying? It doesn’t seem logical, but I do think it is a common perception.

      Why do you give a saving throw? Doesn’t that also decrease the scariness of the monster?

      Also, I’m not actually modifying the rules. I am following the 3 LBBs to the letter (as is Talysman, I believe). It’s just that this interpretation is not what became “official” in AD&D.

    5. Brendan


      Not a bad variation, though it might lead to some strange situations if several levels have been drained (for example, having only a few HP until gaining a level and jumping back to 20+).

      I also like aging as a consequence of being hit by nasty undead.

  4. John

    I give a saving throw because my current group are basically newcomers to D&D, and they were shocked and upset that level drain doesn’t allow a save. For whatever reason, in their opinion the saving throw makes it “fair”. I agree with them that it’s at least more consistent.

    I don’t think it decreases the scariness of the monster too much. A smaller chance of a nastier consequence is generally scarier than a larger chance of a less nasty one. The players seemed just as eager to avoid melee combat, at least.

    Re: rules, no need to justify. As far as I’m concerned they’re there to be adapted; it’s all the same whether you’re following the book or not.

  5. Brendan

    The thing I’ve had a problem with recently in my head (it hasn’t come up in the game yet) is an enemy magic-user with a sleep spell. That takes down 2-16 HD worth of foes and does not allow a save. So, if you come upon an enemy MU and they get surprise or win initiative, it’s an instant TPK, no save. This makes enemy magic-users pretty damn scary. I’ll probably end up allowing saves against sleep, but one part of me thinks magic-users should be that scary.

  6. John

    It’s only a TPK if they cut the party’s throats while they’re sleeping. The PCs could always wake up naked, shackled to a blasphemous idol, chained in the fungus pits two levels down, etc.

  7. Ynas Midgard

    It is an interesting topic, one to which I have not yet found a solution I could stick to.

    After reading a blog post (sorry folks, I cannot remember which was it), I decided to got with “the character ages 1d6 years per level (s)he would lose, no save”. This, however, assumes that “age” is a relevant score from a rules perspective, which is, by default, not.

    Temporary level drain which provides a gradual overcoming of its effect is, as proposed in this blog post, a really good alternative – and as for the discussion above, I would not allow a saving throw, either.


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