In this series of posts, my goal is to look at all the little things from earlier editions that just didn’t quite make the cut for 5th Edition. Some were excluded for good reason, while others just didn’t quite fit in – but besides just talking about them, I’ll also be doing what I can to port them over.
For our first topic, we have the ever-terrifying Level Drain (also called Energy Drain). This is what made undead scary back in the day, alright? This made them so horribly scary.
As one final note – I’m drawing heavily on my own memories of 2e, but I do have quite the collection of old sourcebooks. So I’ll be double-checking my facts, but I might remember some things wrong. You never know!
In Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, 2nd Edition, many undead monsters had a certain ability that was particularly frightening – Energy Drain. For some reason I always remember it as Level Drain, and I’ll be using the two interchangeably.
This mechanic is relatively self-explanatory in concept, but mechanically was much more convoluted. At base, the ability allowed the creature to drain class levels or hit dice from a character it struck.
When a character is hit by an energy-draining creature, he suffers normal damage from the attack. In addition, the character loses one or more levels (and thus Hit Dice and hit points). For each level lost, roll the Hit Dice appropriate to the character’s class and subtract that number from the character’s total…
All powers and abilities gained by the player character by virtue of his former level are immediately lost, including spells… In addition, a wizard loses all understanding of spells in his spell books that are of higher level than he can now cast.
Pretty heavy, right? There were more consequences too – get drained down to 0th level and your character could never gain class levels again without a restoration or wish spell. Get drained below 0th level and you instantly died, and would return a few days later as an undead yourself.
Later editions iterated on this basic design, though I’m much less familiar with those versions. One large change was the introduction of “negative levels” as a way to make the effects of an Energy Drain not so… immediate. But that’s a whole system by itself, so I won’t go into it here.
All in all, I feel that Energy Drain is probably the best example of the “hardcore” nature of earlier D&D. These early games were not strolls in the park. Not only could your characters die, but they frequently did, and there were much worse things out there besides death.
This, of course, is exactly why some people would want to bring it back.
Issues of Energy
So, would that original form of Energy Drain work in today’s D&D? Most likely not. For starters, it’s way too harsh. Compared to today’s threats (which mostly include death, and that’s it), Level Drain is a nightmare. It’s also very unforgiving – all you need to do to be affected by Level Drain is to get touched by a creature who has it. That’s pretty hard to avoid, especially if you’re a frontlines kind of character.
But there’s more to it than just that. Energy Drain also interferes with a lot of very specific systems in 5e, which make the whole concept of losing levels very difficult to implement. For example:
- Proficiency Bonus. This is something at the core of 5e. When you level up and increase your proficiency bonus, that means rewriting all of your skills, saving throws, to-hit modifiers (for attacks AND spells), and pretty much everything else in the game. Now imagine a world where you might have to edit all that in-game, while the action is going on. Like I said – nightmare.
- Challenge Rating. Now, this is something a good DM could prevent, but it still presents a problem. As encounters are handled now, CR is a very important number. But how would you rate a creature with Energy Drain? Most features and abilities are already subjective to assign values to. Furthermore, imagine having to change the CRs of all upcoming encounters just because a few people got smacked around by some undead. Again, not impossible to deal with, but still difficult.
- Level vs Hit Die. As written in 2e, Energy Drain doesn’t really have any effect on creatures without class levels. Where later editions would be sure the ability affected player and non-player characters alike, that was only by using the unwieldy “negative level” system. So one big issue is that this is a feature which straight up doesn’t affect NPCs without class levels. Without changing it, of course.
Again, all of these are just mechanical issues. None address the simple values dissonance between 5e’s newcomer-friendly design and 2e’s ruthless, merciless nature. But for the type of person who would want to use Energy Drain, I suspect that doesn’t matter too much.
Regaining What Was Lost
To make Energy Drain viable in 5e, it’s going to need a few changes. Specifically, it’s going to need changes in order to fix the three problems I listed above.
- Hit Dice Solution. For starters, the easiest problem to fix is actually the last one. With 5e having Hit Dice and class level so closely tied, we can simply make our Energy Drain target Hit Dice instead of level. This, in turn, allows it to also affect creatures without class levels. Problem solved.
- Rating the Challenge. Next up is Challenge Rating. The hardest question will be how to rate Energy Drain for determining CR – my suggestion is to simply tie the Energy Drain effect into a specific action, which deals damage different to the creature’s normal attacks. This, in turn, allows the Energy Drain to affect the creature’s offensive CR without necessitating a large amount of speculation on how powerful and effective the ability is.
- Bonus Effects. And lastly, the most difficult – proficiency bonus. This is not an easy fix, and I feel there are a multitude of ways you could solve this issue. The one I prefer is to simply revert, in part, to the “negative levels” system.
Yes, I know I spent several paragraphs trashing the thing, but the base concept behind the “negative levels” system is pretty good. The rest of the system is just over-complicating an already-solved issue.
- Bonus Effects. So, to solve the issue of proficiency bonus, we have Energy Drain not take full effect until after the target has finished a long rest. In the meantime, they simply suffer from an immediately lowered hit point pool, and a generalized negative modifier to their skill checks, weapon/spell attacks, and saving throws.
All in all, that leaves us with the following.
Level Drain. Melee Spell Attack: +X to hit, reach X feet, one creature. Hit: X(XdX) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a Constitution saving throw or be drained of one Hit Die (from its highest level class, if applicable). On a failure, the creature rolls the lost Hit Die and reduces their maximum hit points by that amount. The creature then suffers a -1 penalty on all attack rolls, damage rolls, skill checks, and saving throws until the end of their next long rest or when 24 hours has passed, at which point they lose one level.
After successfully draining a target, the creature gains one use of their Drained Energy ability.
Now, notice right near the end there? Another part of this fix is to make sure that Energy Drain doesn’t have to be quite as permanent as before. To do this, we add the idea that drained levels can be regained… if you get them back quickly!
I have three variations on this idea. I’ve listed them below in order starting with the least harsh. Each one keeps a central concept though. When draining energy, a creature can expect to use that energy to reinvigorate itself after losing hit points.
Drained Energy. After successfully using its Level Drain feature, the creature retains the drained levels as spare energy. While retaining drained levels, the creature gains a +1 bonus to attack rolls, damage rolls, skill checks, and saving throws. This benefit ends after the creature finishes a long rest, or 24 hours from when the levels were drained. If the creature is killed or turned, any creature it drained of levels immediately has the effects of the Level Drain ended on it. Alternatively, if the drained creature had already been reduced in level it can regain lost levels one at a time by taking a long rest, which gives no other benefits.
This is the weakest version. It seeks to make Energy Drain into a severe but impermanent danger. Compared with the other options, the draining creature has no ability to dump drained levels to prevent them from being regained, the drained creature gains the ability to regain lost levels in exchange for down time, and the whole thing can also be solved by either killing or turning the draining creature.
Drained Energy. After successfully using its Level Drain feature, the creature can consume up to X drained levels over a short rest to regain hit points equal to XdX per level consumed. If the creature ends a long rest or passes 24 hours without using this feature, all drained levels disappear forever. If the creature is killed, any creature it drained of levels immediately has the effects of the Level Drain ended on it.
This second version is a happy medium between the harder and easier variants. Level Drain is more dangerous as letting the draining creature escape risks it destroying the levels forever (and regaining bonus health for the inevitable next fight). Additionally, you now have to actually kill the thing to get your levels back, you can’t just get the cleric to turn it.
Drained Energy. After successfully using its Level Drain feature, the creature can consume one drained level as an action to regain hit points equal to XdX. If the creature ends a long rest or passes 24 hours without using this feature, all drained levels disappear forever. If the creature is killed, any creature it drained of levels immediately has the effects of the Level Drain ended on it.
Last but not least, the simplest and harshest of the options. With this, a draining creature has the ability to destroy drained levels immediately after taking them, and regain hit points too. This means that getting hit with Level Drain almost guarantees you lose the level, unless you focus everything on killing it ASAP. To me, that fits with the old feeling of Level Drain the best out of all of these.
Getting on the Level
So, there’s our new Energy Drain. One thing I forgot to mention earlier is that there’s a hidden benefit to this system; it makes it so Level Drain isn’t a base game mechanic to be referenced, it’s just a monster feature. If you don’t want to use it, or don’t want to bother with it outside of specific points, you don’t have to!
However, I still don’t feel Level Drain really belongs in 5th Edition. While I might use it a bit with my group, we’re all pretty hardcore. I mean, the first game I ever played ended with half the party dying to carnivorous worms that ate their way up the PCs’ arms to their hearts, and then ate them alive. I’m used to this kind of stuff.
But is it best for the game? I don’t really think so. This edition of Dungeons and Dragons is one of the most newcomer-friendly versions ever published. It’s certainly more newcomer-friendly than 2nd Edition, when I was a newcomer. And I think it’s best that way. The game is fun, and the rules accordingly focus on fun above all else.
All that being said, there is a sort of charm to the old ways, isn’t there? Danger, the constant risk of death, dismemberment, and worse… it has a certain appeal. So it certainly seems worth it to bring Level Drain back for that, just with a few tweaks to make it a bit more compatible.
The last thing you want, after all, is for using the mechanic to be just as draining to the DM as it is to the characters.
Thanks for reading!