OSR Level Drain Alternative

Disclaimer: This post and the mechanics within are based around the rules for aging that appear in LotFP, I’ve not tested it with other OSR systems, but I believe it would work with some minor tweaking.

This post talks about an alternative I’ve started using for level-draining creatures in my game and why I chose to do so.

What’s the problem with level-drain?

So you might ask me why I don’t just use level-draining creature as is, there are a number of potential issues with it IMO:

  • All the hard work of attaining levels can be removed with a few unlucky dice rolls.
  • Depending on the creature it can slay even very touch PCs extremely quickly.
  • It can create a party imbalance if only a few of the characters get level-drained.

You could say that these things are what make level-draining creatures so scary, and that threatening the player’s precious XP and levels is sure to put the fear of God into them, and there is certainly an argument to be made in that regard, however for me I think that there’s already a threat to players XP and levels, it’s called death and occurs with enough regularity in a lot of OSR games that you don’t need a quick-acting, super death in the form of level-drainers.

An Alternate Suggestion

Noah Stevens got in touch with me on Facebook (thanks Noah) to say “I don’t know. The argument that SuperDeath is too harsh seems to me to be sort of flat when Resurrection and Reincarnation abound” and that “a couple of years here n there are nothing.”

Certainly a valid viewpoint and I can understand how the easy available of resurrection would lessen the impact of level-drain, however to the best of my knowledge such magic is not commonly availabe in LotFP (although I understand that the commonality of it varies depending on the OSR system in question), regardless I tend not to allow it at all in my own games. Without delving into the subject–which could be a series of blog articles on it’s own–I believe it lessens risk and therefore sense of achievement when the PCs triumph.

The exact amount of ‘aging’ that a PC gets from being hit by this version of Level Drain is a very good point, and i’ll admit that I’ve erred on the side of caution starting with 2D6 years, I am considering upping this to 5+2D10 years in future.

So what can we replace it with?

Well before we can replace it, I think we need to ask ourselves a couple of very important questons:

What does Level Drain represent?

The D&D3.5 SRD describes level drain attacks as “sapping a living opponent’s vital energy”, the very name of the ability (sometimes also known as Energy Drain) paints a picture of a foul monster literally drained the vitality and life out of an opponent, reducing them to a withered lifeless husk.

What is the purpose of Level Drain in game?

I think Level Drain serves a few useful purposes in OSR-style games (and probably modern D&D as well):

1. It frightens the players and places their characters in peril.

2. It ramps up the threat, circumventing the often lengthy process of whittling down HP.

3. It creates a vampiric feel to the creature they are attacking (especially since it’s often undead possessing this ability).

My replacement version

This was a problem I faced recently when prepping for my Rose of Westhaven campaign (which is run using LotFP in the Midderlands setting), my PCs are exploring a large underground cavern system with a river flowing through it, attempting to locate the source of water pollution causing trouble for the Town of Blymouth (for those not in the know, the Middlerlands is a twisted, green-tinged version of the United Kingdom, I highly recommend you check it out here). As I was creating the dungeon I placed the undead remnants of an ancient Goman (the Midderlands thinly veiled version of Romans) battalion in there, lead by Caius Veridius a Wight.

I’ve built up a small stock of OSR books now, so finding Wight stats wasn’t difficult, but they all seemed to involve Energy/Level Drain and–like I said earlier–I have a few issues with it, apart from that though I really like the creature and the concept of it. As I was leafing through my LotFP corebook looking for some inspiration, I stumbled across the aging system in Lamentations.

The way aging works in Lamentations is that when your character reaches a certain age you have to make a Saving Throw verses Poison at regular intervals (determined by your species), if the roll is failed then you lose a point off a random stat:

SpeciesNo Modifier-2-4Interval
ElfElves don’t ageElves don’t ageElves don’t ageElves don’t age

The rules also specify that anyone aged by magical means has to make all Saving Throws that would have need to be made if the aging had occurred naturally immediately, with any ability score penalties also being applied immediately.

This seems like a great way of representing Energy Drain to meet, what better way to represent the life-force being leeched out of you than by reducing a strong, burly warrior to a decrepit, aging husk in the space of a few moments. Not really having clear guidelines on how to pitch this I decided to have the Wight age a character by 2D6 years when they hit, in addition to the normal damage, although–in hindsight–since most characters tend to start in their prime and humans don’t even start making rolls until they hit 40, I may up this a little in the future.

Another cool thing that came out of this during the session was that the players tried to bar a door against the Wight, and I decided that–since the Wight could age things–that it would use it’s abilities to rot the wooden door and pursue them, it also gave me some cool visuals for the lair with everything rusting and in a state of decay.

Maximum Age

One thing that a player brought up–and that I hadn’t considered–is what is the maxium age of the various species in the game, I couldn’t find any real guidelines for this in LotFP (save that Elves are immortal) so I searched around the internet and found maxium age figures on the 3.5SRD), which suggested the following.

SpeciesMaximum Age (in years)
ElvesDo not age and are effectively immortal.