Role-playing design notes

Random notes on the design of Gods & Monsters, and maybe even Men & Supermen if I can remember what I was drinking when I wrote it.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

Level drain in Gods & Monsters

Jerry Stratton, May 13, 2010

Over on Grognardia, James Maliszewski talks about why he uses level drain, and why he is considering not using it. His reasons for moving away from them are (1) that they don’t get saving throws, and (2) that they are almost all game and no world. That is, of all the things that can be affected on the character sheet, levels are the most removed from the character’s reality.

Still, there’s also a part of me that rebels against the notion of changing level drain. It’s one of the few attacks in D&D that genuinely puts the fear of God into even the most foolhardy players and encourages cleverness to avoid it.

This is the classic defense of level drain; I’ve used it myself. But the reason it puts “the fear of God” into players is that, unlike other resources that the character has on their character sheets, levels are a direct reward to the players. When a DM sends level-draining creatures into the adventure, they are punishing the players. As both a player and game master, I’ve seen far less “cleverness” used to avoid level-drains, and far more flat-out refusals to accept it as part of the game1. Level drain is an affront to the player, not the character. Threat of a good spanking would instill just as much fear in them.

If the desire is to make undead feared (and that’s a good desire), there are better ways of doing that. It ought to be something that both the player and the character fear. Immobility, loss of control, aging, and serious injury are all things that characters aren’t going to like, but that aren’t punishments.

In Gods & Monsters, I went with the latter. Undead can cause injuries (what D&D would call negative hit points) without having to go through survival points first. Undead are still feared, because injuries are dangerous things: an injured character has penalties to doing stuff (just as people who have had the life sucked out of them by an undead often seem to in our source materials), and any character that gains injuries runs the risk of unconsciousness (which, again, seems to be a chronic problem for those getting the life sucked out of them).

Players are definitely afraid of having their characters go unconscious during a fight. I’ll bet the characters don’t like it much, either.

  1. They accept it—usually—but not as part of the game.

  1. <- Organizing rulebooks
  2. Spirit database ->