A recent D&D Next blog article raised the topic of energy drain. Traditionally, energy drain causes a loss of levels, which is terrifying to players because it invalidates real-world effort (which is of course the point; the only way to really make undead scary is to harrow the player rather than the character). However, level drain is incredibly unpopular with the mainstream of players, because most people don’t understand that some monsters are really obstacles, not foes.
|Image from Wikipedia|
That being said, level drain is unlikely to be part of 5E, even as an option. Here is what they are proposing as a replacement for losing levels:
Level drain is a bit trickier, but we want to try modeling the drop in potency with a reduction of your maximum hit points (something that can last for a long time, but could be removed via spells or sufficient rest).
This actually seems like a reasonable method, assuming that the maximum hit points do not recover until the next level is gained (unfortunately, “sufficient rest” likely means the next extended rest, which totally neuters the threat). If it were to last until the next level it makes characters more fragile in a way that does not require a major overhaul of the character sheet. It also has more direct impact than ability score damage.
Further, what if the effect was framed as a curse that could be lifted with appropriate labor? Not a curse that could be lifted with remove curse, or the penalty just becomes a money sink. So players have a way to get back to full strength (at diegetic cost). Additionally, the effect could also automatically go away upon gaining a level. Thus the effect becomes similar to a level drain by default, but can also be the jumping off point for side quests (particularly ambitious referees could incorporate some aspect of the spirit’s past existence, such as a proper burial or restitution to victims).
For every energy drain event, the character could be marked by the grave. Also, somewhat related, this is how I run energy drain in my current Pahvelorn OD&D game.
This is a cool idea. I’ve told my players (after one guy getting level drained twice, and sick of it) that those undead will just leech XP, but this is a great alternative.
In the rules I’m putting together HP replenish completely every day because they’re mainly a measure of luck and vigor, also used to cast spells and bump up bad rolls. Taking a chop out of them for a whole level would be a double whammy.
Personally I love more additions than subtractions: that’s why in my games level drain means you need additional XP (for each drain) to level up, equal to the undead’s half XP value.
Otherwise, I don’t give XP to drained PCs until they rest for a number of days equal to twice the undead’s HDs (dropping to zero if healed magically).
I always found level drain a weird mechanic, since level was supposed to reflect ‘experience’. Personally, I think permanently draining a random ability score by 1d6 makes more sense, while still being scary for players.
Permanent hitpoint damage on the edge of a Wight’s claws that healing magic cannot normally restore – and nor can leveling up* – works quite well. You can talk it up as infected wounds, wounds holding negative energies, soul being partly drained or however you want.
* Example: a fighter with 20 hitpoints loses 10 to a wight. He cannot recover those 10 hitpoints normally. If he levels up and gains five more, he has 15 hitpoints and not 25. A proper spell that recovers energy drained levels would recover the 10 hitpoints back. Until then, he’s permanently weakened by his encounter with the Wight.
Yeah, that would work too, though it would make the undead even more fearsome. It would in effect make the diegetic method the only way to recover (which is fine for the kind of games I run, but I suspect some of WotC’s customers want a more mechanical option as well).
You can read my application of energy drain to the Holmes basic rules in this blog post.
Oh, I meant to add that your post was thought-provoking and inspired me to respond.