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
caster

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

(Conjuration/Summoning)
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:

Cantrip
(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.

Prestidigitation

Universal
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.


Conclusions

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
(Abjuration)
Reversible

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
Abjuration
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
Transmutation
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).


Conclusions

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?