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?


  1. Creative use of prestidigitation happened in a 3e game I was playing. We were playing Monte Cook's Meat Grind—er, Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil, and the party was in a fight against a wizard who summoned a fiendish dire ape. We were now mostly dead, and our sorcerer was trying to save his own ass. He cast prestidigitation on himself to make his eyes glow red to let him Intimidate the dire ape. Which worked … for one round. TPK done in two rounds thereafter.

  2. "The spell creates a farce which is not strong, but which obeys the command of the magic-user."
    Not sure if that is your typo or ad&d typo, but I am loving the mental picture of a bumbling Clouseau-esqe invisible butler

    1. Good catch; that was an artifact of the very cruddy OER in an early digital version of the 1E PHB.

  3. On topic: I like having some spells sprinkled in for world building. They also tend to lead towards creative play (especially at low level).
    I think it works best as a single or handful of spells that can incorporate a number of effects. I always felt things like dancing lights, ghost sound, and the like could just be folded in as well.

  4. I've always thought of Unseen Servant as a sort of limited telekinesis and as such super useful in a dungeon where there are lots of reasons to want to do minor tasks at a distance. It's one of the first M-U spells I would take.

  5. I like the idea of cantrips a lot for thematic and color reasons, but thought their implementation in UA was just bad. 2e got it a little more right, but almost no M-U would burn a 1st level slot for the cantrip spell.

    I like the idea of making them 0-level, tho I never played 3e myself.

    My own house rules for cantrips allowed M-Us to free cast them, but they were very limited in effect, even more so than those in UA. They still were almost never used by my group, so I dropped them.

    So...great idea, but not one many people really wanted, as you seem to conclude in your article.

    1. That's interesting experimental data, that even as free castings players still didn't use them.

  6. Unseen Servant is a very powerful spell. Is a magic portrait attacking you? Duck back and have your Unseen Servant cover it with a cloak. You can foil traps for seven turns at first level.

  7. Yeah, Eric has wrecked my games with the Unseen Servant spell. =P

    Just a few potential uses off the top of my head:
    -Suicide bomber, carrying an explosive device to a place / carrying fire over to a pool of oil.
    -Activating traps the party is worried about, by pushing on pressure plates or tripwires.
    -Activating traps the party wishes to harm their foes with.

    That being said, I suspect you're right that none of this was Gygax' intention for the spell.

  8. After almost dying to a green slime back in first edition our Wizard cast unseen servant to hold a torch up to all the green slimes we saw on the roof. It was a good no-risk way to make that area safe.

  9. I've used unseen servant a lot. In 3E, I usually enchant a Wondrous Item with it for unlimited use as soon as possible. As an earlier comment noted, it's effectively a low level TK spell, which is very handy - useful for retrieving items in inconvenient locations or just picking up questionable objects. Even in earlier editions, I would usually try to keep a scroll of unseen servant on hand, just in case.

    In 1st edition, I usually made cantrips free to use, and they were often used in roleplaying contexts, though rarely in adventuring per se. In 3E, I made cantrip type effects a function of the Spellcraft skill, with the proviso that the character must be able to cast 0 level spells. That way, a wizard can blow smoke sculptures with his pipe all he wants.

  10. I struggle to understand and in turn present the role of cantrips to new players, mainly because I started playing with 13th Age and 5e, but have done similar research into why design decisions were made or at the least the history of design decisions.

    5e has at least a few cantrips as at-will damaging spells which scale with level... It significantly decreases the fantasy of a fighter or any character who uses weaponry when a mage has the same damage die, and I generally dislike this choice.

    When I bring up that I prefer cantrips to be an indicator of minor magicks, those used around the household or used to prank enemies creatively, there is a lot of pushback from folks who (like me) were weaned on 4E and 5E.

    "I don't want to use a weapon if I'm a mage! I don't want to feel useless if I blow all my spells! Why would nerfing mages make fighters better?"

    It's frustrating, because of course if we had all played through earlier editions I could easily say that this perspective was spoiled. However, when starting from 5e, there is a sense that this would be "taking away" rather than a return to a different standard.

    I don't know.

    I see the argument, of course, for always "living the fantasy" of a mage by blasting away, and increasingly the mages of literature all have the equivalent of "at-will combat powers" but I confess I personally do prefer the shrewd apprentice, carefully using his spells to end combat, but otherwise relegated to crossbow duty.

    Do you have any insights about more powerful, damaging cantrips? Any thoughts on skillfully communicating that weaker cantrips have their own interesting downstream effects, and aren't just some terrible terrible thing?

    1. That's a really interesting perspective in 4E/5E play style psychology; thanks for sharing that. I must admit when 3E came out and cantrips were a core part of the game, including some damaging spells, I found that to be pretty weird. As long as it was only 1d3 damage (ray of frost) and still limited per day I wasn't outraged. The 4E trope of at-will powers for everyone seems totally insane to me. (Aggravating to hear that pop literature has more always-on damage casters.)

      Admittedly my OD&D-style games just don't have any cantrips in them at all. I suppose the start of a response is: If you don't like limitations on the PCs, don't run low-level D&D. (E.g., I usually run tournament-style stuff where PCs are mid- to high-levels.)

  11. I've removed the damage-causing 5e cantrips - they alter the nature of the world too much for my tastes.

    Having said that, Tenser's Floating Disk is a commonly used spell, allowing them to carry more treasure and has been used to haul a severely wounded ally. Because of the limited duration, it eats up spell slots along the way. They have also used it to get across a swamp without getting wet - at least everybody except the wizard.

    For actual cantrips, characters are expected to maintain their equipment, weapons and armor when they make camp. Mending makes this process much easier and faster (even if we're not actually tracking it), and avoids the issue of actually damaged equipment if they don't maintain it. Mending is not powerful enough to fix damaged or broken equipment.

    Candle is a cantrip that the wizards use constantly, for reading purposes. Mage Hands is also a staple - one character had a penchant for removing the arrows out of an opponent's quivery with that one.

    Note that many spells that are cantrips in 5e were 1st level in earlier editions. But I've added in all of the cantrips from 1e as well. They provide flavor and explain in part how they served their master during their apprentice, and occasionally come up for use during play.

    For damaging cantrips themselves - I don't inherently have an issue with the amount of damage, or for them having a useful attack on a regular basis. My issue is solely with the idea that so many people are now capable of casting such magic. So from a game balance standpoint? No problem. World-building? They're out. Also, the "weaker" cantrips have more value when you eliminate the damage-causing ones, since they are the only spells they can use at will.

    Oh, and I don't really care if I'm taking away. All of my rules changes are to bring 5e in line with my campaign world of 20ish years or so. Our game is based around the world, not the rule set.

    But I get it. The game has shifted dramatically from AD&D days. The DM is no longer in charge. What? You won't allow Dragonborn? Or Tieflings? No damage-causing cantrips? Everything is geared toward player enablement.

    Obviously, you all want to have fun. I think the best approach as a DM is to tell them that in your world things are a bit different. You realize they've played a certain way in other campaigns, but you want to try something different. Overall I think that if you have a world-building reasoning behind it - magic is rarer, not as easy to master, etc., then you have something to back it up with beyond "I as a DM don't like damage-causing cantrips." It's also going to depend on your particular group of players.

    5e is designed to be very player friendly, allow them to do just about anything, and advance very quickly. I also find that it's well designed overall, with a few key mechanics that make it very easy to learn, run, and tweak. I'd say my preferred game for feel is AD&D, but for rules 5e. So I tweak the heck out of 5e.

    In my campaigns, level advancement is very slow. Magic items are fairly common, though, and providing magic items that are useful only to the spell casters is one approach. The easiest to use is wands, but use the optional rule that gives a fixed number of charges. No recharging. So if you give them a wand of fireballs with 8 charges, and later determine it was too much, you only have to wait through 8 charges to be rid of it.

    More importantly, make sure that the magic items are used against the PCs before they recover them. Any intelligent creature will make use of their magic items.

    You could even grant the wizard one or two minor magic items to start. Potions, scrolls and wands all fit this description for me.