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As far as I can find in the rules, negative levels are always described in conjunction with energy drain, and are even listed together as one special ability in some cases. Usually there will be a line like the following:

Each successful energy drain attack bestows one or more negative levels

Followed by a description of the effects of a negative level. As far as I can tell, this is all we have to go on for what negative levels are or where they come from. In other places in the rules, negative levels are often treated as synonymous with energy drain, or at least connected to it.

But what about abilities and effects that inflict negative levels but do not use terms like energy drain? What about an unholy weapon in the hands of a good creature? What about Fission?

Essentially, are negative levels actually synonymous with energy drain, or are they a more generic mechanic that is simply most often used to reflect the effects of energy drain attacks? Is a creature that is immune to energy drain immune to negative levels as a whole?

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Negative Levels are a Direct Result of Energy Drain; but not Synonymous.

Enervation vs. Energy Drain

Enervation's Negative Levels don't last long enough for permanent level drain.

Usually, negative levels have a chance of permanently draining the victim’s levels, but the negative levels from enervation don’t last long enough to do so.

Energy Drain's negative levels do last long enough for permanent level drain, and also bestows a lot more per spell cast (metamagic aside); allowing that many more chances of failure to remove negative levels.

There is no saving throw to avoid gaining the negative levels, but 24 hours after gaining them, the subject must make a Fortitude saving throw (DC = energy drain spell’s save DC) for each negative level. If the save succeeds, that negative level is removed. If it fails, the negative level also goes away, but one of the subject’s character levels is permanently drained.


Unholy Weapon

Unholy weapons are imbued with the essence of evil [arguable connected to necromantic] energy and "curse" those that wield it, bestowing a negative level as long as it is wielded, but since it is not a permanent effect, it isn't drained.

It bestows one negative level on any good creature attempting to wield it. The negative level remains as long as the weapon is in hand and disappears when the weapon is no longer wielded. This negative level never results in actual level loss, but it cannot be overcome in any way (including restoration spells) while the weapon is wielded.


Fission

This is, essentially, a temporary Clone. Your clone, in this case, is exactly like you, but "treated" as if you had two negative levels.

Treat your duplicate as yourself with two negative levels for the purpose of determining the powers to which the duplicate has access (while the duration of this power lasts, those negative levels cannot be removed by any means).

So in this instance, your clone will have double the following:

  • -1 on all skill checks and ability checks.
  • -1 on attack rolls and saving throws.
  • -5 hit points.
  • -1 effective level (whenever the creature’s level is used in a die roll or calculation, reduce it by one for each negative level).
  • If the victim casts spells, she loses access to one spell as if she had cast her highest-level, currently available spell. (If she has more than one spell at her highest level, she chooses which she loses.) In addition, when she next prepares spells or regains spell slots, she gets one less spell slot at her highest spell level.

Now, if your clone dies before you rejoin, you are essentially losing a part of your life force. Necromancy has been described as the essence of life and death, so a part of your essence has just died off, and you would gain a negative level.

If your duplicate dies before the duration expires, no rejoining occurs, and you gain one negative level.

Now, if you die and your essence lives, then a bigger part of your life force has just died off, so you would now be your clone, with the two negative levels.

If you die, your duplicate remains in existence, and is for all intents you, but with two negative levels. (Once the duration expires, one of the negative levels immediately converts to one lost level; the other negative level can be removed by standard means.)

Has it been effectively drained? Arguably, yes, you drain a part of your essence so that part of your essence can have a life of its own. Although the psychic power of Fissure doesn't mention necromancy, in the power description, it can be inferred by the language used.

Context of reality could be like this; your energy gets drained whenever you donate blood (Energy Drain). The nurse literally drains your blood and puts that into a container. That blood, genetically, is you, just a smaller part of your entire blood supply (Fissure). If that blood supply isn't put back into you, you feel drained for probably a day (negative level) until your body naturally replenishes itself (removes its negative level). If that blood supply is put back into you, you feel rejuvenated immediately (negative level is gone).


Creature Immunity

We can look at Undead for example, of creatures that are immune to Energy Drain.

  • Not subject to critical hits, nonlethal damage, ability drain, or energy drain.

Undead, have no life force. Therefore, there is literally no "energy" to drain. What energy is being drained? One could infer Positive Energy. Undead are the result of reanimation from Negative Energy effects. Negative Levels don't count towards them, because they are made of that Energy.

Also, constructs are devoid of a life force. They are immune to necromantic effects.

  • Immunity to poison, sleep effects, paralysis, stunning, disease, death effects, and necromancy effects.

Energy drain is a necromantic effect.

What would happen if a lawful good vampire picks up an Unholy Weapon? That would be a good question in and of itself. Since the Unholy Weapon, technically isn't draining the vampire, I would say both effects happen. He gains a negative level, but is also healed. That would have to be a judgement call by the DM.

Some creatures, such as Hellbred, can use Unholy Weapons, even though they are good aligned. Once again, since it is more of a curse, they aren't being drained, they can pick that bad boy up and swing it around for the cause of good.


Conclusion

Negative Levels, although the result of Energy Drain, are not necessarily Energy Drain in and of itself. Some other times, it can be simply a curse or a consequence of doing/having something that you are not supposed to.

Your DM would have to decide if Negative Level consequences count as necromantic effects. It would make sense, not break anyone's game, and allow that lawful good vampire to wield weapons that Hellbred can.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't see any reason for unholy weapons to use necromancy, since there's no reason for holy weapons or anarchic weapons or axiomatic weapons to do so, and they all function identically. Their negative levels are just negative levels: an accounting tool for game purposes to signify a metaphysical weakening, not connected to necromancy at all. So a Good vampire (which is normally impossible without shenanigans anyway: the template forcibly changes their alignment on application) would take a negative level from an unholy weapon, and no more. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Jun 3 '15 at 15:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ Vampire Template: Always doesn't mean always. Regarding Unholy: Unholy Blight is a requirement in the magic item creation. Unholy energy, while evil, is in different schools. Unhallow isn't necromancy either, however, the evil effects bolsters undead and other necromantic spells. A DM could easily say there is a connection. And I explain the mechanical part in my answer - it is a temporary curse. \$\endgroup\$ – Ruut Jun 4 '15 at 0:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ I won't say a DM can't rule it that way, just that I see no particular reason to do so most of the time; the game rules draw no essential connection between negative levels and energy drain, which is a surprising thing to most (including myself, originally) and deserves more emphasis, rather than trying to sweep the interesting implications under the rug by immediately houseruling something that probably isn't going to be relevant. (An acquired Always Evil template means all characters will be forced to evil on acquisition and have to be redeemed from there. Pretty rare.) \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Jun 4 '15 at 0:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @TuggyNE What am I sweeping under the rug, and what emphasis would you add? \$\endgroup\$ – Ruut Jun 4 '15 at 3:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Mostly the emphasis on houseruling things to make negative levels act more like they're part of energy drain toward the end tends to undermine the rest of it. \$\endgroup\$ – user17995 Jun 4 '15 at 4:14

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