The Mechanic Series part 1: Energy Drain

In my last post I got some slack because I enjoy the AD&D rules, and strive to adhere to them as close as possible, however this doesn’t imply that I never question the game, after all, that is what DMs are expected to do. I have never played this game with blind faith alone, I never said that I did, I always recommend looking at the rules and questioning why they are there. I do suggest taking AD&D and turning it into your own personal hotrod! Like a mechanic, the DM should know what is under the hood of his rules, and how they all function. I do enjoy tweaking and meddling, if I didn’t, then I’d probably play the 3rd Edition. I enjoy the leeway that AD&D provides, and it does allow you to do stuff all on your own. What I do want is a properly balanced game; I believe that balance is what keeps AD&D functional for the long term.

There are always two sets of rules in play, the core rules and supplemental rules. One can tinker with supplemental rules and create their own, which keeps the game fresh and interesting, but when it comes to the core rules, you really have to question implications and consequences of altering it.

Supplimental rules have to comply with Core Rules, else the game falls apart, but what if you really don’t like the core rule? I’d like to lift up the hood of AD&D with you and examine what’s in there. Things that annoy lots of people and are usually house ruled, or even dramatically altered in later additions.
We’ll call it, The Mechanic Series.


I dare say that no attack is more terrifying to players than this one, instead of just taking hit points from your beloved character, this attack takes Hit Dice! Some feel that this is the most broken mechanic in the core rules.
This attack is a 9th level Wizard Spell, but primarily it is the teeth of powerful undead creatures. It has been with the game since the beginning, and it was, at one point easier to deal with, but with the advanced mechanics of AD&D, it becomes more difficult. Players may lose proficiencies, spell levels, or thief abilities, which if you let it, can take away from the excitement of a really good encounter. You don’t want to stop your exciting battle with the Vampire just so that everybody can modify their characters down two levels for every hit; the DM will have to keep track of these changes in his head until the scenario is completed, and then deal with the actual damage done on the Character Sheets.


Players complain that they didn’t get a saving throw; however, they kind of did. This is a touch attack; the creature must make a successful attack against your armor class, so in effect the DM rolls your saving throw.

Players also may gain access to this spell themselves, once a mage can cast 9th level spells, or if they find magical treasure that casts this spell for them. But, is it really balanced? I think that it is, I’ve heard people claim that it is a fate worse than death! But here is the deal; you will eventually get all of this stuff back. It may take awhile, but you’ll do it. Some DMs have home brew rules which actually make this thing worse! Permanent Stat reduction, or permanent hit point loss is much worse in the long term than just losing a couple of HD. Personally, I find Energy Drain to be quite elegant and clean. It doesn’t require extra book keeping, and if you haven’t dealt with a death at its hands, then you just don’t know what you are missing!

I have also heard that this ability is particularly devastating during Adult games which can only be played once a month if you are lucky. It can take years to recover the XP lost in infrequent games; to this I say, have you got something better to do? This allows players to play their favorite characters longer, as once they hit 20th level, the game will fall apart and they’ve got to retire the thing anyway. Besides, a well used Energy Drain can keep players in the proverbial sweet spot longer than they normally would be.

If we take out Energy Drain, then we have fundamentally destroyed our undead, you wouldn’t take away a dragon’s breath weapon because the attack is too devastating, that is the point! And Energy Drain is the point behind using powerful undead. Where it becomes a problem is when it is abused by the DM. Any creature that uses this attack requires intent on the part of the DM; it is his job to keep this in balance. If one abuses it, or if the dice-gods are angry, it can make it impossible for the players to complete the scenario that was prepped; this will lead to total party kill, or the DM cheating in favor of the players which undermines the game.


Energy Drain isn’t always a bad thing for our games, but players do get frustrated, so we should give hints that a creature is capable of it. Players will modify their tactics if they know that they are going to have to deal with a vampire, this is good for the game as it is exciting to risk your character in this way, but we don’t want to constantly drop this on their heads for no real reason, powerful undead are special and should be memorable. We’ve got to respect what they bring to the table and keep them rare, and never old-hat.

If you really don’t want to drop an energy drain on your players, you can create a lesser undead who has a different attack which is comparable but not as permanent, however I have seen some strange over compensation which actually turned out worse than just using the attack itself. Permanent HP loss which can never be regenerated is one example I’ve played with; by the time that you are high level you really start to feel it. Permanent Stat Loss is bad too, and has effects which last longer than Energy Drain as well. I’ve even seen people claim that this was temporary, and would only last 2 months, meanwhile it would had only taken a couple of adventures to reclaim the HD through play.

If you are adamant, you can make yourself some options, for instance instead of taking away an entire HD per touch, one touch takes a percentage of XP, or if you like math (and I know you do!) you can calculate something like: A successful attack by the Lesser Wight drains 1d10x10,000xp. That solution isn’t perfect as once a HD is gone, with the current XP attack that isn’t recalculated to new levels, it will end up draining more XP than if you had just used real attack normally.

You can also cause a temporary Stat Loss, which is regained through rest, which works well with high levels were it can take a long time to regain HD, but not so well at lower levels of play.

If a battle went bad and your party was devastated by this thing, and you can’t live with the result or the error was your fault, then there are always supplemental ways of dealing with correcting this faster. I have seen a battle with powerful undead go REALLY bad, like the players losing over half of their hit dice from one combat with angry dice, in that case they are going to have to leave the dungeon, and seek high powered help. If you can justify it, a difficult ritual with divine intervention can help quickly restore most of the levels lost. Of course they will have to repay this high powered spell with service to the God who allowed it. It’ll push the game into a new direction, but it will also allow the party to quickly get back to the business of stopping the powerful undead from doing whatever it is trying to do . . . maybe.


No. It brings more to the game than just a rarely used attack. It can make a story more interesting, and take it into unseen directions which may not had been planed for, which in turn, enriches your setting. It also scares the players themselves which is a good thing. While on first inspection, this spell appears to be unbalanced, it really isn’t as bad as you think that it is.  


Echoes from the Geekcave: Up or Down Drain Is an excellent and well thought article, not to mention a very inspiring:
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.

That, is worthy prose! It should be a tattoo or something. 


Reverance Pavane said...

My argument has always been that Energy Drain isn't a game mechanic at all, but rather was an attempt at a metagame mechanic.

That is, by damaging the one thing that requires true effort and work to replenish (and which has a profound effect on the game), what was intended was to make undead *scary to the player*. After all they are the walking dead.

Even instant death is not as scary, because that just means you have to start again with a new character rather than do it all over again.

Unfortunately the idea that monsters are there to be defeated (and not necessarily fled from in terror) triumphed, and instead of being scared by the possibility of level drain, and thus hesitant to battle the undead, players just complained that the effect was unfair.

[One of the interesting things was that Wraiths paralysed enemy men they came with 1" of in _Chainmail_, until they were rallied by an elf, hero, or wizard. This is a pretty good indication of the effect of fear that surrounds them. And men only - it's the crippling fear of death that affects only mortals.]

But this also means the gamemaster has to exercise restraint with dealing with undead. They should have very real limits that allow a party to avoid confrontation with them. Beyond the cleric's ability to exorcise them, of course.

Michael S/Chgowiz said...

I come at these sorts of powers from a different perspective. Rather than looking at it like a mechanic, to be "fixed", I accept it as-is, and ensure the players understand the gravity of facing such a creature.

Not ever dragon is going to be easily killed.

Not every monster is something to be faced as simply as one does it in a video game.

Not every undead is just turn fodder.

Something that has a steaming hand, a deathly gaze and the radiance of death about it *should* be taken seriously, by both GM (in using them) and players (in facing them) - have the appropriate spells and be ready to fucking RUN if that thing approaches and begins to weave the black magicks needed to steal your very soul... and be prepared to die, because facing such fell creatures should be done in fear, not in haughty indifference.

Not every game should be balanced, just as real life and fairy tales are not balanced...

RipperX said...

Does Energy Drain bring you out of the game? Once the fight is done, and all of the levels have been reduced, and the cussing and grumbling is all finished, this monster has hurt you in a way that only it can. The pain is temporary, and it will go away, but pain is pain.

It also speaks of player greed. In my last game I had a player wander off alone, and I gave him the option of giving this monster all of his stuff else face certain death and loss it all anyway, he chose to fight this thing and he died, rather than just giving the monster his worthless stuff! He didn't even have any magic treasure or anything of any real value, but he still refused to give it up.

Dantelion Shinoni said...

Very nice article, I like how it actually try to get the intent of the mechanic instead of looking at it in just a number-y way. Gamers and players put way too much weight nowadays on things being all equally "balanced", but fail to realize that a game where everything is absolutely balanced and fair makes for a very dull one.

Eric R. Wirsing said...

I always hated energy drain. Not only is it unrealistic, it wastes a lot of time. You have to re-adjust saving throws, hit points, spells, proficiencies, to hit rolls, damage, etc. I view it like this: It is silly to assume that years of training go down the drain because you lost some of your life force.

I simply apply a -1 to all rolls, for every time you are Energy Drained. Not only that, but you can only be "drained" a number times equal to your level, before you are dead. Energy Drain can be removed by Priests, by resting and recuperating for a certain period, whatever the players and DM find acceptable. It's quick, dirty, and not quite as soul-crushingly grim as losing tons of play time simply because of a bad roll.

Jmags said...

I actually prefer the draining aspect. I prefer the lethality/abilities of monsters from Older editions so much that I have brought in many of the older versions of creatures for later editions.

I want my players to have different types of concerns and learn what different creatures can do.

RipperX said...

Energy Drain separates strong players, from poor players; Hack-N-Slash Harry is going to learn an important lesson in gaming if he tries to bully his way through a room full of Shadow.

Energy Drain vs. None Weapon Prof. also features a conflict in core rules, one that requires DM interpretation which is why the game requires a referee.

Brooser Bear said...

I got a question for you - How do you handle energy drain, if you have NO levels?

I have figured it out somewhat. In my game, the concept of a level largely reflects the complexity of a spell or a task, and is largely qualitative and logarithmic, i.e. non-linear.

For instance, an Apprentice Carpenter can work under supervision. Journeyman Carpenter can make his or her own tools, and work on their own on an assigned task. A Foreman can do all of the above, and also direct a crew of carpenters and build a structure from scratch, while a Master carpenter can regularly pull off unique and original work, which has never been done and for which there are no existing plans.

These are LEVELS. How do we Energy Drain the Carpenter? My take is as follows - it takes personal strength expressed in terms of self-confidence, independence, self-reliance, absence of fear and anxiety, POSITIVE emotions, to be able to function as a Master or a Crew Chief. An Energy Drain attack would have to destroy those personal qualities, which allow one to function at a high lever. That makes sense - the Undead are NEGATIVE! Close personal conflict with these Undead traumatizes people and destroys their emotional strength, once it is gone, the victim becomes a true emotional puppet of the Undead, which created it.

In essence, the victim of energy drain becomes a coward and a 'fraidy cat! They are too insecure to take creative risks as masters of their craft, and they are too chicken to lead a crew.

This actually is very much a part of the human history - all of the medieval torture, the brandings, mutilations, later deemed "Cruel and Unusual" by our Constitution, were very effectively used to destroy potential leaders who might oppose the powers that be. During the Protestant Reformation, take a preacher, who proselytizes contrary to your dogma or political ideology - cut off his ears and brand a criminal on his forehead ( O for Outlaw), and he very likely will not have the guts to take and pulpit and lead the congregation, or if he tries, the congregation might just laugh at him, instead of paying attention to what he says. Cut off his tongue, for the repeat offence, and he will not be physically capable of addressing his former congregation...

I still level up my player characters - they get additional HP and level for the purposes of Saving Throws. Non-Weapon Proficiencies, are learned separately and can be improved by training (costs time and money) between adventuring.

Gygax himself wrote that Hit Points are largely psychological quality of being able to stay in combat longer, that lends itself perfectly to mechanics of energy drain.

As we saw, there is nothing inherently supernatural to energy drain, it just comes from a different source in fantasy gaming.

Recovery from energy drain is also non-magical, you need days, weeks, months, years of healing to fully recover from energy drain, and there is no simple spell to speed it up. High level priests and wizards, may be able to restore the deeply scarred psyche at a faster pace, but it will be a quest-adventure level type of a deal.

As an aside, what I do is, once the player character has enough experience points to level up, he needs a higher level fighter or a higher level NPC in the same class as the player for about a week of practice to assimilate the player's battle experience and turn it to higher HP and improved Saving Throws.

RipperX said...

"How do you handle energy drain, if you have NO levels?"

0th lvl NPCs always die. I have seen, and played modules where the PC starts out at 0th level and becomes a full PC, but I would never put even a first Lvl character up against a powerful undead. . . well, never say never.

Personally I think that you are guilty of reading my brains, Broozer, as these comments better address it.

SKills never factored into the original intentions of Energy Drain, but if we don't include them it could cause the PC to try and cheat by taking an additional skill. The way I see it is that you self teach yourself skills, either through books or talking to others, and you spend time that you aren't adventuring to do it. You can do the skill, but that doesn't mean that you are proficient in the skill until it is officially on your Character Sheet. Energy drain will take it right back off because it drains your soul, maybe this effects memories too?

Brooser Bear said...

Rip, what I meant was, how would we handle energy and level drain if there were no levels, like in real life? What would level drain consist of?

Is energy drain a form of soul drain? Would that affect memories? Well, what is a soul? Whatever it is, it is part of the intangible effect of the neural function - the mind and consciousness, and those reside in the brain matter itself. Our being is tied to our memories, feelings, and experiences, and so must The Soul. Everything that we experience changes the chemical composition, the neural structure and the neural activity of the brain. Remove any part of the brain, and some part of the person is gone forever. Some people wake up after strokes and brain traumas as totally new and different individuals - some memories are gone, and a different personality, held back and shaped by those missing memories, lurches forward. This phenomenon, this vulnerability, the so very fragile nature of who we are, is painfully familiar to neurologists, psychiatrists and neurosurgeons.

What are the implications for D&D? Any brain damage, and electrical attack has potential for energy drain and level loss, BUT we won't get into that.

On the other hand, a severely shocked and traumatized fighter with STR 18 (00) might be lacking confidence to do STR 18 (00) and might only perform as a STR 17. IN AD&D, Non-Weapon Proficiencies are based on Primary Attributes (roll under with bonuses and/or penalties). So, 1 level drain will reduce each attribute by 1 point, thereby reducing the effectiveness of the character's Proficiencies.

RipperX said...

Brooser, thanks for clarifying that. I had tried that method as well, but I think that there are already monsters out there that do just that, isn't there? None are coming to mind without spending a few hours pouring over MM entries.

I could be wrong. I have created parasites that latch on and start draining stats, curses also do the same thing, is Energy Drain a curse? It could be.

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