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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Unseen Servant

Roger of Roles, Rules and Rolls has been creating spell descriptions that fit on a single card, and his most recent post discusses Unseen Servant. I've always kind of liked the basic idea of the spell, but haven't said much about it, since it's AD&D, not OD&D. But it could be translated into OD&D...

The problem, as Roger sees it, is that players will always try to push the limits of what's supposed to be a very simple spell. I don't think anyone's expressed exactly why this is a problem, but I have a suggestion: it's because this behavior is simultaneously against the spirit of the spell and in the spirit of the game. In D&D, you're supposed to be clever, figuring out new ways to use simple tools. But you aren't supposed to do so by adding new capabilities to a tool. With mundane tools, it's easy to make a decision whether a tool could possibly be used in the way described. Throw flour in the air to help spot an invisible entity? OK, makes sense. Throw flour and water in the air simultaneously to make a gooey cloud? That doesn't sound like something that could happen.

With made-up stuff like spells, it gets harder to judge what a spell effect ought to be able to do, unless the effect is clearly described and related to something mundane. The Unseen Servant was meant to just be a simple way to perform menial labor without the caster needing to do the labor himself; it wasn't meant to step on the toes of any higher-level spell, like Invisible Stalker, Wizard Eye, or Telekinesis. But calling it an "unseen servant" or "invisible valet" suggests that it's an independent being, which makes players naturally wonder what that being's abilities are. Can it see? Can it communicate by knocking? How intelligent is it? Can it pick a lock? The spell description makes things worse by confusingly describing the effect as both a servant/valet and as a force, presumably an unintelligent one.

What I would do is describe the effect differently. Perhaps even give it a different name, like Phantom Limb, to help re-define the spell concept. The spell allows multiple, simple actions with a minimum of concentration, as if the caster had an extra invisible, mittened hand that can move independent of the caster's body. The hand is a concept, not an entity; it doesn't sense anything and can't think. The hand can perform actions on objects the caster can't currently see, if the objects are in range and in the same place and condition the caster left them. So, the phantom limb  can try to open a door around a corner, as long as the caster has seen the area around the corner before, but if the door is blocked, the caster would have no idea that the door was not successfully opened. The hand can't answer questions the caster doesn't already know the answers to, since it's just an extension of the caster -- so no scouting around corners, but it could be used to send a secret signal to an ally.


  1. It seems that a lot of magic should be concerned with ambiguous cases. Does an owlbear act like an owl or a bear or both? Anyway, I don't actually see the give and take this creates between player and DM as a problem. In fact, I welcome the opportunity for that kind of mutual creativity that playing the character of the servant gives. It emerges through an exchange rather than party-only puzzle work.

    But actually, a lot of negotiation with the DM over the physical world can also be murky. Should that bag of flour be usable to create a flour-air explosion? Here, too, the DM has to step in.

    I do like the idea of a spell that invisibly extends one of the caster's limbs - part Mr. Fantastic, part Invisible Girl.

  2. In general, I agree that give and take between player and GM isn't necessarily wrong. But I do think that a 1st level spell ought to be fairly limited in what it can do. Charm Person charms people. You could do a lot with that spell, by charming the *right* person and asking the right favor. But you wouldn't let someone use it to charm a statue of a person ("hey, it looks like a person!") and allow it to act like the equivalent of Animate Object. That's a higher-level spell.

    I think your idea of an actual summoned servant that could be negotiated with and used as a scout isn't too bad an idea... but it should be a higher-level spell, sort of an "Invisible Stalker Jr." spell that summons an invisible, mute, sprite-sized being to temporarily do chores in the immediate area of the caster. I'd probably make it a 3rd level spell, on the grounds that it's sort of a limited ESP and Knock combined with advanced Levitation, but not as good as Wizard Eye.

  3. I've always assumed that unseen servant really was a summoned creature with minimal intelligence, not just a force (otherwise it wouldn't be able to serve tea or clean the kitchen without the magic-user controlling it's every move). I don't think this makes the spell too powerful, actually.

    Also, I recently came across what I think is the original inspiration for the spell, in Three Hearts and Three Lions, where the mage in question complains about how the unseen servants aren't as good as the ones from his youth:

    A bottle and three dirty goblets floated in and landed on the table. 'About time,' grumbled the sorcerer. Adter a moment, when the invisible servant had presumably left, he went on, 'I declare, there is no decent help to be had these days. None. That sprite, now, he is quite impossible. Improbable, at least,' he qualified.

    Page 100. I know you prefer to stick to rules text and not literary precedent, but it's still a fun origin.

    1. "I know you prefer to stick to rules text and not literary precedent"

      Not at all. It depends on what I'm trying to do. See the goblin posts, for example. And yes, there are a couple literary sources with unseen servants that appear to be actual spirits, like in T. H. White's Sword in the Stone, where Merlin appears to argue with a spirit that fetches the wrong hat.

      But the AD&D spell emphatically states that it doesn't summon a creature, while using language that encourages people to think otherwise. I prefer shifting multi-purpose spells higher up in level, so I'd make Unseen Servant 3rd level and use Phantom Limb as a replacement 1st level spell that works closer to the original intent.

  4. There is a similar spell in GURPS Magic called Dancing Object. The spell animates an object and lets it perform repetitive tasks - the "same sort of tasks as a ST 15 man," it says. The spell can't be modified or set to respond to events, and it's made clear the object is enchanted, not some invisible man.

    Back in GURPS 1e-3e it was called Air Golem, and it was just as subject to confusion and abuse as Unseen Servent. Does this ST 15 air golem talk? Can it fight? Can it carry my stuff for me? Etc. The re-write made it much more clear it was enchanting an object to do magic self-sweeping broom kind of stuff and not creating an actual "servant" to do the stuff with the object.

    GURPS also as a higher-level Illusion & Creation spell that lets you create actual magical servants and actual magical warriors. This makes it more clear what the spell isn't doing - the implication being that you wouldn't need Create Servant if Dancing Object (then Air Golem) could do the same things, cheaper.

    Might be worth taking that approach - write the text or an addendum to the text making it clear it's enchanting the object "as if" held by a man, not creating the man.

    1. Ironically, the game Steve Jackson did before GURPS (The Fantasy Trip) had a spell called Telekinesis which allowed the wizard to manipulate objects "as if" the wizard had a second, invisible body. So he had it right, then screwed it up, then got it right again.

    2. It may have been an attempt to not re-use the text and wording of a game he didn't have to rights to anymore. I don't know, I was only a player and not a freelancer then. But it might have been "How can I use this idea without using the same words?"

      That's where some of the oddities you find in Labyrinth Lord come up, IMO - the re-wording to avoid plagiarizing the source sometimes muddles the meaning. Probably the same here. SJ wrote TFT but I don't think he retained the rights.

    3. @Peter D: Yeah, that's what I was thinking. What I've read about the demise of Metagaming indicates that Jackson couldn't get the rights to his own game because the price was set deliberately high.