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When a character gains a negative level from any source, what is the narrative effect of that negative level? How does the character (re)act, how do they feel? Does that differ for various ways of getting negative levels?

From the rules as written, the in-game effects of negative levels are as follows:

For each negative level a creature has, it takes a cumulative –1 penalty on all ability checks, attack rolls, combat maneuver checks, Combat Maneuver Defense, saving throws, and skill checks. In addition, the creature reduces its current and total hit points by 5 for each negative level it possesses. The creature is also treated as one level lower for the purpose of level-dependent variables (such as spellcasting) for each negative level possessed. Spellcasters do not lose any prepared spells or slots as a result of negative levels. If a creature’s negative levels equal or exceed its total Hit Dice, it dies.

It seems like these effects are pretty severe, especially when you take into effect the spell needed to remove the effects: Restoration, which has some considerable casting requirements, and notably removes all exhaustion, fatigue, and ability damage to one ability for lesser casting requirements. With the various effects that Restoration can remove, it seems to reason that level drain is simply a more extreme version of the other effects.

I imagine negative levels could potentially be different if granted by different sources. In a recent game a character returned to life via Raise Dead, which grants two negative levels. One of those negative levels can be removed by Restoration, but Restoration says a second casting needs to wait a week for the other negative level. In that week between, how should that character react? Are they too exhausted to adventure, or provide labor for various downtime activities?

Should characters who gain negative levels through other means than being brought back to life act in different ways? My experience with negative levels states they mainly come from death effects - either the touch of a dangerous monster with ties to death, or from dying and coming back. These all seem to have a common flavor origin - the touch of death lingering on a character.

I'm interested in mainly official answers that I could point out to a DM who may not let characters take specific actions during this week period. Barring official answers, any well-supported answer is appreciated.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you looking for an "official" description or would the creation of an other user be acceptable (à la WorldBuilding.SE)? \$\endgroup\$ – Luris Jan 8 '18 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ No, user creations are not acceptable (this would be an unbounded list question). To stay open answers to this question should focus on depictions of level drain effects in related game supplements and game fiction. Hint: there's plenty of official Pathfinder Tales novels and some for sure cover people getting level drained... \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk says reinstate Monica Jan 9 '18 at 2:14
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It feels like your soul is getting wrenched out of your body (?).

This is how its described on a high-level haunt, the Soul Vortex (Horror Adventures):

The soul vortex is a gaping wound in the fabric of reality connected to the Negative Energy Plane. One may form at the site of a massive tragedy that claims hundreds of thousands of lives. The soul vortex annihilates the souls of anyone unfortunate enough to encounter it, and rips through the protections that even the most experienced adventurers consider unassailable.

A black vortex appears in the center of the haunt’s radius, and tugs inexorably on the souls of all creatures within its reach. Each round, before it targets their souls, the vortex first targets the magic protecting them, affecting each creature with a greater dispel magic effect that targets death ward or any other spells that would prevent level drain first. After the dispelling effect, the creature must succeed at a DC 23 Will save to partially resist the vortex’s pull. On a success, the creature takes 1d4 negative levels. On a failure, that creature’s soul is wrenched out of its body and destroyed. Only miracle or wish can reconstitute a soul that the vortex devours. The vortex gains 5 temporary hit points for each level it drains— treat devouring a soul as draining as many negative levels as it would normally take to kill the creature.

This is a very specific description of how the loss of those negative levels are affecting your character, and it doesn't exactly clarify how does a character feel like. But it's the closest that a character will get to the negative energy plane without actually going there and suffering the consequences.

Only creatures immune to its life-draining energies can survive there.

Devourers have a different description in Undead Revisited (p. 11):

Devourers can cause devastating damage with a touch, and those foes killed in this fashion find their souls forcibly drawn out and trapped inside the devourer’s body, where their essence is leeched away and used for spellcasting.

Devourers can only consume a single soul at a time, absorbing it piece by piece as they utilize their magical abilities, and must finish off or relinquish one soul in order to consume and utilize another. For a trapped soul, the only real hope is that someone will target its captor with one of the eclectic collection of spells that can cause a devourer to momentarily lose control of the spirit, allowing the imprisoned soul to escape. Upon occasion, those wishing to obtain the release of a captive soul have attempted to bargain with the devourer, offering it a more powerful soul in exchange, but in these situations a devourer often simply burns up the last of its current soul energy in capturing the new morsel.

Those souls that are successfully released and resurrected come back weaker and drained—and those destroyed completely by the devourer’s consumption cannot be brought back by anything less than the most powerful mortal magic.

This makes be believe that each draining source feels different to their victims, though the result is similar: You feel weaker, drained out, tired, soul-wrenched, and possibly sad and/or depressed too. The effects will vary because the sources will vary too.

If Paizo was to describe how energy drain feels like as a whole, they would be limiting their own creativity on new energy draining effects and they would have to create new mechanics to represent the flavor they need for that effect.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am not sure this text indicates negative levels feel like having your soul wrenched out of your body. Your quote is describing an effect that is trying to wrench your soul out of your body, and until it successfully does so, is progressively applying negative levels. (Connecting things inversely the way you've described seems like saying: being poked with a hot iron involves being poked, therefore being poked is like being poked by a hot iron.) Does the module specifically describe negative levels specifically feeling this way outside the bounds of this specific soul-wrenching effect? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 9 '18 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ That could be said about all examples of effects that cause negative levels, as they are all different sources. As such, this question would have no answer unless they errata the bestiary entry for Energy Drain to add a flavor description. \$\endgroup\$ – ShadowKras Jan 9 '18 at 18:49
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The Wizardwar by Elaine Cunningham:

Akhlaur sped through the gestures of a powerful enervation spell and hurled it at the king. Zalathorm jolted back, his face paling as strength and magic were stripped from him.

Azure Bonds by Kate Novak & Jeff Grubb:

Then the most disturbing idea of all occurred to her. Perhaps I died and was resurrected by someone who decided to take his price out of my hide. Literally. Don't those newly raised from Death's Dominions feel uneasy and disquieted?

Both from the Forgotten Realms and both official novels. I think they are relevant as D&D and Pathfinder share exactly the same few spells relating to raising the dead and energy drain. Sadly I don't have any Pathfinder tales to quickly search from.

Side Note: They're relevant, yes; adhering to the rules, hardly. The first quote was basically an energy drain from an epic wizard, which got healed in battle within seconds, where as RAW it takes 10 min to fire up a single greater restoration… so take them with a grain of salt.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can we get some more context on your second quote? It seems like the quote is referring to some specific feelings or responses. \$\endgroup\$ – Shionjin Jan 9 '18 at 15:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Shionjin The main character only have second hand knowledge, here's another quote: More than a few of her companions, after their first visit to the afterlife, chose to retire—to live as farmers, smiths, greengrocers. Speaking of which, she thought with annoyance, where is that damned mage, anyway? \$\endgroup\$ – agodlikeme Jan 9 '18 at 21:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ I vaguely remember Azure Bonds - wasn't the book based on 2nd Edition Dungeons and Dragons? Similarly, do you know what edition Wizardwar would have been based on? There seems like there'd be a good chance the rules had changed significantly in what is essentially 4 version changes (2nd ed --> 3rd ed --> 3.5 --> Pathfinder). \$\endgroup\$ – Shionjin Jan 10 '18 at 13:18
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The most common way of gaining a negative level (other than Raise Dead) is from the monster ability Energy Drain. This ability says, in part

This attack saps a living opponent’s vital energy

In earlier versions of D&D, Energy Drain actually removed experience levels from a character, but this can be problematic from a rules point of view. D&D3.5 used Negative Levels instead for the initial effect, but still made you lose levels if they became permanent. Pathfinder commuted this to just make the Negative Levels permanent. But the intention is the same - Energy Drain and Negative Levels reflect the character's experience, proficiency and life force being reduced.

So, from an in-character point of view, having a negative level should be similar to losing some experience or training. The character can still do all of the things he could do before, but he's just not as competent as he was. He has most of the endurance or energy he did before, but can't quite see as clearly, or focus his magical ability as well, or quite fight as well as he did.

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Just by sticking to the rules, level drain by itself is not a death effect.

But you are right in that most of the potential sources of level drain are associated with death:

  • the monster ability energy drain is mostly used by undead (there may be some exceptions but none that I know of):

    Some spells and a number of undead creatures have the ability to drain away life and energy

  • spells that inflicts negative levels (enervation and energy drain, but also lash of the astradaemon and orb of the void) are in the necromancy school

  • items that inflict negative levels (Life-Drinker) have a necromancy aura

  • things that brings someone back to life usually bestow negative levels on them

  • you can take negative levels when staying in a Negative-Dominant plane. Negative energy is often associated with undead

There is nothing more than the mechanical effect and this vague link to (un)death and negative energy in official material.

With that considered I usually see negative levels as a kind of necrosis that taints both your body and your soul. It's not linked to pain in any way, or to old age, or anything really precise, for this reason I assume someone with negative levels can't really tell what his weakness is like, a bit like when you got a cold, or maybe are just tired: you don't know what is wrong, you would need to see a doctor, but you can tell that you are weaker.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The question isn't asking about sources of negative levels -- it's asking what the negative levels narratively mean for how the character feels, behaves, reacts, etc. This answer doesn't appear to answer the question, except in the last sentence which is unsubstantiated -- can you revise and substantiate it, and refocus on what the question is asking about? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 9 '18 at 11:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ That is clearer. However, we're still looking for some basis -- we're not okay with, say, Worldbuilding's approach of "just post some answer with some personal interpretation we just made up." The question gets at official sources, so do those have anything to say? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Jan 9 '18 at 15:48

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