One of the easiest ways of winning low-level combat encounters is casting Color Spray or Sleep. Those two are both save-or-lose spells, and low-CR enemies usually have weak Will saves.

However, choosing one spell or another is tricky. What are the advantages and disadvantages of both?

I am mainly playing PFS scenarios.



  • Has a Medium range, while Color Spray is a 15 ft. cone. Sleep can be cast from a much safer distance, which is very important for spellcasters.
  • Affects creatures in a 10-ft.-radius-burst, covering 12 squares, while Color Spray covers 6 or 7 depending on placement. Depending on circumstances, either can be harder or easier to avoid hitting allies with, but Sleep is better at hitting spread-out enemies.
  • Sleep's Duration is measured in minutes per CL, Color Spray's duration is measured in rounds. An enemy affected by Sleep is effectively removed from combat, while some enemies affected by Color Spray can return soon and need to be dealt with again.
  • Color Spray doesn't render 3+ HD enemies Helpless, while Sleep does it against 3- and 4-HD-creatures.

Color Spray

  • The most obvious and possibly the biggest advantage of Color Spray is casting time.
    • You start casting Sleep, enemies understand what you are doing, they aim everything they have at you. You fail a Concentration check, you lose your spell.
    • You start casting Sleep, you don't have enemies clustered that perfectly to affect them all as they have already moved.
    • Also, you don't have your Move action to reposition if using Sleep. On the other hand, a well-placed Color Spray following your normal move might end the encounter and make you not worry about the range: disabled enemies don't threaten you.
  • While Sleep covers a bigger area, it's only the first level when Sleep can easily affect more creatures, because it has a total limit on the HD count affected. It literally halves once you start facing 2 HD enemies, and then Sleep effectively becomes a single-target spell.
  • Once your enemies start routinely having 5+ HD, Sleep is completely useless, and Color Spray retains at least some of its effectiveness.
  • Although not all creatures affected by Color Spray are Helpless and open to a coup-de-grace, they are by no means dangerous while affected, and those Blinded are a lot easier to hit.
  • Elves are not immune to Color Spray but are immune to Sleep.
  • Even after disabling the most dangerous enemy via Sleep, it can be helped by another foe, effectively countering the spell with one Standard action. The same cannot be done with Color Spray.
  • Sleep belongs to the Enchantment school, which is among the first two candidates to be banned by Wizards and School Savant Arcanists, while Color Spray belongs to the Illusion school. Some classes don't care, while others would have to expend more resources to make use of Sleep. Note, though, that the linked post is about D&D 3.5e rather than Pathfinder and some things have changed.

Each of the spells can shine or be totally useless in different situations. A group of goblins shooting their ranged weaponry at you and spread thin is one story, 3 elven thugs in a narrow corridor is another one. Some people prefer Sleep at level 1, and Color Spray past that.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I would lightly contest dropping Enchantment being that the link is to 3.5 content and spells are fairly changed in Pathfinder... but most of the complaints still hold true. The largest change is that mind blank was nerfed... to "only" a +8. That being said, I think it's generally a disliked school due in part to how GM fiat a lot of the not-direct-control spells are. \$\endgroup\$ – Ifusaso Aug 7 '19 at 15:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ifusaso I have specifically asked KRyan if the stuff they have written applied to Pathfinder, and the answer was: "The basic discussion of the different schools, yes". So sad that I can't reask it about Pathfinder and expect a similar guide to arise... \$\endgroup\$ – Baskakov_Dmitriy Aug 7 '19 at 15:32

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