Castles & Crusades Diary: Barrowmaze, Session 81

1. The Army of the Light defeats barbarian lord Uthuk Amon Thar (vampire) along with his two wives (wights), but in the process, Arthur loses two levels from energy drain!
2. The response to energy drain has caused me to rethink and alter its use in my games. I explore alternatives and variations.

Gimli Hearthfire, Dwarf Berserker 6 of Odin
Wright Dawnbreaker, Human Paladin 3 of St. Luther
Edward, Human Bard 4 of St. Cecilia
Arthur, Human Oathsworn 7 of Celestian
Gorgat, Half-Orc Barbarian 6 of Haephestus
Belden, Gnome Bard 6 of Aengus
Elfgiva, Archer 2/Cleric 2/Wizard 2 of Sehanine Moonbow
Llewelyn, Elf Cleric 6/Wizard 6 of Sehanine Moonbow
Rosaline, Half Elf (Elf lineage) Druid 7 of The Daghda
Zen, Human Monk 6 of St. Agathos

Remi, Rogue 6/Illusionist 5 of Hermes
Rolando, Rogue 4/Pacer 3 of Brandobaris Fleetfoot
Kyra, Cleric 7 of Sehanine Moonbow
Orgren, Fighter 3 of Sif

Dhekeon “the Disgraced,” fallen skeletal paladin of St. Justus (seeking redemption)

Game Diary:
This adventure began moments after the group defeated a legendary Tyrannosaurus Rex in some strange realm. They had barely gotten some healing done when they became dizzy, collapsed, and reawakened in a chamber with the crypt of the barbarian lord Uthuk Amon Thar awaiting them.

artist unknown

The group entered and noticed that Thar’s sarcophagus had been pulled from the wall where is legendary spear was hanging. He sat up in his black burial shroud and smiled – and the group saw vicious fangs with wisps of negative energy drifting from them like breath in a cold environment. To their immediate left they saw Thar’s two wives – now wights – with their white flesh pulled tight over their bones.

Arthur surged forward and attacked with his mighty weapon and dealt 36 points of damage (that is a large amount for a blow in an old school game)! From that first blow Thar was surprised and staggered back. Then Llewelyn stepped forward and blasted the wives with a lightning bolt, which, due to the configuration of the room and their placement, meant that they were hit with it twice as it bounced off a wall and he completely destroyed them! The villains were off to a bad start!

But Thar stepped forward to strike Arthur – and hit. Arthur failed his save and this meant that many of his recent memories and experiences were drained from him as Thar empowered himself. Arthur had gone from 7th level to the mid-point of 5th level. Still, Arthur had dealt a powerful blow and even with a boost of un-life from his attack, the other members stepped in and could focus all their attacks on the vampire. They battered him to his knees and he turned to mist to seek escape. At this point Gorgat grabbed the spear off the wall and immediately it spoke to him giving him instructions. He twirled the spear above his head and all around him sunlight burst out from it. The sun enveloped the vampiric mist of Thar and he sizzled away into oblivion, unable to find shelter and regenerate. He had been destroyed.

The Spear Predestined (as it was called), once the weapon of the barbarian lord, had become unusable by him when the Barrowmaze chaos magic seeped into him and turned him chaotic evil. But now the spear found a new worthy barbarian – Gorgat! It immediately turned him lawful good (Gorgat had originally been neutral, then the Pit of Chaos long ago turned him chaotic neutral, and now his alignment changed again!). Gorgat discovered he now had the power to slay chaotic beings, cause double damage against undead, and create sunlight in an ever growing radius. Gorgat’s power had now increased substantially!

Two players at this point had to leave (they had joined our face-to-face game via discord) and we began another adventure with some new characters rotated in with the time that remained. But I will save that for the next game diary.

What I want to finish with here is the problems with energy/level drain. When I left 5E and went to playing old school games, I was happy to bring level-drain into the game again. My thought was that some of these dangerous undead had lost their punch or their bite (so to speak; pun intended), and I was glad to bring back monsters where fighting them had consequences, and there was an actual reason to fear them again. In my view it had become far to easy to defeat monsters in 5E, for if you had been injured, the 5E approach is usually that you can just “sleep it off” with an 8 hour long rest and its as if nothing happened.

But going from the 5E “sleep it off” approach to energy draining two levels from a vampire is not really a solution, but really just a polar opposite extreme. Wanting to put challenge back into the games I run doesn’t meant that players could now lose weeks or months of adventuring effort in a single hit and missed saving throw. But there can be a middle ground (browsing through gaming forums going back 15+ years have shown that even a lot of old school gamers haven’t liked level draining, so it is not just a recent annoyance).

So, going forward in my games undead that normally level drain will have impactful but less extreme results (since my C&C games draw on material from C&C, AD&D/1E/2E, Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy, etc., the way energy draining undead operate can vary depending on the adventure I am using, it also adds some nice variety and regional variants to the foes they fight). Examples of how energy draining undead will work going forward:
– Hit point loss that returns at a rate of 1 hit point per day (this may be dependent on passing a Con save). So, if a character is struck for 8 damage by a wight, it may take them 8 days to get it back (if they pass their saves). Lesser restoration can restore the hit points if the clerical caster can make a spellcaster check vs. the monsters hit dice as the challenge level (the priests are trying to defeat the negative undead power with the strength of their faith). With this example, the results of the undead battle linger with the character, but they do recover. This works with some of the lesser energy draining undead.
– Constitution drain. Each point of constitution is regained at the rate of 1 point per week of rest. Think back to books or films where a hero spends weeks recovering their vitality, stamina, and health after a vampire bite. The character won’t forget this encounter and it will take time to recover, but you don’t have to re-do weeks or months of game time. Lesser restoration could again work, but the cleric would have to make a spellcaster check to overcome the undead force within the victim and only at a rate of 1 attribute point per casting. You can recover, but it requires effort.
– Levels do get drained, but they are restored at a rate of 1 level per month. These would be for the legendary undead that level drain (the character could get a Greater Restoration to correct this, but it is a 7th level spell, so out of reach for most characters). This form of level drain will impact the character, but it doesn’t end it for them. Imagine the player brought back to their home after the adventure, lying restlessly in bed soaked in sweat slowly regaining their memories and experiences from the previous weeks and months. They may have haunting dreams at night of what they think is a fictitious dream persona only to realize that these are their own memories coming back to them across the gulf from their realm and the negative energy realm. There can be some great drama here (it is also worth mentioning that in my games when players gain levels they sometimes take time off and spend time to train to learn new languages, new professions, or gain an advantage – i.e. feat – so characters are always taking time off in my games. Thus, having a player take a couple of months off will be noticeable, but it fits in with what everyone does normally in my games).

So, those are some of the ideas I plan to test out with undead in the future. I am trying to find the balance to the “nice” 5E approach vs. the oldschool approach of needlessly tearing away weeks and months of campaign development for the sake of trying to appear “tough.” Middle ground. That is the area I plan to explore. What are your thoughts on level drain?