Death Ward and Channeling

And for today, it’s a question…

An interesting question came up with regards to channeling. Insofar as channeling that’s based on positive or negative energy goes, to what extent could a death ward (or life ward, for positive energy) simply shut down channeling altogether?

Obviously that would only work on things that directly affected another creature, rather than the channeler themselves or an allied creature, etc., but it brings up an interesting question, particularly insofar as something is actually a “negative energy effect” versus being powered by negative energy (e.g. a conversion effect to a spell that’s not explicitly negative-energy based).

Given that a 4th-level spell effect can so totally shut down channeling, and potentially most uses of channeling, there was also a question of coming up with a similar 4th-level effect even for channeling that’s based around alternate power sources (particularly when trying to manifest such a 4th-level effect spontaneously, such as via limited wish).


Well, given that we’re comparing an old spell to systems that didn’t exist when it was written, this is going to involve a few assumptions as to how it all works. The biggest one is simply that – as was covered here – “spirits have a reserve of positive energy, and use it to hang onto bodies, and to make them to move and act”.

So: Death Ward operates by shielding that positive energy reserve against negative energy. It thus prevents paralysis and reductions in strength, constitution, or effective level caused by negative energy being introduced into the body as well as a few other things that are noted as being negative energy effects.

Depending on which version is in use in the game the subject is either “immune to all death spells, magical death effects, energy drain, and any negative energy effects” (original SRD) or “gains a +4 morale bonus on saves against all death spells and magical death effects. The subject is granted a save to negate such effects even if one is not normally allowed. The subject is immune to energy drain and any negative energy effects, including channeled negative energy” (Pathfinder). The Pathfinder version is probably better balanced, if only due to being updated.

Unfortunately, what is and what is not a “negative energy effect” is never clearly defined beyond “negative levels” always involving negative energy. Instead it’s simply noted in the description of various individual spells and monster abilities.

I’m not too fond of that decision, but obviously anything which doesn’t directly affect the user is not affected by personal defenses. Additionally, even presuming normal negative energy channeling (instead of, say, an elemental variant), by a strict reading…

  • Censure, which laces Channeling effects with “additional energies”, is not affected by a classical Death Ward, but the Pathfinder version would probably provide it’s saving throw bonus.
  • Conversion, which produces spell effects, is not affected.
  • Damaging, which does divine damage, should not technically be affected. I’d let the Death (or Life) Ward either be effective (most likely) or provide resistance to damaging turning on the basis that I’ve generally classified “divine damage” as either positive or negative energy damage.
  • Fearspeaker is not affected. It’s a mental effect, even if it is powered by negative energy.
  • Touch of the Reaper would be affected. No negative levels need apply!
  • Touch of Annihilation would not be; on the “how this works” level it’s targeting the physical body, not that positive energy reserve – and on the technical wording side Disintegration is not a negative energy effect. I’d let the Pathfinder version of Death Ward provide it’s saving throw bonus though.
  • The Dark Veil is basically a “darkness” effect – which is closely related to negative energy, but isn’t negative energy. I might let Death Ward work anyway, just as a thematic plot element – “and you alone remember!” – but that’s a weak protection versus a very subtle effect and would be more or less a side effect.
  • Nightmare mostly produces darkness spell effects and certainly doesn’t directly target a spirits positive energy reserves. It would be unaffected.
  • Vanishing Shadows could be affected for the same reasons as The Dark Veil – but it really isn’t likely. It’s a higher-level ability and probably has all the raw power it needs to rip through a minor protective side effect.
  • Shadow Realms would be unaffected. Death Ward certainly doesn’t protect your dreams.
  • Seal of Darkness would be affected. That’s direct negative energy damage.
  • Flow of Life would be affected.
  • Aura of Light/Darkness might be affected. It usually doesn’t really affect characters of any reasonable level anyway, but if it’s infliciting a negative energy effect on a character with a Death Ward, it won’t work.
  • Energy Transformation is mostly unaffected, but Death Ward will protect you against the negative energy touch attack.
  • Spiritfire/Banefire will not be affected. It’s generating (or negating) “real” energies, not attacking a creatures positive energy reserves.
  • Living Matrix isn’t affected, and can easily be used to negate a Death Ward.
  • Hand of the (Un-)maker – at least where it affects living creatures – works like Touch of Annihilation, above.
  • Lifeshaping/Plague Mastery targets the physical body with transformation effects, and so is not affected.
  • Smite would lose it’s extra damage, but the bonus to hit would remain.
  • Wrath would be affected.
  • Cleansing/Corruption doesn’t target a spirits energy reserves, but I think that I’d let Pathfinders version provide it’s saving throw bonus.
  • Final Death is a Death effect, and is therefore affected. On the other hand, if you kill something, you can just wait until the Death Ward wears off and then use the Ritual Disposal option to ensure Final Death – so it doesn’t matter all that much.
  • Holy/Unholy Strike would be affected.
  • Death Strike simply says it’s adding damage – but the side effects (and name) make it fairly obvious that it’s a Death Effect. Ergo, it’s affected.
  • The entire Tides of Light and Darkness path is clearly unaffected. Even those effects that do target creatures produce physical effects.
  • Strength/Weakness would be affected.

So, at least until it runs out or someone gets rid of the spell, Death Ward will stop – or at least (if using the Pathfinder version) hinder – ten (about 20% of them) negative energy Channeling options: Damaging, Touch of the Reaper, Seal of Darkness, Flow of Life, Smite, Wrath, Final Death, Holy/Unholy Strike, Death Strike, and Strength/Weakness. A few others will be slightly affected.

That’s annoying for the Channeler in roughly the same way that Wind Wall is annoying to an Archer or Freedom of Movement is annoying to a Grappler – but they’re likely to have a variety of other options available – or to just have a way to get rid of or bypass that Death Ward.

Now I’d recommend using the Pathfinder version or – if using the classical version – putting an upper limit of effect on it. A fourth level spell probably shouldn’t be able to completely shut down Power Word: Kill (even if that’s not really a very good spell for ninth level).

As for shutting down other variations of Channeling… that will vary with the mechanism – but then something as simple as Protection From Energy will seriously hinder an elemental channeler already. so that’s reasonable enough. You just need to be specific about what the spell actually does, and thus how it can be bypassed or negated and what it does and does not affect.

And I hope that helps!


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