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 of 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, castles, 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-yard-units for outdoor ranges, but only ten-foot-units 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. It's another indication of a legacy game form that had become vestigial and untested, sure. But: What to do about that now, and the also rest of the inter-connected system of spell scales? How can we interpret massmorph affecting 100 men, without, say, fireball (with the exact same area) blowing up 100 men at a time?


The Roots of Horror

H.P. Lovecraft
In the 1E AD&D DMG, Appendix N, Gygax identifies six authors as "the most immediate influences upon AD&D". Here I've ordered them in chronological order as per the "Period" listed for each on Wikipedia:

  • H.P. Lovecraft (1917-1937)
  • A. Merritt (1917-1943)
  • Robert E. Howard (1924-1936)
  • Fritz Leiber (1934-1992)
  • L. Sprague de Camp (1937-1996)
  • Jack Vance (1950-2009)

This past week we observed what would have been H.P. Lovecraft's 130th birthday. Lovecraft is, of course, now considered highly problematic for racial themes; it's common in some circles to consider him something close to taboo or beneath contempt. Simultaneously, however, we've seen this week the premiere of the highly-celebrated Lovecraft Country series on HBO, executive produced by Jordan Peele. Here I'll make a brief, amateur argument that Lovecraft is ultimately the closest thing we have to a root of the pulp tradition from which D&D grew.

Lovecraft is the earliest writer on the Appendix N list of "most immediate influences", with the exception of A. Merritt, with whom he had a contemporaneous start. Moreover, Lovecraft has clear documented, personal connections to almost all the other writers on this Core list (there is one exception, I think). Lovecraft and Merritt were mutually appreciative of each others' work, and met in New York City in 1934, upon which Lovecraft wrote in a letter:

It seems he had long known my work and held a very kindly opinion of it.  Hearing of my presence in NY he took steps to get in touch with me, and finally invited me to dinner at his club... I was extremely glad to meet Merritt in person, for I have admired his work for 15 years... he has a peculiar power of working up an atmosphere and investing a region with an aura of unholy dread.

The Skulls in Stars blog has a great article looking at Merritt's 1932 novel, Dwellers in the Mirage, whose cover featured a giant tentacled monster, the “terrible octopus-god Khalk’ru”, pretty obviously an homage to Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and commenting on similar cosmic phenomena, as well as the correspondence letter above. (Bonus: The "Mirage" in the story's title is a key part of the plot, and given that the Skulls and Stars author is a professor of physics and optics, he's well-positioned to write intelligently and clearly on that aspect.)

Almost all of the other Appendix N Core were in or connected in some way to the "Lovecraft Circle". Robert E. Howard wrote a letter to Weird Tales in 1930 praising Lovecraft's works; when the editor passed the letter on to Lovecraft himself, the two "engaged in a vigorous correspondence that would last for the rest of Howard's life". (Wikipedia).

Likewise, in 1936 Fritz Leiber "initiated a brief yet intense correspondence with H.P. Lovecraft, who 'encouraged and influenced [Leiber's] literary development'", which was only ended by Lovecraft's own death. Many of Leiber's stories in the first two decades of his career were connected to the Cthulhu Mythos, and much later he wrote several essays on Lovecraft in Fafhrd and Me. (Wikipedia)

L. Sprague de Camp is somewhat ambiguously in my list above, because in the Appendix N Core listing he appears as, "de Camp & Pratt", which connects further up on the page specifically to the Harold Shea series. This is now known as the "Compleat Enchanter" series, written by the pair of authors from 1940-1954. (And de Camp returned with some additional stories in the 1990's.) de Camp also famously wrote two full-length biographies of his forerunners: these being of Lovecraft and Howard. (Wikipedia)

Finally, we come to Jack Vance, who we all know to to be an essential contributor to the classic D&D thematic system. One thing I'll say in looking up dates here is that Vance did a masterful job of disguising how relatively recent and young of a writer he was; before I looked these dates up, I might have guessed he could have been the earliest one in the list. But instead, he was the only one still writing into the 2000's, and in fact was still active when I started this blog. (!) He's also the only member of the Core list of whom I couldn't find any direct connection to Lovecraft. (If you know of such, please post a comment.) (Wikipedia)

Obviously all the writers on the Appendix N Core list above are giants in their own right, and I certainly don't mean to say that they were in shadow of H.P. Lovecraft or anything like that. But it seems interesting how regularly generous he seemed to be with his time and correspondence, encouraging and nurturing other writers in the pulp field at critical moments in their careers. (Side note: Lovecraft, Merritt, and Howard even cooperated on a single story together in 1935, The Challenge from Beyond.)

More than once I've observed that for my D&D games, "No matter what my intention is at the outset, they always turn into horror at the end". Perhaps this is a fairly simple fact that the hobby is mechanically an outgrowth of wargames, and from the perspective of any single person involved, war is indeed horrible. Or perhaps it's an undergrowth of Lovecraftian tendrils connecting and nourishing almost all of the most important pulp authors that Gygax had in mind when he wrote D&D and AD&D. Is D&D ultimately a horror game at its deepest root? If one wanted to completely remove the horribleness, would it be viable for long-term survival?


Arneson's Battle In The Skies

I was informed/reminded by folks on the ODD74 forums that a year ago at GaryCon, the Secrets of Blackmoor folks displayed and ran a game with Dave Arneson's original "Battle In The Skies" rules for D&D-style aerial combat (inspired by Mike Carr's "Fight in the Skies" WWI aerial game, which I played with Skip Williams et. al. at GaryCon the prior year). Some documentation on Reddit here.

This caught my attention, because for a few years I've been wrestling with the cut-down version in OD&D Vol-3 and not finding it inherently playable. Apparently Arneson's draft was 18 full-sized pages, but the Vol-3 version only has about 3½ digest-sized pages (including two illustrations). For some time I've wondered, "could this have ever been playtested?", and this seems to give evidence that the version seen in Vol-3 was likely not -- inasmuch as Gygax likely took major shears to it with the interest of fitting it in the book on a deadline. But maybe Arneson's really was? Maybe, that's not a given, either. (In my experience, he also commonly wrote what I call "aspirational rules", really more a thought-experiment than something run in play.)

Even though we only see some hand-notes and the top page of the typewritten rules there, even from that a whole lot of interesting stuff jumps out:

First, from the hand-notes, it seems that Arneson had a specific roster of possible maneuvers in mind (even if the exact details of those maneuvers are unclear), similar to the hyper-detailed Fight In The Skies. In contrast the Vol-3 version has (really murky) turns, climbs, dives, and then "Any other maneuvers are optional at the discretion of the campaign referee". 

Second, from the typewritten page, we have a very nice roster of aerial creatures that serves as something of a "Rosetta Stone" for Arnesonian creatures when we compare it to the OD&D Vol-2 monster list. In particular:

  • The "Point to KIA", is basically the OD&D hit points. If we convert the given range back to d6's (take the first number; or, divide the second number by 6), in most cases we get the OD&D hit dice, or maybe one pip off in some cases. 
  • But note some creatures that don't get full detail in OD&D: The "Small Insects" have 6 hit dice (same as a Griffon here)! And the "Large Insects" have 10 hit dice (same as a Balrog)! That is not remotely something I'd ever guess in all my years -- but it's on-brand for Arneson with his commonly insane size for basic animal stats (see also giant beetles and aquatic creatures in OD&D Sup-II). Also we get stats for the Tarn, mentioned in his First Fantasy Campaign, but missing from OD&D (either 12 or 14 hit dice, bigger than any OD&D book monster)
  • Note that the "to Hit" numbers are actually what we'd now identify as "Ascending Armor Class". (!) It looks like they've got to be target numbers on a d20 (clearly none of them are achievable in 2d6, say). If we take those numbers and subtract from 20, then in most cases we get the standard one-digit AC number seen in OD&D Vol-2 (compare to: Target 20).
  • Movement is both given in "sqs" (squares shown on the handwritten page) and feet per turn, which allows us to decode the scale he intended: 1 square = 50 feet. I feel that's important, because the scale was struck out of the rules in OD&D Vol-3 (also: naval rules), which causes a lot of problems (e.g., I think aerial & naval rules are at different scales), and something I've struggled to back-fill in the past. For some reason Gygax really resisted clearly specifying scale in a lot of places -- same as the Chainmail Man-to-Man rules, which to my thinking was the root of the greatest mischief in all of classic D&D. 
  • Note that the OD&D move rates in inches are all the movements in squares shown here, multiplied by 3. Hence one might want to say that one square/space here represent 3 D&D inches; this is likewise stated on AD&D DMG p. 53. (But is that then 15, 30, 50, or 90 feet?). 
  • The "Radius Turn" is, I'm guessing, mapping to maneuverability classes like we see in OD&D in AD&D texts. We see 6 classes here; OD&D has 7. It seems like maybe the classes here are basically reversed compared to OD&D/AD&D? E.g.: Dragons are in class "I" here, while in Vol-3 they're near the end of the list, with among the worst move rates; the Sprite is class "VI", while in OD&D they're in the first category, with the best turning rates (in AD&D, class "A"). 
  • Note that OD&D has two statistics per maneuver class; "number of turns per move", and "number of spaces between turns". Based on the phrasing of the "Radius Turn" column, might it be that only the latter statistics is specified? That might be something I'd prefer; on the other hand, Arneson is not really known to be minimalist in his rules-writing, so I wouldn't bet on it.
  • The "Special Characteristics" column seems to have mostly attack bonuses for frontal attacks (added "pips"). 

Third, we see some missile weapons at the bottom of the page. Again, their rate-of-fire basically matches that of Chainmail, and the ranges are about one-third the standard D&D ranges (e.g.: in Chainmail, OD&D Sup-I, etc.), including for the magical fireball and lightning bolts.  

Boy, I wish I had a full copy of these rules to playtest!


Pricing Potions

On the OD&D '74 forums, there was a very thoughtful post by user magremore asking/following up on how I'd priced potions in my OED house rules: I add potions of healing at cost 200, and potions of mithridate (neutralize poison) at 1000, to the standard equipment list. Recall that there are no clerics in my campaign, so without these available, PCs in my game have no access to healing or neutralizing poison while on an adventure.

Here's a recreation of my thought process on that; the data I was trying to triangulate included the following:
  • OD&D Vol-1 says "costs", not entirely clear whether that's production or retail cost. Let's say it's production.

  • OD&D Vol-1 lists the potion of healing as 250 gp for a magic-user (and 1 week).

  • OD&D Vol-3, under Specialists, says an alchemist can "make a similar potion at a cost of one-half the potion's value" (p. 22).

  • The AD&D DMG is more explicit, giving a distinction between manufacture costs (equal to XP value; p. 116) and sales value. Manufacture times are generally reduced there; for potions, it's one day per hundred XP value. E.g., a potion of healing is 200 gp to manufacture, takes 2 days, and has a sale value of 400 gp.

  • In AD&D, a magic-user requires alchemist assistance to make potions at levels 7-10; at level 11+ it's not required, but (again) reduces price and time by half (p. 116).

  • Also, I'm trying to game-balance the thing in terms of my campaign.

So my thinking was that (assuming they're generally for sale at all) potions of healing are the most common potion or magic item available. If you're going to make them, you'll make them in batches and as close to mass-produced as you can get. They're pretty widely available as a formula known to alchemists (per the OD&D requirement). So you'll probably have an alchemist working on them to make it efficient.

In OD&D, arguably, that brings manufacture cost down to 125 gp; say double-markup to around 200 gp or so (note in OD&D: no magic-user required!). In AD&D, a high-level magic-user with an alchemist manufactures one for 100 gp; I assume the market price is likewise halved to 200 gp. For game-balance purposes, this puts it just tantalizingly out of reach of any starting PC (with 30-180 gp). If a whole party pools their resources, maybe they can get one. After the first adventure it's an obvious sink/investment for treasure (don't need to save up thousands to get one).

I do think that the OD&D times suggested are too high (e.g., a week for a single 1st-level spell seems generally not a good use of time for an MU), and that the AD&D reductions are well-considered. I have that reduction jotted in the margin of my Vol-1 book. So while I haven't included upkeep costs in the value (nor do they seem reflected in the AD&D market sales prices), that modification would certainly reduce the high opportunity cost a bunch.

For the potion of mithridate (neutralize poison), I was likewise eyeballing the elixir of health in the AD&D Unearthed Arcana, given sale value 2000 gp, and cutting that in half for presumed alchemist help. My players have these fairly useful; they usually carry a few potions each, and a single potion of mithridate for the party.

If you can access it, user magremore helpfully shared a 6-page essay with an alternative pricing theory, one that includes the value of the creator's term, in terms of standard upkeep costs. This comes out to much higher valuations, e.g., on the order of 1,500 or 5,000+ for the two potion types made by full-blown wizards. He also considers allowing them to be made by lower-level magic-users, which puts them on the order of about double my valuations. Thanks to him for the consideration of that!


Comments Completed

 I had a chance this week to go read the comments backlog I've been remiss on since March. If you asked a question at some point and were waiting on a response, you might want to go back and check at this point.

Also: More Book of War wargame testing live on the Wandering DMs channel tonight, 9 PM EDT.


Weather and Book of War 2E Units

You may have seen on the Saturday night Book of War wargame livestream that Isabelle & I have started playing with monster-types and variant weather rules (which is important for balancing light-sensitive monsters, missile troops, etc.) I've been grappling with balanced, easy-to-use weather rules for eons, trying to get something that works efficiently across (1) the wargame table, (2) D&D wilderness exploration, and (3) the 6th-level control weather spell.

Here's the current, very simple idea: just roll 1d6 each day.
  1. Clear
  2. Scattered
  3. Broken
  4. Overcast
  5. Light Rain
  6. Heavy Rain

On results on 1-2 you have "full daylight or bright light" sufficient to trigger goblin and orc weakness in the daytime. Results 3-4 have no special effect. The 5, Light Rain result has no effect in large-scale operations (wargame or long-distance travel), but applies −2 to missiles in the man-to-man context. The 6, Heavy Rain result gives 1/2 movement for all (doubled for mounted troops), −4 to missiles (converts to −1 in wargame scale), and all mounts and pikes lose special bonuses.

These might seem rather gentle for top-level weather penalties. In particular I've snipped out the "Stormy" category that I had in Book of War 1E. But this closely mirrors the possibilities in the Chainmail system, Dragon #68 (official Greyhawk weather), Battlesystem, etc. The distribution of rainy days is a pretty good match for historical data in Europe and the U.S. in the summer. In wilderness adventure situations, you basically just need to roll an extra 1d6 each day and look for the "6". And the effects seem basically game-balanced, and something for which we don't need to gimp control weather too badly (i.e., okay for it access any level on demand).

As an aside, I did some assessments of the unit matchups in the different weather conditions: the upshot is the a player opting to take goblins/orcs is taking a big gamble. In the 1-2 sunny state, they're pretty close to useless trash. In the 3-5 cloudy state, they're at the top of the heap; especially the archers and wolves. In the 6 rainy state, then it's the close-combat infantry types that have a big advantage; and meanwhile it's any mounted type that gets put in the effective garbage bin (including wolves). We'll see in further tests if that makes for acceptably interesting gameplay.

Here's the current list of all units being tested. Comments welcome!

Book of War 2E Units List - 200726