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The prestige class soul eater (Book of Vile Darkness 66-7) gains at level 1 the supernatural ability energy drain, which says

A soul eater gains the ability to drain energy, bestowing negative levels upon its victims. Beginning at 1st level, the touch of a soul eater bestows one negative level on its target. At 7th level, the soul eater bestows two negative levels with a touch. (BV 66)

Must a soul eater take a standard action to make this touch attack, or is touch being used here colloquially, as in Whenever the soul eater strikes a foe with a natural weapon or unarmed strike or casually brushes up against someone in a crowded marketplace? Or is there another way of reading this that I'm unaware of?


Note: While published in a source, the prestige class soul eater was never updated to making it available with minor adjustments by the DM in that latter game (see Why a Revision? on DMG 4). A player is eyeing this prestige class for a campaign that I run, and I'm trying to determine how this ability works.

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Energy drain is a supernatural ability that specifies that it requires an attack to apply, but existing examples (e.g. the wight) attach it to other, existing attacks, rather than making it a separate attack unto itself.

For the soul eater, then, it appears to be attached to a “touch” but not a separate touch attack. Energy drain still requires an attack roll, so

  • strikes a foe with a natural weapon

    Yes. This is an attack that involves physically touching the target.

  • strikes a foe with [...an] unarmed strike

    Yes. This is an attack that involves physically touching the target.

  • casually brushes up against someone in a crowded marketplace

    No, no attack roll is used here.

  • Not mentioned, but touches a foe with a touch-attack effect

    Yes, this would also be an attack that involves physically touching the target, so the soul eater would drain energy on top of the usual effect of that attack.

  • Also not mentioned, but touches a foe with an attack just to drain energy

    I would say yes, in that I believe a character can choose to roll a touch attack at any time to attempt to touch a character, and for a soul eater that touch would drain energy. However, to the best of my knowledge, there is no rule that you can choose to use an attack to try to touch someone outside of a specific touch-attack ability (which the soul eater class does not grant).

Overall, I do not like the soul eater class. It is very much a one-trick pony, and it’s an extremely binary trick: either it works and the target is pretty much dead, or it doesn’t work and the soul eater is useless. That means as a DM you have to either use immune creatures against this PC all the time, and that character will struggle mightily to contribute since half their levels are devoted to this energy drain thing, or else allow this character to completely dominate combat encounters.

Personally, I would not be wild about having a soul eater in my party, and would want to have a long chat with the player about how to produce their character in a manner appropriate to the game, either by finding a replacement for soul eater or else tweaking/rewriting the class to both be less devastating with the energy drain and also have other things going on.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Why rule that the general description of the special ability energy drain (that requires an attack) overrules the specific nature of the soul drinker's energy drain (requiring just a touch—whatever that may mean)? (And, good heavens, those last two 'graphs are pretty much exactly what I told the player. I didn't mention that much of the shtick can largely be done by a life-drinker (DMG 227) (40,320 gp; 12 lbs.), but that's probably neither here nor there.) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan May 12 '17 at 13:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Well, I am also reading touch in the soul eater entry as referring to a touch attack rather than just as the English word. It just seems more consistent with the rules in general to do so; this is the same reason I disregard the touch-attack line about accidental discharge. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 12 '17 at 13:55

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