In the current campaign, the levels 2 and 3 PCs want to spam foes with the 1st-level Sor/Wiz spell cause fear [necro] (PH 208) and the 1st-level Sor/Wiz spell power word pain (Races of the Dragon 116), the former so that they can corner and beat into unconsciousness the rare creature that they want to take alive and the latter so that they can perpetrate dungeonwide loot-their-corpses-after-they-die-in-4d4-rounds murder sprees.

It seems reasonable that a creature affected twice by the spell cause fear becomes frightened rather than merely staying shaken for a new, longer duration. Likewise, it seems reasonable that a creature affected by two or more power word pain spells would be in more pain—and suffer more damage—rather than the new power word pain spell's duration overwriting the previous's.

Nonetheless, since these aren't, like, polymorph effects or temporary hp or anything with a specific rule, I am consumed with self-doubt and suspicious of both tactics, thinking they conflict somehow with the rules about the Same Effect More than Once in Different Strengths (cf. Player's Handbook 172), the rules about the Same Effect with Differing Results (ibid.), or both… or another rule somewhere.

Can these kinds of spells—that have ongoing durations but either cumulative different effects or instantaneous effects—affect the same creature more than once simultaneously?

  • \$\begingroup\$ Somebody asks for that damn crab here :) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2017 at 18:13

3 Answers 3


From Player's Handbook page 171:


This broad category begins with the primary rule of the section.

Spells or magical effects usually work as described, no matter how many other spells or magical effects happen to be operating in the same area or on the same recipient. Except in special cases, a spell does not affect the way another spell operates. Whenever a spell has a specific effect on other spells, the spell description explains that effect. Several other general rules apply when spells or magical effects operate in the same place:

So, as a baseline, everything stacks except for the exeptions it defines. The list of exceptions, in addition to special cases listed in the actual spell descriptions, includes these topics:

Stacking Effects: This section begins by explicitly defines what stacked effects it refers to:

Spells that provide bonuses or penalties on attack rolls, damage rolls, saving throws, and other attributes usually do not stack with themselves.

It then goes on to describe italicized sub-categories of "Stacking Effects" which all fall under the initial umbrella defined in the first sentence of the category section. I.e. "Same Effect More than Once in Different Strengths" is a sub-category of "Stacking Effects," so this sub-category applies only to spells affected by the "Stacking Effects" rules.

Spells with Opposite Effects: This section does not limit application of effects, but simply describes in what order to resolve them excepting for spells with built-in special-case interactions.

Spells with opposite effects apply normally, with all bonuses, penalties, or changes accruing in the order that they apply. Some spells negate or counter each other. This is a special effect that is noted in a spell’s description.

Instantaneous Effects: This section removes instantaneous effects from the rules set forth in "Stacking Effects"

Two or more spells with instantaneous durations work cumulatively when they affect the same target.

Unfortunately, the "Instantaneous Effects" section includes an example of a damage spell. This adds a lot of confusion, because without this example, there is no question about damage being limited or not.

For example, when two fireballs strike a same creature, the target must attempt a saving throw against each fireball and takes damage from each according to the saving throws’ results. If a creature receives two cure light wounds spells in a single round, both work normally.

Note that an example does not create rules. The rules have not explicitly defined damage as an exception to the primary rule set forth in the "COMBINING MAGICAL EFFECTS" section that clearly states things work as described no matter what except for the defined special cases.

ANSWER 1 of 2: Yes, power word: pain stacks because damage is not restricted from stacking per the PHB rules.

ANSWER 2 of 2 (edit: corrected): Yes, casting cause fear twice will fear an opponent.

I re-read the rules for combining magical effects, this section in particular:

Same Effect with Differing Results The same spell can sometimes produce varying effects if applied to the same recipient more than once. Usually the last spell in the series trumps the others. None of the previous spells are actually removed or dispelled, but their effects become irrelevant while the final spell in the series lasts.

I had originally answered that the effects will not work because a spell with the same name that causes a bonus or penalty (which the effect frightened, granted by cause fear, does) cannot stack with itself as a basic rule. However, there is an exception carved out that I somehow missed in my previous reading, quoted above, which states that multiple such castings of a spell can work if subsequent applications "produce varying effects," and multiple applications of frightened produces a varying effect as a matter of course.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Huh. In what way is the condition shaken a bonus or penalty? And in what way does shaken becoming frightened when a creature is shaken again stacking the condition shaken? That is, it sounds like double cause fear does exactly what the DMG describes: a creature's again being made shaken. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 22:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @heyicanchan A shaken character takes a -2 penalty on attack rolls, saving throws, skill checks, and ability checks. It's a bunch of penalties. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 22:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @heyicanchan as for the second question, a second cause fear never has the opportunity to convert the first cause fear into a better fear effect because the PHB says that only one cause fear is even considered. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 23:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Um. So is the case that you're making that the individual parts of an escalated fear effect can stack so long as they're not the bonuses and penalties from those now-stacked conditions? That… doesn't sound right, man. I mean, in that case, when do the DMG's rules ever kick in? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 23:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm not sure we're on the same page with what stacking means. The creature never would gain the shaken condition twice from multiple cause fear effects… the creature would gain first the condition shaken then, because the creature is already shaken, the creature would then become frightened. That's not, so far as I'm aware, stacking but escalating. The creature isn't shaken twice therefore experience twice the penalties from being shaken twice; he's shaken, loses shaken, then becomes frightened. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 23:22

A second application of power word: pain is a clear case of the same effect in differing strengths (namely, whatever you roll). At best you could argue that you would roll 1d6 twice each round and take the better roll for the damage of that round, though personally I wouldn’t even do that.

I also would not allow repeated applications of the same fear effect to escalate fear. This is not clear from the rules (you could make an argument about fear causing penalties on various rolls and so is covered by “Spells that provide bonuses or penalties on attack rolls, damage rolls, saving throws, and other attributes usually do not stack with themselves,” but it’s a bit of a stretch and then you have to argue whether that’s more specific than the fear-escalation rules), but it is my understanding of a general consensus on how things work.


with a duration effect, the better of the two effects takes place, although if one of the effects is canceled, the other still remains. This is true of effects like fear and charm.

With instant effects that create a change, the instant effects, like being struck by level draining or fire damage, stack.

Conditions of the same category do not stack unless the penalties or bonuses are of a different origin. For example, an insight bonus/penalty stacks with a natural bonus/penalty, but two natural bonuses/penalties do not stack, likewise, pain spells and effects do not overlap, but any damage, such as from poison, may stack.

As a rule of thumb, same flavor penalties don't stack, but damage does. Some DMs may rule that same flavor AOE damage in the same initiative does not stack, such as two overlapping fireballs. This saturation effect is probably what you are looking for.


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