Alternatives to Undead Level Drain

The discussion about the divine value of Turn Undead has turned up that a lot of people aren’t crazy about Level Drain as written. I figured this is a good opportunity for people to discuss alternatives. Alternatives I saw on the other thread:

-3.x/Pathfinder style “negative energy levels” that give you a -1 to everything for some period of time.
-Drain some amount of XP instead of full levels
-Drain reserve XP instead of regular XP

I think Dyson Logos, who usually writes with Labyrinth Lord in mind, put a large table of alternatives to level drain in one of his “Dyson’s Dodecahedron” e-zines. I’ll have to see if I can find the issue #.

In addition to discussing alternatives, it would be a good idea for people proposing alternatives to specify what they’re trying to get their undead to evoke and their place in the old school combat ecosystem, and how the alternative fits into that (IE: just completely removing level drain makes most undead incredibly weak due to the large number of silver bullets that can be used against them).

I’ve been tinkering with undead for a while, mostly because I think that they are too similar: wight, wraith, specter, and vampire are mostly differentiated by Hit Dice. For the campaign I am working on, I am considering the following:

  1. For each dungeon level xp range on the Wandering Monster Table Guidelines chart (ACKS Core, pg 243), there are two undead creatures, one corporeal and one incorporeal.
  2. With the exceptions of the Level 1 and Level 2 corporeal undead, all undead will have one attack that inflicts damage plus an energy drain effect with no saving throw.
  3. The energy drain effect of attacks of the level 6 undead will be to permanently reduce the level/HD of the target. The effects of the energy drain attacks of other undead creatures will be unique to that creature.
  4. Magical effects that protect against energy drain will apply to the energy drain attacks of all undead creatures, regardless of the attacks specific effect.

I haven’t finalized anything, but I am currently planning on the following creatures:

Corporeal Undead

  • Level 1: Skeleton--No energy drain
  • Level 2: Zombie--No energy drain
  • Level 3: Ghoul--Energy drain paralyzes for 1 turn; removed by cure wounds
  • Level 4: Wight--Energy drain reduces CON by 1d6 until you get a week of bed rest
  • Level 5: Mummy--Energy drain causes mummy's curse, preventing the recipient from benefitting from normal, magical, or medical healing until it is removed with remove curse
  • Level 6: Vampire--Bite attack can only be used on targets that are either willing or are grappled, restrained, or helpless. Bite inflicts energy drain that reduces the target's Level/HD by 2

Incorporeal Undead

  • Level 1: Hungry Ghost--Energy drain is the equivalent of going 1 day without food
  • Level 2: Specter--Energy drain causes target to flee in panic for 30 rounds
  • Level 3: Shade--Energy drain reduces STR by 1d6 until you get a week of bed rest
  • Level 4: Fetch--Energy drain reduces WIS by 1d6 until you get a week of bed rest, and target must save or be possessed by the fetch
  • Level 5: Wailing Ghost--Energy drain is part of area-effect wail attack and ages all targets 1d10 years
  • Level 6: Wraith--Energy drain reduces target's level/HD by 1

Feedback is always welcome.

I found the DD in question:

"Uniquely Undead explores alternatives to level draining for undead, including a d100 table of new abilities to give undead unique and unusual abilities. "

I’ve often run undead with alternatives to Level Drain. Typically, I don’t like getting rid of it completely, as I like the fact that it’s exceedingly frightening for PCs, but instead alter some undead to get a little more differentiation between them. Some examples I’ve used include: Strength drain, Constitution drain, and Wisdom drain (usually temporary, recharging at 1 PT per day), and permanent aging (almost equally terrifying for non-elf PCs). In my current campaign, the only one I’ve changed is that Vampires drain by drinking your blood, meaning they need to either Charm or Grapple to do so. Still terrifying, but not quite as odd as stealing your sword, whacking you with it, and draining two levels.

Personally, I’ve found that old-school games really aren’t all that much bookkeeping when PCs lose levels; that’s more of a problem for 3.x and onward.

Another idea I’ve considered is having undead inflict a mortal wound on you with their attack.

As I typed this, I had the secondary idea that perhaps undead who are incorporeal, high-level, or both inflict a Tampering with Mortality effect instead.

I like having undead as dangerous and scary enemies, but my experience has been that level drain doesn’t scare them in a way that’s good for the game. Instead, it’s just ‘Oh, we see a wight? We run away or kill it from range without ever even considering going into melee.’ Without the balance of fear and reward, you just get one-sided decision making, and level drain has always seemed to cause too much fear to create interesting decisions.

One thing I’ve done in the past is make level drain temporary, allowing a character a saving throw each dawn to recover 1 level (with the save varying by edition - for ACKS, I’d probably use death). That way, they’re still weakened for a period of time, but it’s not permanent.

The Mortal Wounds and Tampering With Mortality charts are good scary fun. It might be worthwhile to build a whole separate Energy Drain results chart with its own modifiers and undead-appropriate effects.

Have you considered using the Hex rules for a level drain alternative? They have a variety of effects that are very thematic of having your life force sucked out of you or being cursed by dark powers.

What is Hex? And what are the rules like?

I believe he is referring to the HEX power possessed by a Warlock, which is the equivalent of a Bestow Curse.

Good idea!

Ah, ok! Yeah, that IS an interesting idea.