So, the 1st level Sleep spell in D&D bugs me. I don’t actually mind that it’s an encounter-ender for low-level characters… in fact I regard it as a bigger problem that 1st level MUs don’t really have any other spells nearly as worthwhile. Maybe Charm Person, at least outside of a dungeon, but that’s about it. But being awesome once a day isn’t a deal-breaker. No, what bugs me is the ritual of going around and killing all the sleeping foes afterwards. Not only is that particularly unheroic (granting that not everybody needs to play a heroic character) it just doesn’t feel particularly like the magic in stories that inspired it.
Over the years I’ve played with a number of DMs that had various solutions to this: some made you roll for damage against the sleeping foe, and if you didn’t kill him in one blow he woke up. That mainly served to make players more cautious about arranging a gang-stabbing of any multi-hit die creature they slept and sometimes the spell being wasted; not trying to kill the creature almost never came up. A free round of attacks was basically the best chance you were ever going to have, and chances are you’d be meeting it again. One DM made you roll to hit as well, though at least she applied bonuses. I think I recall one in the early days of playing who would count it as an alignment infraction if a Lawful (or maybe */Good… can’t recall which edition) character killed a sleeping foe; hardly anybody played Lawful characters at his table. A couple have removed Sleep from the game, or made you start with random spells and by the time you found a spell book with Sleep you likely had better mass-murder spells. Some have allowed saves against sleep in addition to the max number of creatures affected (not necessarily horrible if you extend the same thing to the PCs). But nothing I’ve encountered really did more than make the process of casting Sleep then slitting throats a bit more risky and likely to fail.
So I’m considering the following house rule: if you try to attack or move a magically slept creature, you fall under the spell as well. No save, no limit on the max HD. To me that feels a lot more like the sleep spell in literature, including spells like abandoned castles with all the inhabitants sleeping for a hundred years. The 1st level Sleep spell would just be a lesser version of that.
Another version I considered would be the spell would be broken on all sleepers if any of them were attacked, but that seems like it leaves too much room for rules-lawyering it. E.g., trying simultaneous attacks, tying them all up and throwing them off a cliff all at once, smacking your own companion with a small attack to wake the rest, and so on. They could all probably be patched, but I think the result would be a multi-paragraph list of conditions like a 3rd edition spell.
One thing that I think is attractive about this, besides having more of a fairy-tale or fantasy feel, is the way it makes Sleep a very different spell, with different purposes, than something like Fireball or Cloud Kill. You always need to think about what you’re going to do when they wake up… are you using it to cover your retreat, give yourself time to burgle the place, pass deeper into the dungeon and figure you’ll deal with them on the way out, or what. You can’t count on clearing the level one sleep spell at a time. And on the flip side, if an enemy spell caster uses sleep on you it’s no longer time to roll up a new character unless the GM is having the monsters be far more merciful than the players ever are.
I guess my one worry is whether it’s just too different from the way players are used to using Sleep. The whole reason for using D&D instead of something like Zounds! is because of the instant familiarity and buy-in. There’s definitely a certain amount of tweaking and house-ruling that just the way D&D works, but there’s a point beyond which you might as well play something else, and changing one of the most reliable 1st level spells gives me some pause.