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As the title says... are there any spells that can do simple work, such as pulling on a rope or turning a capstan? The work would be simple and constant, and would require no decisions other than to possibly have the caster cancel the spell when the task is complete.

The lower level the better, and the more work the better.

Please enumerate by caster type and level, and if possible link to a description.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is this to create a perpetual motion machine in 3.5? \$\endgroup\$
    – Fering
    Sep 5, 2023 at 1:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Fering For as long as the spell lasts, yes. I wasn't proposing to use it as the basis for an enchantment that would work without pause. \$\endgroup\$
    – Monty Wild
    Sep 5, 2023 at 1:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ How autonomous should it be? Does it have to be usable by PC party? Does it have to be magical? \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Sep 7, 2023 at 6:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor Preferably set-and-forget, useable by PCs in general, and yes, it would have to be magical. \$\endgroup\$
    – Monty Wild
    Sep 7, 2023 at 7:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ Reading answers below, I can see players starting an Industrial Revolution powered by magic. :-) \$\endgroup\$
    – RobertF
    Sep 11, 2023 at 22:19

5 Answers 5

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Should work:

  • Greater Mage Hand (Spell Compendium, p. 136, Sorcerer/Wizard/Spellthief 1): Lets you manipulate objects up to 40 pounds for as long as you concentrate on the spell. Explicitly works for the kinds of tasks you're asking about:

An object can be telekinetically manipulated as if with one hand. For example, a lever or rope can be pulled, a key can be turned, an object rotated, and so on, if the force required is within the weight limitation.

Maybe:

  • Unseen Servant (Bard/Sorcerer/Wizard 1): Summons an invisible being to do stuff for you. It should be capable of the kinds of tasks you want to do, but might not be strong enough for everything you want, since the spell description says it:

performs simple tasks at your command. It can run and fetch things, open unstuck doors, and hold chairs, as well as clean and mend. The servant can perform only one activity at a time, but it repeats the same activity over and over again if told to do so as long as you remain within range. It can open only normal doors, drawers, lids, and the like. It has an effective Strength score of 2 (so it can lift 20 pounds or drag 100 pounds). It can trigger traps and such, but it can exert only 20 pounds of force...

  • Mass Unseen Servant (Races of Destiny, Sorcerer/Wizard 4): Like Unseen Servant, but makes several of them.
  • Mage Hand (Bard/Sorcerer/Wizard 0): Lets you lift and move objects up to 5 pounds for as long as you concentrate on the spell, but doesn't have the extra verbiage about pulling on levers or ropes, etc. So, it depends on whether the work to be done is something that your DM considers doable by a spell that lets you "lift and move" an object.
  • Prestidigitation (Bard/Sorcerer/Wizard 0): For this purpose, basically Mage Hand but worse. Weight limit of 1 pound, and spell description says "slowly lift" and "move," so might be limited in the kinds of tasks it can achieve.
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    \$\begingroup\$ IIrc concentrating on a spell (or effect) requires the caster to spend a standard action each turn, so Greater Mage Hand might or might not work well. Unless my memory is failing me, if it is so, I apologise. \$\endgroup\$
    – Drejzer
    Sep 5, 2023 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Just please, for Pete's sake, don't go enchanting brooms to fetch water. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2023 at 12:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ From my reading Unseen Servant should definitely work. They explicitly write "It can’t perform any task that requires a skill check with a DC higher than 10 or that requires a check using a skill that can’t be used untrained." into the spell description, which implies that it CAN do anything with lower requirements (such as pulling a cart with 20 pounds of force, just get a very light cart or many unseen servants) \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Sep 7, 2023 at 13:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Hobbamok The Unseen Servant has the problem of remain in range. It will do your work for you (up to it's limits) but only if you're there. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 7, 2023 at 17:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @LorenPechtel ah true, an important restriction \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Sep 7, 2023 at 19:14
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I can think of a lot of ways to create "work force" with spells, but it's important to know what your resources are and what your wanting to accomplish. So other answers have addressed a few spells. I'll move on to some that haven't been discussed.

Mount - "You summon a light horse or a pony (your choice) to serve you as a mount. The steed serves willingly and well. The mount comes with a bit and bridle and a riding saddle." Switch out the saddle for a work harness and hook it up to a mill wheel. The summoned horse walks in circles pulling/pushing a turn-style - the turn-style operates your equipment. Two (2) hours of work per caster level for a level 1 spell.

Command Undead - Self explanatory - Got zombies? Got labor. Simple labor, but still. One (1) day per caster level helps a lot. Helps to tie them to your work spot, heh.

Bull's Strength - Need stronger summoned horse(s)/zombie(s) then pump up their strength to get more done. The duration sucks, but it'll help get past a bump or something that stops work.

Animate Dead - Use dead enemies for a work force. You didn't find zombies to command? Ok - only 5th or higher level clerics and 7th or higher level wizards will be able to do this. But, if you can, this is an easy way to get a tireless 24/7/365 workforce. You very likely won't be able to use them near town's and cities, but pretty much anywhere you haven't got officials looking over your shoulders, you should be good.

Hope you find these helpful. Edits were for typo's and clarifications.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ No need to call out edits in the text. Welcome to the stack! +1 for mount, interesting idea \$\endgroup\$ Sep 5, 2023 at 4:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ No Unseen Servant? It's the one spell that's specifically designed for this purpose. \$\endgroup\$
    – GMJoe
    Sep 5, 2023 at 5:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you can indeed get a Mount to turn a capstan, that's a fair bit more work than the other options at a decently low level. \$\endgroup\$
    – Monty Wild
    Sep 6, 2023 at 13:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ Capstan! That's the word-thing I couldn't for the life of me remember! Thank you Monty Wild! two other posts mentions Unseen Servant, so I went to other spells, and frankly, Bulls Strength is extremely situational. It's only good for a short bump in force. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2023 at 18:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Now I want to use Find Steed in a 5e game to summon a celestial warhorse and use it to run a horse mill. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2023 at 20:35
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I offer you an alternative. A reusable one, even!

When paired with the proper engineering, a Decanter of Endless Water can get almost any task of the sort you're looking for done:

Decanter of Endless Water Magic Item (Dungeon Master's Guide v.3.5, p. 254)

Price: 9,000 gp Item Level: 12nd Body Slot: — Caster Level: 9th Aura: Moderate; Transmutation Activation: Standard (command) Weight: 2.0 lb.

If the stopper is removed from this ordinary-looking flask and a command word spoken, an amount of fresh or salt water pours out.

Separate command words determine the type as well as the volume and velocity.

"Stream" pours out 1 gallon per round. "Fountain" produces a 5-foot-long stream at 5 gallons per round. "Geyser" produces a 20-foot-long, 1-foot-wide stream at 30 gallons per round. The geyser effect causes considerable back pressure, requiring the holder to make a DC 12 Strength check to avoid being knocked down. The force of the geyser deals 1d4 points of damage but can only affect one target per round.

The command word must be spoken to stop it.

Make the water pour into the proper waterwheel, and you can make an axle turn. The decanter alone in Geyser mode can pour out 240 pounds of water per round. This, when paired with with the proper gear setup, can move quite a bunch of stuff around quite fast - and produce a LOT of water in the process. A big plus for farmers!

For power-on-the-go, I'm sure some gnomish ingenuity can be used to create a device that can provide power on demand - and anihilate excess water - using nothing but this decanter as a "power source".

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    \$\begingroup\$ If you put this at the top of a tall tower, the water will have some extra gravitational potential energy you can exploit separately, maybe with another water wheel separate from the one capturing the kinetic energy. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2023 at 7:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Bardo: While the "it's a magic item, not a spell" is a fair point: 1) Many casters who have spells can create this item (Craft Wondrous Item feat + either Clr/Drd w/4th level spells or Sor/Wiz w/6th level spells to get Control Water), and 2) Many of the other options can't do direct work very well either and would need mechanical elements to do labor with greater strength requirements, e.g. Unseen Servant can sweep, but it can't even move my (admittedly obese) 23 lb. cat; it's weaker than literally the weakest human in the world (until the weakest human suffers aging penalties anyway). \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2023 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Bardo: In particular, the question does say "The work would be simple and constant, and would require no decisions other than to possibly have the caster cancel the spell when the task is complete", which describes the sort of work a water wheel is frequently used for. \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2023 at 13:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterCordes and T.Sar: Amusingly, you don't strictly need a waterwheel at all. A Decanter of Endless Water in geyser mode explicitly produces a significant back pressure effect; you could just attach it perpendicular to the rim of a any old wheel (ideally somewhere with nearby drainage), not the more complicated waterwheels, and put it in geyser mode to spin the wheel. If it can knock down an average human holding it a little over half the time (DC 12 Strength check to avoid being knocked down), it should be powerful enough to do some meaningful work when used as a magic rocket. :-) \$\endgroup\$ Sep 6, 2023 at 14:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KarlKnechtel I go even further - I say it is very weird that places with lots of cheap magic aren't using things like Continuous Flame or Create Water to solve very real problems of civilizations. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Sep 8, 2023 at 12:40
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Unseen Servant, Animate Dead, Telekinesis, Planar Binding

Unseen Servant

The classic spell for this is Unseen Servant. The servant is not very strong, but it's only a level 1 spell, it lasts for hours, you can cast multiple if needed, and it has that strong "things move themselves" vibe, because the servant is invisible.

Animate Dead

Another practical alternative for free labor, although with less of an enchantment feeling, is Animate Dead (Cleric 3, Socerer Wizard 4).

This spell turns the bones or bodies of dead creatures into undead skeletons or zombies that follow your spoken commands.

This has the added bonus that it works without time limit, as at the cost of 25 gp in onyx per HD, the undead stick around permanently. You have a limit of caster level times 4 HD you you can control, but they are much stronger than unseen servants, and while pretty dumb, should have no issue with simple repetitive tasks.

Telekinesis

At the higher end (Sorcerer/Wizard 5), you get Telekinesis

An object can be telekinetically manipulated as if with one hand. For example, a lever or rope can be pulled, a key can be turned, an object rotated, and so on, if the force required is within the weight limitation.

And the limit here is 25 lbs per caster level, so you can excert a significant amount of force; but you must concentrate here, which is likely not what you have in mind.

Planar Binding

A souped up version of unseen servant would be an invisible stalker

Invisible stalkers are creatures native to the Elemental Plane of Air. They sometimes serve wizards and sorcerers, who summon them to perform specific tasks. A summoned invisible stalker undertakes whatever task the summoner commands, even if the task sends it hundreds or thousands of miles away.

This requires something like summon monster VI (Cleric, Bard, Sorcerer, Wizard 6) as the stalker is a large elemental, if you only need it for a few rounds, or planar binding (Sorcerer/Wizard 6) with its various other trappings as the stalker has 8 HD. You might also be able to bind other extraplanar creatures that can turn invisible, like an imp, with the lesser version of the spell that is only level 5, if they have 6 or less HD.

I suspect these latter options are too high level for what you have in mind and a bit of overkill for just turning a capstan.

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Honorable mention should go to the spell "Haunt Shift", from Libris Mortis. Level 5 spell for Clerics, Sorcerers and Wizards. Turn all those pesky ghosts haunting your abandoned castles into "haunting presences", which you may or may not be able to put to work depending on what the DM thinks.

(A haunting presence usually Animates an object, so a haunted cart that pulls itself would hardly be out of the question).

Note: consult a Cleric before attempting the mass enslavement of the souls of the departed, as this may cause alignment damage.

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