Spells Through The Ages: Clairvoyance

I’m going to do something unusual with this one — I’m actually going to compare this spell all the way through 3.0 and 3.5.  Usually with these articles I stop at 3.0 assuming that’s far enough into the editions for my own interest.  Clairvoyance, however, has been my example of choice for why 3.5 was my personal breaking point with modern editions.  As mentioned in my last post, I played in a 3.0 campaign for some time, but when 3.5 came out we did not adapt to those rules.  A lot of people like to complain about 4e, but for me it was 3.5 that made me start questioning the blind adoption of each new edition as it came out, and ultimately in the long run what brought me back around to looking at the old stuff again.

But for now, let’s start at the beginning.  Here’s the very simple OD&D text for this spell:

Cairvoyance: Same as ESP spell except the spell user can visualize rather than merely pick up thoughts.

OK, like some other OD&D spells (I’m looking at you Haste and Slow), the description rather unhelpfully just points us at another spell.  So here’s ESP:

ESP: A spell which allows the user to detect the thoughts (if any) of whatever lurks behind doors or in the darkness. It can penetrate solid rock up to about 2′ in thickness, but a thin coating of lead will prevent its penetration. Duration: 12 turns. Range: 6″

What I find most interesting about the OD&D spell is the limited range and the explicit mention of the spell’s use for discovering what is “behind doors or in the darkness.”  Frankly, this is a much more tactical use of the spell than my memory of using it in the past.  I always thought of these spells (ESP, Clairvoyance, and Clairaudience) as more strategic story driving types of spells than combat spells.  I imagine using them during down time to spy on specific NPCs and plan long term goals, not just to see what monster is hiding in the darkness.  To see this use though, we’ve got to take a quick peek at Clairaudience:

Clairaudience: Same as Clairvoyance except it allows hearing rather than visualization. This is one of the few spells which can be cast through a Crystal Ball (see Volume II).

Ultimately all three of these spells are means of spying on your enemies.  To get this at an unlimited range in OD&D though, we must incorporate a specific magic item: the crystal ball.  Of course given that a crystal ball by default is purely visual, it makes sense that Clairvoyance makes no mention of it, as the crystal ball basically supersedes that spell entirely.  However, given how much these three spells reference each other, I think we can easily make the leap that they’re all related to and considered alongside the crystal ball.

B/X basically follows the OD&D model here, with a 60′ range.  However, it adds a new limitation of requiring a creature through whose eyes you are looking.  The spell even gives instructions on how to switch which creature the scene is viewed from, but the implication here is that the spell cannot be used to see an unoccupied area.  This as far as I can tell, is entirely unique to B/X.

OK, let’s move on to the 1st Edition AD&D text:

Explanation/Description:  Similar  to  the  clairaudience  spell,  the  clairvoyance  spell  empowers  the  magic-user  to  see  in his  or  her  mind  whatever  is within sight range from the spell locale chosen. Distance  is not a factor, but the locale must be known  –  familiar or obvious. Furthermore, light is a factor whether or not the spell caster has the ability  to see into the infrared or ultraviolet spectrums. If the area is dark, only a 1″  radius  from the  center  of  the  locale  of  the  spell’s  area  of  effect  can  be clairvoyed;  otherwise,  the seeing extends to  normal vision  range. Metal sheeting or magical protections will foil a clairvoyance spell. The spell functions only on  the  plane  on  which  the  magic-user  is  at  the  time  of  casting.  The  material component of the spell is a pinch of powdered pineal gland  from  a human or humanoid  creature.

I guess this must be the version of the spell I’m used to.  Here we have basically an unlimited range, and no requirement that the area being spied upon be occupied.  It’s interesting to note that the AD&D crystal ball now has some serious overlap with this spell, though it does have it’s own flavor.  The crystal ball focuses more on locating an individual regardless of location, while Clairvoyance seems more tied to a specific locale and discovering what is there.

The 2nd edition AD&D version of this spell is basically identical to the 1st edition.  3.0 likewise touches this spell little, though does combine the descriptions of both Clairaudience and Clairvoyance into a single text block, which I suppose makes sense given how the two spells only differ in terms of which sense is used.  Interestingly, 3.0 also introduces the spell Scrying, one level higher that combines the two spells allowing both vision and hearing, but also oddly incorporates a skill check.  This is the only case I’m aware of in any edition of the game that directly ties a spell with it’s own unique skill.

In 3.5 again the text is very similar.  The same locale targeting language exists, with the limitation that the location must be “familiar or obvious” that has existed since 1st edition.  Gone though is the phrase “distance is not a factor”, and range has changed from “See text” to “400 ft + 40 ft/level”.

In the past I have used this spell as evidence of what I refer to as the “board-game-ification” of D&D: that as the game evolved everything took on a tactical use in combat or dungeon exploration.  Clairvoyance, which in 3.0 was excellent for spying on enemies and doing long term strategic thinking that implies a complex campaign world, is now reduced to simply seeing what kind of monster is behind the next door.

However, as we can see, this was always its use.  Only in AD&D did the spell expand it’s range, and to give 3.5 it’s due, the new Scrying spell introduced in 3.0 retains the “any distance” range.  Much like OD&D’s crystal ball, the Scrying spell is given the advantage of infinite range, possibly to differentiate it from the lower level more tactical spell Clairvoyance.  Don’t get me wrong, I still believe that as you go from 3.0 to 3.5 to 4e you still see the “board-game-ification” effect, by which the game dwindles down to a game about moving miniatures around on a gridded board and fighting monsters rather than the exploration of a imaginary world with infinite possibilities.  However, Clairvoyance may not be the poster-child for this effect I’ve always thought it to be.

So where does that leave us?  Clairvoyance is a bit different in almost every single edition of the game.  My personal preference seems to lean slightly to the 1st edition AD&D version, simply because that’s the version that seems most familiar to me.  Likely this is because it’s unchanged in 2nd edition, which we know is the edition I really did grow up with.  I can’t say that I’m terribly fond of B/X’s insistence that it causes the caster to actually see through another creature’s eyes.  It’s a neat idea, but one I’d rather see as a separate spell or item, perhaps joined with the ability to summon and control a small creature as the subject.

As for limiting the range, I don’t really mind it so long as there is something in the game which extends that range.  In fact, I kind of like the idea of changing the crystal ball into simply a range-extending device for these kinds of spells.  On it’s own, it’s just a hunk of glass, but when clairvoyance, clairaudience, or ESP is cast upon it the spell’s range is extended to any distance.  Obviously that’s not cannon from any version of the crystal ball, but I think it has a nice feel to it.

What comes closest to all of my preferences above?  What a surprise: OD&D.  That could be due simply to the openness of the text to interpretation, or simply that these spells hadn’t had the chance yet to be over-worked and over-designed across many editions.  More and more I think that were I to start a brand new campaign tomorrow, I would seriously consider using OD&D as a base rather than B/X.  For now though, I may simply house-rule out the “see through another creature’s eyes” bit of the B/X text to make the spell more like the original version.  That of course means that long-range spying will require a crystal ball, but that in turn makes that into a much more interesting item, which isn’t a bad thing in my book.


1 thought on “Spells Through The Ages: Clairvoyance

  1. That’s a great analysis! Here’s some extra points that occur to me:

    (1) “Scrying” wasn’t totally new to 3E, it was a consolidation of a bunch of spells that showed up in 1E UA (and before that, Dragon magazine), by class: magic font, magic mirror, and reflecting pool (see legacy in 3E material components). I really hated these new spells because of how much they altered the campaign world-building exercise (suddenly total information awareness, effectively). It’s another example of the expansion of information (i.e., end of constricted mysterious worldview) that you’re talking about here in AD&D.

    (2) Example of parts of evolving D&D falling out of sync with each other: Even though these spells expand range in AD&D, expected use in the AD&D DMG Random Dungeon system is still clearly just for room-by-room search (see DMG p. 173, “ESP and Other Detection Devices…”)

    (3) Early in OD&D, the relative value and desirability of the crystal ball was much greater (even: invaluable). In fact: Holmes’ novel “Maze of Death” has about half of its plot centered around who’s-got-the-crystal-ball machinations (nowadays that would look kind of silly). As all of these spells expanded scope and range (including 1E UA “scrying” spells, which explicitly recreate the same effect at will), the crystal ball gets devalued to the point of irrelevance.

    Maybe that (very oddball) 3E scrying skill was a lukewarm attempt to reign back the power of those 1E spells that aggravated me so much?

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