Saturday, December 22, 2012

Level Drain & GURPS

Over at Renovating the Temple, Patrick Halter posted about level drain in GURPS terms as a possible drain of character points.

I started to respond there and decided I'd do it here instead.

How I do level draining undead

For my wights, I went with a normal HP-damaging claw attack, but with both a followup FP (fatigue point) drain and paralysis. Any of the claw damage penetrates the armor and bam, you have a nasty roll to resist paralysis and you start to suffer from exhaustion. That can quickly lead to death - not many people have a lot of FP, it's usually down from effort, and you die at -1 x FP so you've got less chance to survive than you do from normal HP loss. (Editing later: as Douglas Cole pointed out, you don't die at -1 x FP. You go automatically unconscious and your further FP losses are from HP; I meant you are effectively in a death spiral at that point and should have said so more clearly).

Why this way?

Because they're scary (assuming they get through your armor) and potentially lethal. Plus it gives some of the flavor of the temporary stat-draining undead of Rolemaster.

I figure if I use incorporeal undead that do this, maybe I'll make it Cosmic (Ignores DR) and that'll make them really terrifying (a few hits to death, extremely hard to stop). A followup effect like aging or adding Unhealing to the PC (if they can't be cured until some curse is removed) or Wounded (for damage that leaves a weak point even after the HP are cured) would make the attacks nasty, too.

I like that approach and I feel it makes life-draining undead really scary.

But I also do this because Character Points don't really exist in the game.

They exist in the meta-game, in the rules we use, but they don't exist in the game world any more than the die rolls exist. They're there to generate characters and put a balance-of-cost/tradeoff structure on making PCs. Why would getting clawed by a wight make your skills go away, or permanently ruin stats, or make you lose advantages? And if they did, why would they do it through the meta-mechanic of character points instead of a specialized attack that drops stats or inflicts disadvantages through Afflictions and modifiers like Cosmic? Who would choose what goes away? Would it have to be in reverse buy order (and what's the buy order of a starting guy?) Could you lose knowledge this way, or only physical stats? What happens when you lose 10 character points and decide you weren't using Fast-Draw (Arrow) anyway so you'll ditch that?

It's a potential mess.

It doesn't seem like it would be smooth in play, either - "Okay, let's stop while you ditch 10 points."

Plus, like I said, it's not like PCs in the game world have character points. Your paper man does, but what the paper man represents doesn't. Why not stat up attacks that have some kind of reasonable-to-explain game world mechanic?

"You lost 10 character points" is odd, and brings chargen back into play as a negative effect, while "Your health weakens; lose 1 HT" or "You gain the Wounded disadvantage" makes a lot of sense to me. It also keeps them scary, as no one likes getting slammed down with a new disadvantage or near-permanent damage.

Disassociated Mechanics

I've come across the term "disassociated mechanics" before - stuff that works as a game-rule but doesn't really make sense in the game world. I personally find level drain feels like way to me. What is it? It's a drain of holiness against a cleric, magic power and spell knowledge against a magic-user, of fighting power against a warrior, and of who-knows-what against an NPC monster. It makes sense as a scary "you lose stuff you worked hard to get!" power in the game rules, but in the game world? Why not go with the aging of ghosts, or make them unheal-able HP losses ("You wounds will not close!"), or some kind of long-term or permanent stat drain? Those numbers mean the same thing for everyone, while "level drain" means something different for each class and each level it's used at.

I'll probably catch hell for saying all of that, but that's how it feels to me. It never felt like it had a good in-game reason other than Gary Gygax wanted to put some real tension into the game for his players.

So it's not something I miss, really. I read it as shorthand for "this sucks badly, and for a long time after" without getting hung up on the odd and very gamey mechanics used in its original class-and-level system.

27 comments:

  1. I agree that the loss of character points is scarey but does not make sense from a game world standpoint. Having a wight do fatigue damage makes sense because they do weaken mortal beings. But I can also see lowering character stats too. A powerful ghost could use deathly touch to lower DX, HT and ST. I could even see Will and IQ be lowered by undead and demons as well. The mind is of mortal substance so unearthy, infernal energies may have power to destroy the living essence of a PC so why would a brain not be affected? When Demongorgon lashes with his level drain tail I would have no problem with the PC that is struck losing ST, IQ, DX and HT all at the same time with one strike. Why? Because Demogorgon is a total badass.

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    1. Yeah, I agree - it's fair. I just don't see a CP cost for it. It gets weird quickly. Actual stat losses and such are fair and nasty.

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  2. Quick question. You state that you die at -1xFP. Is this a DF-specific or house rule? Basic (p. B426) says you automatically KO at this point, and further FP come right off your HP. But with FP attacks, you can take 2xFP, after which you fall unconscious, and then absorb 2xHP in FP loss and you'll start rolling for death.

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    1. No, you're right. I should revise that. You don't drop dead at -1 x FP but you are automatically out and start to lose the FP drain off your HP in addition to the FP drain. That leads to death PDQ, with no roll to stay up and keep fighting.

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    2. Yeah. No question hitting negative FP is bad news. I think I even tried to make it worse in TLG, since you can start taking HP of injury nearly right away.

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  3. After thinking it over, I'm convinced. I started to answer why here, but I wrote a blog post instead: Level Drain revisited

    (Turnabout is fair play.)

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  4. The dissociation or not of the mechanic sort of depends on what "levels" mean in the game. If you think of them as a measure of skills and competence in that sense, then I suspect that you are right and level drain is dissociated. On the other hand, if levels are a measure of general power, like the Polynesian concept of "mana", or the strength of a character's soul, then level drain becomes a mechanism to represent the depressive, soul-deadening effects of contact with the unquiet dead.

    From that latter perspective, the regular GURPS Fear Check is a perfect simulator of level drain, and can even lower the point value of a character by the addition of disadvantages.

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    1. I think the problem is that if levels have an in-game meaning, the characters should know about them. They should matter further. They do a little in D&D where "name level" gets you something, but even so, it feels very gamey to say "Vryce, pretty soon you'll be ninth level. Will you consider clearing a holding on the edge of our kingdom?"

      It feels too much like you're using the out-of-game shorthand for total experience and skill and knowledge as an in-game concept.

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    2. So much so it's played for laughs in OotS. And in the PF game I play in, we just asked "what level is the main Pirate" when trying to find out if attacking him was simply suicide (it was).

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    3. We use that same shorthand all the time in traditional RPGs. "Jack, you've got a 15 ST, so you'll bust down the door while the rest of us prepare our bows." We use numbers to quantify values that, in the real world, we'd just intuit in a rough sense: "It seems to me that Jack is stronger than anyone else in the group, so maybe he should be the one to bust down the door." If Level is a measure of personal power and influence, then we quantify it as a specific range of numbers, but people in the game world would conceive of it in a more intuitive fashion: "Vryce, you seem to be coming into your own as a ruler of men. Will you consider clearing a holding on the edge of our kingdom?"

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    4. "No, sorry, I got hit by a wight last week, I better pass on that clearing-a-holding thing for a while."

      I think the thing that makes level drain fall down for me is that it works in a class-and-level system, but not in a system that isn't class-and-level. It itself is shorthand for "scary undead life-draining" but the mechanical effect of it is such that you can't easily port it around. Other things are easily done - an Ogre is big and strong, so he's big and strong, no matter what that means in your game system. Jack is pretty strong, so he's pretty strong in whatever rule set you use. But a wight drains levels in D&D, which makes the victim suffer effects that are very varied depending on their class and their level. So it's hard to port the effect well to a non-class-and-level system. Yet it's simple to convert a D&D-style ghost (aging effects) or banshee (hear and die) because the effects make sense without the system.

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    5. "Vryce, since you fought that wight you've seemed quite low in spirits. The men are whispering behind your back that you've lost your quality of command, and they do not wish to follow you into the wilderness holding as they fear that your failing spirits will only serve to lead them to their deaths. Perhaps you should talk with the priest for a restoration of your psyche."

      I think that what has to be worked through is what happens in the new system. In GURPS, for instance, a character struck with "level drain" would lose advantages or gain disadvantages related to "loss of spirit", for instance. Loss of Charisma and perhaps Will, and gaining Phobias or Delusions might be consequences. Happily, these are already simulated through the Fright Check. Just give various Terror advantages, perhaps on touch-only for the corporeal sorts of undead.

      In D&D-likes, loss of combat capability is dealt with on an abstract basis. In GURPS, the specific effects become meaningful - Combat Paralysis is not the same as Phobia (Sharp Objects), but both alter the effectiveness of a character in combat in a negative fashion. The spell user in D&D-likes becomes less effective (again) in an abstracted fashion, while a GURPS spell user loses Will or gains a Major Delusion that all of his spells take 1d6 extra seconds of praying for protection from the unquiet dead before they can be cast.

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    6. Sure, you can rationalize it - but you have to. What exactly "level drain" is, is not defined outside of "lose a level" and what a level is, is only defined within the rule system. If you want it to have an in-game explanation, you have to go put that definition on.

      You can, but you can put a definition on anything. I'm not throwing it down as a challenge. I'm saying it's a big mistake to try to mimic a class-and-level game rule that doesn't come with an in-game-world explanation that fits other game rules.

      My rules suggestions in the post are basically, how do I make undead with a really scary power that has lasting nasty effects? I don't do it by trying to match the game effects of D&D in GURPS. Or the game effects of Rolemaster in GURPS. I try to keep the spirit of lethality and scariness and "life draining" in a way that is consistent with the system.

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    7. I see what you're saying, but what I'm trying to get across is that it is all game rules. Some game rules come with predesignated rationalizations built into the rules as written, some rules are specifically written to simulate specific real-world (or fictional-world) events, but they are all still abstracted in some degree and we are allowed to ignore the predesignated rationalization and make our own. Or use the predesignated ones, either way. One way to convert between games is to redefine the form of the rules to conform with the new game (see GURPS Vampire the Masquerade, et al.), so that a loss of effectiveness is modeled by reducing the number that represents general character effectiveness (Level in D&D-likes, POW in RuneQuest/BRP, point value in GURPS, whatever). Another is to re-model whatever real-world/fiction-world event is being simulated in the new system (which is the method you have used here, I think).

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    8. Actually, reading back (ah, multi-day discussions!), I see that reducing the character's point value is what you advocate. The specific method (Fright Check vs. Inflict) is the only matter under debate, I guess.

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  5. What about an attack that drains "heroic essence" of PC? Maybe all of the primary skills of a template are reduced by a point. Wizards could have their spells reduced by a point, a fighter could have his combat skills reduced by a point etc. Would that be fair if it was an attack by a nasty undead or demon?

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  6. I think Peter's point, one with which I agree, is that by draining/lowering certain abilities, whether it be "the monster ages you; lose ST, DX, IQ, and HT" or "it sucks away your warrior essence; take a level of -1 as a Knight! anti-Talent," or "gain -4 to Fright Checks in the future" you can tune your monster's effects to be both thematically appropriate but also carrying significant in-game meaning.

    I didn't get any feeling of "other kinds of drain are off the table," rather than "GURPS already has ways of quantifying certain things, called Disadvantages, and methods of transferring them, namely Affliction and Malediction." Level Drain just isn't a concept that is needed in GURPS, and it needs to be ported over in spirit, not bolted on as a character point loss.

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    1. Yes, that is the spirit of what I wrote. You can make bad stuff happen, but charging character points in losses doesn't make a lot of sense and isn't natively implemented in GURPS.

      Giving someone an anti-talent still feels pretty gamey to me, so I wouldn't do it, but at least it's relatively easily implemented in the rules once you decide what that talent covers.

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  7. I had been meaning to ask how folks handled this down on the forums, so this is good to see. One thing about level drain is that the loss of levels introduces a ton of number crunching right there, making everyone wait while someone levels down. This works, since it makes level drain hella miserable, though I suppose an anti-talent works as well.

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    1. I think I need to actually show my work on some life-draining undead. In the next day or so I'll write some of what I use down.

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  8. On Anti-Talent: I was just thinking of a game-mechanical way to cicumscribe the set of things if you draw away "Warrior Spirit" or something. An anti-Wildcard or anti-Talent would handle that with a -1 to things that involve that set of issues.

    Agree it's a bit of a kludge.

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    1. Yeah, and I'd want to know, can I get the reverse of that anti-talent and be better at all Knight things or Wizard things? If not, why not?

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    2. I'd just lump that into Knight! or Wizard! As faoladh noted above, this would be a mostly DF-specific shorthand. If you can get "Positive" levels of Cleric! or Born War Leader, then something that sucked away the essence of holiness or warrior-ness might suck away (or give an anti-talent for) some of those.

      It would be odd, as I (keep) agreeing. But the nice thing is that with GURPS, you can get whatever effects you want. If you have some weird anti-warrior spirit that inflicts, if it hits you and scores against some follow-up attack, -2 to all Melee Weapon and Shield skills, either gives Combat Paralysis or (if you have it) removes combat reflexes, and, say, -2 to FP, then you can just do that. You might also have an anti-Knight that gives -2 to all the things contained in Knight!

      It just makes the ability for the GM to crafty nastiness pretty high. While the metagame potential can be large, that can either be worked around, or completely minimized ("it drains you and you feel weak! -5 to ST.")

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  9. The difference between talking about concepts like character level (or character class level) and strength is that the later can be observed inside the game world, from an in-character point of view.

    One character can observe, by looking at other two character, that one is stronger than the other. He can potentially observe that one is *much* stronger than the other, depending on circumstances.

    It's a case of game-mechanics being used to simulate a real-world phenomena, or in other cases a phenomena that is analogous to something that (observably) occurs in the real world, or one which is "shaped" like a real world phenoemna.

    Characters can talk about strength. They can't talk about numbers, unless they cite bench press weights or similar, but they *can* talk about *relative* strengths. Bob is stronger and Albert, Carl is stronger than Bob, and David is stronger than Carl. This makes it obvious who in the adventuring fellowship (or "party", if you will) gets the task of breaking down the door.

    Characters cannot, however, talk about levels or about classes, because these are metagame phenomena. They are artificial constructs that utterly *fail* to map to any observable real-world phenomena. Characters can not, and should be able to, perceive classes or levels.

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