Monday, February 13, 2017

Spells Through The Ages – Unseen Servant and Cantrips

Broom sweeping by itself
Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "The noblest service comes from nameless hands; and the best servant does his work unseen." But is that true? Perhaps the best servant lives large and in charge, and is more of an in-your-face kind of entity. Or perhaps we should not qualify such a being as any kind of true servant at all.

Now, unseen servant is an unusual spell for me to address here, because it simply doesn't exist in any of Chainmail Fantasy, Original D&D, Basic/Expert D&D, etc., which is normally the focus of this blog. And yet, it serves as an important example to highlight the differences between those early works and the later AD&D project. In some sense, it is central to the current endeavor; hopefully you can see what I'm doing here. We must start with 1st Edition:

AD&D 1st Edition

Unseen Servant (Conjuration/Summoning)

Level: 1
Range: 0
Duration: 6 turns + 1 turn/level
Area of Effect: 3" radius of spell
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 segment
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: The unseen servant is a non-visible valet, a butler to step and fetch, open doors and hold chairs, as well as to clean and mend. The spell creates a force which is not strong, but which obeys the command of the magic-user. It can carry only light-weight items - a maximum of 200 gold pieces weight suspended, twice that amount moving across a relatively friction-free surface such as a smooth stone or wood floor. It can only open normal doors, drawers, lids, etc. The unseen servant cannot fight, nor can it be killed, as it is a force rather than a creature. It can be magically dispelled, or eliminated after taking 6 hit points of magical damage. The material components of the spell are a piece of string and a bit of wood.
With the 1st-level spell unseen servant, Gygax introduces into AD&D a spell that by all appearances is intended to not be useful in a combat or dungeon exploration any way. It cannot fight or carry heavy loads, and is apparently silent and cannot communicate any information. It only performs domestic chores. The DMG adds, "The created force has no shape, so it cannot be clothed" (p. 45).

In this sense, the game is now being expanded beyond its original dungeon and wilderness-looting (and sailing, flying, castle-besieging) focus, and is serving to depict a larger, more detailed world. Is that a good and useful thing, or is that a symptom of a system being stretched to the point of breakdown? It certainly serves to support literary gestures of the wizard who uses a variety of low-level magics to make his day easier -- like Merlyn in T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone, whose dishes dive into the sink and wash themselves on their own. (Now that I say that: Self-animated household objects are probably an even more generally common trope.)

We might look for more examples of this kind of "mundane" magic in the PHB's expanded list of spells (there are now 30 magic-user spells at the 1st level alone, up from just 8 in OD&D Vol-1), but they are relatively few. We might consider counting: mending, write, erase, and possibly Tenser's floating disc. The mending spell definitely fits the type (it's usable only on minimally broken mundane items, not magic); Tenser's floating disc does a mundane carrying job, but useful in a dungeon; while write and erase actually are both usable for magical writings. Note that these are all new to AD&D except for Tenser's floating disc, which first appeared in Holmes' (the other Holmes) Basic D&D set of 1977 (although Zenopus Archives informs us that it was not included in Holmes' original manuscript, so most likely it was added by Gygax in an editorial pass to create another link to the AD&D game).

Is it worthwhile for a character to use a fairly precious spell slot (even 1st-level) for such a mundane convenience? Well, I've certainly never seen a character do so. However, unseen servant is one of ten personal spells listed as being subject to the 8th-level spell permanency (PHB p. 91), and in this form I could imagine including as a piece of flavor for a high-level wizard.

Gygax actually double- and tripled-down on this design direction by inventing another large category of spells called "cantrips", 0-level spells for 0-level apprentice magic-users, which did other, even more limited mundane household tasks (one to chill a beverage, another to clean a carpet, another to dampen a washcloth, etc.; 72 in all). These were first introduced in 1982 via Dragon magazines #59-61 (using three sequential editions of "From the Sorceror's Scroll"), and then later included in Unearthed Arcana. Gygax writes in that first article:
I have often wondered why no player or DM has asked me about what apprentice magic-users actually do. The very thought always conjures up visions of Mickey Mouse having troubles with brooms marching endlessly with buckets of water — Walt Disney really outdid himself when he made Fantasia! That aside, I have always reasoned that apprentice dweomer-crafters had to fulfill the dual role of menial and student, performing chores all day and then studying late into the night. After a certain point, an apprentice would begin to acquire sufficient magical acumen to employ minor magics— mainly to lighten his burden of drudgery but also to create some amusement at times. The petty spells gained by an apprentice magic-user are cantrips.
Here we see both a reference to another example of the "animated houseware" trope as primary inspiration, and also a bit of a design tension; Gygax is creating a large body of rules text for which "no player or DM" has ever requested or seen any need. A paragraph later he writes, "Why not allow the magic-user the option of retaining cantrips? Would it unbalance play if a number of cantrips could be substituted for a single first-level spell?", after which he allows one 1st-level slot to be used in place of 4 cantrips. Which opens up a box of a few issues: Is unseen servant not a more generally useful technique? And can spell slots generally be traded for lower-level selections?

When compiled in Unearthed Arcana, Gygax also added a 2nd-level spell called protection from cantrips ("This spell is often used by a magic-user with mischievous apprentices, or one who wishes apprentices to clean or shine an area using elbow grease instead of magic."). I certainly never saw that get used (and frankly could not recall its existence until I started researching for this article).

AD&D 2nd Edition

Unseen Servant

Range: 0
Duration: 1 hr. + 1 turn/level
Area of Effect: 30-ft. radius
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1
Saving Throw: None

The unseen servant is an invisible, mindless, and shapeless force, used to step and fetch, open unstuck doors, and hold chairs, as well as to clean and mend. It is not strong, but unfailingly obeys the command of the wizard. It can perform only one activity at a time and can move only lightweight items, carrying a maximum of 20 pounds or pushing/pulling 40 pounds across a smooth surface. It can open only normal doors, drawers, lids, etc. The unseen servant cannot fight, nor can it be killed, as it is a force rather than a creature. It can be magically dispelled, or eliminated after receiving 6 points of damage from area-effect spells, breath weapons, or similar attacks. If the caster attempts to send it beyond the allowed radius, the spell ends immediately.

The material components of the spell are a piece of string and a bit of wood.
I can't see any difference here; it seems like David Cook has found no compelling reason to adjust this spell in any way. However, one decision he did make was to edit down the 8 pages dedicated to cantrips in Unearthed Arcana, and consolidate those powers into a single 1st-level spell:

(All Schools)

Range: 10 ft.
Duration: 1 hr./level
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1
Saving Throw: None

Cantrips are minor spells studied by wizards during their apprenticeship, regardless of school. The cantrip spell is a practice method for the apprentice, teaching him how to tap minute amounts of magical energy. Once cast, the cantrip spell enables the caster to create minor magical effects for the duration of the spell. However, these effects are so minor that they have severe limitations. They are completely unable to cause a loss of hit points, cannot affect the concentration of spellcasters, and can only create small, obviously magical materials. Furthermore, materials created by a cantrip are extremely fragile and cannot be used as tools of any sort. Lastly, a cantrip lacks the power to duplicate any other spell effects.

Whatever manifestation the cantrip takes, it remains in effect only as long as the wizard concentrates. Wizards typically use cantrips to impress common folk, amuse children, and brighten dreary lives. Common tricks with cantrips include tinklings of ethereal music, brightening faded flowers, glowing balls that float over the caster's hand, puffs of wind to flicker candles, spicing up aromas and flavors of bland food, and little whirlwinds to sweep dust under rugs. Combined with the unseen servant spell, it's a tool to make housekeeping and entertaining simpler for the wizard.
In some sense, the multitude of possible effects, and the 1 hour/level duration makes this power much more useful than the 1E cantrips (their durations were commonly 1 turn, 1 round, or even just 1 segment). Note that Cook explicitly references unseen servant here, so the spells are seen as closely related. Protection from cantrips is still included as a 2nd-level spell.

D&D 3rd Edition

Unseen Servant

Conjuration (Creation)
Level: Brd 1, Sor/Wiz 1
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Effect: One invisible, mindless, shapeless servant
Duration: 1 hour/level
Saving Throw: None
Spell Resistance: No

The unseen servant is an invisible, mindless, shapeless force that performs simple tasks at the character's command. It can run and fetch things, open unstuck doors, and hold chairs, as well as clean and mend. The servant can perform only one activity at a time, but it repeats the same activity over and over again if told to do so. It has an effective Strength score of 2 (so it can lift 20 pounds or drag 100 pounds). It can trigger traps and such, but it can exert only 20 pounds of force. Its speed is 15 feet. The servant cannot attack in any way; it is never allowed an attack roll. It cannot be killed, but it dissipates if it takes 6 points of damage from area attacks. (It gets no saves against attacks.) If the character attempts to send it beyond the spell’s range (measured from the character's current position), the servant ceases to exist.
That's mostly the same. I do kind of like the extended 1 hour/level duration, if you're going to bother casting this at all.

On cantrips, 3rd Edition went in a different direction; it reinstituted them as 0-level spells, but with a limited selection, effects that were actually useful (even in adventuring contexts), and a separate spell slot listed for casters in just this category (for example: 1st-level wizards were given three 0-level, and one 1st-level spell before any bonuses). For wizards, the complete list of available cantrips was: resistance, ray of frost, detect poison, daze, flare, light, dancing lights, ghost sound, disrupt undead, mage hand, mending, open/close, arcane mark, detect magic, prestidigitation, and read magic. Some of these can do 1d3 or 1d6 damage, or give a ±1 modifier to a save or attack. Several others were 1st-level spells in prior editions, here made more easily accessible, so that's something. But the presence of a 0-level spell category seems fiddly and possibly confusing to new players (sit down, computer science majors). The "mundane magic" effects formerly identified as cantrips are now wrapped into the spell prestidigitation, shown below. There is no more protection from cantrips spell.


Level: Brd 0, Sor/Wiz 0
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 10 ft.
Target, Effect, or Area: See text
Duration: 1 hour
Saving Throw: See text
Spell Resistance: No

Once cast, the prestidigitation spell enables the character to perform simple magical effects for 1 hour. The effects are minor and have severe limitations. Prestidigitations can slowly lift 1 pound of material. They can color, clean, or soil items in a 1-foot cube each round. They can chill, warm, or flavor 1 pound of nonliving material. They cannot inflict damage or affect the concentration of spellcasters. Prestidigitation can create small objects, but they look crude and artificial. The materials created by a prestidigitation spell are extremely fragile, and they cannot be used as tools, weapons, or spell components. Finally, prestidigitation lacks the power to duplicate any other spell effects. Any actual change to an object (beyond just moving, cleaning, or soiling it) persists only 1 hour.


Is thematic but mundane magic, like unseen servant and cantrips, a useful thing to include in the D&D game? Or is the 9,000-plus words devoted to the subject by Gygax in Unearthed Arcana really a big waste of potential goodness? Did your players ever make much use of unseen servant and cantrip-like magic in your games?

Monday, February 6, 2017

Spells Through The Ages – Remove Curse

Voodo doll with pins
Let's say that something truly disastrous has befallen you. A real catastrophe. Something that you can't shake, can't get rid of, no matter how you try. Sinister, demonic powers have taken hold; that sort of thing. You've been well and truly cursed! How do you correct this state of affairs? Remove curse is the magic that you're looking for.

Original D&D 

Remove Curse: A spell to remove any one curse or evil sending. Note that using this spell on a "cursed sword", for example, would make the weapon an ordinary sword, not some form of enchanted blade. Range: Adjacent to the object.
In Original D&D, remove curse is 4th-level magic-user (wizard) spell, and a 3rd-level cleric spell. There are times when, as a spell of resuscitation and protection, I forget that it's on the magic-user list, but of course it actually appears there first in the book (Vol-1).

In OD&D Vol-2, there are basically only three cursed items: a cursed sword (-2), a cursed scroll (5 different possible effects), and a cursed ring (ring of weakness). Only the ring specifies that, "Once on the hand this ring cannot be removed without the application of a Remove Curse spell from a Cleric".

Generally speaking, in OD&D Supplement-I, Greyhawk, the magic item list was expanded such that any particular form of magic item had an analog that was cursed (I dare say: most of the new items in Sup-I are cursed items). The idiom of not being able to get rid of such items was used more widely there. The rule was applied to swords for the first time: "Once grasped, this weapon will never willingly leave the holder’s hand, and it will immediately force him to seek battle with as many monsters as possible. A Remove Curse or a Wish (Limited included) will remove the influence" (Sup-I, p. 46; note no restriction to clerics as for the original ring above). See also: ring of contrariness, bag of beans, drums of deafness, gauntlets of fumbling, etc., etc. In this context, having access to remove curse becomes much more critical.

Expert D&D

Remove Curse* 
Range: 0'
Duration: permanent

This spell will remove the effects of a curse put on a character or free a character from a cursed magical item. A remove curse spell will only remove one curse.

The reverse of this spell (curse) causes a misfortune or penalty to the creature upon which it is cast. Curses are limited only by the caster's imagination, but the DM may turn a curse that is too powerful back on the caster! Typical limits to curses include: -4 to hit, or -2 on saves, or prime requisite reduced by half, etc. A successful saving throw means the curse has no effect. There is no limit to the number of times a character can be cursed, provided each curse penalizes the character in a different way.
This language comes from the cleric spell list, while the magic-user version simply says, "This spell is exactly like the clerical spell of the same name (page X13)". The effect in this edition is basically the same, but the "evil sending" language is gone, and it refers directly only to cursed magical items.

The primary new feature, and most of the text, is now the ability to reverse the spell (indicated by the asterisk next to the title) and actually cast a curse on someone (permanently). This is available to both clerics and magic-users (one of only 6 reversible MU spells in the game); in OD&D it was not noted as being reversible for either class.

For logical flow, I'm in the habit of looking at the B/X branch of rules prior to the separate AD&D line; but despite that, it bears pointing out that Gygax's AD&D Player's Handbook came out in 1978, and Cook's D&D Expert Rules came out in 1980. So this is one of numerous instances where Cook was almost surely taking thematic direction from Gygax's AD&D work.

AD&D 1st Edition

Remove Curse (Abjuration) Reversible

Level: 3
Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 6 segments
Saving Throw: Special

Explanation/Description: Upon casting this spell, the cleric is usually able to remove a curse - whether it be on an object, a person, or in the form of some undesired sending or evil presence. Note that the remove curse spell will not affect a cursed shield, weapon or suit of armor, for example, although the spell will typically enable the person afflicted with any such cursed item to be rid of it. The reverse of the spell is not permanent; the bestow curse lasts for 1 turn for every level of experience of the cleric using the spell. It will lower one ability of the victim to 3 (your DM will determine which by random selection) 50% of the time; reduce the victim’s “to hit” and saving throw probabilities by -4 25% of the time; or make the victim 50% likely per turn to drop whatever he, she, or it is holding (or simply do nothing in the case of creatures not using tools) 25% of the time. It is possible for a cleric to devise his or her own curse, and it should be similar in power to those shown. Consult your referee. The target of a bestow curse spell must be touched. If the victim is touched, a saving throw is still applicable and if it is successful, the effect is negated.
Again, the text above is from the clerical list (now alphabetically positioned first, in contrast to OD&D where wizards were given priority and clerics the after-thought); the magic-user listing also says it is identical (although still at 4th level). Among the reversals is the spell's effect on a permanent magic item: whereas in OD&D, it would actually "make the weapon an ordinary sword", that was in the time before such items were made universally "sticky" on the user; here, the spell will simply separate such an item from the user, and otherwise "not affect a cursed shield, weapon or suit of armor".

The reverse of the spell is a bit more formalized in its effect than in Cook's Expert rules -- a roll for exact effect. But that's very minor compared to the critical difference: Cook's curse is apparently permanent, while Gygax's bestow curse only lasts 1 turn per caster level. That's a big delta-value. I think I would tip my hat to Cook in this regard; it's both briefer text and makes the spell at least hypothetically interesting (I've never seen it get used in-game; certainly not for a few-turns duration).

Edit: Another difference being the effect of the ability-score penalty. At first glance I thought the penalty here was lowering an ability score by 3, but it's actually lowering it to 3 (i.e., the minimum allowed score). That's really punishing, but I can see that as making thematic sense for a curse. Cook had a somewhat more moderate lowering of the prime requisite by half. (Thanks to JB in the comments.)

The AD&D DMG specifies that remove curse may be used by a cleric of at least 12th level on a transformed lycanthrope to remove that condition. Apparently that may only be attempted once, after which more severe measures must be taken.

AD&D 2nd Edition

Remove Curse

Range: Touch
Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: Special
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 4
Saving Throw: Special

Upon casting this spell, the wizard is usually able to remove a curse--whether it is on an object, on a person, or in the form of some undesired sending or evil presence. Note that the remove curse spell cannot affect a cursed shield, weapon, or suit of armor, for example, although it usually enables a person afflicted with a cursed item to be rid of it. Certain special curses may not be countered by this spell, or may be countered only by a caster of a certain level or higher. A caster of 12th level or higher can cure lycanthropy with this spell by casting it on the animal form. The were-creature receives a saving throw vs. spell and, if successful, the spell fails and the wizard must gain a level before attempting the remedy again.

The reverse of the spell is not permanent; the bestow curse lasts one turn for every experience level of the wizard casting the spell. It causes one of the following effects (roll percentile dice):

It is possible for a wizard to devise his own curse, and it should be similar in power to those given (the DM has final say). The subject of a bestow curse spell must be touched. If the subject is touched, a saving throw is still applicable; if it is successful, the effect is negated. The bestowed curse cannot be dispelled.
Mostly this is copy-and-pasted from 1E. The DMG detail on use against lycanthropy has been inserted. The text description of the possible effects has been presented as a table. Cook has faithfully followed Gygax's short duration for the bestow curse effect (in contrast to his earlier presentation in the D&D Expert rules).

D&D 3rd Edition

Remove Curse
Level: Brd 3, Clr 3, Sor/Wiz 4
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Target: Creature or item touched
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Will negates (harmless)
Spell Resistance: Yes (harmless)

Remove curse instantaneously removes all curses on an object or a person. Remove curse does not remove the curse from a cursed shield, weapon, or suit of armor, although the spell typically enables the person afflicted with any such cursed item to remove and get rid of it. Certain special curses may not be countered by this spell or may be countered only by a caster of a certain level or higher. Remove curse counters and dispels bestow curse.
Same spell, same name, same effects, same levels, close to the same phrasing since 1E. One difference is that 3E made the move to delete the idea of "reversible" spells, instead splitting those off to separate entries entirely, to wit:

Bestow Curse
Level: Brd 3, Clr 3, Sor/Wiz 4
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Touch
Target: Creature touched
Duration: Permanent
Saving Throw: Will negates
Spell Resistance: Yes

The character places a curse on the creature touched. The character chooses one of the three  following effects:
  • -6 effective decrease to an ability score (minimum 1).
  • -4 enhancement penalty on attack rolls, saving throws, ability checks, and skill checks.
  • Each turn, the target has a 50% chance to act normally; otherwise, the target takes no action.
The character may also invent the a new curse, but it should be no more powerful than those listed above, and the DM has final say on the curse's effect.

The curse cannot be dispelled, but it can be removed with a break enchantment, limited wish, miracle, remove curse, or wish spell.

Bestow curse counters remove curse.
In contrast to 3E's usual softening of spell effects, the bestow curse has gotten tougher in at least one sense: it is back to being permanent in duration (seen previously only in Cook's Expert rules). On the other hand, more as we we expect from 3E, the ability-score penalty has been lessened: only lowering by 6, as opposed to dropping to the minimum value (thanks again to JB in comments). Also, the effect is now chosen by the caster (not rolled randomly).


The most interesting adjustment to the remove curse effect itself was near the beginning, when between 0E and 1E the standard for cursed items was to become "sticky" on the user, and the remove curse effect would only separate item from person, not eliminate the curse on the item itself. Past that, most of the rule text was actually devoted to the reverse bestow curse effect, which itself mostly stable, except for differences in whether the duration was very short or permanent.

I must admit, I don't think that I've ever had bestow curse used in any of my games. Certainly not by any PCs. In the context of fast-paced combat, it's not an incredibly useful effect (especially when it needs to be delivered by a touch, something most wizards would prefer not to risk). We might consider it as a nice thematic effect for an NPC to use (say, an abused old witch or warlock), but for that we really need the permanent version, only seen in the Expert and 3rd Edition rules.

In my Book of Spells, I reverted to the D&D original conception, and in fact I removed all reversible effects from the system (only two for magic-users there in the first place); so bestow curse is not an option (although it could be an out-of-book specially researched option, of course). How often does remove curse and/or bestow curse get used in your games?

Monday, January 30, 2017

Spells Through The Ages – Transmute Rock to Mud

Bearded man in mud up to shoulders
Let's say you have a formerly firm establishment and you want to collapse the whole thing; your preference to have it be a big sludgy morass instead. Degrade your opponents via a real mud-slinging contest. How to do that? Well, of course: transmute rock to mud is your huckleberry.

Original D&D 

Transmute Rock to Mud: The spell takes effect in one turn, turning earth, sand, and of course, rock to mud. The area affected is up to 30 square inches. Creatures moving into the mud will become mired, possibly sinking if heavy enough or losing 90% of movement otherwise, unless able to fly or levitate. The spell can only be countered by reversing the incantation (requiring a Transmute Rock to Mud spell) or by normal process of evaporation (3-18 days as determined by rolling three six-sided dice). Range: 12".
This spell was not ever included in Chainmail Fantasy -- which is a bit surprising, because to my eye it looks tailor-made for an outdoors mass-combat use case. (Compare to: move earth, et. al.) So we start with Original D&D (5th level spell); as shown above, the primary thrust of the spell seems to be in creating a large muddy field to obstruct the progress of one's enemies. While a surface area is given, no depth is mentioned; so it might be unclear whether victims can possibly drown or not.

The duration is a little unusual for two different reasons. One is that it is the first magic-user spell in the game to imply that it can be "reversed" to create its opposite effect. There is no general rule for this in OD&D; and in fact it is only one of two such magic-user spells which allow that (the other: stone to flesh at 6th-level). This is in contrast to about half the spells on the clerical list which are underlined, indicating that they are (automatically) reversed by evil clerics.

The second oddity being the fact that over many days the effect may just wear off naturally; I don't think that there's any other spell in the game that functions likewise. In the Swords & Spells master table, the duration is listed as "full game".

Expert D&D 

Transmute Rock to Mud
Range: 120'
Duration: 3-18 days

This spell changes a volume of rock up to 3,000 square feet and 10' deep, to a morass of mud. Creatures entering the area of mud may be mired and are slowed to l/10th of their normal movement speed.

The reverse of this spell (transmute mud to rock) changes up to 3,000 square feet of mud (10' deep) to rock. The effect of this reversed version is permanent.

Cook's version in Expert D&D is almost identical. The 3-18 days duration here would most likely be interpreted as a (very weird, very random) duration for the magic itself, not an effect of natural evaporation. The effect on earth and sand is not mentioned. Cook does give a depth figure for the first time -- a fixed 10', so one might think that drowning is a possibility, but the effect otherwise specified seems to only indicate slow movement (swimming?).

Note that Expert D&D does have a general system for reversal of both magic-user and clerical spells,  indicated by an asterisk in the spell rosters -- many such clerical spells are given (as above), but still fairly few magic user spells (6 spells out of a total of 72 by my count).

AD&D 1st Edition

Transmute Rock To Mud (Alteration) Reversible

Level: 5 
Range: 1"/level 
Duration: Special 
Area of Effect: 2 cubic "/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 5 segments
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: Except as noted above, and that the material components for the spell are clay and water (or sand, lime and water for the reverse), this spell is the same as the fifth level druid spell, transmute rock to mud.
The druid spell description saying this:
Explanation/Description: This spell turns natural rock of any sort into an equal volume of mud. The depth of the mud can never exceed one-half its length and/or breadth. If it is cast upon a rock, for example, the rock affected will collapse into mud. Creatures unable to levitate, fly, or otherwise free themselves from the mud will sink and suffocate, save for lightweight creatures which could normally pass across such ground. The mud will remain until a dispel magic spell or a reverse of this spell, mud to rock, restores its substance - but not necessarily its form. Evaporation will turn the mud to normal dirt, from 1 to 6 days per cubic 1" being required. The exact time depends on exposure to sun, wind and normal drainage. The mud to rock reverse will harden normal mud into soft stone (sandstone or similar mineral) permanently unless magically changed.

We see that as in Cook's work, the effect on non-rocky earth and sand seems to be removed. The area is now actually a volume, variable by level (as for most spells in AD&D), and the depth is now an algebraic calculation based on min(length, breadth)/2, subject to available volume. Sinking and suffocating are explicated for the first time. Evaporation is now made even more vague for the DM ("depends on exposure to sun, wind and normal drainage"; I prefer the flat 3d6 roll if we must do that). A description of the effect on a single discrete "rock" is given for the first time, as well.

The DM's Guide gives this additional errata/information:
Transmute Rock To Mud:  Rate of sinking is  1'  per segment, i.e.  1'  per  6 seconds or  10' per minute (round). Brush thrown upon the surface will stop sinking of creatures able to climb atop it (use discretion  as  to the amount of brush and the weight of creatures). Ropes can be used to pull creatures out of the mire, assuming that sufficient power  is  available  -  1 man/man, 10 men/horse (or vice versa).

In 1986 Doug Niles' Dungeoneer's Survival Guide included a section on running Battlesystem engagements in the depths of the underworld (recall that Niles was himself the author of the well-received Battlesystem supplement for D&D). In a subsection on "Cave-ins On A Battlefield", he writes (p. 35):
Spells such as earthquake and transmute rock to mud are commonly used for this purpose. If a ceiling collapses, the area affected on the ground is the same as the area of the ceiling collapsed, plus 1" in all directions. Such a collapse does 6d8 hit points of damage to all creatures in the area of effect; a saving throw vs. spell reduces the damage to half. Thus, an orc figure representing 10 orcs suffers 60 dice of damage, and is automatically destroyed whether it saves or not.

A similar weight of mud falling on a unit inflicts only  4d8 points of damage, again halved if a saving throw is successful. 
While that's a logical extrapolation of the spell's effect, I'm not sure that I'm entirely satisfied by that. More on that thread below. 

AD&D 2nd Edition

Transmute Rock to Mud

Range: 10 yds./level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 20-ft. cube/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 5
Saving Throw: None

This spell turns natural rock of any sort into an equal volume of mud. The depth of the mud can never exceed half its length or breadth. If it is cast upon a rock, for example, the rock affected collapses into mud. Creatures unable to levitate, fly, or otherwise free themselves from the mud sink at the rate of 10 feet per round and suffocate, except for lightweight creatures that could normally pass across such ground. Brush thrown atop the mud can support creatures able to climb on top of it, with the amount of brush required subject to the DM's discretion. The mud remains until a dispel magic spell or a reverse of this spell, mud to rock, restores its substance--but not necessarily its form. Evaporation turns the mud to normal dirt, at the rate of 1d6 days per 10 cubic feet. The mud to rock reverse can harden normal mud into soft stone (sandstone or similar mineral) permanently unless magically changed.

The material components for the spell are clay and water (or sand, lime, and water for the reverse).
This is mostly another copy-and paste job from the 1E text, with the detail from the DMG about sinking rate and use of brush for floatation inserted. The duration is again given as due to evaporation, but the factors affecting that in 1E are removed, at least for the wizard version -- in the alternate priest spell, it is still there ("The exact time depends on exposure to the sun, wind, and normal drainage.").

D&D 3rd Edition

Transmute Rock to Mud

Level: Drd 5, Sor/Wiz 5
Components: V, S, M/DF
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Medium (100 ft. + 10 ft./level)
Area: Up to two 10-ft. cubes/level (S)
Duration: Permanent (see text)
Saving Throw: See text
Spell Resistance: No

This spell turns natural, uncut or unworked rock of any sort into an equal volume of mud. Magical or enchanted stone is not affected by the spell. The depth of the mud created cannot exceed 10 feet. Creatures unable to levitate, fly, or otherwise free themselves from the mud sink until hip- or chest-deep, reducing their speed to 5 feet and giving them –2 penalties on attack rolls and AC. Brush thrown atop the mud can support creatures able to climb on top of it. Creatures large enough to walk on the bottom can wade through the area at a speed of 5 feet.

If transmute rock to mud is cast upon the ceiling of a cavern or tunnel, the mud falls to the floor and spreads out in a pool at a depth of 5 feet. The falling mud and the ensuing cave-in deal 8d6 points of damage to anyone caught directly beneath the area, or half damage to those who succeed at Reflex saves.

Castles and large stone buildings are generally immune to the effects of the spell, since transmute rock to mud can’t affect worked stone and doesn’t reach deep enough to undermine such buildings’ foundations. However, small buildings or structures often rest upon foundations shallow enough to be damaged or even partially toppled by this spell.

The mud remains until a successful dispel magic or transmute mud to rock spell restores its substance —but not necessarily its form. Evaporation turns the mud to normal dirt over a period of days. The exact time depends on exposure to the sun, wind, and normal drainage.

Here's the 3rd Edition version of the spell; longer (as usual), but mostly the same -- in terms of volume, duration, use of brush, evaporation, and factors effecting evaporation (most of that copied forward from the 1st Ed rules). In the standard 3rd Ed. safety-bumpering, the possibility of suffocation (seen in 1st-2nd Ed.) has been removed, and victims can at most "sink until hip- or chest-deep", even though no rational mechanic for that is given.

But probably the most important changeover the entire evolution of the spell happens in the first line here: it is limited, for the first time, to working against "natural, uncut or unworked rock". That's a pretty big change, whose details are spelled out in the 3rd paragraph. We might think that a pretty common-use case is for a band of heroes or villains to be confronted by an opposing keep and think: "Hey, that castle's stone. If we just cast one transmute rock to mud, that whole gatehouse will just collapse, right?" In the 1E era, I definitely thought that was the implication, even though it was never specified in any version of the spell. Here that is prohibited due to the "unworked" clause, and I actually really like that.

I actually really like that limitation to the spell. I'm actually kind of befuddled as to why that was never addressed in any earlier edition. Separately, there's the also the detail in the 2nd paragraph about collapsing the roofs of underworld tunnels and causing 8d6 damage cave-ins (save for half); this seems very reminiscent of Doug Niles' rule in the 1E Dungeoneer's Survival Guide, but it's unclear if the rule was imported directly from there. At any rate, I'm not sure I like that so much.

Gygaxian Perspective

Let me expand upon that issue in is own section. What would Gygax's intent be regarding transmute rock to mud against stone fortifications? For starters, the overwhelming evidence is that Gygax conceives of the standard D&D game world as being essentially quasi-medieval in nature, and I support that. Radical changes in the game world society cannot be inferred from one or two whacked-out spell descriptions; rather, if a certain magic effect inherently contradicts the medieval world situation, then something about the spell needs to be adjusted to comply with that initial assumed milieu. (OD&D Vol-1, p. 5: "expansion is recommended only at such time as the possibilities in the medieval aspect have been thoroughly explored").

For example: Gygax's second novel, Greyhawk Adventures: Artifact of Evil opens with a major assault on a concentric stone castle at the edge of the Pomarj (a region overrun by evil humanoids; setting of the A1-4 Slave Lords series of modules). In addition to legions of men and monsters, fairly large contingents of spell-casters are engaged on both sides of the battle. From the first paragraph of the book:
The starless night was suddenly bright with globes of glowing light, radiance that shed betraying illumination behind the lines of besiegers outside the fortress... The magic missiles, blazing fireballs, and crackling bolts of lightning were far worse. Bodies were tossed high by roaring blasts; wheeled shelters were split and broken by the flashing strokes of electricity while metal-clad men-at-arms behind them became charred corpses. Varicolored darts sped unerringly into hapless targets who screamed and died. Torrents of flame erupted from the sky to set siege towers blazing, giant torches that added a hellish light to the scene, while raging fires swept over the advancing lines or made curtains of flame that seared their flesh.
Other magic effects that are thrown from either side over the course of the next few pages: summon elementals (fire), Evard's black tentacles, chain lightning, cone of cold (?), darkness, moonbeam, precipitation, cloudburst, summon elemental (water), summon elemental (earth), major illusions, etc.

That's a lot of high-level magic. But one thing that doesn't happen: at no point are the walls of the castle transmuted from rock to mud. That's hard to interpret if Gygax thinks the effect is feasible, in the context of such an enormous force of high-level spell-casters. Likewise: Note that the 1E DMG had a table including about 10 magical effects that would cause structural point damage against constructions in a siege (p. 109), but transmute rock to mud was not among them.

More evidence from the old Gygax Q&A thread on ENWorld (dates uncertain): One poster proposes a plan of action in regards to the famed Temple of Elemental Evil: "One mage with a Rock to Mud could take out the whole place..." (going on for about 9 paragraphs about the detail of volume of mud involved , effect on lower levels, etc.). Here's Gygax's response:

My players know better than to try something sure to incur wrath >:-)

Such tactics are a matter for the DM to manage, and as one here is how I would handle an attempt of this sort.

"Sorry, Flubspell, but your Rock to Mud casting seems to fizzle out when it contacts the stonework of the temple. golly, I guess the builders must have imbued it with some fort of protection from this sort of assault on its integrity..."

"Oh, by the by, it seems that you are now turning a ghastly gray color. It seems as if yout attempt has invoked a curse of some sort, as you feel quite weak and not at all well..."

I'd use the same sort of response if someone tried that with any important campaign setting. To stop the rules lawyers from their shrill protests I's write up a few spells to cover constructions--anti-disintigration, anti-rock to mud, etc. Also a few retributive spells to be activated and aimed unerringly at any spell caster attempting to bring down a stricture by that sort or obvious and predicatble tactic. Just because such spells are not included in the standard roster doesn't mean they don't exist.



So as expressed earlier, Gygax does not look at a spell like transmute rock to mud and deduce that medieval stone fortifications are passé in the D&D campaign world. Rather, he takes as a given that castles exist in the game (and dungeons!) and instead extrapolates that there must be a rather wide array of protection and "retributive" spells commonly used upon such constructions. Not just for the Temple of Elemental Evil itself, but explicitly "any important campaign setting", which I would argue would include any fortification set down by the DM in the campaign world.

I think all of that comes from an honorable instinct. The one thing on which I tend to differ with Gygax is that the implied array of defensive spells (outside any rulebook) seems to commit the offense of "multiplying entities beyond necessity". I would prefer a more minimalist solution, by simply adjusting the originally offending spell a slight bit -- and I think (somewhat unusually) that the 3rd Ed. limitation to "natural, uncut or unworked rock" is a pretty elegant piece of editorial wisdom. I even take an extra step in my own Book of Spells and further prohibit use of the spell against any "load-bearing" stone, so as to cut out the tunnel (and dungeon) cave-in usage.

May I also point out that Gygax's sarcastic reference to the transmuter "Flubspell" here (sometime in the early 2000's), is reminiscent of a character identified as "Flubbit the Wizard" back in OD&D Sup-I (1976; see the magic mouth spell description on p. 22). 


Which form of the spell is your favorite? Did actually prefer more chaos in your world, such that that transmute rock to mud works on fortifications and makes them effectively a useless piece of technology?

Monday, January 23, 2017

Spells Through The Ages – Feeblemind

Bearded man, struck by magic, drooling
Feeblemind: A spell to make a master magician (or their ilk) really, really stupid.

Original D&D

Feeblemind: A spell usable only against Magic-Users, it causes the recipient to become feeble-minded until the spell is countered with a Dispell Magic. Because of its specialized nature the Feeblemind spell has a 20% better chance of success, i.e. lowers the Magic-Users saving throw against magic by 4, so that if normally a 12 or better were required to save against magic, a 16 would be required against a Feeblemind. Range: 24".

The exact effect of being "feeble-minded" does not seem to be explicitly spelled out here, but whereas the spell is 5th level (out of 6) and only usable against Magic-Users, we can assume that it is highly potent.

Historically, the term "feeble-minded" was used as a technical term from the late 1800's on for a particular category of mental deficiency. Like many (all?) such terms, it has come to be considered a pejorative -- and also has an unfortunate relation to projects of eugenics and forced sterilization in the U.S. and U.K. A London Times editorial from 1834 described the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, in retrospect, as being a "feeble-minded pedant of office". Clearly, the term feeble-minded indicates someone entirely not fit for any high-functioning operations. (Wikipedia)

In the Swords & Spells spell table, feeblemind was given an area of effect of "personal" and a duration of "until dispelled".

D&D Expert Rules

Range: 240'
Duration: indefinite

This spell makes a magic-user or elf unable to think or cast spells, becoming a helpless idiot. The victim is allowed a saving throw vs. Spells at -4. A successful save negates the effect of the spell. The spell effect lasts until negated by a dispel magic spell. This spell will have no effect on creatures or character classes other than magic-users or elves.

The Cook Expert D&D rules give more specificity to the spell; the victim cannot think or cast spells (really, the only thing a Magic-User is allegedly good for); he is "a helpless idiot". Indeed.

AD&D 1st Ed.

Feeblemind  (Enchantment/Charm)
Level:  5
Range: 1"/level
Duration: Permanent 
Area of Effect: One creature

Components:  V,  S,  M
Casting Time:  5  segments

Saving Throw: Neg.

Explanation/Description:  Except as noted above,  this  spell is the same as the sixth level druid spell, feeblemind (q.v.). The material component of this spell is a handful of small clay, crystal, glass or mineral spheres.

 The relevant description from the druidic listing being:
Explanation/Description:  A spell which  is  solely for employment against those persons or creatures who use magic spells, feeblemind causes the victim's brain to become that of a moronic child. The victim remains in this state until a heal, restoration or wish spell  is  used to do away with the effects. The spell  is  of such a nature that the probability of  it  affecting the target creature is generally enhanced, i.e. saving throws are lowered. 


The major change wrought here by Gygax is that the use of the spell has been expanded from (wizard-style) magic-users only to any spell caster, including clerics and druids (although the effect is easier to save against for those types). Also, the effect is even more difficult to recover from; instead of a mere dispel magic, it now requires a heal, restoration (6th or 7th level cleric spells), or full wish (9th level magic-user spell) to remove. Like they say, "There's no cure for stupidity" (or close to it).

The 1E DMG  has a few more details in its section on effects of psionic combat: "A feebleminded person has a combined intelligence and wisdom score of 0-5" (with the consequent effect of being 85% likely to die instantly from a psionic blast); and "All memory of spells is gone, and the affected creature cannot attack or defend."

AD&D 2nd Ed.

Range: 10 yds./level
Duration: Permanent
Area of Effect: 1 creature

 Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 5
Saving Throw: Neg.

This spell is used solely against people or creatures who use magic spells. The feeblemind causes the subject's intellect to degenerate to that of a moronic child. The subject remains in this state until a heal or wish spell is used to cancel the effects. Magic-using beings are very vulnerable to this spell; thus, their saving throws are made with the following adjustments:

The material component of this spell is a handful of clay, crystal, glass, or mineral spheres, which disappears when the spell is cast.

Cook in 2nd Edition has consolidated the save categories, and yet again made the spell a bit harder to recover from; restoration will no longer work.

D&D 3rd Ed.

Enchantment (Compulsion) [Mind-Affecting]
Level: Sor/Wiz 5
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Medium (100 ft. + 10 ft./level)
Target: One creature
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Will negates (see text)
Spell Resistance: Yes

The subject’s Intelligence score drops to 1. Still, the creature knows who its friends are and can follow them and even protect them. The creature remains in this state until a heal, limited wish, miracle, or wish spell is used to cancel the effects. Creatures who can cast arcane spells or use arcane spell-like effects suffer a –4 penalty on their saving throws.
A few more adjustments here in 3rd Ed. -- the spell can now apparently affect any creature; the only explicit remnant of the original anti-magic-user focus is the same -4 saving throw penalty to creatures using wizard-type spells. Other than that, the spell effect has been softened a bit; the victim "knows who its friends are and can follow them and even protect them" (compare to note in the 1E DMG), and a few more spells can now counter the effect (limited wish and miracle).


Feeblemind is a really great spell for its given purpose in early D&D. If you've got a boss necromancer leading an army of evil or whatever, this one spell is your huckleberry -- simply put, it nukes wizards ("It's the only way to be sure."). It's actually the spell that ended the campaign the last time I ran a multi-year convention G/D module series, up in the Great Fane of Lolth (link). When hit by the effect of this spell, even one's own god is hard-pressed to save the subject.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Nothing Remains Interesting If Anything Can Happen

In 1902 H.G. Wells gave an interview to Cosmopolitan magazine. In part, he said this:
The thing that makes such imaginations interesting is their translation into commonplace terms and a rigid exclusion of other marvels from the story. Then it becomes human. How would you feel and what might not happen to you, is the typical question, if for instance pigs could fly and one came rocketing over a hedge at you? How would you feel and what might not happen to you if suddenly you were changed into an ass and couldn't tell anyone about it? Or if you suddenly became invisible? But no one would think twice about the answer if hedges and houses began to fly, or if people changed into lions, tigers, cats, and dogs left and right, or if anyone could vanish anyhow. Nothing remains interesting if anything can happen.

I agree with Wells here, and I think that this is a very fine expression of one of the several disagreements I have with conventional D&D criticism, to wit, that appealing to "realism" has no place in our assessments. Almost surely we've all heard several arguments like this: "You want a mechanic for realistic [weapons/bows/armor/movement/mounts/encumbrance/rations/falling/swimming/boating]? But there is no place for realism in a game with wizards and fire-breathing dragons!"

As Wells points out, not everything can be fantastical and surprising and wahoo, because then the whole work collapses into indistinguishable, unapproachable mush. In our case of the fantasy D&D campaign, of course, we are certainly able to support somewhat more of an eclectic combination of elements than Wells could in the course of a single story. That's fine. But our players need some guidelines and parameters for how things work -- they can't make any valuable strategic choices if the DM is prone to springing crazy nonsense about everything, all the time.

And particularly for the new player (who is, in fact, most people), an excellent methodology is this: Give them a ground-state field of "normal medieval society", and how things generally work physically, technologically, and socially in the real world, and start building fantastical elements a bit at a time from there. This provides a very rich set of shared expectations and intuitions quickly, without reading tomes of background text to get into the milieu. Play can start immediately, and their instincts for how a sword, water, door, rope, horse, torch, mirror, spike, or tree work admirably, assuming a reasonable DM who is attentive, observant, and fair about things like that.

In old-school D&D we can give the new player a low-level fighter, who is mundane in practically all ways, maybe skip telling them anything about the rules at all, and just ask them to role-play honestly with the physical equipment with which they start. It works out perfectly fine and much of the time that player will be more creative than the person accustomed to working with lists of skills and feats. Notice that their tools principally come from the standard equipment list, which in Original D&D had no explanatory text of any kind associated with them (players were expected to be generally aware of the world around them and medieval-level technology).

Of course, realism can't be everything; as per the golden rule, it's balanced against playability of the game. But personally I see no reason why not to "dial in" the ground state rules of things like mundane combat, movement, archery, encumbrance, foodstuffs, riding, swimming, falling, etc., and I wholeheartedly support "realism" as a legitimate point of discussion in that part of the game design. In fact, frequently it serves to discover the most elegant rule. If someone says "it doesn't matter", then having a correct rule shouldn't trouble them any more than having an incorrect rule. Whereas if someone were to argue that a more-mangled base reality is always better in a fantastical game ("because dragons"), then it runs up against Wells' observation here: Then nothing remains interesting, and nothing is coherent to the part-time player.

(Hat tip for the quote: B.J. Johnson).

Monday, October 10, 2016

Dictionary of the Canting Crew

BE, Gent. "A new dictionary of the terms ancient and modern of the canting crew." its Several Tribes, of Gypsies, Beggars, Thieves, Cheats, &c. With an Addition of Some Proverbs, Phrases, Figurative Speeches, &c. Useful for all Sorts of People (especially Foreigners) to Secure their Money and Preserve their Lives; besides very Diverting and Entertaining, being wholly New. London, c. 1698.

(Hat tip: BJ Johnson.)

Monday, October 3, 2016

Rules of Outdoor Survival, Part 3

Continuing our look at the intimate connection between the rules of Outdoor Survival and Original D&D:


Here is the page-sized movement chart for Outdoor Survival:

Outdoor Survival Movement Chart

As you can see, the fundamental mechanic is, in entering a particular hex, to charge a particular cost against the person's daily move rate (cost being between 1 and 4 hexes). The terrain penalties in OD&D are assessed in almost an identical fashion: Gygax actually asserts that they are the same, but then inserts just a few edits along the way (Vol-3, p. 17):
Terrain Penalties: All terrain penalties are as stated in OUTDOOR SURVIVAL, mountains and swamps cost three movement per hex, crossing rivers at non-ford hexes also costs three, and woods or deserts cost two. Tracks through mountainous terrain cost two factors per hex moved, and tracks through woods or swamps incur no movement penalty.

The only changes here are that swamp hexes cost 3 movement units (instead of 4), and that tracks through mountains cost 2 move units (instead of 1 in Outdoor Survival). When I run D&D wilderness games, I ignore these minor changes, and actually just display this same movement chart from Outdoor Survival for my players' benefit.

I consider this hex-based mechanic to be far more elegant for gameplay purposes than the more abstract system that was presented in say, AD&D, where only daily miles traveled were presented -- ignoring the fact that different types of terrain could be encountered within a single day, or that odd remainders of movement between hexes might need consideration. Having moves purely in terms of whole-number hexes neatly solves a whole number of problems during play.


Outdoor Survival has a "Sequence of Play" that looks like this: (1) Select scenario and set players at full food, water, and health; (2) Determine order by random dice; (3) Roll for Direction ability and move counter; (4) Consult Necessities chart to see if food/water ration has been met for the day; (5) Mark any losses and reduced movement for the next turn. Repeat most of these steps until the game concludes.

However, there is an interesting "Optional" step included in the list, namely Step 6:

Outdoor Survival optional step 6: encounters

As you can see, this step triggers Wilderness Encounters, specified in a chart on the flip side of each Scenario card, wherein the player would, by default, pick one of 3 columns on which to roll for the exact type of encounter. The encounter charts vary by Scenario in the usual way (wickedly brutal at low levels; more easily manageable at higher levels); here are the encounters for Scenario 4 as one example:

Outdoor Survival Wilderness Encounters: Scenario 4

Note that among the options are remaining stationary (effectively: lose a turn), gaining or losing food or water, and possibly outright losing a life level (only one outcome for that, however). Lower-level charts include losing multiple turns and food/water units at once. Here is a bit more description of that optional rule:

Outdoor Survival encounters rules

From a top-level design perspective, this idea of how to run wilderness adventures was ported directly into OD&D; the two daily rolls there are, indeed, one for being lost (direction ability) and one for possible monsters (wilderness encounters). Concepts that were stripped out were: rolls or assessment of possible loss of food/water, loss of mobility for reduced life levels, and encounters of types other than creatures. Outdoor Survival included the presence of inclement weather ("Natural Hazards"), alongside creature encounters, but that was left our for D&D.

The other thing I want to point out is that Outdoor Survival, as simple as it is, includes an example of a non-uniform core mechanic; if you look at the Direction Ability charts (see last week), then on that d6 roll the player is penalized for rolling low, whereas for encounters here the player is penalized for rolling high (encounters only occur on 5-6 as above). I have found this prone to confuse players, so I penciled in a note to flip this latter roll around in play (see margin note above).

However, that was not an adjustment that was made in D&D Vol-3. Gygax ported in this exact same mechanic, with the exact same sense of the two 6-sided dice; low roll for loss of direction ability, and high roll for monsters encounters. Ranges vary for different terrain types, but otherwise the idea is completely the same (Vol-3, p. 18):

OD&D Vol-3 Wilderness Chart

When I first saw this chart, the contrasting sense of the dice-results made me wonder that possibly only a single 6-sided die was being rolled (with either a lost or monster result, never both together). But I think that reading the prior page carefully clarifies that two separate dice are rolled (technically: one is at the start of the day, the other at the end of the day). The fact that the mechanic is so transparently borrowed from Outdoor Survival makes that even more clear, I'm sure.

And this same basic idea was also used in the dungeon setting, of course, for one of the most important but often controversial D&D mechanics: "A roll of 6 indicates a wandering monster has appeared." (Vol-3, p. 10). Again: High roll indicates encounter (disjoint from, say, the fact that low roll indicates surprise).

But the idea of a "core mechanic" where all high rolls are uniformly desirable was something that was not on the radar of either Outdoor Survival or Dungeons & Dragons at that point in time. And that makes the shared DNA even more obvious in this rather telling case.