Thursday, November 22, 2012

In Defense of Level Drain

The always-interesting RPGPundit has a post over at his blog that takes aim at the level-drain mechanic. I was going to reply there, but my reply became so long I figured I'd turn it into a post of its own. While I agree with the main point of his post (that nostalgia for its own sake is not necessarily a good thing), I'll take a stab at defending the level drain mechanic. Specifically, he says:
But let's think about this: is there anyone who actually LIKES level-draining no-save monsters? Really?  I think no one really likes these. Its stupid. Its not a clever mechanic, the kind of risk it creates is not an exciting in-game risk (like poison, or attribute drain, etc), but rather something that steals away your accomplishments.  Its a hassle for GMs too, to put these monsters in the right amounts, knowing that if things go badly one of them can seriously disrupt your campaign... or end up doing fuck all.
I would argue that level drain makes a lot of sense in the type of campaign that was prevalent at the beginning of the hobby, and which has made a comeback in certain corners of the OSR. It's a perfect embodiment of the logistical challenge-type game, where difficulty in the dungeon is assessed (roughly) by how deep one is and succor is available for a (high) price. I speak of course of the megadungeon-with-nearby-settlement game.

For example, a group adventuring on level 7 of a dungeon, which is suddenly decreased in experience level from 8 to 6 by wights, has gone from being slightly overpowered for the level to being slightly underpowered. This represents an unexpected logistical challenge that the PCs will then have to overcome; do they go back to the surface to regroup, move to a higher (= less challenging) level of the dungeon, or do they press on, knowing that they're now somewhat outclassed? In that sense, it does indeed add to risk in the game.

Bear in mind, too, that level drain is no more permanent in such a game than is character death. How is losing a level any more "stealing away accomplishments" than losing an entire character? Level drain is, in such a game, an opportunity to skim large amounts of g.p. from characters (by hiring a cleric to cast the spell restoration), just the same as character death is relatively easily solved by hiring a cleric to cast raise dead or resurrection. Such wealth-draining opportunities are a time-honored tradition of the game.

Now, in a more modern-style game, where encounters are more individually tailored (and which are more often arrayed sequentially to further a particular plot), it may well be that energy level drain becomes a problem, although I might argue that, even then, it becomes yet another challenge to be overcome.

I would say that it presents more of a problem in games where ready access to high-level spell casters willing to be hired to cast spells such as restoration and raise dead is not necessarily a given. But again, how is losing a level any worse than losing a character? In that sense, level drain is a much preferable alternative to death. Does losing a level seriously disrupt a campaign any more than killing a character by poison? In a game where restoration spells are available (even if they are very expensive), the answer is no.

It's one thing to say that level drain doesn't work logistically in a plot-driven game. It's quite another to say that it doesn't work in *any* style of game. It works well as a mechanic in the type of game I run, because it fits in with the other mechanics around it. So yeah, I like level drain, but not for the sake of nostalgia or atavism.


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Happy Thanksgiving

On this Thanksgiving day, let us all give thanks to whatever God, Gods, Goddesses, or anthropomorphized embodiment of fate we believe in for those good things that fill our lives. Best wishes and great fortune to everyone.