Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Sleep Spell - Where There is No "Save or Die" - Just Death

It's funny. "Save or Die" is a big topic in the OSR, with strong opinions on both sides of the fence (mostly on the "pro" side of Save or Die from my experience). Yet, the simple 1st Level Sleep Spell jumps the shark, if you will.

In Swords & Wizardry Complete, a Sleep Spell takes out 2 to 16 creatures of up to 1st level with no save allowed.

Now, this is a powerful spell in the hands of the PCs. Heck, it can take out a 4HD creature, like an Ogre.

It can also decimate a PC party of 3rd level or less if used against them. For a party of 1st or 2nd level PCs, it's a nearly guaranteed TPK. (sure, Elves are immune to magical sleep, but that can't be part of the assumption of the party makeup).

How many DM's have used this against their PCs and ended a campaign before it even started? Hopefully, none, but you never know with the inexperienced DMs.

How is "No Save and Die" an integral part of the game?

Isn't what's good for the PC's good for their adversaries? ;)


  1. I think magical sleep is something that continued to get re-evaluated as the game progressed (from the LBBs on which S&W is based). Even by HB, this disallowance is gone (as it is in BX). And in 1e, there is no explicit reference in the spell listings regarding saving throws (not being allowed) vs. magical sleep, and elves now are 90% immune to magical sleep.

    Now to answer your question... though I own S&W (and the LBBs), I usually run more of a BX game, and allow saves vs. magical sleep (though I have "railroaded" no saves vs. sleep in a couple of "benevolent" situations where I needed the party unconscious for a short span of time).

    1. I dont have my AD&D 1e books handy, but OSRIC lists it as Saving Throw: None

      Maybe it got changed in 2e...

    2. It's Saving Throw: None in AD&D 1e, 2e, and OSRIC.

  2. It's frustrating for parties to be defeated by such a spell, but if they have reason to anticipate the possibility (including the simple fact that their opponent is known to cast spells), they can minimize their risks. Also, sleep spells are cast be intelligent opponents, and those are the kinds of foes least likely to kill their foes outright. Capture for interrogation/ransom/sacrifice are very likely. This changes the nature of the campaign (and perhaps shortens it), but doesn't end it immediately.

  3. I've used a sleep spell by an opponent to force players into a course of action before. It went something like this:

    A: Go in the crypt, I'll wait out here
    B: How about you just give me the key, and I'll unlock the door myself
    A: No, it's ok, I'll wait for you guys
    B: You know what? I don't like th....
    B: Ugh, where am I? Crap, I'm locked in the crypt, aren't I?

    Sure "A" could have just killed "B", but that wasn't the plan.

    But in general, SLEEP seems to be by far the most powerful 1st level spell. So powerful that our group's wizard won't leave home without it. I think adding a saving throw is not a bad idea. That would at least even out the power level a little.

  4. I wouldn't dream of including this spell as-is. As you say, it's a near guaranteed party wipe out of nowhere at low levels. Every Spell needs to be considered as something the PCs will face, as well as use themselves.

    My houserule of choice in this case is that Sleep only affects passive, idle targets.

    The Wizard can use it to put the guards to sleep as they idly watch the city gates, or disable the band of orcs that he's managed to sneak up on.

    If you stumble right into those orcs, or you've already put the guards on edge by offering them a bribe? They aren't just going to fall asleep with a wave of a hand.

    The wording of how it affects various HDs has always felt confusing to me, but that's a lesser problem.

  5. There's nothing in OD&D to suggest that victims of Sleep don't get a saving throw or that they are put into "enchanted slumber" instead of just normal sleep. S&W must be importing later ruling.

    1. ODD - Sleep: A Sleep spell affects from 2-16 1st level types (hit dice of up to 1 + 1),
      from 2-12 2nd level types (hit dice of up to 2 +1), from 1-6, 3rd level types, and
      but 1 4th level type (up to 4 +1 hit dice). The spell always affects up to the number
      of creatures determined by the dice. If more than the number rolled could be
      affected, determine which "sleep" by random selection. Range: 24"

      The spell ALWAYS affects...

      Charm Person is written "if successful"

    2. The Greyhawk Supplement (1975) adds/clarifies the lack of save for the sleep spell.

      Note however, there's nothing in OD&D indicating the sleep is anything other than normal sleep. You could rule that if any combat or other noise is made the creatures will wake up in 1 round. However, I think Gygax always played it as magical sleep ala AD&D. I wrote about this some here:
      Sleep Spell as Originally Written

    3. The Sample Dungeon in the Holmes Basic Set has a 4th level magic-user as one of the BBGs, but he doesn't have Sleep spell. So I think Holmes recognized that this spell is a TPK-in-the-waiting if you give it to NPC MUs.

  6. It was a TPK in the good old basic days as well. It didn't take long to end up with parties with 1/3 to 1/2 of the number being elves

    Also a point that always bothered me is how many get slept in a group of mixed hitdice?


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