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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Simplifying Level Loss

The great level drain debate usually includes a claim by level-drain haters that it's just too complicated to keep track of, since level affects so many other character elements. Of course, ability score drain also involves extra record-keeping, and in OD&D, the record-keeping for level drain easily beats the record-keeping for six ability scores treated as individual hit point pools. But presumably the level-drain haters are playing later editions, with all their THAC0s and proficiencies/skills and automatic ability score increases and other gewgaws. If you had to erase all that stuff as your levels drop, that would be annoying.

I'd like to tell you "don't play editions like that, then." But I doubt that would go over well.

Instead, my suggestion is to not drop skills, feats and other level-specific abilities at all. Just leave them on the sheet. If the character's ability scores increased, they stay the same. Even for spells memorized, the GM can just note that spells above a certain level aren't available and move on. The number of lower-level spells currently memorized doesn't change, nor do hit points, but once lost, they can't be regained above the normal maximum for the current level.

If you're recording THAC0 or the even more hideous BAB (or whatever the kids call it these days,) that may be a problem. But I'd suggest not using either of those and switching to Target 20 for attacks. Or, use the number of levels lost as a penalty on the roll. Alakazaam! You've eliminated another number to keep track of.

When you regain levels, you don't gain any new skills, feats, ability score improvements, or other gewgaws until you've surpassed your original level.

If you do level drain this way, there's only one thing to keep track of: the level itself. Maybe two things, if you don't trust yourself or the players to remember the highest level reached.


  1. "Or, use the number of levels lost as a penalty on the roll."

    This is exactly how its done in v3.5 and later...

    "Each negative level gives a creature the following penalties: -1 penalty on attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks."

    I think 2nd edition was the only iteration of D&D where losing a level was overly complicated (recalculating THAC0, proficiencies, etc.)

    1. Although the penalty works the same, I believe the other details of level drain work differently in 3e, though? I understood that you no longer had to earn experience to remove the penalty, as you did in older editions.

    2. That's correct; for each negative level you had in 3e there was a time limit to remove it (via Restoration and such) without repercussions - 24 hours, I think? - and then you made a saving throw for each level to see if it became a permanent penalty.

      If you did lose the level permanently a whole bunch of recalculation WAS required if I recall correctly, but the time delay meant that at least you'd typically be doing it between sessions or at least outside of combat.

  2. I think the main idea behind that one was to give you a simple hack right now and defer the complicated shenanigans until later.

    While I usually side with the grognards, I gotta admit I never really liked level drain that much as a good fit for undead. It fits well mechanically within the peculiarities of OD&D and maybe Basic, and its surely something players can dread, but I never though that the essential effects made that much sense. Why would losing life force make you forget your experiences?

    These days, I usually have the undead drain your Constitution until you become one of them. Ability damage is nice that way because it scares high-level characters just as much as weaker ones without half as much bookkeeping. I occasionally use the old style of level drain, but I reserve it for monsters like mind flayers that can actually inflict amnesia or eat your thoughts.

    1. Some people certainly like the ability drain more than the level drain, but in OD&D, it's certainly not less record keeping, unless "less" is code for "more". The character's level is a number already on the sheet and already being periodically erased and re-recorded; Constitution doesn't normally change, so adding Con drain adds record keeping.

      But, as I said, it obviously appeals to some people, so the extra record keeping may be worth the effort for them.

    2. An interesting point. I think the difference is that we are talking about two different things when we say "bookkeeping". It might explain a lot of the talking-past-each-other people seem to do over it.

      In your sense (and please, correct me if I'm misreading you), draining levels is bookkeeping-light because you already change your level, xp, hit points, spells, saves and whatnot as you play. So there's no additional overhead in how many fields you keep track of. That makes sense - I could see extra overhead especially being a bear to handle if you store your character in a form or in a software app.

      When I suggested Con drain was lower on bookkeeping, what I meant is that losing a level changes your level, then xp, then hp, then saves, then spells, (then skills, feats, or whatever other ancillary mechanics your system of choice may have). Losing Con changes your Con, and depending on system, possibly your hit points and saves (and maybe skills). That drops you to three operations instead of five or ten.

      To use a computer metaphor, the one vs the other is basically a trade-off between overhead memory and operations sent to the processor. Ability drain only comes up now and again at my table, although YMMV on that. I usually only inflict it for a few types of nonlethal poisons, a rare handful of spells, and normally level-draining undead. Since it's fairly rare - I don't ever recall anyone unfortunate enough to have two different drained abilities at once - I usually don't bother keeping a separate column for it. When it happens, we just make a note on the sheet. And when it does come up, I've found it's much faster to calculate the immediate impact without spending a long time leafing through the rules.

    3. Addendum: When I replied, I'd forgotten you'd made that suggestion about not losing level-specific abilities. I do like that suggestion - While it does blunts the pain of the lost level somewhat, it definitely does take the sting out of the calculations.

    4. Yeah, there's some talking past each other going on, plus some edition conflict. Since I talk mainly about OD&D and only occasionally refer to AD&D for examples,I'm working on the assumption that only five things on the character sheet are linked to level: xp, HD/hit points, # of spells, saves, and attack score. The latter two I tend to either look up or use Target 20, so we don't record these on character sheets when I run a game. Likewise, I generally look up # of spells when needed (OK, who am I kidding? I have it memorized.) That leaves xp and hit points... and I already long ago decided not to lower xp when a level is drained. So, if I go with my suggestion above to just let the hit points stay the same, but not let the character heal beyond the normal max for the new level, literally nothing changes on the sheet except the actual level. In contrast, lowering Con means lowering the Con bonus... and for those who use percentile system shock, that has to be lowered as well.

      Now, if I were playing 3e or using its horrible level drain rules, I'd definitely want to switch to ability score drain. Or keep using level drain, but change the horrible rules.