B/X spells don’t disrupt adventuring?

One often lamented thing about D&D is that many potential adventure situations can’t really be done because there’s a simple single spell that can solve the whole problem. And with 3rd Edition this is definitely the case. Continual Flame? Detect lies? Zone of truth? Teleport without error? What the hell were they thinking?! Any time you have an idea for a spell because “wouldn’t it be neat if you could do that?”, you really have to stop and think how this would affect the obstacle it deals with in the long term. Teleport without errormeans the party will never have to prepare for the return trip out of the dungeon or back to civilization. Any time they face real difficulties they can instantly go to a city or castle of their choice with a single spell. Are you looking for a traitor? Get all the suspects together and have them say “I am not a traitor” after the cleric rested and prepared detect lies. This is such a problem that seemingly every second high level dungeon has magical interference that blocks teleportation and every villain wears an amulet of mind shielding. It’s a ridiculous situation and probably contributed a good deal to 3rd Edition and Pathfinder adventures being overwhelmingly linear combat. And to make matters worse, these games let you very easily make scrolls of all spells you know and even wands with 50 charages. One knock spell isn’t a disaster. A wand that holds 50 knock spells is an entirely different story, though.

So this week I went through the spells in the Basic and Expert sets again to see at which character levels certain kinds of obstacles become easily negated with spells. And to my surprise, B/X is actually doing really well in this regard. There are a few spells that are really extremely useful but they are few in number and even those are not making obstacles completely redundant.

Read Languages

With this spell a 1st level wizard can read any unknown script and language. While it says “any code”, I assume this to mean that it can decode any cipher but still will give you only a literal decryption but not tell you the meaning of secret code words and phrases. While you can read any written texts it doesn’t give you the ability to write in languages unknow to you so you can’t use it to communicate across language barriers. Two wizards who both have the spell prepared could do it if they can make their intention to do so clear, but even then it lasts only for 20 minutes.

Detect Evil

This spell lets a 1st level cleric sense “evil intentions, or evilly enchanted objects”. Since there is no evil alignment in Basic it can not detect that. The spell only provides a feeling of evil but no specific thoughts and it’s explicitly stated that GM has to interprete what evil intentions means in the specific campaign. This spell is not “find the guilty one”.

Continual Light

This spell allows you to make a torch that lasts until dispelled. Or lost or stolen. I’m not really happy with parties not really having to bother with lamps or torches (or only keeping some as emergency backups) from 3rd level on if a wizard gets this spell but it’s not a real disruption of actual major obstacles.

ESP

Hearing the thoughts of another person can be extremely powerful for a 2nd level spell butt to pick out the thoughts of a specific person in even a small group of people requires a charging time of 20 minutes before you get to hear anything. And then you still have to get the target to think about a topic you are interested in. This can be used to interrogate prisoners but it’s very difficult to check out someones thoughts secretly. While the spell is very low level it probably requires some pretty elaborate planning to get really useful information with it. And that’s fine with me. It’s a tool but the players still have to do the main work to get results.

Knock

This spell opens one looked door or chest. However the key word here is “one”. The party is probably going to encounter a lot of locks during adventures and unlike in a videogame, a properly build dungeon can have multiple places where it’s fine if the players can’t get past some doors. Knock is nice to have but there just aren’t enough spell slots to prepare it five or six times for every day of exploration. I am not quite pleased with the spell also opening “barred and otherwise blocked or stuck doors”, as this would be a nice way to make doors unknockable without magic handwaving but if you really want players to go looking for the unlocking mechanism just put several unpickable locked doors right after another. Even in a world without knock spells sensitive places are often secured with multiple doors. And in a D&D world it would be just foolish not to do so.

Levitate

This spell allows a wizard to float up and down with a pretty long duration so it’s really pretty good, and that as just a second level spell. But it only works on the wizard. He could easily levitate up to a locked window but he wouldn’t be able to pick the lock like a thief and not be able to break it by force without a solid stance. He also needs something to drag himself sideways so he can’t just levitate across a river or moat. Flying up a wall and letting down a rope for the rest of the party to climb up would be easy to do, but as with ESP it still requires some ingenious work by the players to get around most obstacles with it.

Locate Object

In theory this spell can show you the direction to any object you can imagine, such as for example a key or a lever. But the spell will point only to the next object that matches your description. If you don’t know exactly what the key to a door looks like it will simply point you towards the key closest to you. The potential for false positives is huge and it only shows directions, not a path that would lead you to it. It can be a useful spell of you’re looking for gold, gems, potions, or even just firewood and you’ll be happy with whatever item of that type you find. It can also be used as a short distance tracking device if you know a specific object that a person is carrying or which is inside a chest. But the potential to negate obstacles is pretty low and requires clever thinking by the players.

Find Traps

This spell lets a 4th level cleric know that traps are present. It doesn’t let him tell what the trap is or anything do about it. And it only lasts for 20 minutes, which isn’t much when exploring dungeons. If the cleric has a really bad feeling about this and the party hesitates to enter a corridor or touch a pedestal this spell can confirm whether there is danger or not. But that’s pretty much it. If the thief wants to risk fiddling with it is a different story altogether.

Know Alignment

With this spell a cleric knows if any one creature is lawful, neutral, or chaotic. Whatever use this information might be. A group of lawful heroe meeting a stranger in a dungeon might be hesitant to invite him into the party if he’s chaotic, but that’s about it. Again, this is not “detect villain”.

Clairvoyance

In this version the spell lets you see through the eyes of one creature within 60 feet that is not separated from you by more than 2 feet of stone. This is a completely different story from being able to see any place within about 500 feet as it does in 3rd Edition. A handy spell to peak into a monster lair without walking straight in, but nothing more than that.

Fly

This spell allows any creature to fly for an hour or more. This is a very powerful ability to get at 5th level and a huge step above levitate. With this spell you can send a fighter or thief ahead to fly over walls, chasms, or into windows and throw a rope or open a door from the other side to help the others over an obstacle. And unlike a levitating wizard they are more capable of working on their own for a short while. I think this is pretty big and probably the most disruptive spell in the game when it comes to puzzle obstacles. Heights and chasms are no longer an issue if you can have party members flying.

Water Breathing

With this spell you can have one character breath in air and water for a full day. This allows said character to freely move through flooded passages and rooms. This allows access to new areas but unlike fly you can’t remove the obstacle with just a rope. As a 3rd level spell it’s just impractical to cast it at each member of a six people party and flooded dungeon sections can be pretty big. It’s a great tool for adventuring but the players will have to find a more proper solution to make underwater sections accessible to the whole party.

Create Water

This spell allows a 6th level cleric to create enough water for a small to mid-sized party. It takes care of water problems in desert adventures but as a 4th level spell that’s not too bad. In 3rd Edition this is a level 0 spell, making water shortage effectively nonexistent in that game.

Commune

A 7th level cleric can use this spell to get three simple yes or no answers from higher powers but unlike other spells this one can be cast only once per week, regardless of how many times it is prepared. Three questions per week is not much to solve a decent mystery and all questions have to be asked within half an hour after casting. (The description doesn’t say so but with a duration of 3 turns I find it compelling to have the cleric spend a full turn meditating to ask each question.) Again, this is a useful tool to get confirmation on critical assumptions but it doesn’t solve a problem for the players by itself.

Create Food

This spell takes care of food for a not overly large party. However, this only works for as long as the cleric is alive, so the group probably better still carry some supplies with them. Also, this is a 5th level spell, like to ability to bring people back from the dead. In 3rd Edition this is only a 3rd level spell.

Raise Dead

Like in other edition, this spell can bring people back to life only within a relatively short span of days after death. But in the case of B/X this is the only spell that can restore people to life and there isn’t any more powerful version that can ignore this limit. If someone dies while any friendly clerics of 7th level and higher are out of town, this is probably going to be it. No simple resurrection of the king after each assassination. Effectively assassination targets might stay in critical condition for about a week before they fully dead but it’s pretty easy for GMs to have dead NPCs actually stay dead. Also interesting is the little detail that raised characters are effectively completely crippled for a week after resurrection and unable to really contribute anything before they are recovered.

Dimension Door

This is a short range teleportation spell that allows a 7th level wizard to jump to any place within 360 feet. This can be used to get to the other side of a door or wall but then the wizard is all alone. If he can’t get the door open from the other side he’s stuck unless he has the spell prepared a second time. You can also use it to teleport back to the surface from a dungeon but unless you know exactly the hight of the ground above you you’ll be dropping from a potentially lethal height. It’s not really much more powerful than

fly

as a tool to get the party past obstacles.

Polymorph Self

While turning into all kinds of creatures is fun, it doesn’t really give you any new abilities you couldn’t already get with fly, water breathing, and dimension door.

Wizard Eye

This is basically a little invisible camera drone you can send ahead to scout instead of a thief. Cool toy and better than clairvoyance but really harmless.

Contact other Plane

This spell is very much like commune but worse in every way. The chance to get the right answer is low and the risk of going insane and being out of the game for several weeks is pretty high. And it becomes availabl only at level 9.

Passwall

Drills a 10 feet deep hole into rock. Doesn’t work on other walls and might not even be deep enough to reach a space on the other side. And as with knock you can simply make critical locations safer by putting them behind several walls. For a 9th level party this isn’t really that great an ability and fine to have. You just have to build your dungeons with the existence of this spell in mind.

Teleport

Teleporting yo any place you can think of sounds great, but with this spell it’s really dangerous. If you try to teleport through a door or wall into a room you are very sure must be there,there’s a 25% chance to appear too high and suffer 1 to 60 damage, which can easily be deadly to most characters. There’s also another 25% chance to appear too low and simply die instantly. Even if you try to teleport to a place you know as well as your home, there’s still a 5% chance of a fatal accident. Every time you use it. And it works only on a single creature. If you have gotten your wizard all the way up to 9th level, would you risk a 50% chance of death just to get around a single inconvenient obstacle? Or a 5% chance of death just to not have to walk back home? This seems much more like a spell of last resort in situations od life and death when the rest of the party is already dead and no way out.

In 3rd editon you can bring your friends as well, the risk of a mishap is only 3%, and any damage probably only 1d10 or 2d10 at most. Completely different story.

Disintegrate

This spell is the BFS of B/X. It annihilates any non-magical creature or object. It can blast through any material but won’t make a bigger hole than passwall. But this is for 11th level parties, so it’s not too bad and by this point you’re probably allowed to have the occasional enchanted vault without the players calling it bullshit.

Reincarnate

Actually there is a spell that can get people back from the dead without a time limit. For a certain definition of “people”. You’re probably not coming back as what you were before and there’s high chances it won’t even be humanoid. What would happen if you try to bring back a noblewoman and she appears as a blink dog or a baboon? It might be fun with dead PCs but not practical to use on murdered NPCs. Oddly, there’s nothing really stopping you from just killing them and trying again every day unti they come back as their original race and class. A very odd spell that probably wasn’t really thought through in the context of social adventures. But since it becomes available at 11th level it probably isn’t going to come up much anyway.

So the only spell I find to be somewhat problematic is really just fly. It allows one character to fly across a chasm or up a wall with a rope for the rest of the party to follow, which I really think could have been a 4th or even 5th level spell. It’s not too bad though and overall the spells in B/X are really just tools to assist with dealing with obstacles and don’t simply remove them for the players.

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