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My groups has been playing low (1-5) level games of 5e for some time but has recently begun playing at the mid (5-10) levels. In our last game a wizard used the Fear spell and it stood out as extremely effective. The monster got one save and then spent the rest of the encounter wasting its actions fleeing. Since the frightened status prevented the monster from moving closer the wizard was able to very easily trap it in a corner. After that it was just a matter of beating it down with 10 rounds of it having no actions.

My understanding was that 5e had moved away from this type of, "save or suck", spell in favor of spells that allow repeated saves. Is this true at the mid levels of play? Is the Fear an unusually potent, "save or suck", spell at this level?

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This sounds like a DM problem more than a rules problem

It sounds like you were fighting a singular enemy in a square room with no line-of-sight-breaking cover and only one exit. In this case, Fear is an extremely potent spell for the reasons you gave. However, your situation seems like an outlier, because usually the above conditions are not all present at the same time.

In 5E, especially with casters, having a single enemy is a sure-fire recipe for DM heartache. There are simply too many encounter-ending save spells available. Hold person, Fear, Hypnotic Pattern, and others can very easily lock down a single enemy with almost no hope of them breaking out.

In a 'normal' encounter, there would be cover (so the enemy could get behind it and make a save), there would be multiple enemies (one errant hit on the Wizard who probably doesn't have much of a CON modifier and the concentration breaks down), and there would be multiple exits so the frightened creature could run out and raise the alarm. Your encounter seems almost perfectly tailored to the strengths of Fear, so it seems Fear is overpowered.

I liken this to someone saying:

We were fighting an ice monster who was standing in a pit of oil, and a PC cast Firebolt and did 1d10 + 4d6 burning damage + melted the enemy. Is this too powerful for a cantrip?

In normal circumstances, Fear will not have the dramatic effects that you experienced.

To specifically answer your question of 'Is Fear in line with other spells of the same level', there is nothing in the book that allows you to calculate the relative or absolute power of a spell, so the answer will come down to opinions. However, given the restrictions placed on the spell, and the fact that the creature maintains its other defenses and its ability to call for aid, the spell certainly isn't drastically more powerful than other spells of its level. It is certainly possible to craft situations in which Fear would be exceptionally powerful, but this is possible of nearly any spell regardless of level. In a general, level-appropriate encounter with a general, level-appropriate number of enemies in a generalized setting, Fear will not be an encounter-ender most of the time.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ceribia I've modified my answer to answer your question more directly. In the case you outline above, Fear was extremely powerful. Assuming your DM is smart, it likely won't happen again. \$\endgroup\$ – Percival Nov 16 '15 at 21:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Percival Thanks for trying with your modification. Can you back up your assertion that the spell isn't more drastically more powerful than other spells at its level? As is you state it but don't give any examples of spells with a similar level of power with such limited save conditions. Neither Hypnotic Pattern or Hold apply as they both allow saves more more readily. I understand if you're not knowledgeable enough about 5e to do so; worst case I'll go through the spells level 1-5 tomorrow and write a comparison myself. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Nov 16 '15 at 21:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for single enemy encounters. My group has fought 2 separate CR 8 demons for our level 7 group, and I used Banishment on both of them on my first turn and the fight was over. Anti-climactic for sure, the DM wasn't prepared for it. \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Nov 16 '15 at 22:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ceribia To be fair, rare few know all spells by heart. That's why things like spell cards exist. And even fewer would know to compare a spell against each other spell quickly in their head to determine a relative "power level". So, unless scouters have been invented, this requires research. And it is best not to expect others to go into extensive research for you if you yourself have not produced any (though there are always exceptions ). \$\endgroup\$ – DaFluid Nov 17 '15 at 16:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaFluid if you read my comment to the end you'll see that I said I'd do the research if it turned out the knowledge wasn't readily available. Also if you read through the other answers you'll see I've already done it and posted it so that it could be a help to others. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Nov 17 '15 at 18:19
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Is the Fear spell out of line compared to other spells of the same level?

In certain situations, yes; in others, no. The right spell at the right time is always overpowered compared to the wrong spell.

Plus, Fear doesn't work the way you played it anyway.

Choices, choices

Fear is a 3rd level Bard, Sorcerer, Warlock and Wizard spell. Here is a complete list of 3rd level spells for each of those classes:

 Bard              Sorcerer              Warlock         Wizard                
                                                         Animate Dead          
 Bestow Curse                                            Bestow Curse          
                   Blink                                 Blink                 
 Clairvoyance      Clairvoyance                          Clairvoyance          
                   Counterspell          Counterspell    Counterspell          
                   Daylight                                                    
 Dispel Magic      Dispel Magic          Dispel Magic    Dispel Magic          
 Fear              Fear                  Fear            Fear                  
 Feign Death                                             Feign Death           
                   Fireball                              Fireball              
                   Fly                   Fly             Fly                   
                   Gaseous Form          Gaseous Form    Gaseous Form          
 Glyph of Warding                                        Glyph of Warding      
                   Haste                                 Haste                 
                                         Hunger of Hadar                       
 Hypnotic Pattern  Hypnotic Pattern      Hypnotic PatternHypnotic Pattern      

 Leomund’s Tiny Hut                                      Leomund’s Tiny Hut    
                   Lightning Bolt                        Lightning Bolt        
                                         Magic Circle    Magic Circle          
 Major Image       Major Image           Major Image     Major Image           
 Nondetection                                            Nondetection          
                                                         Phantom Steed         
 Plant Growth                                                                  
                   Protection from Energy                Protection from Energy
                                         Remove Curse    Remove Curse          
 Sending                                                 Sending               
                   Sleet Storm                           Sleet Storm           
                   Slow                                  Slow                  
 Speak with Dead                                                               
 Speak with Plants                                                             
 Stinking Cloud    Stinking Cloud                        Stinking Cloud        
 Tongues           Tongues               Tongues         Tongues               
                                         Vampiric Touch  Vampiric Touch        
                   Water Breathing                       Water Breathing       
                   Water Walk                                               

So, from each list is Fear the obvious must have spell over and above all of the others? I certainly don't think so.

Major Image is useful in a lot more situations than Fear. So is Fly. Tongues may have resulted in there not being a combat encounter in the first place. Water Breathing has less opportunity for use but when it can be used it allows the adventure to continue. Above all is Counterspell which is head and shoulders the most powerful 3rd level spell for those that have it: for a start, it renders the opponent's Fear spell completely useless.

This is not even considering all the cool 1st and 2nd level spells that could have used that slot.

It doesn't do what you think anyway

While frightened by this spell, a creature must take the Dash action and move away from you by the safest available route on each of its turns, unless there is nowhere to move.

If there is nowhere to move because e.g. you have boxed it into a corner, then the creature does not have to take the Dash action - it can take the shoot the bloody spellcaster in the face action instead. A cornered rat is entitled to lash out at the source of its fear.

A digression on the purpose of encounters

In the example you give, the use of the Fear spell and the monster's failure to save (which was not a foregone conclusion) trivialised this particular encounter.

So what?

The purpose of encounters are not to put the PCs in mortal peril. If the PCs are in mortal peril in an encounter this is a sign that either a) the DM is a sadist or b) the players have overextended themselves into a perilous situation or with too little rest. On rare occasions you'll be in mortal peril, but it shouldn't be a regular occurrence.

The assumption written into the rules of D&D 5e is: the PCs are expected to win every combat encounter and there should be several encounters in a day. The point of the encounter is to force the player's to make choices about what resources they will a) choose to have available as part of character creation (e.g. choosing Fear instead of Fireball) and b) expend in this encounter. The pressure on the players is to be wise in their character creation and efficient in the use of resources in combat. An efficient party can deal with each combat using fewer resources and therefore pack more encounters in between rests.

It must be remembered that the particular encounter where judicious use of a Fear spell allowed the party to overcome their enemy by expending a single 3rd level spell slot is only one of the encounters they have during the adventuring day. Now that 3rd level slot is gone for the day (a Wizard could use a short rest to get it back but that expends both a short rest and their ability); it can't be used in other encounters. Therefore, other resources (hit points, action surges, other spell slots etc.) will have to be used to overcome these.

At the end of each encounter the players have a choice to push on with ever depleting resources or go back and recharge at the risk that the dynamic of the monsters will change in their absence (they will reinforce, flee, set traps etc.). These choices change the pace of the game. In your example, the party had a 3rd level spell slot available and a Fear spell prepped, however, if they had been more or less efficient on previous adventure days they may have hit this encounter at a different (latter) time in the daily cycle when the Fear spell was unavailable.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It's so sad that "Shoot the Bloody Spellcaster in the Face" was lost in playtest.... \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Nov 17 '15 at 0:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nitsua60 I must have missed the memo \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Nov 17 '15 at 0:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ Your paragraph about the purpose of encounters and how OK it is to be in mortal peril might need reflection on how can I suggest the DM stop trying to kill us? - which suggests there's other reasons to be in mortal peril, like the players overextending themselves, and the attitude being that the characters should be facing mortal peril more often than "very, very rarely" - and seems to blame it on the DM being a sadist assuming the players have rested recently. That paragraph could do with adjustment. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 17 '15 at 0:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've made an adjustment I think will help. How's that sit? \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Nov 17 '15 at 0:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree with your assessment that Fear is not the best spell in all situations but this really isn't what I was getting at (though my question may have been unclear). What I'm wondering is if the, "save once or suck", aspect is common to spells at this level or if Fear is an outlier. That said, thanks for pointing out that we were playing Fear wrong! That is an important difference and greatly changes things. If the monster is either dashing away or attacking, then attacking the monster becomes much more difficult and, overall, it looks to be in line with spells like Hypnotic Suggestion. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Nov 17 '15 at 0:37
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Maybe. Probably.

I went through the player's handbook and compared all wizard spells of 1st to 5th level that had, "save or suck", like effects that could be used in combat. To understand if Fear's effects are unusual let's go through them level by level and look at how saving works. Spells for each level will be listed with more detailed information after. If I don't list more detailed info for a spell it's just your run of the mill save or suck.

Special Note: Concentration

Nearly all of the these spells use up a wizards concentration. The four exceptions are Color Spray (which only lasts one round), Grease, Sleep, and Blindness/Deafness. Since concentration is near-universal to save or suck I won't be mentioning it again in the comparison unless it's an unusually long case.

Level 1: Charm Person, Color Spray, Grease, Sleep, and Tasha's Hideous Laughter

Sleep and Colorspray are unique among all of the save or sucks in that they allow no save but are based off of the target's hitpoints. Since HP scales up so quickly with CR these are unlikely to be useful early in a mid level encounter so I'm going to ignore them for now.

Grease and Tasha's Hideous laughter both allow a save each turn to escape and failing that save is going to make it difficult to function in combat. These are prototypical 5e save or suck spells and this type is still common at higher levels.

Charm Person is the odd man out at this level. It is very limited; the creature must be a humanoid and they have advantage if you're already in combat with them. That said if they fail the save you have up to an hour to do anything except attack them.

Level 2: Blindness/Deafness, Crown of Madness, Hold Person, Phantasmal Killer, Ray of Enfeeblement, Suggestion, and Web

Most of these are standard save or suck, but Suggestion stands out. One wisdom save and then they are off for a nice picnic for 8 hours (assuming concentration). Limited because the monster has to understand you and your suggestion must be reasonable, also you can't attack so it'll likely still be around.

All the others are standard save or suck fare.

Level 3: Bestow Curse, Fear, Hypnotic Pattern, Major Image, Sleet Storm, Slow, Stinking Cloud

Bestow Curse is notable in that while they save every turn the effect doesn't end on a failure.

Hypnotic Pattern is an example of a common type of spell I'm going to call, "Save or Wait". You make a save and if you fail it you... wait around until the spell is over. This is a better than usual example in that the party can still interact with you however any attacks will give you another save. We'll see more of these later.

Fear stands out at this level as, assuming the target has somewhere to run and the wizard can follow, the creature may only get the one save. This has some significant downsides like the creature will be dashing away making it hard to keep up, positioning has to be right, and in combat with many creatures pursuing is likely to be difficult. However Fear still stands out as it is the only spell at this level that can only allow one save, disable a creature, and let the party continue attacking it directly.

Level 4: Banishment, Confusion, Control Water, Evard's Black Tentacles, Otiluke's Resilent Sphere, Phantasmal Killer, Polymorph

So many save or waits! Banishment, Resilent Sphere, and Polymorph all fit this category. Banishment can do worse if the creature is planar, and Polymorph can do worse depending on creativity and how your DM handles it.

The rest are just save or suck.

Level 5: Dominate Person, Hold Monster, Modify Memory, Telekinesis, Wall of Force, Wall of Stone

Modify Memory is much like Charm Person but with more horrifying implications. The same restrictions apply (advantage in combat, can't attack), but depending on what you can do with an altered memory this could be a, "Save or Ally".

Wall of Force is special in that it's the first, "No Save Just Wait". Like a DMV for monsters and you're the teller going to lunch. But it's nothing compared to....

Wall of Stone is something very special, the first save or die. It's conditional in that they need to be located somewhere you can trap them or it's just going to be a save or wait. If you can trap them though... dex save or be locked behind 6 inches of stone for all time, assuming the wizard keeps concentration for 10 minutes.

Conclusion: Fear is... actually unique

Looking through this list we see that Fear is the only spell (in levels 1 to 5) that only allows one save and lets you still wail away on the target. It's versatile in that it allows no extra advantage if used in combat, and it's not limited to any class of creature. It is situational though, if they can't run then they can resort to ranged attacks and still function. And if they can run you need a way to keep up with them. All that said, and looking at the other spells around at the mid levels, I'm convinced Fear's single save option is out of line with other spells at this level.

Edit: Followup

I discussed Fear with my DM and, after seeing this comparison, he agreed that its single-save possibilities were out of line with other spells at the midlevel. Going forward we're going to house-rule Fear to also allow a save when the target takes damage.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Grease does not require concentration (at least in my PHB it doesn't) \$\endgroup\$ – Olorun Nov 18 '15 at 7:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Olorun Good catch, thanks for pointing it out! I've edited my answer to correct this and given concentration considerations their own little section. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Nov 18 '15 at 13:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ Concentration is quite important, since it increases the opportunity cost of costing a particular spell (you can only concentrate on one spell at a time). Had a little shock when I saw you mention Grease + Concentration as I was using it a lot, and thought I missed something ^^ \$\endgroup\$ – Olorun Nov 18 '15 at 23:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree with the sentiment that there is only one saving throw. Obviously you're aware of their ability to roll a save if they can't see you. This "save or suck" mentality is only present if your DM lets it be present, and that's not even a homebrew suggestion. If Fear is out of line in your sessions, your DM ought to provide enemies with ways to lose sight of you (running out of rooms, hiding behind tables and pillars). It's reasonable to tweak the spell to fit your playstyle like you have, but I don't agree that it is out of line by the RAW interpretation. \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Nov 20 '15 at 19:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ Additionally, I'd encourage you guys to explore furnishing your dungeon rooms or making weird shaped rooms if you find this type of thing popping up again. Fighting inside blank boxes always plays havoc on the balance of spells. I know for me, I tend to draw out a floor plan and forget the Z axis (upward) in my designs, but that's a lot of extra information that can be handy in fights for both your DM and your players! :) \$\endgroup\$ – Premier Bromanov Nov 20 '15 at 19:41

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