On Reader Mail, Level Drain

Owen writes:

"So, I've been enjoying your Hack & Slash blog suggestions for HotDQ. 

I ran the beginning of Castle Naerytar the other evening and I liked your suggestion of using the Pale Eye cultists so much, the party ran smack into two of the level draining faceless white witch-things.

The foolish druid ignored them in favor of another opponent and was bitten twice. Bam. Two levels. I hadn't given much thought to how levels might or might not be restored.

What are your thoughts?"

Oh, this old chestnut again! A new edition and it rears its head up to bedevil new players. 

Level drain officially doesn't exist in 5th edition. This is the replacement: 

"The target's hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the necrotic damage taken, and the creature regains hit points equal to that amount. The reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0."
People don't like level drain. It isn't fair. It takes away something that took weeks (or longer) to earn.

That is the point!

You aren't supposed to like it. You aren't supposed to get rid of it with a long rest or a spell. You are supposed to stop and say "That creature is terrifying!" and really not like what it can do to you.

Of course, modern players and their ideas of what's "fair" and not wanting to have anything bad happen to them may create a situation where your milage may be fluctuating independently of my experience.

Being that this is 5th edition, I would have each hit drain 2d4x500 experience. I would not reduce the experience level (with death at 0 experience), I would just require them to earn back the experience before they could continue gaining experience. The reason for this is twofold.

  • First, very little actually happens when you gain a level in 5th edition. In general, unless it's a threshold level (5, 10, etc.) Your to hit bonus isn't going to change, your hit points are going to differ only slightly, and you'll lose a class feature or two. It is simultaneously difficult to track and not globally significant. (Yes, on a stat gain level, it might increase your chance to hit and strength checks and some such, but whatever the penalty is, isn't usually global, even if it is a little important for a subsystem like combat.)
    • In summation, the complexity far outweighs the benefit of tracking the reduction in level, unless that level is a threshold level, and even in that case it's better to be consistent.
  • They still lose the experience, putting them that much father from the next level. This is a painful enough consequence that it will make them seriously consider the strength of your opponent. 
That said, it is wonderful to hear about people using materials you create in the world! It's even nicer to hear from people who use them. For those of you enjoy my posts or who have used my materials in your games, you can thank the great team of patrons who made it possible! Without them, there would be no blog compendium, no Hoard of the Dragon Queen conversions, no blog posts at all since 2013! I would have needed to move on. 

Right now those Patrons are making an art-filled ecology book possible, as well as allowing me to donate to the cancer research foundation so they can find new ways to combat cancers, so that maybe other people in the future don't have to go through what my wife is going through.  

Thank you. It's an honor.

Hack & Slash 
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  1. Level drain are indeed something the characters hate and fear. Loosing levels at the table is a an abobination because you might have to recalculate atack bonuses, DCs and you have to backtrack which abilities you lost and everything. And then you have to earn back those levels to regain the same abilities you were used to have.

    Draining XP instead in an interesting choice, since it slow back the character progression and causes less hassle for the character since it's retain his abilities.

    But the thing is ... what is a level drain on the fiction side of the game ... usually it's a creature that steals your life force to heal it self up.

    How interacting with my ability to learn new stuff is helping with that ?!

    And the suggested approach of DND 5e isn't better, hit points are suppose to represent an abstract value of "evading" hits that would have kill you. That's why characters starts to show bruises and cuts at half hp and actual injuries at/near 0 hp.

    So in 5e hp aren't your life force either and that explain why you do not loose any capabilities between 100% hp and 1 %hp.

    The thing that actually track life force in 5e is the Exhaustion Levels. The more your are exhausted the harder things get to be accomplished and after to many exhausting effect (6) you simply die.

    So I have the impression that a "level draining" creature should instead apply 1 level (or more) of exhaustion on the character and then heal it-self up.

    That way, you can still threaten a character to kill it through "life force draining" monsters, it fits in the narrative and it doesn't impact the character class or abilities.

    And since Exhaustion level are reduce by taking a long rest, it slows a little bit the adventurer be cause they don't want to encounter too many "life force draining" monsters in a single day or on multiple following days.

    And if you use multiples sources for exhaustion, like lack of food and water, force march or anything else you think should exhaust a character (spell deprivation, carrying heavy stuff around, intense cold/heat, etc), the threat represented by exhaustion just becomes more and more real.

    But hey that's my two cents

    1. No, it's a good idea. But I don't think gaining a level of exhaustion really puts the fear of Dungeon Master into the players. It's a great mechanical solution, but doesn't seem to make characters really fear undead.

      Taking their experience? Pee their boots.

  2. That's more or less the approach I wound up taking in 3e when it came to coming back from the dead. It wasn't from a desire to shield the pain of death, but rather from the bother of constantly rewriting the character sheet. It's easy to forget to take out something, though nobody forgets to add stuff when leveling up, and the way 3e handled XP meant that not really being a level lower reduced the rate you earned XP.

  3. I remember readings an ACKS play report where the GM replaced level drain with aging. The amount of aging was proportional to the race with humans aging 1d4 years and elves aging 8d4 years.

  4. In a recent game, I gave the players one level of exhaustion (which results in disadvantage on ALL saves) and they totally adjusted all their plans so they could rest in a safe place. You might want to review just exactly how bad exhaustion is. It's easier to get rid of, but still very scary.

    I've been doing a couple of other things with Exhaustion. If a party's rest is interrupted, they get a level of exhaustion. I also rule that anytime a PC is brought to 0 hp they get a level of exhaustion. Factor in that a full rest only removes 1 level of exhaustion, and you have a fairly scary mechanic if some undead add exhaustion. It also requires way less contorted explanations than XP loss or whathaveyou.

  5. If my players complain about level drain (they don't) I just make the attack save or die (and return as unspeakable dead thing). Seems fair.

    That said I think level drain is a very nasty trick monster attack - but it's a good one insofar as it is very nasty (a permanent stat drain would be somewhat similar), and I could see the 5e necrotic damage thing working if the HP loss lasted until a remove curse or the like was used, so avoiding the stigma of level drain. Because of its potency I don't feel right sticking level drain on monsters that don't fall into the traditional level draining category of "scary undead", but then if a party tangles with scary powerful dead things they deserve what's coming to them.


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