Monday, August 31, 2020

Spells Through the Ages: Massmorph

Do you remember  the D&D spell, massmorph? Quite possibly not. A rather unique spell that I think highlights a few interesting aspects of the legacy D&D spell system. Let's recall:

Original D&D

Massmorph: This spell is used to conceal up to 100 men (or creatures of near man size) as a woods or orchards. The concealed figures may be moved through without being detected as anything other than trees, and it will not effect the spell. It will be negated by a command for the caster or by means of a Dispell Magic spell. Range: 24".

The massmorph spell first appears in OD&D, Vol-1 (1974), as a 4th-level magic-user spell. The effect is to transform a large body of men into trees, serving to disguise them, until such time as the caster switches the effect off. 

Here's part of why I think the spell is interesting. First, the effect is clearly meant to be used in the outdoors setting; having men appear as woods or an orchard would not serve as any kind of camouflage underground. Second, the range of 24" is the longest given in the game, likewise suggesting its expected use is wilderness-based. Third, it somewhat unusually specifies the exact number of men affected; 100, a large body indeed. On the other hand, no area of effect is otherwise specified.

So in total, this spell seems to cry out for use in the mass-combat setting. It really can't be used in any other way. And yet: the spell was not included in the Chainmail Fantasy wizard list, of any edition, even after that work was updated in 1975 to port in a number of new spells from OD&D (e.g., haste, slow, polymorph, confusion, hallucinatory terrain, etc.)

Now, consider also the OD&D Swords & Spells supplement which gave a more systematic way of incorporating fantasy figures into mass-combat situations. This work included a table for all the spells in the D&D game to that point, often filling in range, area, and duration where none existed before. Many of us look to Swords & Spells as an overall update/clarification to D&D combat, spells, and turn order rules. For massmorph this work shows:

That is: it adds an area specifier of a 4" diameter circle; for example, the exact same area as a fireball. Let's compare that area to the standard 2×5 stand of 10 figures (representing 100 total men), base size 3/4" per figure, as given in Swords & Spells:

Notice that area is pretty much exactly the right size to encompass 100 actual men at the standard scale and base size for Swords & Spells. I don't think that's an accident; it seems likely that the area addition in that work was chosen looking at a group of miniatures on the table at this same scale. 


D&D B/X Rules


Range: 240'
Duration: special

This spell will make up to 100 human or man-sized creatures in a 240' diameter circle appear as the trees of an orchard or dense woods. The illusion will even hide those it is cast on from creatures moving through the area of illusion. The spell lasts until a dispel magic is cast on it or the caster wills it away. The appearance of each disguised creature will return to normal when it moves away from the area where the spell was cast.

The spell appears in the Cook Expert D&D rules at the same level and effect. Note that it specifies a 240' diameter circle as its area (for the same count of 100 men). If we convert the area seen in Swords & Spells above, according to that work's 1" = 30 feet scale, we would only get 4" × 30 feet/inch = 120 feet. So for some reason the area has been doubled. Perhaps a simple mistake, or to synchronize with the given range?

AD&D 1st Edition

Massmorph  (Illusion/Phantasm)
Level:  4
Range: 1”/level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 11’ × 1” square/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 turn
Saving Throw: None

Explanation/Description: When this spell is cast upon willing creatures of man-size or smaller, up to 10 such creatures per level of experience of the magic-user can be made to appear as normal trees of any sort. Thus, a company of creatures can be made to appear as a copse, grove, or orchard. Furthermore, these massmorphed creatures can be passed through - and even touched - by other creatures without revealing the illusion. Note, however, that blows to the creature-trees will reveal their nature, as damage will be sustained by the creatures struck and blood will be seen. Creatures massmorphed must be within the spell‘s area of effect. Unwilling creatures are not affected. The spell persists until the caster commands it to cease or until a dispel magic is cast upon the creatures. The material component of this spell is a handful of bark chips. 

In AD&D, the spell is largely the same, except the effects are made caster-level-dependent. The canonical 12th-level wizard would affect 120 men, with a shortened range of 12", and a significantly expanded area of a 12"×12" space (we assume that the /11'/ above is a typo meant to be /1"/). Illusionists also get the spell at the same level. 

AD&D 2nd Edition

Range: 10 yds./level
Duration: Special
Area of Effect: 10 ft. cube/level
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 4
Saving Throw: None

When this spell is cast upon willing creatures of man-size or smaller, up to 10 such creatures per level of the caster can be magically altered to appear as trees of any sort. Thus, a company of creatures can be made to appear as a copse, grove, or orchard. Furthermore, these massmorphed creatures can be passed through and even touched by other creatures without revealing their true nature. Note, however, that blows to the creature-trees cause damage, and blood can be seen.

Creatures to be massmorphed must be within the spell's area of effect; unwilling creatures are not affected. Affected creatures remain unmoving but aware, subject to normal sleep requirements, and able to see, hear, and feel for as long as the spell is in effect. The spell persists until the caster commands it to cease or until a dispel magic spell is cast upon the creatures. Creatures left in this state for extended  periods are subject to insects, weather, disease, fire, and other natural hazards.

The material component of this spell is a handful of bark chips from the type of tree the creatures are to become.

Largely the same spell for 2E. We note that the range and area specifiers have switched from scale inches to yards and feet. The 12th-level wizard would now cast the spell with a range of 120 yards (360 feet), and an area of a 120-foot cube. Note that in Swords & Spells scale this would convert to an area 4" across on the tabletop. 


D&D 3rd-5th Edition

The massmorph spell does not exist in the core rules of any later edition of the game. 


My points (and I do think I have some) are these: First, there are a number of classic D&D high-level spells which seem tailor-made for use in the outdoors, large-scale-combat, situation, that strangely don't appear in even the later editions Chainmail Fantasy. Massmorph is probably the best example but others include: growth of plants, transmute rock to mud, lower water, part water, control weather, etc. May we assume these were used in mass-combat games, but there was insufficient space to include them in Chainmail Fantasy? Or is it additional evidence that Chainmail Fantasy was not at mass scale?

Second, as the graduate-level D&D play of domains, castle, and mass-combat was squeezed out of the game, many of these spells became either problematic or nonsensical, and were either greatly changed, or dropped from the game entirely. By 3E, massmorph was gone, and so was part water (lower water turned into control water). While these spells might be very nifty indeed in a wargame (say: hiding a whole unit of troops, wiping out a barrier body of water, etc.), in the basic RPG play there was little or no use for them, especially for top-level spell slots.

Third, the famous adjustment by Gygax that inch scales should be converted to ten-yards for outdoor ranges, but only ten-feet for outdoor areas (maintained throughout both AD&D and the B/X line), totally fails for this spell. The OD&D area was in fact designed in the context of the mass-combat game, where 1" = 10 yards for all purposes. All of the spell areas in Swords & Spells are given in the full OD&D inches, and not shrunk for the yards-scale of that game (not surprising; S&S was written before Gygax's epiphany on how broken the scale system was). If we took the 4" diameter area, and shrunk it as per the ten-feet conversion (1/3), we'd only get a 1⅓" diameter circle, which could not encompass the 100 men specified (you wouldn't even get 4 full figures in that shrunken area).

Likewise, most of the other high-level, large-area, outdoor-specialized spells that at first blush would seem perfect for wargame usage are likewise broken if we use the standard inches-to-feet specification that Gygax screams at us in all-caps in the 1E PHB. Another indication of a legacy game form that had become vestigial and untested, sure. What to do about those, or the whole connected system of spell scales as a result? How can we interpret massmorph affecting 100 men, without, say, fireball (with the exact same area) blowing up 100 men at a time?


  1. This is one of those spells that never saw any use in my games - not even when we had campaigns that featured a lot of mass combat with Battlesystem. I've only ever read the spell - never seen it cast. It's weirdly niche even for mass combat use.

  2. It's really the sort of spell an NPC caster would use to hide troops around their evil fortress. The PCs think they're sneaking through the woods undetected, when suddenly they're surrounded by 100 men-at-arms or orcs or whatever.

    1. Good point. A little like _magic jar_. (Which I actually saw used by a PC for the first time ever Friday night.)

  3. Honestly, I think the solution for the fireball issue is to just not give it a radius in mass combat - take a cue from the original Chainmail rules calling it a "missile" and treat it like missile fire. If you want to work in a pseudo-radius, base the damage on the size of the figures being attacked: kill a single figure of 1" width or larger, or 2 figures with 5/8" or 3/4" width bases. Possibly allowing for a third kill on the small-based types if they're arrayed in a "rectangular" type formation as opposed to a single-thickness line or column.

    1. But, isn't a catapult missile either 2" or 3.5" in diameter in Chainmail? That's a lot more than a single figure, and what the area of a fireball is based on.

    2. I'm taking into account Chainmail's scale problem. We have plenty of word-of-mouth evidence from Mike Mornard, et al. that siege rules were only used in 1:1 scale, in which case 3.5" is only 35 feet. Since Book of War is explicitly at mass scale and doesn't attempt to cover man-to-man, however, BOW scale is defined in yards. So those 35 feet are only 1.2" in BOW scale - which is only two 5/8" bases side by side, and for 1" bases I rounded down to a single figure because I didn't think the tiny amount of "clipping" of an adjacent figure base was worthy of scoring an extra kill. I suppose you could use the Warhammer rule where, if less than half of a figure's base is covered by a template then you roll a die and on a 4+ that figure is hit and on a 3 or less it's a miss, but since Delta doesn't specify that anywhere in BOW I didn't think I should go adding an entire rule of my own devising.

    3. Okay, I think I followed that, thanks for the clarification -- and you're right, the kills-one-figure in BOW is in fact a result of the conversion you're talking about.

      Another radical tack that Gygax does in Swords & Spells is to say that _fireball_ and like spells do a fixed total amount of damage: level x 3.5 x 5, spread out among all the people it hits. Kind of radical, but addresses the same issue.

  4. It does feel like a more expensive niche version of Phantasmal Force.
    I can see cases where legit being trees would be more advantageous than just an illusion of trees covering your troops.
    But then you are also competing against Hallucinatory Terrain or wiz bang spells like Wall of Fire or Ice Storm.