Sunday, 1 August 2021
Fear of Level Draining is Silly: How I learned to Love Mortality
Fear of Level Draining is Silly
One big cry about retro rules gaming is effects like poison=death, petrification=inconveniance, mummy rot=stat loss or death and most feared level drain. There are lots of adjacent game theory things here. This is one of those legendary topics many have opinions on from legends not actual experience.
First of all, in d&d death is a temporary condition fixable with several spells. So are the above problems. All fixable with spells. Please don't cry Im here for you. Death, Disease, Poison, Petrification are not so bad. Undead are creepy but losing a few levels is far from the worst fate.
One problem is record keeping. Changing all that stuff on your records and outraging players senses of achievement built into levels is not very fun. I personally just worry about spells and hp and class abilities and I don't get pedantic about it because this is impermanent so don't worry too much and everyone doesn't get too worked up about it. Some people find attribute loss easier to manage which is one fix instead of levels and Shadows do this and my last cleric died this way and became a shadow in a well of shadows and players were sad they couldn't even get the corpse.
I recommend making it clear magic can fix all these problems and the ease that these basic spells are accessible in a campaign is more of a conceptual problem. I do think the level restoring spells in some versions are a bit high and should be easier than raising the dead. So I think id rather see Restoration as a 4th Level spell is better.
Treating death and death like conditions in-game requires spells prohibitive by cost for lower-level heroes. But I love it because players become obligated to do a quest for a church which is great for side quests. Even death is just a condition and where you have a corpse there is still hope. Undead monsters can be resurrected and apparently intact with levels that seems cheaper than casting several rejuvenation spells so another reason to drop that spell level as later editions have.
Wizards can anti petrify you too and a wish is probably the only way to get back a disintegrated character. BECMI d&d has an empire with thousands of 36 Lv wizards and dungeons with millions of gp at high-level play so there has gotta be a market here or a chance to get in debt to a wizard. I know half of the Alphasian wizards are too high to magic properly but I'm sure a few are straight sometimes. Maybe that wizard needs drugs urgently in return.
Not all settings should this be easy or available but with conditions like this you need to give players some hope of recovery within a session to two tops (by familiar demon told me its true so checks out).
I like more variety in my poisons than dnd and I think interesting delays add tension. Like losing 1hp around or person choking needs an hour of first ait breathing to help to survive. Lots of animal poisons vary and need more finesse. Weird magical poisons and stranger effects should be a thing. Ad&d has a slow poison which sorta does stuff but I think needs some refinement to get a victim to a healer in time. Later rulings many poisons were metabolised and harmless under the spell but it seemed a bit vague. Even having a character poisoned fall and take hours to die while helpless would be more dramatic and would make it possible to save them and use anti poion magic or treatments. Local first nations people living with lots of the worlds worst snakes advocated roll up in a blanket in shelter asap and don't move a few days so the poison doesn't move around and gets metabolised - people still use this as people get isolated easily in the desert and bush. Obviously calling medical help is no1 don't go and get bitten by snakes to prove me wrong.
Petrification in older dnd was often like save or stoned. Your soul in some takes was trapped inside until destroyed which seems like a good way to make a haunted statue. Getting fixed even in computer games is just a pricey potion or a spell away. Modern monsters using this power don't seem so threatening to me but I approve of newer HD on them or why not have both a thing. AT least it is low on paperwork and could be a good way to time jump your gameworld to some future de-petrification event.
I once had a fighter in 2nd ed dnd and I was the fighter and I was playing simply. We at low level were battling stuff way beyond us mostly in wilderness weeks from friendly humanoid creatures. In a crypt a mummy attacker and I got hit blocking for the magic guys and archers. I got mummy rot and it was going to kill me in x days from stat loss. So we asked any healers in area. No. Any within days or any cures we know of. No. Next session I'm still dying and we fight a frost giant that could have killed us all. I get the Oregon trail survivalist games and ok for a scene in a rpg but not great for sessions. Eventually, near-death I gathered all these explosive potions and single-handedly went to suicidally bomb a monster that was the only thing we had seen in days. I exploded and rolled most dice ever. Club came and watched and cheered as handfuls of dice rolled and I was dead. Awesome. Monster was unharmed and rest of the party fled and the monster never got comeuppance. I was asked about my next character but I was a bit over the style of play of being tortured and ineffective and doomed without hope for 3 sessions so I left. Also DM told me he loved women just not lesbian communist-nazi witches like our Prime Minister at the time (who was slandered by Murdoch press lot). So It was easy to walk away and I didn't feel like ragequitting. What's the version of ragequitting but sleepier and about boredom?
The point is here we were affected by conditions and never given a hint of being able to survive and failed at any suggestions to solve the problem and it was used to rob us of hope.
If you get some crippling condition a chance to retreat, recover and return should be a thing. If your gonna pull a kill/petrify party thing to capture them do it quickly and move on within a session. If you wanna pull s torturous oregon trail trip of suffering and ordeals just make it a scene and not multiple sessions. You don't have to Tolkien crawl your way across the world suffering all the time. Extending crippling conditions over sessions could be done but Id prefer a warning and Im not sure DnD is the right game for that.
If you dont like revolving doors in fantasy to the underworld consider current X-Men comics where Proff X dies and none of the x-men react too much because they know x-men deaths don't take hold. It is kind of interesting to see superheroes do this. Letting people make new characters on death equivalent to their older ones (or their younger sibling) or something new at least makes death interesting for some players. Making new players start at Lv1 or too far behind is a bit harsh If they died doing all the right things and saved the party. Playing a follower to level up and inherit stuff is a possibility too. Champions had a "Radiation Accident" option to have a character on death or missing only to return re-designed with new abilities, the same person just new abilities. With modern plane shifting superheroes this gets even easier.
As games now include so much more backstory tables and effort vs older games it is no surprise death is less acceptable. In a BX game, someone died a new character in the first room. Rolled a new slightly different character and was able to join in under 5 minutes. If I spent an hour filling out my character sheet and coming up with my funny voice and died in the first room id be upset too. Building characters is a lot of the fun of games and the dnd level system puts it in the foreground.
Using these medical conditions to drive quests and drama and hope works better than just murdering folks or robbing their achievements. Also, this makes players think of that time they were critically injured and a bunch of stuff happened not they had to do record keeping.
Pendragon as an RPG has a different economy of injury vs inconvenience vs recovery time to d&d. 70s dnd and modern dnd also have very different economies of medical inconvenience but I like they have the option now to play the older way. Lots of ppl going from dnd to Cthulhu don't realise how serious wounds are and how long it will take to recover them. One adventure a year campaigns are pretty fun really (see Pendragon). The conceit of faux risk in games varies quite a bit in feel from game to game or table to table. I guess as games are increasingly designed for sorter times and shorter campaigns and smaller dungeons the style of risk vs reward will adjust accordingly. Whatever the feature of you game rules and in-game penalties, don't use them just to ceaselessly crush your players hope or make life too easy.
I've seen options for the undead that drain hp that doesn't heal without magic or stat drains are fine (the same spell to fix as level drain some eds). They are all fine but id just makes new undead using those interesting ideas. Obviously, over editions, the idea of level draining and its power/utility dropped. Went from a 9th lv spell to drain or restore some levels to wraithform spell that let you drain people later and then spells to fix have dropped levels.
Being harmed, killed or injured are good things to happen because without suffering you are not heroic. Have fun and dont worry about the bad stuff.