Saturday, March 27, 2021

Random thoughts: Incremental "Draining" Damage

Just because I occasionally I think about game stuff besides populating little towns with people with interesting names:

"Get your prybar under there, Zophia, I'll prop the lid with this brick," said Barrick. "One more good shove, and we'll have it off."

"Good," she grunted, "Hope the temple will be happy to have their saint's reliquary back."

The sarcophagus lid slid off, revealing a filigree chest between a pair of skeletal feet. Zophia reached in, "There you are."

As she touched the chest, the skeleton's eyes flared ice-blue and the body rose, striking the intruder. Zophia raised an arm to ward off the strike, as blue-tinged claws raked her sleeve. Her prybar dropped from suddenly numb fingers. 

"Back away!" yelled Barrick, drawing sword against the glowing undead. It scrabbled at his shield, unable to breach his guard, before leaping from the sarcophagus at his stunned companion.

She clumsily swung a cudgel at the horror, before receiving another gash across the face.

"Run, now!" urged Barrick, grabbing her arm.

It was like ice, as Zophia slowly turned to him, slurring, "I tir'ed..."

The skeleton leered, stepping in for another attack.



There have been discussions on alternatives to level draining undead.

Not sure if I dreamed this, or it just came unbidden to my mind as I was considering something completely unrelated, probably work... 

So I toyed with the idea of incremental damage effects from repeated strikes/touches from an undead or similar "draining" foe. Not simply physical damage, but each touch "stacking" on the last to create a greater effect and debilitation to a victim of the attack.

For an analogue I took the stages of hypothermia for inspiration for our "chilling" undead friend (For stats, I'd probably use a Wight/Wraith analogue)...

  1. Victim shivers and is cold to the touch, all actions are taken at -2
  2. Victim becomes sluggish, treat as if slowed
  3. Victim disoriented, as per confusion spell
  4. Unconscious (1d6 turns)
  5. Death

Recovery required warming a victim one hour per "stage" of effect, with victim passing through each stage during recovery, requiring monitoring and control. A cure spell (as "the god's warming hand") will bypass 1d2 stages.

This type of incremental damage/debilitation could be potentially devastating as a character stricken multiple times becomes increasingly ineffective or potentially a liability, depending on how the damage effect is designed. Unlike level drain, the effect may be counteracted or recovered in hours or days, depending on how it is structured. After the first encounter with a foe of this sort, PCs will likely attempt to find ways to minimize melee contact, or spread damage around, mitigating the stack effects. 

Just conceptualizing, of course. This has probably been modeled and playtested elsewhere by those more clever than me. 


  1. We use minimal damage and d6 strength/constitution loss with death at 0, but I like the idea of making physical activity harder, perhaps cumulative -1 modifiers to all rolls and movement with each hit.

    1. Thanks, yes, I've looked at ability score damage, as well. That's a good alternative mechanic.

  2. I always prefer chill/rot based alternatives to energy drain (and actual blood drain for vampires), and this is a good one: I am compelled to borrow it.

  3. Progressive affliction tracks are a cool idea in general, and could definitely be a great way to handle energy drain effects.

    5e's exhaustion mechanic works a lot like this, with additional levels of exhaustion applying additional penalties. That progression goes like this.

    1. Disadvantage on Ability Checks
    2. Speed halved
    3. Disadvantage on Attack Rolls and Saving Throws
    4. Hit point maximum halved
    5. Speed reduced to 0
    6. Death

    As it takes a night's rest (or a fifth level spell) to restore just one level of exhaustion, this is one of the harshest (and most underused!) mechanics in 5e.

    5e's usual replacement for energy drain just applies a temporary penalty to maximum HP, which sucks a lot of dread out of a party's first wight encounter. Using an exhaustion mechanic instead would be a lot better, I think.

    1. Thanks - that's good - someone on that 'R' site had mentioned the same thing, but I appreciate the breakdown. I like the progression, and it models a 'real-world' adversity such as hypothermia pretty well.

      Looking at the 5e wight/wraith, they've really been nerfed with the loss of the level drain (actually looks like level drain has been drained away the last few editions...). After all, what makes level drain so threatening to an older edition player, is not just the loss of ability (spell slots, etc.), but the loss of all those hard-won experience points, particularly beginning at mid-level, where advancement really begins to slow. Of course, this give impetus to take on risky missions to make up those points, or the offers of sketchy patrons with access to powerful magics, perhaps...

      Of course, here I am, considering non level-draining (but still hazardous) undead, myself...

      But after all, undead should be scary, and that's why the party should always have a cleric...