Friday, August 13, 2021

Taking Another Look at Level Drain: The Latest Iteration of My D&D House Rules

In the past, I've generally avoided using level drain as a mechanic. It has a very emotional effect on certain sorts of players — the ones who don't easily roll with the punches and are apt to become sullen when things don't go their way. All the way back in the original DMG, of course, Gary Gygax advised his fellow DMs not to play with such players at all; but for my part, my strategy has always been conflict-avoidance, preventing any confrontations over the turn of ill luck that is level drain by simply not using the mechanic at all (and instead replacing it with temporary Con drain, or hp drain, or something else entirely).

But as my current mini-campaign winds down to its natural conclusion, I've noticed that the mid-tier undead (wights, wraiths, spectres, vampires) really lack "oomph" if they don't drain levels. They don't inspire fear or caution; they don't really justify having such a prominent class feature as clerical Turning dedicated entirely to avoiding them. (Yes, it's true that undead don't check morale, but neither do berserkers or golems, and there are no whole entire class features devoted to driving them away.) And so, last night, when the players randomly encountered a lone wight, I decided (since the campaign is nearly over anyway) to put this to the test and give level drain a try. The wight attacked one of the player characters, drained them from 3rd level down to 2nd, and… it felt right. That's what wights should do!

Beyond not wanting to disappoint and annoy players, I've held to two other opinions about level drain in the past: that it's cumbersome to apply (because removing an experience level from a player character is a fiddly exercise in numerical tedium) and it's contrary to the literary and cinematic flavor of the undead. The tedium issue proved to be a non-issue thanks to my newly redesigned character sheet, which places all of the information for each character class's level advancement right on the back of the sheet. The second issue, meanwhile, I've decided to solve by giving the mid-tier undead creatures their flavorful literary and cinematic abilities in addition to level drain rather than instead of it.

Thus: wights can either drain a level with their touch or put an enemy to magical sleep (resulting in a docile victim that's easier to drain further). Wraiths and spectres can choose to inflict disease and poison, respectively, with their touches instead of draining levels (shades of Ringwraiths and the Witch-King). And vampires can either drain levels or bite and suck blood, and the latter has the power to hasten the vampire, making it an interesting tactical choice for the monster.

On the other hand, I still don't like the idea of making drained levels so terribly permanent that the only recourse is earning those lost experience points all over again. That can still certainly be the outcome if there are no healing magicks available to alleviate the drain, but at least in principle, I want the game rules to support the possibility of healing from level drain without needing wishes or 7th level restore spells.

To that end — and also because I've come to believe that the higher-level clerical healing spells are fucking lame — I mean, a 5th level cure critical wounds spell, the same spell level at which point clerics can raise the fucking dead back to life, is only three times as effective as a 1st level cure light wounds spell? Lame — to that end, I've indulged another impulse of mine and rewritten the chain of clerical healing spells to make them notably more powerful at healing hit points, status effects, and most importantly lost levels. It's all to be found in detail on the last page of that document I've linked to up above, with the newly redesigned character sheet and class info sheet-backs and pre-calculated XP and hp totals and finally a single page of house rules. But in brief:

• Cure light wounds, level 1, range 10' (rather than touch), cures 1d6+1 hp or ghoul paralysis.
Cure moderate wounds, level 2, range 20', cures 2d6+2 hp or 1d4 points of shadow Strength drain. (Replaces know alignment on the cleric's spell list.)
Cure serious wounds, level 3, range 30', cures 3d8+3 hp to one or more targets within range (if cast on multiple targets, the cleric player rolls 3d8+3 for the total number of hit points cured and then decides how to divide those points of healing among all recipients) or cures blindness, deafness, or muteness. (The spell replaces cure blindness on the cleric's spell list.)
Cure grievous wounds, level 4, range 40', cures 4d8+4 hp to one or more targets or lifts a level drained by a wight or wraith. (Replaces cure serious wounds on the spell list.)
Cure critical wounds, level 5, range 50', cures 5d10+5 hp to one or more targets, or lifts 1d2 levels drained by a wight, wraith, spectre, or vampire.
Cure-all, level 6, range touch, cures all hp damage or any status effect or 1d3 levels drained by any monster or magic item.
Restore, level 7, can reverse the effects of staff of withering, regenerate a lost limb, restore 1d4 levels drained by any cause (including the reverse of this spell), or even restore the ability to gain XP and levels to a character who had previously been drained down to level 0.

All of the healing spells affect undead in reverse (something that was only ever canonically true, I believe, in D&D* 3rd edition—but I hold to this rule because it's a Final Fantasy mainstay and I love it). The reversed healing spells that work at range now no longer require an attack roll; instead, targets can save for half damage. This manages, I think, to keep the cause wounds spells from being utterly lame and a waste of a spell-slot. They're still not anywhere near as effective as magic-user attack spells, but they're useful in their own way. And finally, any casting of a healing spell to restore one or more lost levels to a character leaves both caster and recipient exhausted for 1 week per level restored (and the casting cleric actually drained of said levels until rest shrugs off the loss), meaning that the act of restoring lost experience levels, while much more feasible now, is never trivial or without consequences.

This manages, I think, to strike the right balance between old-school harshness and modern convenience. (Let nobody ever claim that I was some sort of hardline grognard, after all. Clearly, I'm not.) So… yeah; my classic D&D house rules have been all updated and streamlined and bashed into this shiny new document that makes them really easy to reference at the table.

And now, I suppose, I'm going to have to do pretty much the same thing for my AD&D house-rules, which are (very much like my OD&D house rules) something like 95% changes to the character classes in the game. ∎