Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Permanent XP Loss

Today may come across as a bit ranty, and it may be a bit shorter than normal. I apologize for both of those things if it bothers you, but I want to talk about something that I absolutely hate in games. Now, this notion is from old school games, but has also showed up in a few new games as well. Heck, it's even in some old MMO's. What is this thing that I hate? Well, quite simply, it is permanent XP loss.

Permanent XP Loss?
Some of you, some blessed few of you who have never run into this before, are likely wondering what permanent XP loss is. To put it simply, I define permanent XP loss as anything that reduces the level, skills, or abilities of a character permanently as a form of damage. The classic example would be Ability/Level Damage some negative energy creatures in D&D can do, which work by literally making your character lose levels (and all that go with those levels) when you are hit by an attack. Suddenly your level 13 fighter is a level 8 fighter, and you're probably a very frustrated player.

As a GM and Player
I want to be straight forward on this. I dislike XP loss as a player, as a GM, and as a game designer. Can I see a use for it in some situations? Sure, I can, but there are usually better ways around things then permanently docking something a player has worked and put points into. The fact that it is a permanent loss just makes it worse. It is, in my opinion, something that is both unnecessarily cruel and specifically designed to make characters less fun to play. Sure, that one encounter may be awesomely tense and fun, but does that really matter when half your players no longer have fun with their characters afterwards?

Make It Temporary
One of the things that bothers me about it is that it is pretty easy to fix all things told. Make the loss/drain temporary and it becomes a lot better. The character isn't screwed, they're just injured for a while but will recover given time and rest. The player doesn't have to re-buy whatever was just lost, they just have to wait a bit.

The other way to handle this could be to just add penalties instead of actually taking away things. This may effectively be the same thing, but it feels a lot different as a player. I'm not having something I bought taken away, I am just having a curse added. And while logically I can see that either way I have effectively had the same thing done, presentation matters a lot here.

How About You?
Have you run into this in your games? How did you deal with it? Am I a fool for not liking it? Can you make a point in its favor? I'd love to hear your views on it.


  1. I have never been a fan of permanent level loss. To me, it just seemed like a mechanic that some GM put into place when he realized the characters in his campaign were getting too powerful for his liking. I have no PROOF that this is how those monsters came to be— it is just a feeling I have. In fact it reminds me of the other "FU" critters like the Rust Monster or Disenchanter- which seem specifically designed to destroy PC gear. It just smacks to me of a GM trying to 'restore balance' to a campaign through hamfisted means.

  2. The real risk of level loss damage is that it is a great way to open the door to the death spiral.

    Where your 3 Level 8 characters were a match (albeit a challenging one) for those 2 wraiths, but after three rounds of combat and some dice rolls, you're suddenly faced with the equivalent of 2 level 6 characters facing off against the same (full strength) wraiths... and the spiral leads us downward without pause to TPK.

    Even worse is the strength drain of the shadow which can literally take your fighter and turn her into a sitting duck who can't even flee because she's too encumbered to run away and can't be an effective fighter anymore because her prime stat is reduced to penalty range.

    Wheee! That's the definition of fun! *sarcasm alert*

  3. I think a good way to have permanent XP loss is put warning signs to the players and give the players the opportunity to get something to resist it. Give them info about a special potion or item that permits them to temporarily resist XP loss from energy drainers. That gives the players some choice on how to approach those scary energy drainers.

  4. Are the D&D cops going to come bang on your door if you, you know, don't follow the rules *gasp* and disallow this permanent xp stuff you don't like?

  5. Erik, the two problems with that is it only works for some XP loss. Other systems do it as well. For example, in Dark Heresy some of the results on the critical damage table are that you "permanently lose 1/2 your toughness score," or "permanently lose 5 points of strength."

    That said, in D&D we did have a druid give us protection from negative energy. The shades then couldn't do anything to hurt us as their only damage type was a neg energy drain. The fight got waved once the GM realized the monsters couldn't harm us.

    Anonymous: No, no one is going to come bang down my door for changing rules. However, it is an aspect of game design that I dislike and felt like commenting on here. Do I expect this to change anything? No, but it is possible that someone is currently making a game and debating this very thing. This post will, hopefully, give some insight to one side of the argument.

  6. If you're playing a game that you know will be long term, and I mean weekly for years long term, this may be a good option to put into your game. Knowing that it will hamper your players in a game that will last for a very long time might grant them a challenge that they wouldn't face otherwise.

    It could also be a good story element. The epic heroes known nationwide for their skills are suddenly weakened and for who knows how long. Suddenly other people want to take the status of the players and suddenly they can't take on the same jobs that once were so easy for them, now they have to readjust within the world until they can climb back up the ladder to their previous position.

    It could also be good if a player isn't liking something he's done while leveling. Maybe he took a prestige class that it turns out he didn't like, or he took some kind of bad feat combination or something and he'd like to change it. This would be a good way to allow him to without breaking character and would even give his character a good reason to try out different training since, obviously, his previous methods didn't work.

    Given all that, I still agree that, although I haven't experienced this personally, I've never liked the idea of permanent XP loss; however, I can see some situations where it would be a viable option.

  7. The big problem though, Broken, is that all those cool ideas you had (and they are cool ideas) are all things that could be done by choice. The player asks the GM for it as a plot, or the GM does it as a plot. It's not mandated, or random, but a choice which does make it better.

    Still, they are good ways to spin those very things into something fun and useful.