Tuesday, April 5, 2011

How Sleep Spells Turn Adventurers Into Sadists and Executioners

I got some emails today from players in my whitebox OD&D campaign. These are snippets regarding our session on Sunday (picture above):

Mackie the Fighting Man: By the way, Michael the Goblin is probably my favorite creature from our journeys so far. He really made me question what I'm doing with my life as a warrior...I still feel guilty for sending him to his death. :(

Cookie the Fighting Beast: P.s. I've also been reflecting on my role as a warrior! Did Michael have a family, what were his passions.....?

Monolaba the Cleric: I still have a few of his fingers if you guys want a little memento.

Franklin the Cleric: Franklin may have had one swig of wine too many and apologizes for abusing Michael and throwing him to a gruesome death (so Michael would have us believe anyway). But let us take comfort in the fact that he is now reunited with Bort, his other unnamed late comrades, and perhaps even his amputated digits. Oh wait, Monolaba still has the fingers? Anyway, it's when we get overly sentimental that we will end up surprised by a tentacle monster with Michael on the saddle.
This exchange is referring to the party's interactions with a goblin they captured named Michael. At one point the party was holed up in a storage room with an unknown number of goblins waiting outside the shut door. The party interacted a bit through the door with Michael, the goblins' spokesman, before deciding to rush out with the magic user ready to cast a sleep spell. When the group swung open the door they indeed put most of the goblins to sleep, killing those that remained standing.

After the battle the party went through the whole throat-slitting ritual that a sleep spell typically entails. They kept one goblin - Michael - as a prisoner. We did a whole episode of first-person roleplaying as the party interrogated the goblin and bickered about what to do with the pitiful creature. The weirdo child chaos cleric Monolaba even cut off some of the goblin's fingers to show how "serious" the group was. Eventually Franklin - a cleric of the Zymosian Time Demon - threw Michael the Goblin through a door full of grasping hairy tentacles. I made Franklin change his alignment from Neutral to Chaotic, by the way.

I don't know about you, but I still get heebie jeebies when PCs mutilate and/or execute prisoners in a game. I know, it goes down all the time, but I still feel weird when it happens. And it almost always happens because of a sleep spell.

A sleep spell is really the perfect instrument for pushing adventurers into uncomfortable ethical dilemmas. Sleep only affects the weakest little enemies - smelly little confused kobolds or grimacing goblinoids wielding rusty butter knives. What does one do with a pile of snoring kobolds? It's not practical for a party to drag along 8 terrified prisoners while trying to carefully explore a dungeon. So, yeah, in their minds players have to trump up the breadcrumb sins of these pathetic dungeon vermin to justify slitting their throats. And what about the one kept as a prisoner? Is it okay, or even fun, to torture it for information? Hold it for ransom? Hold it hostage? If you let it go it will bite your toe and tell its friends! What would Jesus do?

Sleep... a fucking genius instrument for roleplaying, warping kids minds for over 35 years. Let's rejoice that Gygax and Arneson made Sleep instead of something lame like Kill.


  1. Somewhat relevant query: Do you roll for saving throws when sleep spells are used in you game?

    For OD&D I do as it doesn't say anything about there not being a saving throw in the reformat I referenced.

  2. What I'd be doing is tying up the Goblins or Kobolds and then getting them to be servants when they wake up. Why kill them if you can use them?

  3. Do you roll for saving throws when sleep spells are used in you game?


    In my opinion it weakens the spell too much and dilutes the tension of the single 2d8 roll. Saves are just too much dice rolling at a very tense moment for my taste, especially when there's a chance the spell may fizzle anyway.

  4. What I'd be doing is tying up the Goblins or Kobolds and then getting them to be servants when they wake up. Why kill them if you can use them?

    Oh yeah - I forgot to add SLAVERY to the list of despicable behaviors! Thanks for reminding me!

    1. This is has come up in my sessions. The party did kill kobold guards in one case (perhaps justified) and merely took another as prisoner. As an old man, I don't approve of slaughter and child killing. it is funny the things you see as an adult.

  5. My party cast sleep on a 4HD medusa. I ruled it was ok (couldn't see she was immune) but since they tried to kill her without looking when she was asleep, instead of instant kill they had to roll to hit at +4, then she woke up...


  6. Sleep and it's comrade in moral greyness - charm are my very favorite spells.

  7. Thoughts?

    Sounds like a good call to me! Medusa piñata party!

  8. I too interpret it as No Save. It states that "the spell always affects up to the number of creatures determined by the die."

    On the other hand there's no duration listed so I handle it quite simply as "until awakened". In my game anything that might normally wake the sleeping, such as melee, could break the spell.

    In games with my 5 year old I should rename the spell Defeat because I avoid the typical Sleep dilemmas by removing the "slept" targets and stating that those monsters were defeated. Sure I miss the excellent RP options but he's not into that aspect of the game yet.

  9. I took sleep off the list of spells in the last game - it's just so much better than all the other 1st level spells. I'm thinking of re-introducing it but making it affect both friends and foe in range. :)

  10. You know, this is a really good post. I'm revising all the spells right now and i think I'm going to change sleep and turn it into a paralyze type deal, which ends the instant the subject is touched. Since they are paralyzed they will still be holding their weapons, and since it is magical paralysis and junk they will be ready for action the instant the spell ends.

  11. @Aos: That's an excellent idea. :)

  12. I'm revising all the spells right now and i think I'm going to change sleep and turn it into a paralyze type deal, which ends the instant the subject is touched.

    This is exactly how I run sleep. A victim can be slapped awake and return to melee the next round.

    This came into play in a big way couple sessions ago when the party was hit by a sleep spell cast by a goblin wizard who snuck up behind them. It could easily have been a TPK, but a couple of PCs out of spell range were able to quickly wake up most their comrades before it was too late. I think this quick wake-up tempers the effects of the spell, but I also have never really thought sleep was overpowered to begin with. After a few levels of advancement sleep loses it's impressiveness.

  13. Certainly the spell helps create the opportunity for the moral decision making, but it does not make the decision. How is this any different if the goblins had surrendered? Will we now blame surrendering for warping morals?

    If taking prisoners is 'inconvenient' for treasure gathering and the expedient solution is execution - seems to me that is fairly easy to map on the alignment grid.

    We DM's have a share of the blame in this dilemma - we are the ones who have the world respond to these actions. If there is no repercussion to bad behavior, then it must not really be all that bad.

  14. Of course you off the goblins. Isn't it kind of mean to leave goblins that fell victim to a sleep spell alive and tied up as the PC's move on in the dungeon? Dungeons are full of slimes, jellies, carrion crawlers and giant rats that wouldn't be very kind to helpless goblins.

  15. Sister Rebecca's god would never allow her to heal someone who killed helpless prisoners...

  16. @ Barad, to paraphrase a cliche- in my games I like to explore deep dungeons, not deep moral issues.

  17. @Cyclopeatron:

    Well, see, I'd be paying them. Not the same amount as mercenaries, but they'd be acting as torchbearers and such, and would get the standard rate for that. If they ended up fighting, they'd get 3/4 pay to reflect that they just aren't as good as the human fighters you can hire.

  18. Who are these morally-challenged players you have? Not everything has to be killed outright. Sleep lasts for quite a long time, enough time to make a good escape and be long gone before they awaken.

  19. The post inspired me to write about the one occasion where the elves cast sleep on the rest of the party... In the Honor of the Sleep Spell.

  20. All dnd like gaming are weird, leave it and toss it to the trash can.

    From my point of view the whole oldschool gaming and retroclone rule designing are completely unnecessary. Because there are lot of games (for example odnd) and you don't have to publish n+1 version. Why don't you redesign the original dnd? Why fun playing with these clones?


  21. "roleplay", please quit spamming comment-threads with this, or at least make it readable.

    (She/he/it left almost the same comment over on B/X Blackrazor)

  22. I am just questioning you. Why fun playing with these clones?

  23. @roleplay: because the games are fun, whether its a clone or not. You can see that many who play these games and blog about them enjoy them. You even have a site where you blog about them.

    Moral dilemmas broaden the spectrum of emotional roleplay. It adds a sense of realism, if that's the right word. Although, there should be a certain level of emotional maturity. If there isn't, and it just turns into a Hannibal Lector escapade, then you get what you play.

  24. Let's rejoice that Gygax and Arneson made Sleep instead of something lame like Kill.

    Bingo. The metaphysics of Harry Potter are the reverse, and deeply misleading: it seems to hurt you more to kill with magic than with a gun, car or locked cupboard, because you really mean it. What kind of lesson is that for young minds?

    I played in an SF campaign where we had, and abused, the option of shooting NPCs with tranquilizers - on the understanding that we would question them later. But generally we solved the mysteries without having to interrogate, and then we didn't know what to do with them (the virtues of onion-skin campaign design: they might've been involved at any level), so we kept them indefinitely sedated in a vault. I forget how many we wound up with. And then the mob blew the vault up, so.

  25. @aos: no issue with that. I was not intending to be sarcastic or snarky when I said. "If there is no repercussion to bad behavior, then it must not really be all that bad."

    If the game focus is to explore deep dungeons, kill things and take their stuff then moral issues take a back seat. If you want moral issues in your game, then you as DM need to provide guidance in the game on how consequences are handled.

    @cyclopeatron: I can relate to the discomfort of certain items in game - even if those items are within alignment, character personality, or implied OK by the scenario. It can still leave a funny taste in your mouth.

  26. No offense meant, and I'm not attacking D&D, but the game does lend itself to the idea of being sadistic killers. You want stuff. Dungeons & monsters have stuff. Kill'em all and let Bahamut sort'em out.

    Like wargaming, it has a moral disconnect because you are representing situations where death is a given. More or less like video games. Does it feel wrong to play the game? If it does, then don't play. You're taking roleplay to a too serious level.

    It's a game. Have fun. Death to all nonexistent mythological creatures. And give me 30% of their gold. :)

  27. You'd think living in a world where devils are objectively real and Clerics will only heal your wounds if you're Lawful/Good like them... that it might encourage people to keep their noses clean. :D

  28. I liked one of my DM's approaches to moral behavior. She used the Christmas Carol approach. She kept track of various moral offenses such as this. If a character waivered to the 'dark side', healing from good aligned clerics would become ineffective, blessings were no good, etc. The best time was when we travelled ethereally and all offenses were represented by chainlinks hanging from the arms and legs of the morally bankrupt. What an eye opener! A few impish devils here and there telling the characters they would see them soon enough, etc.

    I never knew a group to get so repentive.

  29. It's always been funny to me too how this simple little spell can bring out the serial killer in all of us.

  30. cyclopeatron said...

    I'm revising all the spells right now and i think I'm going to change sleep and turn it into a paralyze type deal, which ends the instant the subject is touched.

    I've tried doing the same thing and minimizing the potential lethality of the spell such as you described..Only problem is the player tells me he stands over the target positions his sword point a third of an inch over his opponents adam's apple and thrusts down with all his weigh. So unless you drastically change the spell around, there's not much you can do. Hence why, I do allow a save against sleep in my games as it's the only real chance of surviving what will be an "easy kill" from the player.

  31. Only problem is the player tells me he stands over the target positions his sword point a third of an inch over his opponents adam's apple and thrusts down with all his weigh.

    If you get too close to a 'frozen' person the magical cold seeps from them onto you as well. ;-)

  32. @Stuart:

    Spears would get around that though.

  33. It would totally seep up the spear like a wick. :D

    The spear would turn white/blue and there'd be Harry Potter / Dementor / Ice cracking noises to let the players anticipate what would happen. :)

  34. That would work...

    It reminds of a Wall of Permanent Ice I had in a dungeon once. It would freeze torches and such.

  35. Stuart Said:..If you get too close to a 'frozen' person the magical cold seeps from them onto you as well. ;-)

    Hmm...There's a good idea in there: maybe what you have is a glowing blue-white aura that cocoons the sleeper and if you touch them even with something your holding like a sword or spear, you become subjectable to the effects of the spell. Sure, a crafty player could say their going to shoot a well placed missile weapon at their throats, but it's not going to be so easy as walking up and cutting them ear to ear. I definitely going to implement this change into my game sessions.

  36. Maybe if you wake up one target, the entire enchantment is broken and they all wake up. I think that is what I'm going to roll with.

  37. I cannot believe the length of the comment that blogspot just ate. Perhaps it was the comment gods saying "tl;dr."

    Making a rules modification in order to punish a roleplaying decision is bad form. On top of making alignment a rule instead of the framework to help a player decide how their character would react in a certain situation, it also creates the opportunity for nit-pickery, every DM's favorite game.

    Let's say you decide that approaching a Sleeped monster with murderous intent wakes them up. Should melee roiling around them wake them up? You are, after all, trying to murder their friends. Well, then let's make it only after melee! Awesome, here's Pete the MU, out of spells and slitting throats while the fighter takes out the trash! Same goes for only loud noises, or jostling, or kill one and entire enchantment breaks. You have to start making the rules more and more and more specific to fit individual circumstances. Who arbitrates what murderous intent is? One elven warrior's self-defense is another kobold's holocaust. At heart, you either are fighting for an ideal or treasure, so your enemies are either evil or witnesses, and you can't leave them alive either way. It's not to say that D&D can't be morally ambiguous, just that a rules solution isn't super viable.

    In my opinion, the ideal solution here is to make roleplaying consequences for roleplaying decisions. For example, in a game I played recently, my group was fresh off of immolating a den of spiders when we happened upon a wandering group of goblins. Turns out they worshipped the spiders and our anti-spider heresy ended up causing a party wipe.

    DMs can keep an informal tally of the number of sleeping goblin corpses are discovered by ambivalent Ogre scouts before deciding how well the Ogre chief reacts to the party's request for succor. Will other mobs of goblins surrender, knowing there's a MU wandering around killing their defenseless brethren? Will they raise a huge army of goblinoids to avenge their kin? Will you inadvertently make friends with a corpse eater following you about that you lead into a city?

    There's no reason your players should be allowed to be sociopaths with no repercussions, but a rules modification for no good reason? Eh. Make 'em cause Pleasantshire's children to be murdered as revenge for the rite-of-passage camping trip taken by the goblin teens. That'll learn 'em.

  38. St. Yossarian had technical problems posting a comment, so she emailed me her thoughts:

    I honestly think the idea of imposing a tacked on rules repercussion for a role-play decision is ridiculous for a number of reasons. I’ll go ahead and apologize for smashed toes now, because the stepping begins now!

    First, there is the specter of complication. Let’s look at it piece by piece. How do we add a rule to discourage players from acting like sociopaths when they make a role-playing decision? I define role-playing decision to include anything not governed by rolling of dice, but in this case, killing a Sleeped mob or mobs. First, you’d have to determine in what situation the mob would wake up or otherwise trigger an undesirable effect for the murderous player. Stuart thinks approaching a Sleeped mob makes you Sleepy. Super, if you’re going to assume that during fighting, your characters aren’t going to stray anywhere near the Sleeped mobs while they fight the unaffected ones. Crowking wants approach/touch to break the spell entirely, which leads to the same issue. What is the point of Sleep if it doesn’t take the affected mobs out of play? Who determines what murder is? Hell, with a melee range of 3 inches, how close is close? If you don’t think this will come up in a heated or sulky disagreement, try making it the determining factor in whether your players party wipe.

    Second, is it even bad, in context? Maybe you have an idea of intent as the determinant? Just as problematic, if not more so. Is your party out there, righting a wrong? In that case, most of what you fight is ‘evil’ in your opinion, or at least diametrically opposed to your view point. Killing them isn’t the means to the end, it’s often the end in itself. Or perhaps, are you out for loot and gold? In that case, honestly, what is murder on top of sentencing them to starvation simply for living near money that you want. Further, one elven swordsman’s self-defense is another goblin’s holocaust. The idea that what your players are doing is ‘wrong’ is completely contextual. To go ridiculously philosophical about this, are the kobolds/dire wolves/devils/trolls ‘evil’ or are they simply acting in concert with their various natures? The point is that your actions should always be defined in context, with the social mores of the world, region, and dungeon in which your gameplay is taking place taken into account.

    Lastly, role playing decisions should never, ever be affected by rules. Alignment is not a rule, but a framework to help your player determine how their character would react to a given set of circumstances. There is absolutely no reason why a player should get away with being a sociopath or murderer, but that repercussion should be determined via role-play. Will the Ogre scouts report back to the Ogre Chieftain that the party (or even A party) is murdering defenseless goblins left and right? How will that affect the Chieftain’s response to a party’s aid for succor? Do the goblins refuse to surrender, knowing there’s a party of people around murdering defenseless goblins in their sleep? All of the above examples are assuming that no one flat out saw them commit the murders. Do the goblins raise a huge party and slaughter the children of Pleasantshire in retribution for the slaughter inflicted on their hunting party? That’d learn ‘em.

  39. Blah, typos galore, but whatchyagonnado. And NOW it lets me post. Grarblthrargh!

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