Level drains in D&D are always good for controversy. Many people can’t stand the idea of level drains. Others feel they are essential to making undead into terrifying monsters.
Level drains in WOTC editions of D&D are particularly troublesome because complex WOTC characters really have to be recalculated and rewritten if their level changes. In TSR D&D, this isn’t nearly the problem as all one has to do for most characters is reduce hit points, write down the characters new attacks and saving throws (which may or may not have changed), spell casters lose a few spell slots, and thieves need their thief skills reduced — but in general a TSR D&D character losing a level means only a few minutes work both when a level is lost and when it is regained.
There are alternatives to level loss. Negative levels seems to the official one, but negative levels seem to be almost as much trouble in WOTC D&D as losing a level. Another common replacement for level loss is losing one point of Constitution instead of a level. This works fairly well in TSR D&D, but can cause a lot of character sheet recalculation in WOTC D&D (especially 3.x).
Here’s a replacement for level drains I’ve used in Microlite74 and Microlite81:
Each energy level drained subtracts one from any roll to which the character would add his level (or his level/2). 1 point of energy drained is recovered every L days where L is equal to the hit dice of the monster that drained the energy level.
This level drain replacement is something like negative levels and fades away over time even if the party does not have access to restoration-type spells. However, it’s fiddly and M74 players and GMs find it annoying to track.
I’ve come up with another alternative to level drain:
When a character suffers a level drain, roll 1 die (of the character’s hit die type) and subtract it from the character’s hit points permanently. If a character’s maximum hit points is reduced to zero hit points by level drain, becomes an undead just as if his level had been reduced to zero by level drains. Restoration spells and magic effects give the character another hit die roll which adds to his permanent hit points (but no higher than his original, undrained hit points).
This alternative to level drain is simple to implement — even in WOTC editions. Yet it preserves the “terror factor” of level drains. Like the original TSR level drain rules, the effects are permanent. The only way to counter them is with restoration magic or gaining levels. If a group prefers drain effects which heal themselves over time, characters could regain permanent hit points slowly over time — perhaps 1 drained hit point per week of total rest (or per month of normal activity).
For games using my “house rules” with body points and hit points, an even less complex method could be used: each level drain could simply permanently remove one body point. Restoration effects could restore one permanent body point. If desired, drained BP could recover naturally at the rate of 1 BP lost to level drain restored per week of total rest. Due to the effects of lost body points in my house rules, these alternative level drain rules would give effects very similar to those in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: a drained character would recover energy (hp) more slowly — and would permanently have less energy and be less effective at his tasks.
I’m interested in hearing what you think of these alternative level drain ideas — as well as any alternative level drain rules you have used and liked. Would you like to see the “hit point loss” alternative level drain rule as an optional rule in Microlite81?