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There is a problem I encountered recently. My DM rolls initiative for groups of monsters together. We are at level 4, so Sleep should be a decent battlefield control.

However, we have been encountering too many enemies recently. Due to the action economy, a dozen goblins is really hard to survive, and the DM thinks we can manage because my bard can put almost all of them to sleep. And I can, but the key point is that almost all of them is not all of them.

Last time I put to sleep 5 out of 6 enemies. On their next turn, the one that remained awake, woke up his colleague. And then the freshly woken up guy woke up the next. And so on, until all were awake and standing. My teammates were tied in other corners of the room and couldn't help, so for me nothing changed; in that round I did nothing to the enemies, they did nothing to me, and I was down a spell slot. It was a disappointing outcome.

Is there a way to prevent this, and make Sleep an effective spell again?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – linksassin Jun 14 at 23:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Were they all awake at the end of the next round? Or was it that they all awoke over the course of the next 5 rounds? \$\endgroup\$ – colmde Jun 15 at 13:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @colmde they were awoke before my next turn :( \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Jun 15 at 13:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ From a time perspective where 1 round is considered to be around 6 seconds, this would mean each goblin awoke from a magically induced slumber and then woke their neighbour on average every 1.2 seconds. It usually takes me about 45 minutes to wake up so I would say something was amiss with this :-) \$\endgroup\$ – Tragamor Jun 15 at 22:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ And what did the rest of your party do that round? \$\endgroup\$ – John Jun 17 at 1:59
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Ask your DM to implement individual initiative in these instances

Group initiative for monsters is convenient, but has limitations. From what you describe in your question, your DM is (probably accidentally) exploiting group initiative for maximum advantage. Taking away five actions with one action is, as others have pointed out, very powerful, but it's less than you're entitled to in this case. Let's compare how this works with individual and grouped initiatives respectively.

Individual initiative

Let's say there are six goblins who each roll initiative. Goblin 1 goes, first, then goblin 2, and so on.

Imagine you succeed in putting all but one of these goblins to sleep. There's a 1 in 6 chance that the remaining goblin is goblin 1, who acts first. He wakes goblin 2, who then wakes goblin 3 and so on, until all the goblins are awake by the end of the round.

The other five times out of six, that isn't what happens: if the goblin who evaded the spell was one of goblins 2-6, they wouldn't be able to wake all of the other goblins within a round. Furthermore, one might think it unusual if the Goblins were uncannily aware of the turn order, and utilised this knowledge for maximum wake-ups.*

Group Initiative

The goblins all act 'simultaneously'. This is not quite true, however, as their turns occur in a sequence arbitrarily (but not maliciously) determined by the DM. This way, when one goblin remains awake, they are free to wake another goblin, who in turn wakes another until (as you have described) all the goblins are awake within a round. The trouble with this approach is that your DM has, probably without their own knowledge, arbitrarily decided that the goblin who evaded was the first goblin to act, even if that goblin would not have acted first otherwise. What would, using individual initiatives, be an unfortunate coincidence instead becomes the only possibility.

Talk to your DM

Sleep can be a frustrating spell to balance around. It becomes less powerful at higher levels, but at tier 1 it can wipe away entire encounters. Your DM is probably doing their best to create encounters that are engaging and challenging, and they would benefit from your feedback.

Ask your DM to use individual initiative. This doesn't have to be all the time, but randomly assigning turn order within groups on-the-fly would be enough to give you the utility that the Sleep spell entitles you to.

It's worth noting that your DM is currently using an optional rule from the Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG) known as side initiative, in which each side takes a turn and the creatures on that side act in any order they choose. Helpfully, the DMG introduces its chapter on optional rules with the advice that, before adding such a rule, the DM should ask:

  • Will the rule improve my game?
  • Will my players like it?

Your DM is not breaking the rules or adjudicating badly, but they might need your help to create a more mutually enjoyable experience in this instance.


* This depends on your game philosophy; if players can take advantage of their knowledge of the turn order, why not Goblins? It's secondary to this answer.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think the whole footnote (initiative knowledge) is a red herring here. Trying to suggest meta-gaming to ignore knowledge of turn order should be done leads to madness. \$\endgroup\$ – aslum Jun 14 at 19:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ In the situation given the PC and the goblins were the only ones acting - it shouldn't matter whether the goblins are on group turns unless the DM is shifting around the order of those goblins within their turn as you imply. The problem there isn't with group initiative but with a DM changing the order of the goblin's turns. \$\endgroup\$ – Lio Elbammalf Jun 15 at 6:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a DM I find group initiative really convenient, especially when a lot of monster are involved and I usually don't set a specific order for creatures in a group. Instead of rolling back to individual initiative I would determine how many goblin can be awakend with a dice roll, and I will probably let the player do it. Sometimes all will be up, sometimes none. That may be an alternative that won't slow down the game too much. \$\endgroup\$ – Zucch Jun 15 at 7:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LioElbammalf That's an excellent point: typically when one uses a single initiative for multiple identical creatures, the individual turn order isn't tracked because most of the time it doesn't matter. But in this case it does make a difference, and Zucch's solution of rolling a dX (where X = number of creatures on the same initiative) to determine the initiative position of the one awake creature within the group is a good way to simulate what would happen if you gave all the creatures a fixed initiative order without actually having to do so. \$\endgroup\$ – Ryan C. Thompson Jun 15 at 17:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you sure the DM is using the optional side initiative rule? Is it possible that they are using the default rule (PHB 189) "The DM makes one roll for an entire group of identical creatures"? \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jun 19 at 20:58
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Trading one action for five actions is a very good deal.

It's hard to overstate how good the effect you're talking about is. Spells that manipulate the 'action economy' are almost always extremely valuable. You spent one action and a level 1 spell slot, and in exchange, the enemy team lost a whopping five actions. That is an absolutely devastating effect.

If your allies are incapacitated or otherwise not acting to achieve the goal, then yes, you used sleep in a situation where it would only be entirely useful if it took out the whole enemy team in one go. However, this still does not mean sleep is bad or useless; it's just not a particularly useful spell in this specific scenario. (I could certainly argue that your DM is making choices for these goblins that are technically allowed and tactically correct, but not the most fun, but laying that aside...)

If you have allies active in the fight, even if the goblins do exactly what you've described here, what you're functionally seeing is you've used one hero action to take away five goblin actions. That's a full turn where your team takes no damage from those goblins. Even if you haven't personally ended the goblin threat, you're shutting them down so the rest of the party can do their thing. A stalling tactic isn't a bad or ineffectual choice.

In the worst case, if the rest of the party is out of action, then this is a little like casting fireball at a demon and then complaining that fireball deals poor damage. It's one of the best spells in the game, you just used it at an inopportune moment.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't even say inopportune, it was used to good effect, it just didn't end the combat as a challenge as it often does. +1 for the DM playing the goblins tactically though, that is spot on. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jun 14 at 14:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ It stopped the bard taking 6 arrows to the face. Last time my group were in a similar situation they didn't cast sleep but moved away, the goblins however were alerted and held actions. The paladin walked in and fell immediately unconscious. Think they would have preferred a spell slot to all that healing. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jun 14 at 15:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri Exactly. The effectiveness of a spell needs to be compared not only to what it did (in this case, casting it didn't change the tactical situation), but what would have happened had it not been cast. A spell is optimal when it is better than any other alternative. \$\endgroup\$ – Kirt Jun 14 at 15:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri But it didn't. Stalling for a turn is only useful if something is going to change given enough time. After all the rigmarole, everyone is back to square one, situation unchanged, and the bard is now subject to six-arrows-to-the-face again. You have to count the opportunity cost of the action taken, i.e. they didn't cast thunderwave or something. All they did was end up advancing the round timer by 1 without altering the situation at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Jun 14 at 16:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DarthPseudonym Assuming they weren't playing alone, all other party members are now one round closer to being done with whatever they were doing and then helping the bard. You're not back to square one, you made it safe and sound to square two. \$\endgroup\$ – Raphael Schmitz Jun 14 at 20:53
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Tactics are very situational and the usefulness of a spell varies

Though this is a great spell it helps, mostly, when you have party members to make use of the action economy. It isn't a spell for going in solo, but then the bard is very much a support class.

What you could have done in your situation:

  • Use your movement to move within 5ft of the one awake enemy to either take their action attacking you or get an opporunity attack when they move to wake their companions.
  • Use your movement to get further away from them. It isn't glamourous but escape can be useful too.
  • If your DM allows you could use your bonus action to attempt to infuriate the remaining enemy, hoping they'll attack you instead of waking their friends. You could even trick them into believing their friends will never wake - these play well to the bard's strengths in charisma.

The goblins lost a turn in which you didn't manage to do anything but the rest of your party, presumably, did. If they're held up by enemies they get a whole round of attacks in whilst you stopped six goblins attacking - thats one round closer to helping.

Is there a way to prevent this, and make Sleep an usable spell again?

Sleep is already incredibly useful. Here are a few situations where I've used sleep and found it to be effective:

  • Holding off back line fighters. Imagine you have a few mages throwing spells at your party whilst their guards hold your melee fighters off. Put those mages to sleep. The guards may run back but your party can get opportunity attacks and a whole round of dealing damage.
  • Non-lethal ending to a fight (or before it even starts). You can tie someone up whilst they're sleeping and talk.
  • Putting a guard to sleep. If you come up against an enemy stopped to camp for the night, they have a watchman on but the rest of the camp is already asleep - you can put the watch to sleep and then get advantage on all those attacks.
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Sleeping goblins are prone and have no weapons

Standing up is a movement, so the previously-asleep goblins have to crawl to their friends to wake them up (for one action). They then all stand up and pick up a weapon on the next round. Only the following round can they all join in again.

On your next turn, take advantage of this by stabbing a goblin who's down and unarmed. That should be one probable kill to reduce the odds. And you then get first shot on the turn after that too, against another goblin (probably the first one).

You gave your team-mates at least two turns to escape from being tied up

Escape Artists have one entire turn free, so automatically escape on the same turn the goblins do the conga line.

If they're not Escape Artists, they have one turn for a strength check to break the ropes whilst the goblins wake each other up. They have another turn whilst the goblins stand up and get weapons. And they have a third turn (if they have initiative) before they're attacked, so they might be prone and unarmed when they're attacked but they'd at least be free. The odds are pretty good that at least one of your friends will be up and about to help you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Hi. In 5th edition standing from prone requires half your movement, so it's possible to stand up and move in the same turn. Waking someone requires an action, but picking up a dropped weapon can be done with the free 'object-interaction' each combatant gets on their turn \$\endgroup\$ – Lovell Jun 15 at 13:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ THis isn't quite correct becuase standing up isn't "A Movement" in 5e \$\endgroup\$ – speciesUnknown Jun 16 at 22:20
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Use your movement action and free action, and have a dagger.

It doesn't use your movement or free action to cast a spell. So, you can run to one of the corners and let them use your sheaved dagger to free themselves, because daggers can cut ropes.

Remember that they're probably prone.

They fell unconscious, so they would become prone. It costs them half their movement to get up, so they can't easily chase you in this round. The last person in the conga line only has 15 feet of movement.

Suggest that an arcana check may be appropriate.

This depends on your table and your dm, but you could certainly suggest they should be rolling arcana. Should a random goblin instantly know what spell you cast and how to counteract it? You could even bluff them about it, pretending you cast mass charm person and that their allies will attack them if they go to wake them.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't understand what you mean about the sheathed dagger? \$\endgroup\$ – Lovell Jun 14 at 17:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sharp objects can be used to cut ropes. \$\endgroup\$ – Nepene Nep Jun 14 at 18:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Op mentioned their allies were tied up in the corners. I suggested they run to these, where their companions could use said daggers to free themselves. \$\endgroup\$ – Nepene Nep Jun 14 at 18:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ Tied up was figurative (this time), but still this DM treats cutting ropes to free someone as a regular action. I probably should've move. \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Jun 14 at 19:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mołot You might want to add that (and some other clarifying information you gave in response to comments) to the body text of your question. Otherwise, these misconceptions come up again and again, as hardly anybody will read every question and every comment. \$\endgroup\$ – Mars Plastic Jun 15 at 17:56
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Updated following Lovell's comment and more careful reading of the rule

A goblin must use an action to wake another goblin according to the rules. It is therefore reasonable to suggest to the GM that the woken goblin would be awake at the end of the round, and therefore could not wake another comrade until the next round, so it should take a few rounds for all 6 goblins to be awake again.

I know each goblin supposedly has his own action and you could say, "well #1 is using his action to wake #2. Now #2 is using his action to wake #3... etc.... all in one round", but this is a bit unreasonable and goes kind of against the spirit of the turn-based rules.

One could extend this to a chain of 100 goblins, all taking turns to wake the next one up while the PCs stand around waiting for "their turn".

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    \$\begingroup\$ The "Peasant Railgun" is a good example of this conga line effect being taken to a ridiculous extreme. At some point, it becomes ridiculous for a bunch of actions all in one round to rely on each happening after the previous action. \$\endgroup\$ – Brilliand Jun 15 at 19:32

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