So you’ve been playing some Dungeons and Dragons and one of your PCs keeps deciding the encounters before they’ve even started by pulling out a glowing stick from their components pouch and weaving the 3rd level illusion hypnotic pattern. Suddenly half the bad guys are standing limp-limbed and drooling on the battlefield, completely helpless as their buddies are butchered with ease by the adventuring party. The bad news for them is they’re next!
Hypnotic Pattern vs Fireball
Fireball is one of D&D’s most powerful spells relative to the spell slot required (…so powerful that some argue that the whole structure of player advancement in 5e is based around it. Every player class gets something awesome at 5th level to balance the wizard’s newfound access to this orc-incinerating fan fave), but against any challenge 2 level baddie or beyond, hypnotic pattern is considerably more powerful. Both are third level spells, but whilst shaving hit points off an ogre is all well and good, incapacitating them for an entire minute is several notches better. Fireball does have a slightly better range – 150 feet plays 120 feet, whilst its superior area of effect, a circle with 20 feet radius (1256 square feet area of effect), vs hypnotic pattern‘s 30 feet cube (900 square feet surface area), means that fireball is still the weapon of choice for mopping up mooks. However, where fireball starts to fade against tougher foes, hypnotic pattern is just as deadly to high level monsters as low level ones. Do you want to do 28 damage (14 on a save) to four giants or incapacitate two or three of them for a minute? It’s a no brainer.
Hypnotic Pattern vs. Other Incapacitating Spells
We can find further proof that hypnotic pattern is an overpowered game design error when we look at it against similar ‘incapacitators’ that make up the 5e wizard’s spellbook… so let’s do that.
Tasha’s Hideous Laughter (1st level)
An underrated little spell, it affects one creature and confers both the prone and incapacitated conditions on a failed Wisdom saving throw. Its power is kept well in check by the fact that it requires concentration, and that the target can repeat its saving throw at the end of each of its turns. Interestingly the effects do not end automatically when the creature takes damage, but every time it takes a hit it can make an additional saving throw with advantage, so more or less they do in fact end when it takes a hit. Range is 30 ft.
Blindness / Deafness (2nd level)
A bit of damp squib, this is barely better than tasha’s hideous haughter, if at all. On a failed Constitution saving throw, it confers blindness on one creature within 30ft. The condition of blindness however still allows the opponent to attack (albeit with disadvantage) although the one major pro it has over THL is that damaging the creature doesn’t provoke an additional saving throw, meaning its open season for attack rolls. The victim however does get a repeat saving throw at the end of each turn though, meaning it’s unlikely to work for more than one or two rounds, making the duration of one minute more or less irrelevant. A minor pro is that it doesn’t require concentration. It could also be used creatively to intimidate someone, trick an troll into walking off a bridge or whatever… provided you can do so in 0-12 seconds.
Hypnotic Pattern (3rd level)
After a balanced first level spell and an underwhelming second level spell we make the jump to super-fucking-overpowered third level spell… from a range of 30 feet we suddenly rocket up to 120 feet, and from affecting just one creature we go to affecting anyone in a 30 foot cube. If you’re using a tabletop grid of 5 ft squares that’s 36 squares and up to 36 medium-sized creatures. But that’s not even the most overpowered part… the worst is that creatures affected by this spell get no repeat saving throw (Wisdom) at the end of their turn. They are incapacitated and charmed (sidenote: I’m not really sure how these two conditions are supposed to work in combination! The spell describes a ‘stupor’ and I wonder if the charm aspect is more aesthetic – creatures lulled into hypnosis – than a condition) and therefore can’t do anything for the spell’s duration, ie. one minute or 10 turns of combat. There is the proviso that a creature that takes damage is then freed from the spell’s effects, and that another creature can use an action to shake the creature out of their stupor… and finally the spell does require concentration, but still… this is not balanced.
You could say but a third level spell is supposed to be a lot more powerful than a 2nd level one, but then again you can cast blindness as a third level spell and you get to affect one extra person… not up to 35 more as with HP, and you’d still have the crappy range and repeated saving throws.
Meanwhile we’ll see further proof of unbalance when we look at the 4th level ‘incapacitator’ confusion.
Confusion (4th level)
We’ve just gone up a level in terms of spell slots but already the range has gone down to 90 feet, whilst the area of effect is now a 10 foot radius which equates to a surface area of effect of 314.16 square feet… so just a little more than one third of that of hypnotic pattern. That’s a massive downsize, when we should be expecting a massive upsize. Something’s wrong! Once more the effects hinge on a Wisdom saving throw. If failed the victim rolls a d10 to determine what random stuff it gets up to. I simplify but it basically has about 80% chance of losing its turn and 20% chance of being able to act normally (despite having just failed its saving throw). The duration of the spell is one minute, but again that’s irrelevant as the creature can make a repeat saving throw at the end of each of its turns.
In each of range, area of effect, power of effect and duration of effect confusion is an inferior spell to hypnotic pattern… and a massively inferior one at that. And by the way, confusion is not a bad spell at all! I would personally get rid of the table result where the creature behaves as normal (easily done, just roll a d8 on the table instead of a d10!), otherwise it feels pretty well balanced. Hypnotic pattern should probably be a 5th or spell as it stands, and even then it would be considerably more powerful than the 5th level hold monster .
Playing By The Rules
If, despite the irrefutable proof I’ve just given you that the spell is broken (which would be like believing The Force Awakens is a good film after reading my article on why it most definitely isn’t. I’m linking to it now because I’ve just been tortured by The Last Jedi… new film, same problems), isn’t enough for you to remove it from the the table you could try to deal with it via pedantic interpretation and/or enemy strategy. Starting with the former, the spell description says: You create a twisting pattern of colors that weaves through the air inside a 30-foot cube within range. The pattern appears for a moment and vanishes. Each creature in the area who sees the pattern must make a Wisdom saving throw.
It might depend on the circumstances but on a chaotic battlefield for example it would be fairly reasonable to judge that any creature in the area of effect might simply be looking the wrong way at the wrong ‘moment’. Roll for each creature and on a 5 or 6 they don’t even see the pattern and don’t have to roll a saving throw.
The enemy strategy approach would be to rain blows down on the spellcaster every time they cast it so that they lose concentration and the spell ends. If a PC is constantly using hypnotic pattern spread your bad guys apart and make sure they have spells and ranged weapons.
Hipster’s Rule Fix
How should hypnotic pattern work… here is my revised version.
Hypnotic Pattern (hipster remix)
3rd level illusion
Casting time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: S, M (a glowing stick of incense or a crystal vial filled with phosphorescent material)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
You create a twisting pattern of colors that weaves through the air inside a 20-foot cube within range. The pattern appears for a moment and vanishes. Each creature in the area who sees the pattern must make a Wisdom saving throw. On a failed save, the creature becomes charmed for the duration. While charmed by this spell, the creature is incapacitated and has a speed of 0.
At the end of each of its turns, an affected target can make a Wisdom saving throw. If it succeeds, this effect ends for that target. The spell also ends for an affected creature if it takes any damage or if someone else uses an action to shake the creature out of its stupor.
It’s still probably more powerful than confusion, and you might want to use my ‘pedantic interpretation’ above and rule that creatures in the area of effect who roll a 5 or 6 on a d6 are lucky enough not to see this momentary hypnotic weaving pattern.
Anyway hope that helps. If you love spells stay tuned because you’re going to love the next post, where I review Elminster’s Guide to Magic.
By the way I also homebrewed some spells you might like. They are part of a spellbook that in turn will form part of an adventure I intend to publish soon. Do follow on Facebook or subscribe to keep in touch…
Just a quick comment. I don’t think Hypnotic Pattern is as broken as you seem to believe.
Out of all the spells you list, hypnotic pattern is the only one that can simply be broken by consuming the action of another NPC. If all of the opponents decide to stand in a 30′ cube away from the party then they honestly deserve what they get.
However, let’s consider perhaps four opponents end up in the hypnotic pattern and two save and two don’t. Those two spend their action waking up the other two and the net effect of the 3rd level spell is to delay the opposition by a combat round without doing any damage. Similarly, in a larger scale battle, perhaps 8 opponents spaced out, assume hypnotic pattern incapacitates three.
The remaining five have a couple of choices. If the DM is feeling merciful then the five attack the party, perhaps they focus on the spell caster to break the concentration. On the other hand, three could spend their action to wake up their buddies and the other two could focus on the caster to break concentration. The next combat round, all the opposition is back in play.
Is the spell useful and potentially powerful? Yes. However, the escape condition that allows another character to use an action to release the creature from the effect of the spell makes it a much more situational spell than one might think. Most of the other spells like this require repeated saving throws which can be MUCH more difficult since the opponents can’t do anything except attack the caster or wait for them to make the saving throws.
Anyway, it is up to the DM to play the opposition and to set the scene. With the way hypnotic pattern works, much of its power relies on how the DM sets the encounter and how the DM chooses to use the NPC actions. If hypnotic pattern catches ALL of the opponents and they ALL fail the save and the party then picks them off one by one … the fault isn’t the spell … the fault is the DMs for creating an encounter where the spell works ideally. If the encounter is adjusted so that there are 8 to 12 opponents and that at most 3 can be within the area of hypnotic pattern at one time without also affecting PCs then all it does is slow down the opponents and force them to use actions to wake up their buddies. It is a crowd control spell that is only OP if the DM allows it to be.
You again Traska? 😉
Thanks again for another insightful comment.
However I disagree more strongly on this one than on Lucky feat!
Enemies having to spend their action waking up their comrades is a round where they take damage and get hit by more spells and they deal none. A lot can happen in a round like that, more often than not enough to turn the tide of battle.
You seem to suggest that it’s up to the DM to plan for Hypnotic Pattern, but that’s not the way I see things… if you have to plan an encounter around a specific spell or ability, then that ability has not been well thought out in terms of design. There’s no reason for HP to be as powerful as it is, and everything you need to know about it is in my comparison with Confusion spell, which is a 4th spell and not a fraction as powerful.
I agree with your point that it can be dealt with by DMs (appreciate the tips by the way;-), but I don’t think it should have to be… it’s way out of line in the scheme of spell power.
Also consider that if a party member uses Hypnotic Pattern and incapacitates a number of baddies, other party members can’t use AOE’s (like fireball!) without waking them out of their trance. I’ve had players frustrated by that no more than one occasion. There were more baddies that weren’t affected, but the affected ones were in the way. (So far, the party almost always says “screw it” and does the AOE…so Hypnotic Pattern was good for a round or two at most, which is still good, but not broken.)
But if you really want Hypnotic Pattern to feel broken, have a bard with an Instrument of the Bards casting it! My bard has made great use of Hypnotic Pattern since all saves versus being charmed are at disadvantage! 😉
True, but if your enemies are sat there drooling then unleashing an Area of Effect damage spell like Fireball is a terrible strategy IMHO! You would mop them up one at a time with focused fire. In the case that you mention, when most of the bad guys had passed their save, I guess it might make sense, but even then it would probably be better to cast another Hypnotic Pattern… unless the enemies have only around 28 HP or not much more (average damage of Fireball… assuming they fail the save). Then take out the 1 or 2 baddies remaining, then mop up their comatosed allies one at a time. Super boring, but hey… that’s Hypnotic Pattern for you!
I think one of the things you yourself mentioned not understanding about the spell which makes it less overpowered than it might seem is the interaction of being charmed and being incapacitated. RAW, Hypnotic Pattern doesn’t actually cause them to be charmed AND incapacitated, it causes them to be charmed AND IN TURN incapacitated. It’s an important distinction because this means nothing else from the spell takes effect until the creature is successfully charmed… a condition that gets resisted by a lot of different creatures and effects.
Several common player races resist the charmed effect; namely elves, half-elves, and duergar dwarfs. Gnomes would also resist the saving throw. Each of these races could easily appear as enemies for a party making the efficiency of the spell going from ~50% to ~25%.
There are a number of spells and features known each class can get which give them resistance to either being charmed or the wisdom save. These are obviously less common to have happen or pull off correctly, but some (the Devotion Paladin’s Aura of Devotion) are AOE and constant. Some (the Mind Blank Spell) last for 24 hours.
It makes perfect sense for a paranoid enemy to wear some type of magical tin foil hat which either lets them resist or become immune to the charmed effect. A simple way to negate the spell entirely for an enemy which also give your party a useful item.
Most importantly, there are a pretty long list of monsters which are straight out immune to the charmed condition, meaning your bard’s arrogance will evaporate once they realize their favorite spell just wasted them a spell slot.
Ultimately I do agree that this spell is very powerful, but I also disagree with something you mentioned in an answer to a previous comment. If your party has taken a fixation with any spell or feature and started to abuse it in combat, you SHOULD probably plan specific counters for that spell or feature. If for any reason, just to challenge them more. I think your modified version of the spell is very logical, but that an outright ban on this spell is not deserved. It’s simply way too easy to counter this spell with the smallest of choices and without having to metagame the enemies strategies against it or throw things into the story which seem out of place.
Eh. I’d make a change. Add another spell that is the normal. Op version as a level 5 spell
I understand your concern, about a specific spell being too powerful.
I do however disagree, that HP is outright OP. One could argue, that it should have been maybe a 4th or a 5th lvl spell, but then again..if the progression of power in RPG’s gets to linear/predictable I feel like it takes the fun out of the game. Like Diablo 3, every time you go up one lvl, you get to add a bit more damage, and the monsters in turn get that more powerful (Haven’t played Diablo 3 in a while)
And it’s the same for me with D&D, it would be boring, if the progression you experienced as a player, was e.g a new spell that was perfectly streamlined to do “just the right amount of extra damage, or incapacitation no more no less” Do you feel me? If the progression can be plotted into a perfectly straight up-going curve, then where is the excitement?
hi Pete, I agree 100% that a predictable and steady power progression is downright dull… specifically if we talk about just modifiers increasing (at the same rate as the monsters!).
I feel D&D that doesn’t happen too much because there are so many variables. With spells there’s range, size of the area of effect, saving throw types, immunities, concentration and many other factors. It’s not like they do 1d6 damage to one person and 1st level, 2d6 to two people at 2nd level etc.
On the other hand I’m looking at Hypnotic Pattern again and comparing it to the 5th level Hold Monster, and it’s hard to argue any way but that HP is the better spell. Given a choice between the two, there’s no way I’d take HM.
They both ‘lockdown’ any creature (immunities aside… both have their weaknesses in this regard), but HP could potentially target 36 creatures in close formation, HM is restricted to just one. That’s quite a difference for a spell that is supposed to be significantly inferior!
The lack of a repeat save is the powerful kicker (in addition to the massive advantage of having a large area of effect). I don’t think the designers really took into account their own principles of action economy when they considered that a creature can use (ie. waste!) their action shaking an ally out of their stupor. That’s a much bigger disadvantage than it might seem on first read, given most combats only last a few rounds.
Obviously HM imposes the paralysed condition and the spell doesn’t break on taking damage, but breaking out of HP to be smashed simultaneously by a party of adventurers doesn’t feel much of a get out.
Looking at 6th level spells and you’ve got Mass Suggestion which I’d say is more powerful than HP, and Ottos’s Irresistible Dance. The latter looks like a mistake, as it’s barely more powerful than Tasha’s Hideous Laughter as far as I can see. For me HP is a 5th, close to 6th, level spell.
Overall these incapacitating spells have not been so well balanced as other parts of the game. It’s easy to ignore a terrible spell like Otto’s Irresistible Dance… as no one uses it. It’s harder to ignore the spells that are grossly overpowered for their level, as players naturally select them.
In HP’s case specifically I feel it’s very anticlimactic and anti-dramatic to have have such as low level spell decide a potentially dangerous encounter in the first round, and reduce it to a mop up which is not fun to play out on the table.
By contrast fireball is also arguably overpowered but doesn’t seem to break encounters. It can even help a DM plan a horde attack, as with a couple of fireballs up their sleeve the party has a chance to survive 50 goblins or whatever. And against tougher monsters it softens them up, rather than kills them, so the battles are still tense.
On Blindness/Deafness, the spell really shines against mages, as it stops them from casting any spell that requires them to be able to see their target. The CON save is also typically a weak one for mages, unlike others THL and HP with WIS saves. Not to say those aren’t also great spells, but I think you sold Blindness a bit short.
Good point, it would definitely be handy against a caster.
I find your choice of spells for comparison a little strange. Why compare HP to THL and B/D, spells that affect only one creature, when there is 1st level spell that is doing almost the same thing as HP – Sleep? It can also take multiple enemies out of combat, and ends when creatures get damaged or someone takes action to wake them. And it even doesn’t require concentration or save. Of course after few levels it looses it’s charm, but by then you can change it to HP. And that’s what this spell is for me – upgrade of Sleep. Compared to it HP isn’t such a huge power spike but a logical progression.
On the other hand Comparing HP to THL or B/D is like comparing Fireball to 1st or 2nd level damage spell that targets one creature and claiming it’s overpowered beacause it can deal not only more damage but also to many creatures. They’re spells that you just use in different situations.
Fair point, although Sleep must rank as one of the strangest spells in the Player’s Handbook!
I wish I had my 1st edition Player’s Handbook with me, because I’d love to look up the original version, which was the go-to spell of all wizards back in the day… oh here we go, the Internet delivers.
My memories of 1st edition were of wizards that had 1 spell slot (and no cantrips) and waited all day basically for the right opportunity to cast sleep…. which was a surefire encounter ender. Boring, but that was the kick the wizard waited for during the whole session. At least the DM knew exactly what to expect.
I guess the 5th edition designers had to consider how they can keep this iconic part of the game as a 1st level spell, when it’s clearly so overpowered vs. others. They came up with the hit dice solution, and no saving throw. Making it extremely potent at level 1, where you might hope to take out 4 kobolds or 3 goblins on average, but pretty useless when fighting anything over 2 hit dice. (Although it can also be used to finish off heavily injured powerful beasts).
Overall I think their solutions worked, but the result is a spell with a unique mechanic that doesn’t feel at all 5e… also it wasn’t such a good solution that the designers felt tempted to repeat the experiment anywhere else in the game.
Sleep and HP are comparable because the first doesn’t grant a saving throw, and the second doesn’t grant a repeat saving throw. Neither really fit the 5e ethos.
Look at it another way… does the spell work if you give it to an NPC?
How much fun would you be having if, at 1st level, someone cast sleep on your PC and you didn’t even get a saving throw!? Automatic lights out.
Ditto Hypnotic Pattern… a caster pops up 120 feet away (a crazy range for this spell!) casts HP (and then takes cover) and suddenly 2/3 of your party are drooling as the caster’s allies descend.
What’s the least fun you can have in D&D? It’s controlling an incapacitated PC. With HP you don’t even have a saving throw to pin your hopes on, and most of your party are affected by the same spell. It could even be a TPK if no one passes their saving throw!
Looking at the official monster stat blocks and not a single caster has been given Sleep or Hypnotic Pattern… I think that’s very telling. They unbalance the game, the designers kind of know it, and they didn’t give them to any NPCs as they knew it would make for very unsatisfactory encounters.
Even the illusionist in Volos Guide to Monsters doesn’t have HP… and I don’t think it’s because the designers thought Phantom Steed was a better fit!
The official Bard stat block conveniently stops short of giving out any 3rd level spells….
Hi just curious why you didn’t compare it with slow? This is also another 3rd level spell and depending on the situation the effects can also be pretty devastating. It is particulary brutal against caster, but does have the draw back of saves every turn.
However, one thing you neglect to mention in your HP analysis (at least i didn’t see this) is that slow, sleep, etc are aoe, but you get to pick the targets. HP on the other hand is just aoe. So if you fighter or rogue go before you (which is likely the case for casters) now you have to position the aoe to not him them, making it less effective, or you are going to incapacitate some of your team members.
I do think HP is very strong, but I also think there is room for other spells. As a wizard in a 4 person party, with the other 3 being melee, HP simply was not an OP choice. I ended up taking slow for the later utility it provides against casters especially.
Just my two cents!
The idea was to examine a incapacitating spell of neighbouring levels (1st, 2nd and 4th) to check how Hypnotic Pattern fits in with the scheme of power… I think it’s quite clear it doesn’t!
As for Slow, it’s a really great spell – an underrated one for sure! However the effect of being slowed is not as powerful as being incapacitated, and more importantly the repeat saving throw (as per the standard 5e design) mean it’s not overpowered in my mind. I agree that being able to hand select your victims from within the area of effect is a really nice bonus, and the way it messes with enemy casters makes it very handy (although not as handy as incapacitating them!).
Most parties have an agreed strategy that allows casters to fire off an AoE spell before the rest of the party charges into battle btw! Melee characters can always hold their action if necessary. So a combination of Fireball for pre-engagement and then Slow for engagement would work well IMHO.
quick note: depending on their order in initiative, you could incapacitate 7 out of 12 baddies and still have 5 of them ATTACKING and all awake by the time it cycles back to your turn.
Simply put, if the first NPC whose turn is after the caster is not affected, he can wake up the next one in initiative order. Now that one didn’t miss a beat and can use his action to wake another and so on. This COULD seem like metagaming, but we’re talking about how a poorly planned encounter (why oh why did you put 12 baddies in an aoe zone that isnt centered on the players) can still counteract Hypnotic Pattern simply by taking turn order into account. Your players are probably considering turn order when they decide who/where to target, maybe you should too.
You seem to be implying that losing your turn is no big deal. Every fight is a damage dealing race. A team that doesn’t compete for one round, while still taking damage, is almost guaranteed to lose.
You can always plan around a spell or ability, but if the ability is clearly out of sync with the rest of the game it just makes a lot more sense to bring it back into line with similar options (and stops DMs having to come up with bizarre reasons why monsters and NPCs are unnaturally spread out every time the party encounters them, or having to only pitch the party against hordes).
Does raise another reason why the spell sucks… baddies that spend their turn waking up their allies are hardly dramatic and interesting (and certainly not threatening). From a cinematic point of view, HP makes encounters very dull indeed.
If there was a save on Hypnotic Pattern, I’d grab Fear instead. It also has no additional saves until the targets run out of sight (and have to spend an equal time running back later) and basically takes the enemy out of the fight. Its a less common immunity as well.
Also, the targets who fail can’t react, but it’s not a free critical or anything. They are still going to be fighting, but later in the combat when they are less effective presumably. Until then, the spell caster is tied up can be hit to break concentration at some point.
I feel if the DM threw the same spell at the party, it would be tough, but beatable. The people who saved would wake up the others and/or target the spellcaster.
I’m not saying Hypnotic Pattern isn’t one of the top 3rd level spells, but I think it’s not quite powerful enough to require a change in level or save requirements.
Fear is a decent spell and in line with what a 3rd level spell should be able to do.
If you compare, HP has vastly superior range – 120 feet versus self! And about twice the area of effect.
The range is a HUGE drawback of fear… you have to put yourself in melee range and if even one target passes their save they will be able to attack you on their next turn and break your concentration.
With HP’s range, the caster can cast and then just disappear into total cover. I’ve realised it’s actually unfair to compare it’s use against a party, who have excellent range options, mobility and metagaming knowledge of how the spell works, to how HP works against monsters, who are basically helpless against it.
An effective way for the DM to counter it is to use the creatures or humanoids who passed the save or were not targeted to use their multi attack to wake up multiple creatures in one action step, dealing a small amount of damage on their ally to wake them up. It’s not uncommon to have 3 multi attacks per creature at the level HP is available, meaning that a single enemy left unaffected can usually wake up all our nearly all affected creatures using only one action. So the affect you are stating on action economy is quite over blown. You can do the same thing with minor AOE spells like burning hands or shatter, etc. Really their isn’t any excuse for the DM to let it consume an entire turn of his mooks actions unless he’s not thinking creatively.
That’s not even getting into the huge preponderance of creatures that are totally immune to the spell because they can’t be charmed. It doesn’t work in the dark against creatures with darkvision since they won’t be able to discern the colors, which is an explicit requirement. So two very common cases were your level three spell does precisely nothing, before even getting into how trivial it is for an intelligent DM to wake up his mooks.
It’s a spell that will absolutely dunk on a DM or party that haven’t made any consideration for it, but with just a modicum of forethought it becomes far less useful than a reliable blasting AOE.