Yesterday, my 10th level PCs went through two separate fights, and the events of each raised questions about the other. First, the party fought a bone devil. The group's sorcerer used enervation a few times and drained about 4 levels from the monster. In a ruling, which I am more than willing to reverse if there seems to be a consensus I was in the wrong, I said that while it's caster level, and therefore duration, etc., of its spell-like abilities was affected, its access to them was not. I made this ruling because it has always seemed to me, in 3.x D&D and its derivatives, that there is a disconnect between whether a monster has a spell-like ability, and the caster level it uses for said ability. For example, a quasit can cast commune as a spell-like ability, but its caster level is only 6th instead of the 9th a PC would need to cast the spell. So the fact that the osyluth was drained of caster level seemed, at the time, to indicate it shouldn't necessarily lose the ability to cast any of his spell-like abilities.
Fast forward to the boss fight, against a vampire. The vampire gives the sorcerer a taste of his own medicine with a level draining slam, and the sorcerer is afflicted with two negative levels. I tell him he therefore loses access to his 5th level spells (which at 10th level he only has one of: forcewall). Later in the fight, while flipping madly through his player's handbook and, subsequently, the conditions section at the rear of the dungeon master's guide, he says there is nothing in the energy drain or negative level descriptions which indicate he should lose access to said spell. He said that the write ups for the status effect in both books indicate he simply loses a spell slot and the effects derived from his caster level as applicable to the spell, not that he lost access to the spell itself. He referenced my call earlier in the night with the bone devil. I told him I was sure enough of my interpretation that I didn't want to break momentum at the time, but would raise the question here after the game.
I did, however, say that he had access to the spell slots, and could use them to cast more of his lower level spells (which, as it turned out, were all necromancy, mind-affecting, and fire-based spells; since the vampire had scryed the party in action and knew their penchant for fire, one protection from energy rendered all of the sorcerer's spells useless except for magic missile, which he proceeded to empower and maximize out the wazoo through the rest of the fight).
Upon reviewing the descriptions, they are somewhat ambiguous. They do say that you lose a spell slot, or a spell, of your highest level (player's choice if more than one spell or spell slot meets the criteria). Which is clear as mud. If he loses the spell, then I was correct in my ruling. If he loses the spell slot, I was diametrically opposed to what the rules actually say. This also raises the question of, if he loses the spell or spell slot, is that just a feature of gaining negative levels, of losing a caster level regardless of the source, or would both those things stack? (i.e., loses a spell or spell slot from the negative level, then loses more from re-calculating his caster level at a lower point; which I doubt is the case because it seems needlessly compounded)
Additionally, I swear I have repeatedly read that if you lose the prerequisites for an ability, be they ability score, level, another feat, etc., then you lose all dependent and derivative abilities as well. However, that rule could not be found in the mad shuffle of last night's combat, and I have no idea where to look for it now. It seems directly relevant to the energy drain and negative level question at hand.
Finally, there is the lingering question of whether a bone devil drained of caster levels loses access to his upper-tier spell-like abilities as a character would (?), or is the fact that a quasit can cast commune with an inappropriately low caster level an implicit indication that monsters' spell-like abilities don't operate under exactly the same rules as spellcasting PCs?
Thanks for wading through that long post and its questions. I look forward to your interpretations!
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Quite a quandary. Pathfinder clearly states that the character does NOT lose any prepared spells or spell slots, but 3.5 seems to have a different take on the situation.
Based on your scenario, I would throw out the comparison of a PC losing a level to any monster with spell like abilities. Why? Spell-like abilities are just that - they are spell LIKE. They do not have level-dependent requirements like actual spells, so comparing prepared spells to spell-like abilities is like comparing apples to oranges.
Now, my interpretation would be that if a player gains a negative level and loses his highest level spell slot, he would lose the spell associated with it. After all, how can you have access to a spell you no longer have a spell slot for? Your player's argument that he shouldn't lose access to the spell seems a bit contrived. After all, if he loses the slot he needs to cast the spell, how can he cast it? I believe your ruling was right.
I also remember the rules about losing prerequisites means losing access to the ability, but am at work, so I can't access the actual rulebook at the moment. Again, I believe you are correct here as well.
Now, I have no page numbers or full references for these opinions, but hope my interpretations help in some way.
First, I'm of the position to keep things simple at the gaming table. The less paperwork people have to worry about on their character sheet, the more they can add to role-playing and killing stuff.
Level drain/loss (as long as it's not permanent) is a -1 penalty to attacks, saves, Ability checks, and skill checks and effective level (for determining the power, duration, DC, and other details of spells or special abilities).
Additionally, a spellcaster loses one spell or spell slot from his or her highest available level. Negative levels stack.
This basically means a wizard would lose the spell as if it had been expended (not lost from memory or any of that, but the mystical energy is just not there). In addition, note the bold and how it DOESN'T say you lose the ability to use spells/special abilities but that the effects gained are minimized.
So, a 5th level wizard hit by say....a Fell Drain ray of frost would lose 1 level. In addition to the attacks, saves, etc... he'd lose a prepared 3rd level spell (his choice or randomly, doesn't say) and all effects that apply to spell duration, damage die, range would be reduced by 1. He STILL retains the ability to cast his remaining 3rd level spells if he has any. So if he also prepared lightning bolt, he could still cast it albiet at a minimal 4d6 damage.
Same goes for say a 5th level paladin hit by the same Fell Drain ray of frost. He wouldn't lose the ability to summon his mount, though the duration his mount can stay is now minimized. Additionally, he still retains his Smite Evil 2/day, but the damage is not +5 but +4 (for 4 paladin levels).
This is important because people feel you need to re-calculate your entire class progression up to that point. And that's just not smart gaming IMO. I know it says "DC" in the reduction description but that would mean a spellcaster would then lose ANY access to spells of 3rd level so why bother in making him give up a spell slot that he can't use anyways. Take out the "DC" in the description and it all falls into place. Keep it simple, take penalties lose a spell and keep going.
There is a bit of difference in the language between enervation and the DMG passage on how energy drain is handled overall. Depending on how you interpret it, this may lead to the two being different in the eyes of a given DM. The other aspect of the conversation is the matter of whether a spell can be cast of less than a minimum caster level (either for spell casters or as a spell-like effect).
Loss of Spells/Slots
I understand the spell/slot loss to be akin to as if the spell had been cast. A prepared spellcaster such as a wizard would need to decide which prepared spell was lost, or give up an unfilled slot. A spontaneous caster, such as a scorcerer, would lose a casting of his highest level spell, as if already cast. He would retain knowledge of the spell. If the effect were in place at next preparation, the wizard would have one fewer slot to fill, the sorcerer would have one fewer slot to expend of his known spells.
Spell-like abilities are not the same as spells. The devil doesn't lose a prepared spell or the slot to cast one, as he doesn't have any spells. He has spell like abilities. Were he a devil with sorc levels or inherent ability to cast spells (such as a naga), he would suffer the same effects.
A caster may choose to cast a spell at a less than maximum caster level, but cannot choose to cast at a caster level lower than then minimum needed for the spell. (PHB 171) Does the effective level statement associated with negative levels (of either source) limit the use of top tier slots? Can the 10th level sorcerer now cast a forcewall with a reduction of effective level such that it is effectively CL9?
I've seen this argued both ways, and it can have significant effects. While the effect on energy drain may be infrequent, it can have significant effect on the prestige class Wild Mage, for example. When WotC Customer Service was asked about it, they (characteristically), answered it both ways. It's a matter that, to the best of my knowledge, was never addressed via WotC supplemental materials. The issue itself doesn't exist in PF.
In the most punative case, which is the interpretation that the effective loss of level equates to the loss of CL, top tier spells become unavailable to many casters. The slots may still be available (either for a sorc or to be filled by lower level spells by a wizard the next day), and the character may still know higher level spells, but cannot muster the ability to use them. The condition is similar to a caster with a low ability score in their primary casting stat.
My opinion is that there is not a good answer that preserves the inherent game mastery elements of the game system and which is not also horrifically destructive to many table cultures. This, along with the recalc-on-the-fly matter, is what lead to the PF approach to this matter. Your choice on how to handle it probably needs to be derived in part on you and your group's philosophy of gaming and whether it is subject to broken use. While energy draining monsters are rare, enervation spamming by a PC sorc may require extensive preparation to make NPC spellcasters into effective opponents, for example.
Loss of Prerequisites
Your memory on this matches mine, but you won't find it in the core books. I don't have access at the moment to comfirm, but I think you'll find it in Complete Arcane. The discussion about caster level above may cover what you needed in this case.
I think 3.5 attempted to make level lose in the middle of combat simple so they made a flat lose of attack, skills, saves and spells no matter what class you are playing. Only when you check to see if the level is lost permanently do you go through the trouble of actually lowering the character's level. So in your example you have a 10th level sorcerer that loses two levels. Well at 10th level the sorcerer has 3 5th level spell slots (his highest level). So he would lose two of those slots leaving one slot remaining. He would still be able to cast a 5th level spell even after the temporary lose of two levels.
Thanks, everyone! Mr. Lichman, excellent point regarding the nature of spell-like abilities, and one I'm sure will be useful in explaining wonkiness in the future; spell-like abilities are not spells and thus governed by separate, though generally very similar, rules.
As for the effects of the level loss, I think I have a better grasp on the situation of losing a spell or spell slot. The wording indicates the character has some kind of choice, or that there is a separate consideration, which determines whether they lose a spell or spell slot; but it's really a matter of applying a single rule to either prepared or spontaneous spellcasters.
For future reference, I will most likely go with the less-punitive, easier-to-calculate system of deducting a single spell slot but not denying access to the spell itself even if the caster level drops below the technical minimum for normal access to said spell level. If the character later fails the necessary saves and the drained levels become permanent, then such recalculations will be imposed. It's justifiable within the game as well, as the withering curse taking time to fully settle in on the character.
Not that it's likely to matter as much in the immediate future of this campaign. Although the party has to square off against the vampire again to seal the deal on her destruction, the sorcerer won't be joining them on account of death by wraith Constitution drain when encountering the guardian undead around the vampire's coffin. So, no more enervation spamming for now.