Sunday, August 14, 2016

What Do You Mean, 'What Is It For?'?!

  Ah, the internet, where you can argue over all sorts of things. The most recent internet argument I got into was with someone explaining that monsters with a no-save level drain are badwrong and there is no reason to have them other than,
  "...imbecilic blind worship of the past..."
  Uh-huh.
  Of course, I had already pointed out some reason for having such monsters in your game, to wit;

  • Instilling terror in the players
  • Driving quests for spells, etc. to get Restoration
  • To 'throttle' level progression without nerfing XP/raising the bar or railroading players
  Now, I guess I might have just tossed in a link to a past article of mine, but there is that to say and more, so here we go.



  Before I dive in, am I saying that you MUST use no-save level drain, or any level drain?
  Nope. I never used them much, myself, although I have. In my recent 8 year AD&D 2e campaign the party has seen exactly 2 creatures capable of level drain and  the total number of levels drained = 0. Even in my 3 real year story arc of Pathin the Foul, Necromancer King I didn't use level draining undead. So they aren't required.
  But there are legitimate reasons for them to exist and to use them. And that, really, is why I think the original article is freakin' hilarious.
  Hilarious? Yes, and here's why. Less than 3 weeks ago the same author posted a rant where he railed against,
  "...[people] going around trying to subvert gaming (and ultimately destroy all the parts of gaming they don't like) by claiming that RPGs have to be...... sophisticated sensitive and brilliant"
  [grammar accurate]
  is now saying no-save level draining monsters are,
  "...stupid. It is not a clever mechanic, the kind of risk it creates is not an exciting in-game risk (like poison, or attribute drain, etc.)"
  In other words, it isn't sophisticated and brilliant, so it is bad, and wrong, and needs to removed because he doesn't like it.
  Not only is that self-contradictory, not only do I think attribute drain is not so very different, it is HILARIOUS in its lack of self-awareness.

  Let's take a look at one of the most popular, storied, and ripped-off modules ever.


  That's right, Ravenloft. Great module, I ran it for the first time the week it hit the bookstores and have run it a few times since (and will be running it as the Halloween module for my family this year). Good setting, good background, and a nice random factor. Good villain, too.
  But it was while running it that I realized what is special in-game about level draining undead.

  At the real 'high-level' D&D is a resource management game. Yeah, it is, and that's OK. 
  D&D can become a game of attrition real fast. That's OK! Everyone wants to be involved with Operation Eiche rather than being on Omaha beach, but sometimes attrition is the only way to win. 
  Undead that level drain with no save really blow the attrition curve, don't they? Figure you'll slip in, injure the foe and if you are flagging you'll fall back and recover? I mean, it works with xvarts, gnolls, giants, and vodyanoi, right?
  You get hit with a level drain and BAM! You have a long-term hit to those resources you manage, don't you?
  Ask someone why a troll is a terrible foe and they say,
  "Regeneration!"
  Which means, of course, they have a fast resource recovery cycle.
  But a no-save level drain creature messes with your resource recovery cycle, doesn't it? It means that you can't get back to where you were for a while. 

  Look at Ravenloft and imagine that none of the wights or vampires can level drain. Think about the implications, then. Huh. Now it is just a simple hit point slog, isn't it? Hit Strahd, wound him, keep that up until he has to go gaseous, then look around. Repeat until you get him another way or until you find his coffin, then kill him 'for real'. Ho-hum. 
  But with level drain Ravenloft is far from ho-hum. You must avoid a battle of attrition for one simple reason;
  Level draining largely takes attrition off the table as a viable plan.

  "But Rick!," I hear, "Aren't there other ways to do that where level drain isn't a requirement?"
  Sure, but you often end up with contrived elements, Look at the Hidden Shrine - think about the time limit in the tournament version. It is to prevent you from falling back to attrition. Most of your modules with time limits are the same - it is a meta-game tool to force you to avoid attrition.
  Level drain is in that same category, but I argue it is more flexible and less contrived. 

  It also makes me think about the sort of things the original author and others don't complain about; attribute loss, poison, insanity, paralysis, even petrification and death. Why don't I hear rants about catoblepas, medusae, giant centipedes, and ghasts as often as I do spectres?
  I have a theory. More of a hunch.
  You get turned to stone? Meh, read a scroll, I'm all better. I get paralyzed? Meh, wait and I'll be fine. Strength drain? Whatever, I have gauntlets. 
  In each case, the character is out; no more doing stuff until you are fixed or even not really affected at all, then you're back to full resources. It is like you're benched for a few plays.
  But level drain? Oooh! You lost capabilities! It is like staying on the basketball court, but in slippery socks. Being out of play is one thing, but playing badly? Quelle Horreur!
  When you add in that Restoration is a spell that can be put on a scroll, staff, etc. as easily as Raise Dead or Wish or you can just take the experience from finally killing that jerk vampire and level up again anyway and I really wonder what the issue with such a simple mechanic really is. Hell, in my Far Realms books I have a hireling that can cure level loss like it was pneumonia - just add a mechanic like that, if you like!

  You don't like level drain? Don't use it, whatever. But there are legitimate reasons to use it that have fascinating impacts on gameplay so don't call it stupid and badwrong, OK?