Monday, February 20, 2017

Spells Through The Ages – Magic Mouth

Dwarves on hobbit on stairwell react to mouth on pillar
An entity which is nothing but a BIG MOUTH. Is it only hot air? Or can it still pose a distinct danger by virtue of being "Wicked, tricksy, false!"; and if so, then what should we immediately do about it?

Denis McCarthy reminds us that a version of a magic mouth appears in Jack Vance's Dying Earth, appearing on an innkeeper's forehead.The spell wasn't in Original D&D (1974); it first showed up with the frequently wonky new spells in OD&D Supplement I, Greyhawk, in 1976. In some sense, it's part of a Gygaxian gesture to expand the game world to cover more than just combat encounters (see also: unseen servant and cantrips, last week). If nothing else, it must have served as inspiration for Dave Trampier's jaw-dropping piece of artwork near the end of the AD&D Player's Handbook, seen at the top here. The spell scores major points for that alone.


OD&D Supplement-I

Magic Mouth: A spell which resembles ventriliquism in that the sound issues from a chosen object, hut there are differences. A mouth appears, or the mouth of the object moves in accordance with what is being said. The Magic Mouth can he ordered to speak upon certain conditions, i.e. if anyone comes within 10' of it, if a neutral person comes within 10', if Flubbit the Wizard comes within 10', and so on. The spell lasts until the message is given. The message cannot exceed twenty-five words.
This is a 2nd-level spell. Given that it has no effect other than uttering 25 words, one might think it a total waste of a spell. However, it is intriguing in a few ways; one, that it has apparently permanent duration until it speaks; and two, that it apparently has remarkable abilities of detection, available to few other spells in the system (detect alignment, class, identity of individuals, etc.)

Elsewhere, the charm plants spell notes, "For example, combined with several Magic Mouth spells, the plants could act as a warning system". Of the cursed crystal hypnosis ball, it is said: "It will hypnotise its user and leave him in such a state from 3-24 turns, unless there is also a Magic Mouth spell placed upon the item. In the latter case the user of the item will carry out the instructions given by the Magic Mouth immediately, conforming to the limits given for a Suggestion spell."


Holmes D&D Basic

Magic Mouth -- Level 2; Range: 0 feet; Duration: infinite

Resembles the ventriloquism spell in that sound issues from a chosen object, but there are differences. A mouth appears, or the mouth of the object moves in accordance with what is said. The magic mouth can be ordered to speak under certain conditions, such as when anyone comes within 10 feet, or when a specific person comes within 10 feet, etc. The spell lasts until the message is given. Message can not exceed 25 words.
I don't usually include the Holmes rules here, but this bears a listen. It is almost exactly the same, except for one notable edit: the example of detecting someone's alignment has been struck out. Zenopus Archives informs us that the alignment example was gone as of Holmes' original manuscript; note that this will fortuitously synch up with Gygax's changes in the AD&D PHB in the next year. (Less critically, we note that Flubbit the Wizard is no longer named; but Zenopus Archives also informs us that Flubbit appeared in a few other examples in Holmes' manuscript -- starting gold, starting spells -- before being turned into Malchor by the Gygaxian editorial pass)

Interestingly, although magic mouth was included by Holmes, it was not included in the Basic/Expert D&D rules by Moldvay and Cook (perhaps as part of their wrangling the magic-user spell lists to exactly 12 entries at each level, suitable for d12 random selection).


AD&D 1st Edition

Magic Mouth (Alteration)

Level: 2
Range: Special
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: One object
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 2 segments
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: When this spell is cast, the magic-user empowers the chosen object with an enchanted mouth which suddenly appears and speaks the message which the spell caster imparted upon the occurrence of a specified event. The magic mouth can speak any message of 25 words or less in a language known by the spell caster, over a 1 turn period from start to finish. It cannot speak magic spells. The mouth moves to the words articulated, so if it is placed upon a statue, for example, the mouth of the statue would actually move and appear to speak. Of course, the magic mouth can be placed upon a tree, rock, door or any other object excluding intelligent members of the animal or vegetable kingdoms. The spell will function upon specific occurrence according to the command of the spell caster, i.e. speak to the first creature that touches you - or to the first creature that passes within 30'. Command can be as general or specific and detailed as desired, such as the following: "Speak only when an octogenerian female human carrying a sack of groat clusters sits cross-legged within 1'." Command range is ½" per level of the magic-user, so a 6th level magic-user can command the magic mouth to speak at a maximum encounter range of 3", i.e. "Speak when a winged creature comes within 3'." Until the speak command can be fulfilled, the magic mouth will remain in effect, thus spell duration is variable. A magic mouth cannot distinguish invisible creatures, alignments, level or hit dice, nor class, except by external garb. The material component of this spell is a small bit of honeycomb.
A bit more detail is given to the spell here, possibly after Gygax confronted some player abuse on the issue. It cannot speak spells. It cannot appear on an intelligent creature. It cannot detect anything about a triggering creature other than what would be known from plain sight -- now, no detection of alignment, level, class, invisibility, etc. Clearly, at some point Gygax must have decided his early example gave away too much. As noted above, that matches the Holmes manuscript (was that just a lucky coincidence, or was there some other communication on the issue?).

Magic mouth is also noted as an "object" spell subject to the effect permanency at the 8th-level (p. 91); this can only mean that the message is deliverable on repeated occasions, because there is already no duration limit to the spell. In these rules, the spell is not referenced in either charm plants or the crystal hypnosis ball (the effect is more directly given as a telepathic suggestion).

In addition to the iconic Trampier artwork, magic mouth was to memorable effect in a few adventure modules of the period. In Gygax's AD&D module G1, Steading of the Hill Giant Chief (1978), it is used as a ruse on a war hammer: "This weapon has a magic mouth spell placed on it to speak to a dwarf: 'Here's a kiss for you, runt!' so until it has spoken it will radiate magic very strongly." In his follow-up D1, Descent Into the Depths of the Earth (1978), "The lich, Asberdies, has cast 600 magic mouth spells in various portions of his lair — walls, floor, ceiling, and on stalactites and stalagmites too. Therefore, magic detection will show virtually everyplace in the cave as radiating magic...".

In Mike Carr's Basic D&D module B1 (1979), In Search of the Unknown, a pair are in area I (one), so this was likely many players' first-ever encounter in the game of D&D: "The east mouth speaks first, in a booming voice: 'WHO DARES ENTER THIS PLACE AND INTRUDE UPON THE SANCTUARY OF ITS INHABITANTS?' After but a moment, and drowning out any attempted reply by the party, comes the reply from the west mouth: "ONLY A GROUP OF FOOLHARDY EXPLORERS DOOMED TO CERTAIN DEATH!'", followed by prolonged maniacal laughter. (Raise your hand if you ever practiced delivering this all-caps dialogue with appropriate gusto. No? Just me?). Gygax again references the spell in module B2 (1980), Keep on the Borderlands: "You can have magic mouth spells placed in key areas to shout 'ALARM' whenever an invisible creature passes within 10' or so!" (Note that in the 1981 revision of the module, the phrase "magic mouth spells" was replaced by a more generic "magical traps"; which nonetheless provides another piece of evidence that B2 was originally written for OD&D rules. Thanks to Zenopus Archives in the comments for reminding me of this reference.)


AD&D 2nd Edition

Magic Mouth
(Alteration)


Range: 10 yds.
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 1 object 

Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 2
Saving Throw: None

When this spell is cast, the wizard imbues the chosen object with an enchanted mouth that suddenly appears and speaks its message when a specified event occurs. The message, which must be of 25 words or less, can be in any language known by the spellcaster, and can be delivered over a period of one turn. The mouth cannot speak magical spells or use command words. It does, however, move to the words articulated -- if it is placed upon a statue, the mouth of the statue would actually move and appear to speak. Of course, the magic mouth can be placed upon a tree, rock, door, or any other object, excluding intelligent members of the animal or vegetable kingdoms.
 

The spell functions when specific conditions are fulfilled, according to the command of the spellcaster. Some examples are to speak "to the first creature that touches you," or "to the first creature that passes within 30 feet." Commands can be as general or as detailed as desired, although only visual and audible triggers can be used, such as the following: "Speak only when a venerable female human carrying a sack of groat clusters sits crosslegged within 1 foot." Such visual triggers can react to a character using the disguise ability. Command range is 5 yards per level of the wizard, so a 6th-level wizard can command the magic mouth to speak at a maximum encounter range of 30 yards ("Speak when a winged creature comes within 30 yards."). The spell lasts until the speak command can be fulfilled; thus, the spell duration is variable. A magic mouth cannot distinguish invisible creatures, alignments, level, Hit Dice, or class, except by external garb. If desired, the effect can be keyed to a specific noise or spoken word.
 

The material component of this spell is a small bit of honeycomb.
I'm pretty sure that's all functionally identical to 1E. It's still listed as an allowed target for the permanency spell. The DMG notes, in the section on hiring assassins, that "Wizards make use of magic mouth, alarm, explosive runes, and other trap spells."


D&D 3rd Edition

Magic Mouth

Illusion (Glamer)
Level: Brd 2, Sor/Wiz 2
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Close (25 ft. + 5 ft./2 levels)
Target: One creature or object
Duration: Permanent until discharged
Saving Throw: Will negates (object)
Spell Resistance: Yes (object)

This spell imbues the chosen object or creature with an enchanted mouth that suddenly appears and speaks its message the next time a specified event occurs. The message, which must be twenty-five or fewer words long, can be in any language known by the character and can be delivered over a period of 10 minutes. The mouth cannot speak verbal components, use command words, or activate magical effects. It does, however, move according to the words articulated.

The spell functions when specific conditions are fulfilled according to the character's command as set in the spell. Commands can be as general or as detailed as desired, although only visual and audible triggers can be used. Triggers react to what appears to be the case. Disguises and illusions can fool them. Normal darkness does not defeat a visual trigger, but magical darkness or invisibility does. Silent movement or magical silence defeats audible triggers. Audible triggers can be keyed to general types of noises or to a specific noise or spoken word. Note that actions can serve as triggers if they are visible or audible. A magic mouth cannot distinguish invisible creatures, alignments, level, HD, or class except by external garb.

The range limit of a trigger is 15 feet per caster level. Regardless of range, the mouth can respond only to visible or audible triggers and actions in line of sight or within hearing distance.

Material Component: Worth 10 gp.
That's mostly the same, with some extra detail on exactly what kinds of subterfuge can get around the triggering of the magic mouth. Apparently the spell has the equivalent of infravision (sees through normal darkness, but not magical darkness). Again, it's listed under permanency. Deceptively important change: the material component switches from unpriced "small bit of honeycomb" to unidentified thing "Worth 10 gp" (see discussion below).


Conclusions

Magic mouth is subtle, and it embarrasses me, in that I've always had a hard time developing intuition for its uses. Among its best uses is as an overnight alarm for a party's campsite. Or an alarm system on any wizard's tower, book, treasure chest, front door, etc. Or any town or castle with a wizard in residence. Or on the robe of a wizard to alert him or her to pick-pockets. This list goes on; but none of those uses were ever explicated in the spell descriptions themselves, so I have a bit of a blind spot for them; only the examples in the adventure modules of the time clue me into its best uses.

And the fact that it is only 2nd-level (castable by a 3rd-level magic-user), permanent until triggered, and free to cast (before 3E), gives it possibly campaign-altering potential. A wizard would be well within his rights to spend his down time casting magic mouth alarms on every single one of his positions before adventuring outside. Taking the example of the lich Asberdies, crafty wizards of this or earlier ages could go around alarming every castle wall, door -- maybe every tree, bush, rock -- with a magic mouth, either as defense or just for the lolz. Maybe the whole world comes to radiate magic from mouths cast with long-forgotten triggers.

That may possibly get out of hand in that way. 3E made the move to add an unnamed 10 gp material component, such that unending magic mouths become less reasonable.  In my own Book of Spells, I developed a rule in which no spell below 5th was allowed to be permanent (for reasons such as these); magic mouth there lasts one week maximum (the upper limit in my system for 2nd level spells). On a related note, given that magic mouth overlaps with ventriloquism so much (it is directly referenced in OD&D and Holmes), I made the editorial decision to simply snip that latter 1st-level spell from my list.

Any intelligent thoughts? Speak up!

23 comments:

  1. I see magic mouth as one of those Dungeon Dressing spells. I can imagine a scenario for the creation of these sorts of spells.
    DM describes "you enter the crypt and a disembodied voice booms out a warning"
    Player: Cool, I want that for my wizards tower!
    DM: well now I need a rule/spell for this....

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  2. I have always thought of Magic Mouth as a way to leave messages for your friends -- don't find me at home? just go to this statue and say "wutzarrak" three times, it will deliver a message if I have left one.

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  3. The dwarves encountering the magic mouth illustration is not Trampier, but David Sutherland. I've also misattributed it before.

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    1. Do you have a source for that attribution? I've always assumed it was by Trampier based on the style. In the comments to this blog post this issue is discussed and some similarities to other Trampier works are noted.

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    2. Hmmm. Interesting to learn there's any debate on the matter.

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  4. Idea!
    A "a treasure map" in the form of a small notebook or folio with each page enchanted with a magic mouth that will play when the page is turned. Each page contains an instruction followed by an order to turn to the next page "walk 30 paces" "look under the discolored flagstone" "take the right door" etc. If you aren't paying attention when the page reads itself you're out of luck. If you flip to a random page you'll have to figure a way to remember the out of order instruction you're getting and where in the order it appears. (And John Scott doesn't get to use his audio recorder ;))

    Another Idea!
    A necromancer enchants a hat with a Magic Mouth keyed to go off and repeat his instructions when an undead minion (zombie or skeleman) enters a chamber he has ordered it to go to. Could be done with multiple hats, with each carrying instructions to remove the prior hat, which will activate the next hat. Magical programming! :)

    A lot of potential for shenanigans with this one.

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    1. "John Scott doesn't get to use his audio recorder"

      ROFL

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    2. And the "programming" suggestion is very deep!

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    3. It's a workaround for magical constructs that can only follow "simple" orders. Any task is "simple" if you break it down fine enough. :)

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  5. Gygax also mentions Magic Mouth in the original printing of B2. In the "DM Notes About the Keep" on page 6 he writes:

    "It is very unlikely that persons can enter or leave without being seen, unless magic is used. (You can have magic mouth spells placed in key areas to shout "ALARM" whenever an invisible creatures passes within 10' or so!)

    This suggests he originally did allow magic mouth to detect invisible, but then changed in for AD&D.

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    1. Oh wow, thanks for that reminder (added to post above). That provides another piece of evidence that B2 was developed under OD&D rules (link above).

      The particularly funny thing is that at this immediate time I'm in a game where the DM is using B2 for an area castle/community, and one of our associates got caught trying to escape invisibly. I was scratching my head how that was possible, not immediately remembering that parenthetical note (or the OD&D link).

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  6. The initial mention of it was in Liane the Wayfarer in Vance's Dying Earth, where it was cast on the inkeeper's forehead.

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    1. Wow, great. I constantly wish there was a one-stop Wiki for these citations.

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  7. As some of the module examples note, it's certainly useful to make a cheap but false aura of magic as a ruse or to camouflage real magic items under many fake ones.

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  8. Since there's no rule against it that I know of, a magic mouth should be able to trigger anything that could be set to be triggered by a spoken word or phrase, such as a glyph of warding. I used this once to devise a trap for my players - explosive glyphs of warding were inscribed into the ceiling of a cave, and a simple, unmarked obelisk placed in the center of the cave. The cave had a magic mouth on it, which was set to trigger if anyone tried to pass it without giving the proper password. When triggered, it spoke the phrase that would set off all the glyphs, collapsing the cave ceiling. Worked like a charm...

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  9. A stickler could make an unreasonable argument in the case of the 3E version, but a Magic Mouth could be set to trigger another Magic Mouth in range. With some effort you could set up a chain of Magic Mouths to carry a message across vast distances (and again, with 3E there's a 10 GP cost so you wouldn't use it this way). Best of all, none of the Magic Mouths "know" the message at the end of the line; only the last one needs to be programmed and save the message content. A simple switchboard could be set up with perhaps 100 phrases, and several lines of communication leading outward in different directions. Each switchboard operator would have a book of the code phrases to begin a message to be sent to another switchboard. The Magic Mouths could be safeguarded to prevent accidental mid-route activation by making the message extremely quiet (so nobody knows the word used to activate) or high/low frequency (so nobody can make the sound with their voices). How long does it take a Magic Mouth to sense its activation condition and speak to trigger the next one? If, for example, it's 1 segment (and it certainly shouldn't be any longer!) that's a movement rate for the message of say 250' per round without breaks for rest. An also-reasonable 1-second activation would result in MV of 17 MPH. Saying it's instantaneous would give you some cheatsy 3E-style "Supreme Cleave across the world because there's a conga line of kobolds" action - and make it possible to create a Magic Mouth Internet if you liked with a B&W monitor made out of tiny Magic Mouth pixels.

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    1. Keep in mind that the spell ends when the message is given, so this would only be usable once. Also, a bit of honeycomb is not free, so the cost is going to be high for a large number of Mouths. It's not "official", but the material component rules in Dragon #81 gives the cost as 1sp (arguably less, but the implication in the article is that the costs given are to provide enough for one spell casting unless otherwise noted). That adds up.

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    2. That's pretty nifty (acknowledging the one-use nature of it).

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  10. I was actually thinking more along the lines of Permanency, but forgot about the casting cost of that one. Creating a Greyhawk Internet takes a lot of work!

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  11. I've always liked this spell and had a higher level variant called Magic Eye that allowed the caster to see what triggered it. I've heard of another variant, called Mellix's Fire Mouth available at http://www.thievesguild.cc/spells/magic-spell?Number=926 but I'm not sure of its original source. Has anyone seen any others?

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  12. Ooh, I found one called Mourdlane's Acidic Mouth at http://mrlizard.com/rules-and-variants/a-spell-for-all-time-acidic-mouth/

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    1. I like those variant spells, thanks for the links!

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