2019-05-21 Level Drain!

Recently, I was reading Bounded accuracy in combat: OSR, D&D 5e and Dark Fantasy Basic by Eric Diaz where he talks about his own system, Dark Fantasy Basic. Having written my own variant of the basic rules, I totally get that head-space. He was thinking about how the various numbers change as characters gain levels.

In classic D&D, this is how I see it:

  1. armour class goes down a little bit with magic armour
  2. damage goes up a little bit with magic weapons
  3. to-hit improves as characters gain levels
  4. hit-points go up as characters gain levels

The effect, however, is this: combat takes longer.

How come? If the number of characters stays the same, and the number of monsters stays the same, then it just takes more hits to kill a monster. You hit more often, true. But if the monster has ten hit-dice, and you hit ten times, that fight is still taking about ten rounds! Of course, magic items and all that make fights shorter. Once you have a total damage bonus of +3 or +4 you’re dealing twice as much damage and thus fights take half as long. But that’s still five rounds.

There are ways you can mitigate this:

  1. use a smaller number of monsters (”boss” monsters)
  2. use magic spells to kill more monsters per round (fireball and friends)

But, you might wonder, doesn’t that just make fights even easier? Yes, I agree.

If you’re like me, and you think strategy (when to fight) is more interesting than tactics (how to fight), then you’re going to aim for short fights. I certainly don’t want fights to grow longer as the campaign progresses! That’s what happened to my D&D 3.5 campaigns, and I didn’t like it.

And what’s the solution, you ask? The title gave it away, didn’t it?

The answer is:

  1. level drain
  2. save or die
  3. spells

If you goal is to keep fights between two and four rounds long, then you have to up the ante. You cannot stick to melee attacks.

Why am I not afraid of level drain?

  1. when you drain levels you’re not killing characters
  2. even if a new character joins the party with zero xp and everybody has 50,000 xp, then by the time the new character has 50,000 xp, everybody else only got up to 100,000 xp
  3. given that xp requires double for every level, having twice the amount of xp means having one more level
  4. in the long run, introducing a new character into the game is the equivalent of permanently losing a level
  5. compared to that, loosing a bunch of levels but not going all the way down to zero is simply kinder

It’s perfect. 😁

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Comments

I have a 9-years-running 3.5 game, and for a short while death (which causes loss of level for all but the most powerful raise dead effects) and level drain were an effective means of keeping the party from growing in power too quickly.

Eventually, though, the party becomes largely immune to both. Much of this immunity started with access to restoration spells, but full resurrection at level 17 (level 9 spells) cinched it. Death is now a minor annoyance (and a side quest to find diamonds for resurrection, since they’ve depleted them from towns and cities) and level drain is barely that (thanks to restoration).

It’s a conundrum, though; I’d like combats to resolve more quickly, too, but most tricks to doing this also drastically ramp up the peril for the PCs. I’m not against peril on principle, but it does change the flavor of the game when a single round of bad dice rolls is likely to result in ignoble deaths of supposedly powerful characters.

There is a system I like for that effect – Rolemaster. Playing RM tactically rather than strategically almost certainly means frequent PC deaths regardless of level, but everybody going into that is already aware, given the crit tables...

George Dorn 2019-05-22 06:04 UTC


Yeah, all points are well made. The D&D 3.5 games I was in usually started bogging down after around level 10 because combat got tricky with tons of buff spells being cast, everybody updating their numbers, rolling a handful of attacks, and all that. And with access to more and better spells eventually that, too, was just sidestepped. At that time I stopped running D&D 3.5 but if I were to do it again, and if I were to run it up into the high levels, I think what I’d do is reconsider what I’m attacking. Two things come to mind:

  1. Treat it as a game of Norse gods: it’s all about being polymorphed, kidnapped, memories wiped, imprisoned in strange dimensions. I’m still going to threaten the character, but with new threats that don’t have spells to counter them immediately. More adventuring is required.
  2. Treat it as a political game: it’s all about their followers, their kingdoms, their allies.

I’m sure the second option is not easy to pull off, though. It’s about as easy as switching from D&D to Rolemaster, I guess. 🙂

I’ve also had a long-running classic D&D campaign where people reached levels 8–9 and I started to see a lot of game nights where all I ever rolled was a reaction roll (see No Dice). So that was the beginning of a political game, I guess? Except there is little guidance in the rules on how to make a political game.

If we don’t want to go around the table just improvising the story as it goes, then we need rules to provide consequences, and dice to provide random changes to the stories we we want to tell.

All of that is to say that I don’t have a good answer to the problem and the mediocre answer I’ve settled on is to keep the game in the level range of 1–10, including level draining and raising the dead.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-22 06:23 UTC

PS: Hah, your blog post is strangely appropriate: How to die in D&D. Perfect!

PPS: I love the idea of frequent resurrections having depleted the supply of diamonds! 😀


I ran a poll on the OSR group on g+ a while back about what was worse: Death or level drain?

The clear majority voted level drain. While your reasoning may make logical sense, the “fun” aspect of the game isn’t always logical – And I think most players would say that level drain is not a very fun aspect of the game.

If the answer to high level play not working is “level drain” I think I’d rather just play with a hard cap on levels.

Anders H 2019-05-22 10:32 UTC


Hm. Possibly. I’m happy to have some powerful undead doing save or die attacks instead. 😀

To backtrack a bit, though: I really liked how Solar System or The Shadow of Yesterday did high-level play. One way to spend your XP was to increase your skill level. If you had the highest skill level available, and rolled the highest number with your dice, thus getting the highest possible result, your success changed the world in a significant way and your character is retired from play. Thus players get to decide for themselves whether their character is ready for the end game by finally deciding to increase their skill level to the max. It was beautiful and elegant, and took care of retirement, too.

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-22 11:16 UTC


For keeping the game to levels 1-10, a well-established fix is E6. Characters level up to 6, after which they can buy some additional perks with XP, but not gain any more levels. https://dungeons.fandom.com/wiki/E6_(3.5e_Sourcebook)

George Dorn 2019-05-22 18:39 UTC


At the time I first heard about it back on EN World, I got the impression that it was a way to keep the game the level 6 tier. These days, however, I’d be more interested in a game that either provided ever changing gameplay over time like D&D with its spell levels, or a game that provided for a very different experience without significant advancement like Traveller (or maybe Fate).

– Alex Schroeder 2019-05-22 20:49 UTC


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