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Thursday, March 8, 2012

Up or Down the Drain?


The lead quote in my previous ramble about turning to stone also mentions Energy Drain (I use this term and 'Level Drain' more or less interchangeably here, btw), which is another marvelously contested "old-school" mechanic. I won't even go into how much the topic has been debated, house-ruled, championed, and railed against. Let me just say I like it, but also recognize its imperfections.

Beedo, over at Dreams in the Lich House, had a nice little poll and post about E.D. last fall that's worth a read. It covers most of what I consider the salient points in the Pros & Cons of any E.D. discussion, including:
  • It's scary, and scary = cool.
  • We old farts don't have as much time to game anymore. Losing a level or two can take a WHILE to bounce back from, which some find frustrating.
  • Everybody and their blink dog has taken a stab at house-ruling it. 


There is a saying that comes up at my table from time to time, usually when some mechanic of classic D&D or a retro-clone is brought under scrutiny. "You can't 'fix' D&D." This doesn't mean D&D is a "broken" or hopeless game. It's the idea that for all its rough patches and quirks, it's still the patriarch, the fount from which our hobby springs. While house-rules and so forth are perfectly acceptable expressions of our interest and involvement in the game, to try and "fix" the game's foibles is an often futile attempt to make it into something other than the inspiring mess that it sometimes seems to be. 

Now you can take that idea or leave it, but the upshot of it is that I tend to play the game more or less as written. That's not to say I don't have my own pet house rules and heartbreaker concepts; I most definitely do! That said, I feel that it's often better to step back and say "It's a GAME! And the rules say ___ works like that." If it really rankles, then it may be time for a house rule that keeps it fun for your group. Of course, one can always look at it for what it is, and choose to play a different game too. There are so many good ones out there to try.
[Stepping off the soapbox and back on topic.] 

Let me assume the role of the Old School Energy Drain Apologist (OSEDA) here: So losing a level sucks? Yer damned right it does! You say it took you 6 months of game play to reach 4th level and now you're 1st again? Wow, maybe next time run away! You say it's 'not fair' that your 8th level magic-user effectively lost 70K experience, but the 8th level thief 'only' lost 40K and that the 3rd level fighter henchman only lost 2K? News flash:
  1. Life ain't fair.
  2. A seventh level magic-user is still WAY more powerful than the 7th level thief and 3rd level fighter COMBINED.
  3. If you're that torqued about it, find a powerful cleric and shell out some loot for Restoration Spells.* 
  4. You COULD have been drained to 0 and be that Spectre's towel boy by now.
*Which, I know, isn't in BX. But it is in the Rules Cyclopedia and LL's AEC.

I could go on, but you get the gist of it. Now, I'd like to present a few caveats and addendums, if I might.

  1. Like petrify, monsters with this ability should be rare outside of certain environments (i.e. a vampire's castle, a necropolis teeming with undead, etc.). I'm guilty of periodically tossing a level drainer at the party in a random encounter, but that doesn't mean it was my finest DMing moment.
  2. Most creatures that have this ability are turnable by clerics. 
  3. A DM should make it possible for the PCs to be forewarned about the threat. i.e. rumors in town, hints in the dungeon, etc.
  4. A DM ideally should know his group well enough to judge how to balance the "Fun vs. Fear" factor of such an encounter. 
  5. Players need to remember that older D&D is more about exploration and treasure, and less about a series of toe-to-toe fights with monsters. (There's a reason most XP comes from loot.) If you encounter some wights and the cleric's turn attempt fails, consider whether this is a fight you really need to have. If not, spike the door shut and run away! 
  6. Higher level PCs with more XP to lose should conversely be better prepared to face such foes, and more able to "heal" the effects if they get unlucky.
  7. There's nothing inherently wrong with house rules about things like temporary vs. permanent drain, saving throws, etc. Use 'em if they work for you. 

D&D already has so many things in it that reduce consequences: magical healing and raise dead; spell-casting that nearly always works in a predictable  and consistent manner; escalating hit points, a plethora of magic items, saving throws, etc. Most DMs (over 12) aren't on an ego trip, trying to squash the miserable PCs, they want to play the game with their friends, but also maybe have a cool story emerge. A cool story needs challenges and sometimes those challenges need to be daunting, or even scary. It seems to me that having a few things in the game that are unequivocally bad news –beyond just a bigger damage die– isn't such a bad thing.



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