Level Draining Is Metagaming

June 2013

Written by Bryan Fazekas

This article was originally published in & Magazine Issue 2 in August 2012


This is certainly an inflammatory title for an article. Next to alignment, level draining is possibly the most argued and divisive topic in Dungeons and Dragons. Many players express a horror of level draining that transcends character death they'd rather have their character killed than level drained.

What is level draining? In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) level draining is an attack form used by some undead, plus an effect connected to a few magic items and one spell. The effect upon a player character (PC) is to remove one or more levels of experience, including loss of hit points and skills gained at those level(s), plus the loss of the experience points (xp) used to attain those level(s). According to the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide (DMG) on page 119, a PC's xp total is reduced to the mid-point of the next lower level.

The problem is with the last part experience points. For illustration, we have a pair of 2nd level fighters, one has 4,001 xp and the other has 7,801 xp. Each faces a wight. If both are drained of one level each now has 3,001 xp. Fighter #1 lost 1,000 xp while #2 lost 4,800 xp. For further illustration fighter #3 is 10th level with 740,001 xp having one level drained reduces her to 375,001 xp, a total loss of 365,000 xp!

Let's contrast that. Instead of a wight, the foe is a fighter armed with a long sword. A successful hit on any of the above fighters inflicts 1d8 points of damage regardless of their level or amount of xp.

Hence the contention that level draining is a form of metagaming, which is using out of game knowledge to dramatically affect the game.

Replacing Level Draining

Whether players like level draining or not, level draining undead scare the bejeebers out of everyone. Any replacement mechanism must inspire a similar sense of dread. Hence Mind and Body Draining, which is just as nasty, maybe more so:

Some undead notably wights, wraiths, spectres, and vampires have the ability to drain the mind and/or body when striking a victim. These horrible undead are difficult for even the bravest to approach, and being within touching distance invites long lasting harm.

Draining undead possess a fear aura all non-supernatural creatures coming within 30' of such an undead must save vs. Wand or flee as per the Fear spell, e.g., flee for one round per hit die of the undead. Note that characters making their saving throw will have to save again if that same undead is met during a separate encounter, and characters failing their saving throw must save again when coming within 30' of that undead.

The physical attack of these monsters is vampiric in nature, e.g., the number of points inflicted is added to the monster's hit point total, up to a maximum of double the monster's normal maximum. Hit points above the normal maximum begin draining away after 6 turns at a rate of one hp/round.

Far worse, however, is the chilling touch of these monsters which drains the mind and/or body of the victim in addition to inflicting bodily damage. Draining undead leech 1d3 points of strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, constitution, or charisma from their victims on a successful hit! There is equal chance for which attribute a given undead drains roll 1d6 to determine which. A group of similar undead, e.g., wights, may all drain different attributes.

Some rare draining undead will drain multiple attributes with a single strike. Roll on the Attributes Drained Table on the next page to determine how many attributes are affected.

If the undead drains more than one attribute, roll randomly for which attributes are affected (as above). Note that it is possible for a draining undead to drain an attribute doubly or triply. Roll 2d3 or 3d3 for points drained in this case. The most potent draining undead, spectres and vampires, always drain two attributes and may possibly drain three, four, or even six! [Roll twice on the table.]

Attributes Drained Table

d100# Attributes Affected
01-90any one attribute affected
91-99any two attributes affected
00any three attributes affected

The attribute drains are permanent unless the draining undead is slain by the following dawn. Should that happy event occur the victim may make a saving throw vs. Death Magic for each point lost, with success indicating that a week of bed rest will restore the point. Alternately, a Lesser Restoration, Restoration, Alter Reality, Limited Wish, or Wish will restore the lost attributes, although all but Alter Reality and Wish will require one week of bed rest for each point regained. Restoration, Alter Reality, and Wish will restore the lost attributes even if the undead is not slain within the time limit; Lesser Restoration and Limited Wish will not.

The worst effect, however, is the Curse of the Damned. Each hit on a victim inflicts a cumulative -1 penalty per die on all "to hit", damage, saving throw, and other rolls, although all die rolls will be a minimum of 1 per die. Also, any spells or spell-like effects cast by the victim are cast as if the victim were that many levels lower with respect to range, area of effect, and damage. For example a 5th level magic user struck twice by a wraith would have a -2 on all die rolls and cast spells as if 3rd level. This does not prevent spells from being cast, e.g., this character can still cast a Fireball, but the effects are determined as if the character were 3rd level and each die of damage is at -2 with a minimum of one point per die. Note that the more powerful draining undead (spectres and vampires) inflict a cumulative -2 penalty. Each application of Remove Curse, cast at a level equal to or higher than the hit dice of the attacking undead, will remove a "-1" of the curse, e.g., the above magic user will require two applications of Remove Curse.

Note that the effects occur only with the monster's natural attacks. Should the undead use a weapon there is no draining or curse inflicted, nor do effect occur simply by touching the undead.

If the character dies while suffering the Curse of the Damned, she will rise again in three days as the type of undead that afflicted her. Should the character be unlucky enough to be cursed by more than one type of draining undead, roll randomly for which she will rise as. Note: If the character is raised from the dead before rising as undead the transformation will still take place. zRemove Curse cast upon a dead or newly raised character will prevent her from rising, although it must be cast at a level twice the hit dice of the attacking undead to prevent the transformation.

Fixing Level Draining

Many DMs like level draining but think it's too hard to fix one of the problems of level draining is that a cleric of 16th level must be available to cast Restoration. In contrast a dead character only needs a cleric of 9th level to cast Raise Dead. The following spell offers a correction for this oddity, a lower level version of Restoration.

Lesser Restoration

by David Stairs

Type:Necromantic
Level:Cleric 5
Components:V, S, M
Range:touch
Casting time:2 rounds
Duration:Perm
Saving Throw: none
Area of Effect:1 Person

This is a lesser form of Restoration which has a time limit: it must be cast on the recipient within 1 hour per level of the caster, from the time of the victim's LAST energy drain. As part of the material components, the recipient must sacrifice a gem worth at least 5,000 GP gem to the god(ess) granting the spell.

After the preparations are made, which requires a prayer by both the caster and recipient, the recipient makes a saving throw vs. Spells. If the save is successful the most recent level draining is now only temporary, and the lost level(s) will return after 24 hours. If failed, then the level(s) can only be restored with the 7th level Restoration spell, or gaining more experience.

If the drain was a single level, the save versus Death is at -1. Each casting of the spell allows the regaining of one draining from most recent, to first gained. If being used on a dual drain, the above spell can be used, but the victim makes the save at a -4 penalty.

Example: Jurgen the paladin was drained four times from 11th level down to 5th level, by two wraiths (2 levels each) and two wights (1 level each). The 2 wights were last in the combat to hit him. Phillius the cleric accepts the sacrifice of a valuable gem for his god and casts Lesser Restoration within 10 hours of the last draining.

Jurgen's first save is a 19, and so will gain that level back (from 5th to 6th) after 24 hrs. The second save (for 6th to 7th) unfortunately is a 3 and fails. The third and fourth are both natural 20's (now why could he not have had those in combat!), and will regain those four levels. At the end of the day he is back to 10th level, but has to wait until Sir Hecktric the High Priest shows up, for a chance at the regular Restoration.

NOTE: The level draining for the above spell, refers only to levels lost to undead or other creatures who remove life levels, NOT to age, ability stat reductions, nor to spells/magic items that remove levels.


Sidebar: What is Metagaming?

Taken from Wikipedia:

Metagaming is a broad term usually used to define any strategy, action or method used in a game which transcends a prescribed ruleset, uses external factors to affect the game, or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game. Another definition refers to the game universe outside of the game itself.

In simple terms, it is the use of out-of-game information or resources to affect one's in-game decisions.

In role-playing games, a player is metagaming when they use knowledge that is not available to their character in order to change the way they play their character (usually to give them an advantage within the game), such as knowledge of the mathematical nature of character statistics, or the statistics of a creature that the player is familiar with but the character has never encountered. In general, it refers to any gaps between player knowledge and character knowledge which the player acts upon.


Copyright 2013 Bryan Fazekas