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Monday, July 12, 2010

Levels As Memory?

One of the things I've noticed about the perennial debates about level/energy loss due to undead or demonic attack* is people complaining about or supporting the interpretation of energy drain as loss of memory.

A 4th level thief is attacked by a wight. Its chilling touch drains the thief to 3rd level. The thief can no longer use the Read Languages ability. Is this because the thief is so badly shaken to the depths of his soul that he just feels too confused to decipher maps, or is it because he really forgot how to do that? A 5th level MU is drained to 4th level and loses 3rd level spells; is this because she can't muster the strength of will needed for spells of that power, or is it because she forgot how to cast Fireball?

I realize that some people think of levels as linked to training or education, partly because of the "class creep" that introduced new classes who gained specific abilities at specific levels, partly because of later additions like weapon and non-weapon proficiencies. But it still stuns me that, even if people want a skill system or training in class abilities, they would interpret reduction of those abilities as forgetting how to perform those tasks. There's nothing in legend, literature, or even the original books that characterizes the undead as causing forgetfulness.

You would think that people wouldn't interpret energy drain as memory drain, since this raises the question: does that MU have to re-roll the chance to add Fireball to her spell books? Does the thief have to pay the training costs for increasing a level, if you are using those rules?

* Funny also that no one complains about the AD&D rule about losing a level because of alignment change. But I'm against that interpretation of alignment, myself, so I won't dwell on it. Still, why would changing alignment make you forget anything?


  1. It probably comes primarily from the name of what's lost, Experience Points. What other way is there to quantify 'experience' than by accumulated memories? It's a logical assumption to make, especially combined with the points you made about being able to do something pre-attack, and not being able post-attack.

    But like you, I try not to over analyze or rationalize the game mechanics from a game world perspective. Undead are scary to characters because they drain your life force away. They're scary to players because they drain your hard earned XP. The two don't need to synch up rationally, as long as they both provide the same emotional response, which they do.

  2. The XP issue is another thing that bothers me. Several of the complainants offer a "fix" of the level drain mechanics: instead of draining levels, undead drain XP. This is to avoid the "illogic" of higher-level characters losing more XP from a wight's touch than a lower-level character.

    In my mind, XP does not represent anything in the game world. It's a metagame concept. I'd rather say that the touch of certain undead reduces the character's effect level instead of draining XP. This also lets the DM say that each successive adventure that earns even 1 XP restores one lost level, softening the long-term blow.