|Douglas Muir 406|
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The Mesmerist's "Nightmare" stare seems really intriguing at first glance: in addition to inflicting the usual stare penalty, the victim must roll twice to save against fear effects, taking the lower roll. (He has "disadvantage", as the kids say these days.)
In theory this could be amazing. Rolling twice with a -2 or -3 penalty means that strong saves suddenly become much weaker, and weak saves pretty much mean autofail. In practice, this stare is crippled by the fact that (1) there just aren't that many spells with the Fear descriptor, and (2) the Mesmerist has access to a grand total of two of them -- four if you take the Hatemonger archetype, and even then you have to sacrifice tricks to get them. (Well, and of course (3) many creatures like undead, golems and oozes are immune to fear effects... that goes without saying.) So, is there any way to make this stare worth bothering with? Well... what if you tried teaming up with an arcane full caster, and tag-teaming enemies with fear effects? You stare (free action) and your buddy zaps the target with a fear spell?
Using the spell search function at d20pfsrd, we find that there are a grand total of 21 canon spells with the Fear descriptor. However, some of these are not available to arcane spellcasters (castigate, hunter's howl, aura of doom), or are super situational (hydrophobia, black mark) or are unlikely to be used with a stare (symbol of fear) or are just really feeble (feast of fear). Here's a summary of the arcane spells that might be interesting or useful.
Sotto Voce (0) -- At very low levels, his dopey little cantrip is actually pretty handy. As long as the Nightmare mesmerist is in range, a caster who takes this can use a standard to keep imposing the Shaken condition on a foe every round. Useful at low levels when you sometimes run completely out of spells and have nothing better to do with a standard.
Bane (1) -- Imposes a -1 penalty on attack rolls for a minute. This is a stupid, feeble spell without the stare, and still pretty meh with it. (Does anyone actually ever use this spell?)
Cause Fear (1) -- One target of up to 5 HD is frightened (-2 on attacks and saves, must flee if it possibly can) for d4 rounds. Okay at low levels. Not great because many DMs will rule that a magically frightened creature will return to acting normally (i.e., come back and attack you) once the spell expires, but even just getting one enemy out of action for 2d4 rounds -- d4 to flee, the same to return -- can be tactically very handy. This is a so-so spell that becomes a pretty good one when combined with the stare.
Doom (1) -- One creature becomes shaken for 1 minute/level. Okay, now we're talking. This means you can impose Shaken (-2 on attacks and saves) on low-CR opponents pretty much at will. If you're a low-level caster throwing this at DC 14? The stare boost means that a target would need a +10 Will save just to have a better-than-even chance of saving. Also, Shaken stacks with the Mesmerist's stare penalty, so you can run a one-two punch: Mesmerist stares as a free action, arcane caster throws Doom, Mesmerist (or another party member) hits the target with a save-or-suck Will save forcing a save at -4. At lower levels this will be the go-to spell for Team Fear.
Haunting Mists (2) -- Doesn't combine with stares, since it shuts down vision beyond 5'. (Also, reading the spell description as written, you the caster are inside the mist, so you'd have to save or suffer the ill effects. Was this ever errata'd?)
Scare (2) -- Cause Fear, except it can affect two or three creatures and lasts longer. Still limited to creatures of 5 HD or less. The modest situational power boost hardly justifies using a second level spell slot.
Vision of Hell (3) -- A fixed-area effect that causes everyone within it to be shaken and take an additional -2 on saves against fear. Lasts 1 minute/level. Would be a very good 2nd level spell, is kind of mediocre at 3rd. Won't always stack with the stare because it's an area effect. Remarkably, this is the only third-level arcane spell with the Fear descriptor other than the very situational Hydrophobia.
Aura of Doom (3) -- Clerics and oracles only, which is a pity because this is a fine spell: all non-allies who come within 20' of you must save or be shaken, and it has an excellent 10 minutes/level duration. Creatures who leave the area and then re-enter it must save again, so you can use this tactically. It's mentioned here because if Team Fear is part of a larger party, a cleric with this spell can set up some hair-raising triple combinations, i.e. Mesmerist stares, cleric moves close to target, target is Shaken, Wizard throws Doom and target is now double-Shaken = Frightened. Or, a bit later, wizard throws Phantasmal Killer (see below) and suddenly target is rolling twice at -5 and is probably dead.
Fear (4) -- 30' cone, everything in the cone must save or be panicked for 1 round/level. This is an okay spell that combines with the stare to become a very good one. The only real drawback is the short range, which requires you to move your squishy self close to the target. Panicked is a strong condition, as a panicked creature cannot attack under any circumstances -- it just cowers even if you're hacking at it -- so if you're clever you'll use this tactically to drive creatures into corners and so forth. Assuming you throw this at DC 17, anything with a Will lower than +13 is likely to fail. So at mid-levels, say from 7th to 10th, this is a combo that will usually take out any opponent up to and including bosses.
Phantasmal Killer (4) -- Okay, now we're talking. This spell is normally okay but not amazing. It grants two saves, Will and Fortitude. Make the Will save and you're fine. Fail the Will and you take 3d6 of damage and must then roll Fortitude too; fail Fortitude and you die. It's basically Baby's First Death Spell. The double save means that it usually doesn't work, because most creatures have at least one strong save out of Will/Fortitude. So normally it's a bit of a Hail Mary. But when combined with the Nightmare stare? By this level the Mesmerist's stare penalty is probably -3, so each save is rolled twice at -3 with the lower roll prevailing. Suddenly this risky spell is much, much stronger.
How would this work in practice? Well, let's say that Team Fear is now 8th level. Suddenly, a frost giant appears: a CR 9 brute with Will +6 and Fortitude +14. Assuming the spell is cast at DC 19, a frost giant would normally fail the Will save 60% of the time and fail the Fort save just 20% of the time. So his chance of failing both saves would be just 60% x 20% = 12%. That's hardly worth bothering to try unless you were truly desperate. But if this is combined with the Nightmare stare, his chance of failing the Will save is now 93.75%, and of failing the Fortitude save is 57.75%, so his chance of failing both is about 54%. Your chance of killing that giant with a single spell -- bam, dead -- has jumped from less than 1 in 8 to better than even.
At higher levels this combo will become less effective for various reasons -- SR, ever higher save bonuses, better things to do with a standard. But from 7th level to around 12th or so, this is just brutal. It's not game-destroying -- both of you must get close enough, it won't effect undead and other fear-immune creatures, yadda yadda -- but it will regularly allow you to auto-kill enemies who would otherwise be seriously troublesome. And even at higher levels, you can still make it work by combining it with other debuffs (intimidation, a Court Bard's satire power) or with Quickened Doom or Quickened Vision of Hell.
So that's great! Unfortunately that's about the end of the line for Team Fear, because the higher level spells with the Fear descriptor tend to suck.
Feast on Fear (5) -- The only 5th level spell with the Fear descriptor is the silly Feast on Fear, which is really an NPC spell. Not worth bothering even with the stare boost.
Banshee Blast (6) -- Oh, come on. 30' range? d4 of damage/level? "but it's SONIC damage! that's rare and precious!" Yeah, I could see this as a very good fourth level spell, or a so-so 5th level one. At 6th it's not worth bothering. Adding the stare just means you nail down the panicked condition, and you were doing that with Fear four levels ago.
Phantasmal Revenge (7) -- This is actually weaker than Phantasmal Killer (10 hp damage/level instead of autokill) and it's super situational. (It's also not very well written. How recently dead must the corpse be? What if there were multiple killers?)
Prediction of Failure (8) -- The only half-decent high-level fear spell, this is suck-or-suck: the victim is shaken and sickened for 1 round/level if the save is made, or shaken and sickened permanently if it's failed. This means that with a single standard action you can instantly impose two conditions on an enemy that stack with each other (and with the mesmerist's stare, too). At 15th level or higher, there will often be better things you can do with a standard; you're getting into Rocket Tag territory there, where spending a round debuffing is often not worth it. Still, you could combine this with Quickened Phantasmal Killer and watch your target try to make those saves while rolling twice at -7 and taking the worse.
Weird (9) -- Mass Phantasmal Killer. The "within 30' of each other" restriction makes this situational and, for a 9th level spell, very weak.
Conclusion: the Nightmare stare by itself is almost worthless. However, as part of a team it can be quite strong at middle levels, say from 3 (when you get it) to around 10 or 12. Teaming up with an arcane caster who can cast Doom means you can usually impose the Shaken condition with a single standard action; later, Fear will allow you to make most enemies simply run away, while Phantasmal Killer will allow you to insta-kill many foes for several levels. I still can't recommend this strategy for a long-term build, because there are really no good fear spells after 4th level. However, for PFS play it's pretty strong! Team Fear will blast through a lot of encounters without taking a scratch.