What Happened to Level Drain?

In previous editions of D&D and Pathfinder, certain undead were an absolute nightmare to fight. I’m talking about the dreaded level drain and level damage.

These abilities would temporarily (or permanently) reduce a creature’s statistics, rendering them progressively less useful as the affliction piled up. This was, in short, terrible.

Negative levels brought an increased amount of editing and bookkeeping on a character sheet. At the same time, your effectiveness was lowered, which also made you less likely to avoid future negative levels or contribute to the party’s advancement. If one hero was affected by numerous level drains, they could be effectively useless for a period of time.

This is not fun.

I’m not saying that negative levels weren’t effective at conveying a level of fear, or making something a big threat. I’m saying that being affected by negative levels is not fun for a player.

Level drain, as it existed in previous editions, is not present in D&D 5th edition. What happened? Is it a causality of dumbing down the game, making it easier for the players to just do whatever they want?

In my day, we walked uphill BOTH ways to the dungeon!

In my day, we walked uphill BOTH ways to the dungeon!

No, level drain changed to make the experience more enjoyable for the players.

A number of creatures and abilities temporarily lower a target’s hit point maximum, like a vampire’s bite attack. There’s usually not a saving throw involved, which keeps combat moving. And a hit point maximum reduction doesn’t immediately effect the usefulness of a character. The ability is insidious in nature. One bite usually isn’t bad; you can keep on going. But if those bites start piling up, you quickly realize that your ability to continue adventuring is more perilous. Suddenly, a few good hits could knock you out.

Your effectiveness is the same. You deal the same amount of damage, have the same ability scores, etc. What changes is your long term planning. You have options now. Do you push your luck, or call it quits and rest?

Another thing to notice is that this reduction to your hit point maximum at most lasts until you finish a long rest. You’re not going to be walking around with a reduced hit point maximum until you find a spellcaster, a good night’s rest will fix you up.

Level drain in 5th edition is closer to a life drain effect, and I think that works better. What do you think? Do you like the old version of level drain, or would something else work better? Let me know in the comments!