Monday, October 19, 2015

Fixing Magic Jar in B/X?

Trigger warning: This post contains suggested modifications to B/X D&D. If you feel strongly about the "artistic integrity" of B/X D&D, read at your own risk.

In my recent post about the spells in B/X D&D,  Magic Jar was listed as being particularly confused and confusing. I've since arrived at what I think is a rather simple solution for just about all its problems. Furthermore that solution requires none of the even more complicated AD&D machinery. I actually quite like the resulting spell, but your mileage may obviously vary! Let's start with the original spell itself, straight from the B/X Expert rules (in all probability "fair use" applies):

Magic Jar
Range: 30'
Duration: special

With this spell, the caster puts his or her body in a trance and transfers his or her life-force to an inanimate object (magic jar) within range. From this object, the spell caster may attempt to possess (take over) any one creature within 120' of the magic jar. If the victim makes a successful saving throw, the possession has failed and the caster may not try that victim again for one game turn. If the victim fails the saving throw, the creature is possessed and its body will do as the caster wills. While under the control of the spell caster no spells of the possessed may be used. If the possessed body is destroyed, the magic-user or elf must return to the magic jar. From there the caster may try to possess another body or return to his or her own. The caster can be forced out of the possessed body by a dispel evil spell.

Destroying the magic jar while the caster's life force is in it kills the caster. Destroying the magic jar while the caster's life-force is in another body strands the life-force in the possessed body. Killing the caster's real body strands the life-force in the magic jar until the caster can possess another body! Once the caster returns to his or her real body the spell is over.

The first complaint I had was about the two ranges used by the spell. I now think that those are fine provided we interpret them as follows: The caster's body has to be close to the magic jar to initially transfer the life-force. Once in the magic jar, the caster has completed "the hard part" and now has a somewhat larger range to find victims in. However, any "soul traffic" between victims and the magic jar must happen in that 120' radius. Finally, the "traffic" between the jar and the caster's body must happen in that 30' radius, including on the "way back" at the end of the spell.

This solves two more questions I had: What range counts for returning to the jar, the 30' or the 120'? What happens when a Dispel Evil pushes the caster out and the magic jar is too far away? It also solves a question I didn't explicitly pose, but one that's implicit in the spell as written: What happens if the possessed body dies and the magic jar is too far away? With the "strict ranges" interpretation, both of these result in the casters immediate demise. Neat!

But I had a lot more questions. Turns out that most of these become equally easy to answer when we add the following to the spell description (paraphrased):

The victim's life-force gets sucked into the magic jar while the caster has possession of the victim's body.

Let's see what this solves. Can the caster "chat" with the victim? No. Does the victim remember anything the caster made his possessed body do? No. Does the caster gain any of the victim's knowledge, spells, skills, etc.? No. Can the victim attempt to "push out" the caster's life-force, maybe similar to what Charm Person allows? No. See how easy that is? No need to write several unsatisfying paragraphs (and a custom "add wisdom and intelligence of victim and caster, then compare on this really complicated table" rule) like AD&D did.

It also solves a related, although mostly metaphysical problem: If the victim's life-force doesn't go into the jar, we now have two "souls" in one body. Can that be? Wouldn't the universe implode? (Don't complain, I said it was a metaphysical problem, didn't I? Actually there's a deeper one too, namely "Do souls that hop around bodies exist at all?" but let's not go there.)

Maybe least obvious is that our little addition explains (indirectly) why the caster should be allowed to make use of his or her spells while in the victim's body. (Always assuming that the body is capable of performing the necessary verbal and somatic activities those spells necessitate.) If what we're dealing with is essentially a "soul swap" that includes whatever is "stored in the brain," well, then the memorized spells of the caster should go with him. Just like the victim's spells (if any) go into the jar together with the victim's life-force and are hence not available to the caster. While the caster (or the victim) is in the jar, though, spells cannot be cast because there's no way to perform those verbal and somatic elements. And while the B/X version doesn't mention the caster using spells in the victim's body, AD&D clearly allows it. So there's predecent.

That leaves only one of my original questions, namely whether the caster can leave the victim's body and return to the magic jar voluntarily. I think that has to be a resounding "Yes!" because if it's possible for the caster to get stuck in a beetle by accident, well, presumably that's not where our hero wanted to end up, is it? If he or she now had to commit "beetle suicide" as the only way out, that's just too depressing.

But I have two twists left, at least one of which I hope you'll appreciate (I try so hard to write pleasing D&D posts).

First it seems pretty sad that the victim of Magic Jar can do nothing but sit in the magic jar until the caster decides to return. Imagine the victim's body (and the caster's life-force with it) dying miles away: The "poor soul" would be in the magic jar forever. Literally. (Unless someone casts Dispel Evil on the jar by accident, of course killing the victim in the process.) How do we solve this?

Let's add a chance that the victim can take over the caster's body! 

Where do we take it from? Charm Person of course! After all a "smart soul" should be able to figure out what's going on much more quickly than a "dull soul," right? (A scary alternative would be to allow the victim to use the magic jar just like the caster did. Think it through, hilarity would ensue for sure as entire cities start swapping bodies and souls.)

Twist number two is only applicable if you import certain BECMI spells into your B/X game like I tend to do: A cleric can use Speak with the Dead to communicate with the life-force trapped in the magic jar. Why? Well, it's a "disembodied soul," right? Potentially the "disembodied soul" of someone who is actually dead as well. Seems perfectly sensible to me! And in terms of the game it also gives players a way to communicate with that evil wizard in the magic jar to maybe negotiate some kind of deal. More options are always better!

Alright, that was a lot of talking. I now give you my version of Magic Jar written up in B/X style (well, as much as I am able to copy that style anyway):

Magic Jar
Range: special
Duration: special

The caster puts their body in a trance and transfers their life-force into an inanimate object within 30'. From this magic jar, the caster may once per round attempt to possess any creature within 120'. If the victim saves against spells, the possession has failed and the caster must wait one turn before trying that creature again.

If the victim fails to save, the victim's life-force is transferred to the magic jar as the caster's life-force takes control of the victim's body. The caster's life-force can return to the magic jar (and thus reverse the process) only if the magic jar is within 120' of the victim's body. This applies whether the caster leaves voluntarily, is forced out because the victim's body is killed, or is forced out by a Dispel Evil spell. If the caster's life-force cannot return, it perishes. While in the victim's body, the caster may use any memorized spell as long as the body is in principle capable of spell-casting.

While in the magic jar, the victim's life-force gets another save against spells as per Charm Person: Intelligence 13-18 once per day, 9-12 once per week, 3-8 once per month. If successful, the victim's life-force can take over the caster's body. Destroying the magic jar kills any life-force within it and possibly strands the caster's life-force in the possessed body. Killing the caster's body prevents any life-force from returning to it. Once a life-force returns to the caster's body from within 30', the spell ends.

Okay, so it's a little longer than the original, but I think it's worth it. Let me know what you think of the new version! And maybe someone even notices the one thing I totally left open to interpretation despite it being addressed in the AD&D version of the spell. Anyone?

Update 2015/10/19: There's one big tradeoff I forgot to discuss, sorry. Allowing the caster to cast further spells in the victim's body means that he or she could cast Magic Jar again! Visualize this as a "trail of bodies and magic jars" if you wish.

I didn't want to add a restriction of the "any spell except another Magic Jar" kind because that seems petty. On the other hand, repeated casting of the spell requires that we fix which body counts as the original. The simplest story is probably to just use the body the caster was in for a certain Magic Jar as the original for that spell. So the caster could return from the second victim to the body of the first victim for example, thereby ending the second Magic Jar spell.

This works for the most part, except if the truly insane is attempted: The second (or tenth, or onehundredfortyseventh) Magic Jar is used to "possess" the original caster of the first Magic Jar again. (In other words, the caster is trying to "imprison" a whole bunch of people in magic jars and come out "on top" by possessing himself again.) Two things help to avoid that:

First, note that I didn't specify whether the caster can memorize spells while in a victim's body. True, the way I interpreted the rest I guess it would be natural to allow it, however that would mean that no upper bound on the length of the "chain of jars" exists, a spooky proposition. So the concerned DM could certainly use that to keep things "managable" as it were.

Second, note that the original body of the first Magic Jar does not contain a life-force. Since we described the process of possession as an "exchange" of life-forces, the concerned DM could rule that the original body cannot be possessed again: it lacks a life-force to imprison in turn.

And if all of this sounds like a huge hassle to you, the line "The caster's life-force can only participate in one Magic Jar spell at a time." would also fix everything. (At least if we ignore that the caster of one Magic Jar could be the victim of someone else's Magic Jar as well. Dicey!)

All three options work for me. Now I wonder if I should I rewrite the spell for this or just leave it as commentary? Hmmm...

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Concentration in B/X D&D

This is a first follow-up to yesterday's post about B/X spells. Instead of going spell-by-spell I'd like to point out a few more general issues with the spell descriptions in B/X and propose some small fixes. This will no doubt take several posts, so today I am starting with...


A number of spells such as Phantasmal Force, Wall of Fire, Insect Plague, Conjure Elemental, and Control Weather use the notion of "concentration" as part of the spell's duration. There are also several magic items that make use of "concentration," for example the Ring of Animal Control, Helm of Telepathy, Medallion of ESP, and Wand of Illusion. And of course there's the general rule (B47) that using magic items requires "concentration" as well.

However, there's no real definition of what "concentration" means anywhere, it is defined more-or-less "ad-hoc" in every spell or item description. The glossary of the Basic Set does provide a definition as well:

A character putting all his or her attention on an object or action, during which the character may do nothing else, and which, if distracted (attacked) will cause the concentration to be lost.

That's all fine and dandy, but it doesn't jibe with all the other definitions. Here, in the "official" definition, it's enough to be attacked to become distracted. In the Phantasmal Force description, nothing is said about concentration. The Ring of Animal Control and the Helm of Telepathy are in agreement that the user cannot move while concentrating. However, the Medallion of ESP does allow regular movement while concentrating, just not casting spells or fighting. Insect Plague and Wall of Fire require the caster to remain stationary again. Conjure Elemental and the Wand of Illusion allow half movement but neither casting nor fighting. The Wand of Illusion also states that a successful attack that does damage or a failed save (against charm for example) breaks concentration.

What gives?

The default answer to all complaints about B/X is of course "this is how it is, it's magical, you're wrong to even think there's something wrong here, move on and play the game" but I don't find that very satisfying. I want B/X to be simple enough for me to memorize, and that requires some "regularity" to the rules. So call me dense or something, but I think "concentration" should mean exactly one thing, not five different things.

At least all the various definition of "concentration" agree that it's not possible to concentrate and cast a spell or attack someone at the same time. So we can start from there.

Next movement. The majority of definitions seems to require remaining stationary, but this doesn't scale to all applications. For example, it is essential for the utility of the Phantasmal Force and Conjure Elemental spells that the caster can move with them to some degree. Think illusion of an ogre moving down a dungeon corridor with the party trailing behind at a distance. Think elemental conjured to help excavate the wizard's dungeon complex. However, I think full movement is too much because then there's literally no penalty that must be paid. Half movement seems quite appropriate though. On top of that, it's in line with "Fighting Withdrawal" in regular combat. The only thing it doesn't line up with is casting a spell in the first place: the rules don't allow for any movement. But I think that "maintaining a spell" should be less stressful than "casting a spell" in the first place, so that's alright with me as well.

Which leaves the question of whether an attack is enough to distract or whether the attack has to do damage. Luckily the expert set comes to our rescue because it finally has a rule for interrupting spell casters (X11):

The caster must inform the DM that a spell is being cast and which spell will be cast before the initiative dice are rolled. If the caster loses the initiative and takes damage or fails a saving throw, the spell is interrupted and lost.

I feel in pretty good company accepting this as the rule for concentration as well. If we don't require damage or a failed save, it is way too easy to interrupt spell casters. The same should be true for concentration which (as I said above) I consider "maintaining a spell" and therefore easier. And distracting someone from an easier task should be harder, if anything. So here's my revised definition for what "concentration" means in B/X and I am happy to apply this rule for all situations where concentration is called for.

A creature concentrating on maintaining a magical effect cannot cast another spell or perform an attack. The creature can move at half speed though. If the creature takes damage or fails a saving throw, however, concentration is lost.

Note that with this understanding of "concentration" as "maintenance" the use of the term "concentration" for casting spells or activating magic items in the first place has to cease. Those things do not allow movement in line with the existing rules. I guess a new question that comes up now is whether someone activating a magic item can be interrupted just like a spell caster, but I'll leave that for another post...

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Debating B/X Spells

I've been working on my little side-project: producing a concise "cheat sheet" for all the spells in B/X D&D. In the process I ran across a couple of slightly confusing things that I would love to get feedback on, especially from other "B/X fanatics" across the interwebs. I'll just organize this spell-by-spell for now, general themes will probably be dealt with in a later post. Let's start with cleric spells:

  • Bless: Does the reversed version, Blight, also only work if cast before melee is joined?
  • Hold Person: For the group version, does the caster pick who gets affected? Or should there be a rule similar to the Sleep spell that lower HD creatures are affected first?
  • Resist Fire: Why is the duration so much shorter (2 turns versus 6 turns) than for Resist Cold, a lower-level spell? (AD&D gives them both 1 turn/level.)
  • Create Water, Create Food: These two are listed with a range of 0' which usually means "self" or "touch" but I presume that neither does the water "come out of the cleric" nor does he or she have to "touch" all the food that everybody else will eat later. A close range like 10' seems more reasonable, no?
  • Cure Serious Wounds: A spell that's three levels higher but only does twice the healing of Cure Light Wounds? Doesn't seem quite fair, especially since Neutralize Poison is the same level and potentially much more helpful. (Alas AD&D has the same problem.)
  • Speak with Plants: This spell allows for "favors" similar to Speak with Animals but doesn't explain how to determine whether a favor is granted; the latter spell uses a reaction roll, why not do the same here? Or should we just assume that the favor will be granted to make up for the much shorter duration?

Alright, and on to the magic-user spells. Here I have a lot more questions, and many are a lot more complex as well:

  • Invisibility: First the duration is "permanent until broken" which begs two questions: Since objects cannot "attack or cast" they simply stay invisible forever? Seems a tad powerful for a level 2 spell. Also, no other spell uses "permanent until broken" they usually say "special" or "indefinite" for their duration. Second the description says that a "person or object" can be made invisible, but I guess that the intention really is "creature" right? Shouldn't I be able to make my kobold retainer invisible as well? Or really just folks with character classes?
  • Knock: The spell description is written in plurals. Does that really mean all the doors/locks in the area will be blown open for 1 round?
  • Wizard Lock: When they say "magic-using character (or NPC) of three or more levels greater" do they mean to include clerics as well? And what about magic-using monsters with 3+ HD over the caster?
  • Dispel Magic: Does it really dispel all spells in the area? It cannot be targetted any better? Also, it's listed as effective against "magic-user, elf, or cleric" spells but it leaves out spells created by spell-casting monsters like Dragons?
  • Haste: Does the caster get to pick the recipients or are all creatures in the area, up to 24, hasted?
  • Confusion: Shouldn't undead be immune since this is a kind of charm or at least mind-altering?
  • Growth of Plants: What does "all but the largest creatures" mean exactly? Giants? Rocs (ignore flying for the moment)? Purple worms? Maybe we can just put a HD number on it to be clear?
  • Hallucinatory Terrain: Unlike Phantasmal Force this doesn't require concentration. So once cast, it just "sits there" as an illusion. Now it says "touch by intelligent creature dispels" which presumably means that insects and foxes and so on can stumble through the illusion with no effect even if observed. A goblin passing by, however, who touches the illusion by accident will ruin it. Not just for itself mind you, but totally ruin in. (This may be a more general complaint about illusions and how to handle them.)
  • Animate Dead: There is no upper limit to the number or HD a magic-user can control. So cemeteries should be amongst the most well-guarded places in any civilization? And all evil magic-users should be awash in skeletons and zombies.
  • Wall of Ice: Doesn't say "up to" in the spell description, unlike Wall of Fire. So it's always exactly 1,200 square feet? But what's to stop the caster from making whatever is "left over" really long and really low? The wall can be "any other shape the caster desires" after all. Shouldn't we just add the "up to" to the spell description?
  • Feeblemind: Can only be used against magic-users and elves, nobody else? Not against dragons or other magic-using monsters? Not against clerics? Hmm.
  • Magic Jar: Wow, what a complicated spell. First it has two ranges, 30' and 120', and it's not 100% clear which one is which. But then the hard questions start. Is the victim's soul displaced into the jar or not? If not, where does it go? Can the magic-user "chat" with the victim's soul while his soul is in the victim's body? Does the victim remember the actions the magic-user forced his body to take? Does the magic-user have access to the victim's memories or languages or skills? The spell description says that the magic-user cannot cast the victim's spells, but can the magic-user cast his or her own spells while inside the victim's body? Can the magic-user leave the victim's body and return to the jar voluntarily? Should the victim get more saving throws to "push out" the magic-user's soul, similar to what happens for Charm Person? What range counts for returning to the jar, the 30' or the 120'? What happens to a "pushed out" magic-user when the jar is too far away? (The AD&D version answers some of these questions but it also makes the spell even more complex in other ways, something I'd like to avoid.)
  • Wall of Stone: Unlike the other wall spells, this one says 1,000 cubic feet instead of 1,200 square feet. However, it also says the wall is 2' thick. What gives?
  • Invisible Stalker: There is no upper limit to the number of stalkers a magic-user can have concurrently. True, there cannot be complex long-term missions without a risk of the stalkers "reinterpreting" their instructions (see X34), but what's to keep a level 14 wizard from traveling with a revolving retinue of about 21 invisible stalkers guarding him or her? Dismiss the three that are getting grumpy, summon three more, off we go on another day of adventure...
  • Projected Image: Does the position of the image determine the effective range of a spell or does the actual position of the real caster? The description says that the real caster must be able to see the target, but it doesn't detail range issues.

Sorry, I realize this is a lot of spells and a lot of questions. I hope you, dear reader, will take the time to at least set me straight about those closest to your heart? It would be much appreciated! I really hope I get lots of feisty opinions about these things!