Sunday, February 26, 2012

Undead: I Don't Like Level Drain

I don't like level draining attacks from Undead.

I have never liked them.  I also don't like 3.x "Negative" levels solution either, although it is getting closer.

See "Level" to me has always been an abstraction, a short hand way of saying you are of a certain skill and power.  But the level itself doesn't mean anything.  Loosing them is not even properly scary. Really it isn't.
Play some Call of Cthulhu or Kult where there is no such thing and I can tell you, things are scary enough.

I also don't like them since it has nothing to do with why an undead needs them or even would be able to do this.  If you say the undead "feed" on levels I counter with "ok, why do they even bother with 0-level humans?" OR more to the point, how do 0-level humans survive as long as they can/could/need-to-for-plot-reasons?

Take the example of Dracula.  Are you saying Lucy, who we can assume was attacked by Dracula multiple times, but let's just say three, was at least 6-level?  6th level in what? Mina and Harker too?

Lets look at this from the perspective of a low-level character.  Loosing a level is bad news.  How about from a higher level one, well...bad yes, but not as bad.
Look at the example of the Magic-User.  At 8th level they can cast 2 4th level spells, but after a vampire attack they...forgot them?  Ok so memory loss is not an uncommon thing after an attack, but something that specific?  Ok, so maybe you can stretch and justify it there, what about a Cleric.  He doesn't memorize spells, he prays for them. Now after an attack from a vampire he is no longer worthy for these magics?  Lost me there.

For me, level drain never made much sense at all.  If it is an abstraction of "Life Force" then we already have that in something much more precious than a level and it fits better.  Ability Scores.

Constitution is listed in the AD&D 1 Player's Handbook as:
"Constitution is a term which encompasses the character’s physique, fitness, health, and resistance. Since constitution affects the character‘s hit dice and chances of surviving such great system shocks as being changed by magic spell or resurrected from the dead, it is of considerable importance to all classes."
Instead of levels I say Vampires (and I'll get to other undead) should drain 2 points of Constitution.  It fits better.  The more blood loss you have the weaker you become.  The less likely you will survive a system shock.

Let's say the average Constitution Score for everyone is 10.  Some one like Lucy, described as frail and weak might only be an 8 or even a 6.  Certainly enough to survive multiple attacks, not more than say oh... three.  Mina, who is described as robust and full of life survives more attacks.

The draining attack needs to be tied into the type of undead, how it was made and what it needs.  We already have a precedent for it; the AD&D Shadow drains Strength.  Vampires, who feed on blood (or was that forgotten in AD&D?) should feed on Constitution.  Other undead then fall in line.

The Monsters

Skeletons, Zombies, Ghouls and Ghasts
The various members of the "Walking Dead" typically do not have drain attacks, though some could have fear based ones.  Zombies, Ghouls and Ghasts can also number among the "Hungry Dead" where they eat the flesh, living or dead, of others.

Ghosts, Banshees, Poltergeists
These creatures feed on fear for the most part, so causing fear is their primary goal.  The Banshee can kill with her scream and the Ghost can prematurely age a victim.
Drain: None.
Restore: Damaging, HP restored as normal, aging can be reversed

The mere touch of a Lich is a paralyzing cold attack that has less to do with actual temperature and more to do with the chill beyond the grave.
Drain: None. Paralyzing
Restore: Damaging, HP restored as normal

The rotting disease of the mummy is well known, but mummies can also attack via a draining attack.  This attack, sometimes known as the Mummy's Curse, will drain the victim of Dexerity and Charisma.  Worse yet, the curse is applied after only 1 successful attack and the the abilities are drained at the rate of 1 point each per day till one of them reached 0.  At this point the victim dies and can not be raised.  They will then on the next full moon become a zombie.
Drain: 1 point of Dexterity and Charisma.
Restore: Remove Curse, Heal or Wish only.

Shadow already drain Strength.  As intangible, incorporeal creatures they lack the physicality needed to interact with the world.  Draining Strength then makes them feel more alive, but it is temporary.
Drain: 1 point of Strength.
Restore: Natural healing, 1 point per hour of rest.


These frightful ghostly shades are the result of a curse. They are removed from the physical world, but loathe it.  Like the Shadow, the Spectre drains away Strength, but it can also drain Wisdom.  Strength is lost much the same way and for the same reasons as a Shadow.  Wisdom, the center of reason, is drained because it was something the Spectre lacked to get itself cursed in such a way.
Drain: 1 point of Strength or Wisdom
Restore: Magical healing via Restoration or Heal spell.

These apex undead predators feed on the life force of their victims.  They drain the blood (and thus the Constitution) from their victims.  A vampire can choose to drain 2 points of Constitution per attack, but many will toy with their victims, draining only once per night.
Drain: 2 points of Constituion
Restore: Natural healing, 1 point per week of complete bed-rest.

Most wights were soldiers or fighters in their lives.  Some of that keen intelligence lives on in undead flesh.  Since their lives were cut short due to their physical prowess, or lack thereof, the wight jealously steals Strength from it's victims.  It does this with a cold touch from beyond the grave.
Drain: 1 point of Strength
Restore: Magical healing via Restoration or Heal spell.

The Wraith is a more power incorporeal undead than the shadow, but not quite the twisted evil of the Spectre.  The wraith attempts to drain any ability score it can, targeting the lowest score and draining it till the victim reaches 0.  They do this not so much out of malice, though that is certainly true, but because they need the life force the ability provides.
Drain: 1 point of lowest Ability Score.
Restore: Magical healing via Restoration or Heal spell.

The kiss of the succubus is as deadly as it is desirable.  Men (and women) who have survived it can barely describe it, but all agree that no mortal embrace can ever compare again.  While the succubus can withhold the draining feature of her amorous attack at will, she won't often do so.  This is because the attack of the succubus will drain Wisdom as well as Constitution.  Any victim that has lost more than 1/3 of their total Wisdom score becomes hopelessly in the thrall of the succubus. Only a Wish or similar magic can save them.  Once the succubus has used up her pawn she may opt to drain Constitution as well or only to finish of the hapless mortal and return to her master with their soul.

Drain: 1 point of Wisdom and Constitution, or 2 points of Wisdom or 2 points of Constitution
Restore: Magical healing, till 1/3 is lost then only via a Wish

Guidelines for Abilities Drained
Other undead or other demons may also have a level draining attack, here is how to convert those attacks to  Ability Draining and how to choose which ability is the most appropriate.

Strength or Dexterity: Any attack where the creature is incorporeal, lacking a true body or is otherwise reminded of their own past physical life. Ex. Shadows and Wraiths lack true physical forms and Wights were mostly fighters.

Constitution: The basis of life-force.  It is used in system survival roles and adds to hitpoints.  Any creature that drains life will drain Con.

Wisdom: The basis of willpower and the desire to continue on.  Also the "mature" side of our minds. People with less wisdom give in to temptation easier.

Intelligence: The domain of the mind. Anything to do with mental prowess, psychic awareness or magical talent lies here.  Ex. Mind Flayers feed on the minds of others, they "eat" Intelligence.

Charisma: The personality of the character.  Also tied to willpower.  Some faerie creatures will drain the life and personality out of a person by draining their Charisma.  Ex. The Leanan Sidhe or Psychic vampires.

There are certainly other ways to do this and we can even argue which ability various undead can drain.  But I think ability drain is far superior to level drain.


George said...

Very nice! I'm not a fan of ability drain either. I think ability score drain is infinitely more cool, gameable, and explainable. But for some weird reason, my players get more freaked out by ability score drain than level drain. I have no earthly explanation for this.

I tried a houserule that instead of level drain, it would drain 1d2 points off a random ability score. But your suggestion to vary it by class of undead is cool.

George said...

Crap! I meant to begin by saying "I'm not a fan of level drain either."

Trey said...

I think that's a good solution.

Jason Zavoda said...

That is a very handy system. I'd let the ability scores come back through rest as well and raise some of the score points drained per attack but I definitely see using it. I'd say 3 points for a Vamp bite, that way three bites should take out the average peasant girl in the low cut bodice.

Timothy S. Brannan said...

Part of the idea of "magic only" healing is too keep that "permanent loss" of ability scary AND a new use of the clerical Restore spell.

Anonymous said...

I simply incur a -1 to Hit, Damage, Saves, and Initiative "per level drained" - this has a clear effect on the characters abilities without the insanely crippling effects of "Level Drain".

That said, I do have a couple of nasty monsters out there that do abilities - but I agree with George, my players look at that as worse than a level drain for some reason.


velaran said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
velaran said...

Oops! I forgot a paragraph!

One minor point: up until 4th Edition the ability in question is *technically* called Energy Drain, as in the AD&D Magic-User Spell! ;-) It's in OD&D, Holmes, B/X, Mentzer and its descendants, AD&D, AD&D 2nd Edition and its Revision, 3.0, and 3.5.

Reading over the AD&D books, it appears that Positive Energy == essence of existence for everything that doesn't have a connection to the Negative Energy Plane in the RAW, so it makes sense for Undead, who are inimical to life, to absorb/destroy it! You know, the Negative Material Plane connection, and all that.(Stated under Vampire in AD&D MM that all Undead exist on two planes at once.) That's why creatures become an Undead creature if they drop below 0 Levels/Hit Dice! They're now filled with Negative Energy. Positive Energy of course, destroys Undead.(And if a creature absorbs too much of *that*, ka-boom! The material body can only handle so much...)

The colloquialism 'Level Drain' goes a long way towards confusing people even more, as people don't generally associate levels with an abstract concept like Positive Material Energy. The drop in HPs(Hit Die/Level[with Con +/-]) reflects the fact that Con/HD is linked to Essence and governed by it.

I'm a proponent of Energy Drain for various and sundry reasons, myself. I restrict this ability only to Undead, and those in league with the Power that animates them, however. It made less sense to me for Demons and such to do so, imo, as they were more seemingly more concerned with gross physical matter and using souls for nefarious purposes rather than negating existence.

Your solution is simple and easy to apply. Anyone who doesn't care for standard Energy Drain should give it a shot, imo.

By the way, is this inspired by the way Ravenloft handled their scads of Vampires past mid '91 or so?(I noticed you were a fan of the setting.)

Anonymous said...

I'm with you Tim. This was my response in the recent 20 Questions: Constitution score is drained rather than character level. Each hit will cause the loss of 1d4 points of CON (1d6 if the monster is of a stronger type). Lost CON can only be restored by powerful magic. If CON reaches zero the result is the same as being drained of all levels.

Old Guy said...

Excellent article. I too definitely prefer ability drain to level drain.

bliss_infinte said...

I love what you're working on here. I've been looking at some of these same issues. I'll be adapting some of this to our campaign.

Roger said...

Great stuff, Timothy! I'm glad for the series of li is that brought me here.