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.
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: infiniteI 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)
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.
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)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?).
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.
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 MouthI'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."
Range: 10 yds.
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.
D&D 3rd Edition
Magic MouthThat'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).
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.
ConclusionsMagic 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!