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The Next D&D 4e Homebrew: Fun with Level Draining!

wraithAs Halloween nears, it seems only right that a Dungeon Master should be turning his mind to the joys of undead-packed encounters for their campaign!  Whether based upon a zombie apocalypse or a nest of vampires invading the local village, there is plenty of good undead fun to usher in the season with, and bring some extra spookiness to Dungeons & Dragons sessions for the month.

I’ve been contemplating undead/horror themes myself this month, and both my D&D 4E campaigns are getting a share of ghoulish delights.  Even though the heroes in my Paragon Tier campaign are marching through the Feywild, they have found themselves drawn toward the remains of a fey castle which was rumored to have been the home of an Eladrin lady who may have been a vampire from dabbling in occult and necromantic lore.  And my Heroic Tier campaign is exploring the haunted ruins of Nulb in my 4E adaptation of the Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, and are finding all manner of horrors in every ruined building!

But as I was perusing the long lists of undead critters which might be useful to bringing my adventure to life – or should I say, unlife – I became a bit dissatisfied with how the 4E designers had chosen to portray some of the more iconic D&D undead types.  Perhaps the recent play-testing of D&D Next might have given me a new perspective on 4E, but I have been finding myself more and more questioning the choices to overcomplicate and overburden beloved D&D monsters with many powers they never had before, while editing away powers that they have had for decades prior to 4th Edition!

One of those “edited out” powers, Level Draining, has been ubiquitous with so many types of undead from as far back as AD&D that it almost inconceivable it was never interpreted in some fashion into D&D 4E.  Sadly, I think that many undead monsters fail to inspire the fear they once had in older editions because they lack the ability to level drain.

So here’s my pitch for bringing back level draining as a power in the D&D 4E monster repertoire, and how I’ve chose to handle it in my campaign…

Good for some – but not for all

Now I don’t think that all the monsters that used to level drain back in older editions of D&D should necessarily have that ability returned to them.  While vampires have always had level draining in some form throughout the long history of Dungeons & Dragons, I was never happy with how that ability was played out as both a DM and a player.  Ability score damage was actually a better way to define the effects of the draining attack for which are most famous, with Constitution and Strength loss being a good paradigm for blood loss.  So for the most part, I think D&D 4E has a good design for vampires and related creatures, and level draining does not need to be part of their arsenal.

The form of level draining I’m proposing should make a comeback is a form of the negative energy level that was introduced in 3rd Edition.  As a DM, I was not always in favor of the idea of a monster that was capable of de-leveling a character, literally eating away a hero’s experience points and abilities until the creature was defeated.  Logistically, losing actual character levels was always a nightmare in old school D&D, and would be even more of a pain to try to implement under 4th Edition rules.  But I think the negative energy level does a great job at describing the life force drain and blight that creatures like specters, wights, and wraiths afflict on their victims, and can be designated as a condition and used fairly easily at the gaming table.

Condition: Negative Energy Level

You feel your life force ebb, scattering your thoughts as your body begins to die.

Characters who are afflicted by a negative energy level have the following conditions:

  • A penalty of -1 to attack and damage rolls.
  • A penalty of -1 to skill checks, saving throws, and death saves.
  • Lose 1 healing surge.

For each additional two (2) negative energy levels, the character suffers the penalties of the first  negative energy level cumulatively.  So after taking a third negative energy level, a character takes a -2 penalty to attack rolls, damage rolls, skill checks, saving throws, and death saves, and loses another healing surge.  At five negative energy levels, the penalty increases to -3 and another healing surge is lost, etc.

If a character has taken negative energy levels equal to, or exceeding, their class level, they drop to 0 hit points and begin dying.  Because of the penalty to death saving throws caused by negative energy levels, the expiration can be quite rapid, as it is impossible for a character to self-stabilize without outside aid (See Rules Compendium under Skills – Healing: Stabilize the Dying).  A character with negative energy levels equal or greater than their class level cannot be healed to more than their bloodied value.

Recovering from Negative Energy LevelsNegative Energy Levels can be healed through rest, or by using the Remove Affliction Ritual (see Players Handbook), as they are a form of a curse.

  • Extended Rest: After an extended rest, a character can remove all their negative energy levels, along with the penalties they cause by expending healing surges.  The character must expend 1 healing surge for every two negative energy levels they remove that day, and those surges are considered spent for the day.  They are recovered after the next extended rest the character takes.
  • Ritual Recovery: Using a Remove Affliction ritual recovers all the negative energy levels lost in combat, including the healing surges lost from taking the negative energy level affliction.  The check for the ritual is done at the highest level of the creature or creatures that inflicted the negative energy level attacks.

For those who use the awesome and condition cards by The Weem, I’ve created my own version of a condition card with the effects of taking one or more Negative Energy Levels using The Weem’s style.  If you don’t use The Weem’s cards yet for your 4E game, I can’t recommend them highly enough, so go over to site and check them out!
negative energy level card page
A Practical Demonstration

As it happens, I’ve already outfitted a monster with negative level draining capabilities, and used it last Friday night at one of my regular D&D sessions.  Here is my rendition of an “old school” wraith – simple easy to run, and very scary:

wraith stat block

If the hit points seem low, remember, the wraith is insubstantial and it’s a powerful defense.  Per the Monster Manual 3, other creatures with the insubstantial keyword run at about 66% of maximum hit points, which is a considerable reduction from earlier monster manuals, and allows fights to finish faster.

My regular gaming group got to play-test these new rules for me when their heroes were exploring Nulb, and wandered into the wrecked hull of a pirate river boat.  Searching around, they found a locked chest in a hidden alcove, and encountered a wraith pirates haunting the place, guarding their ill-gotten treasure.

I can’t begin to describe the delight I felt when I landed a blow against one of the heroes, and watched six pairs of eyes widen in shock and awe after I said, “The wraith’s touch makes your life drain away… and you lose a level… well sort of.” And for a few seconds, you could have heard a pin drop.  There’s nothing like the realization that a few lost negative energy levels separate one’s character from becoming a member of the incorporeal undead squad to bring a bit dread and fear into a gaming session!

Please feel free to use and experiment with these rules on negative energy levels and my remake of the wraith in your own campaigns as you see fit!  As always, I’d love to hear feedback about the rules and the creature design, so please feel free to comment on this post!

So until next blog… I wish you happy gaming!

About The Author

Michael is an Adept of a Secret Order of Dungeon Masters, and dwells in a hidden realm with his two evil cat-familiars, deep within the Vale of Wolverines, called by some "Michigan". He has been esoterically conjuring D&D Campaigns for nearly a Third of a Century, and has been known to cast ritual blogs concerning Dungeons & Dragons every few days with some regularity. Michael has freelanced for Wizards of the Coast, and writes reviews of D&D and other Role-Playing Game products on EN World News.


2 Responses to “The Next D&D 4e Homebrew: Fun with Level Draining!”

  1. Wrath says:

    why not do a weakened and grant combat advantage to the end of the wraiths next turn. If a character is already weakened they lose a healing surge. If no healing surges they die or fall to zero hps and start dying.

    I’m not a fan of the negative on rolls… it quickly becomes un-fun for me, and as a DM it slows the game down (book keeping and more wiffing) imo. But, some people might like it and its cool to see people playing around and adding more old school feeling stuff to the game.

    good stuff!

  2. [...] Finally, Neuroglyph Games gave us some ideas for level draining. [...]

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