Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Articles of Dragon: "Cantrips: Minor Magics for Would-Be Wizards"

The appearance of a new article by Gary Gygax was always a special treat for me. Back in March 1982, when issue #59 of Dragon was published, I was still very much enthralled by the idea that Gary's word was law when it came to Dungeons & Dragons. Needless to say, I ate up articles like "Cantrips: Minor Magics for Would-Be Wizards" and dutifully incorporated them into my campaign -- or, rather, I tried to.

The problem was that, much as I liked the idea of 0-level spells, they simply never caught on with any of my players. And, really, who can blame them? Even at an exchange rate of four cantrips per 1st-level spell, they aren't particularly attractive, at least not to an adventuring magic-user. I honestly can't recall a single time that a player ever made use of a cantrip. For that matter, I don't think I ever made use of them for NPCs either.

Looking back on it now, I recognize a couple of things. First, I think Gary came up with cantrips because they were a natural outgrowth of his world-building. That is, he'd given a lot of thought to what a magical society would be like and the existence of minor spells to teach neophyte magicians seemed perfectly logical. Second, I think Gary had tired of dungeons and much of his thinking was occupied with the world outside them. If you look at his output from at least 1981 on, what you see are rules expansions and elaborations that make more sense if one imagines a campaign where dungeons are, at best, a sideshow compared to other adventuring activities. In such contexts, cantrips might have a place.

This specific article didn't undermine my devotion to Gary Gygax; as I said, I liked it a great deal. But it was one of the first times where something Gygax wrote went over like a lead balloon in my gaming group and that was significant. For that reason alone, this article was a significant one for me.


  1. I for the life of me can't remember many Cantrip names, but at first level, 4 cantrips had to be better for a 1st level magic-user to have than 1 magic missile followed by hiding out the rest of the time.

    btw, Greyhawk Adventures (1e/2e) had rules on making 0-level characters too, so I'm sure cantrips factored into that.

  2. When I last ran a campaign (22 years ago), I gave players a choice of 2 cantrips that they would know in addition to their spells. This gave them a few more options at the early levels. It worked well enough, they almost never used them, but they liked having more options when we were playing. No one aver added anymore though because I made the use the four for one rule. Overall I liked the rule since it made low-level play a little more inventive. Probably wouldn't do it now though.

  3. I have used cantrips only in a combined 1e/2e AD&D game. We used the 2e abstraction so that there was the first level magic user spell "Cantrip" which could be used for, well, all the cantrips, instead of multiple spells.

    The character that used them was my bard who used them occasionally to amuse or distract people. The campaign was very much about socializing in the city instead of dungeoneering. I think I lost two or three characters (first-level of course) in the sewers below the starting city before I made my bard.

    I think some of the characters made it to the second level. We played this for over two years real time and had a lot of adventures, but nothing that'd really give experience points. We had other rewards, though - we used the fame/infame mechanics in the 2e Bard's handbook, and by the time we had to leave the starting city, my bard was pretty (in)famous, so that he was usually recognized by the people.

    This of course was one of the reasons we decided to quit the city - the rulers there weren't that happy with us, and we were too familiar as the opposition.

    We didn't use the cantrips while in dungeons, though. It would've been a waste of a spell slot there.

  4. Your comments about Gygax's interests shifting echo my own group's "D&D evolution" back in the day. If you look at Gygax's "Gord" books (nary a dungeon in sight) you'll get a good idea of what my AD&D campaigns were like back in the mid-late 80s, even when "starting over" with low-level characters. I think this kind of thing was a natural outgrowth of long-term play. After all, half of B/X is "outside the dungeon."
    : )

  5. We never used the single cantrips. However my players liked the abstraction provided by the single Prestidigitation (or was it Cantrip?) spell in AD&D2e, which provided just a "framework" for minor spell effects with which the player could improvise. As you note, there was to us no point in detailing tens of very minor effects whose adventuring applications were dubious at best.

  6. It occurs to me that by the early 1980s, Gygax (and perhaps others at TSR) were running out of new and original ideas to write about in the context of traditional dungeon-crawling. Their campaigns, upon which much of the Dragon material was based, had matured to the point were they were personally interested in the more obscure and esoteric elements that went into world-building. I'm not sure that the cantrips and other similar ideas were actually intended to be used in a dungeon. More likely, they were simply background material designed to give insight into the thought processes of world creation.

  7. I made cantrips effectively a special ability for magic users. Since they were almost exclusively defined as spells that "had no real use and just made life a little bit easier for the wizard," there wasn't a need for much quantification, and no one really tried to game the privilege. [Essentially the same as the aforementioned Prestidigitation spell.]

    When I eventually shifted to a mana point system (after trying several other alternatives such as a "rule of 12" system), it made sense to make cantrips cost a single magic point (compared to a first level spell that cost four). Still with much the same justifications, although I added a few more sub-1st level spells (mainly detect and sense spells).

    Interestingly I always made the first level Light spell more powerful than it was written in OD&D. Even though it wasn't the equal of full daylight, it made creatures of the night/darkness check morale before they would enter the circle of it's effect, gave a morale boost to creatures of the day (such as most player characters), and banished any incidental creepy/haunt effects within the radius. Which meant that magelight was a standard cantrip in my game (light that did not provide these effects).

  8. Cantrips are a vital part of making a Magic-User a Magic-User. They USE magic. Not just for putting scads of kobolds to sleep. Not just for knocking a locked door open. Not just for throwing a magic missile at an enemy.

    They use magic to do everything. It provides the light at the tip of their staff. It light their pipe tobacco with a fire hot fingertip. It lets them swat that pesky fly that is disturbing their spell memorization. It cleans up that spilled potion in the lab.

    Cantrips are the common magic that make mages magical. They are the little spells that a character steeped in arcane knowledge and brimming with power perform without a thought. And as such they are vital to the character class. Not using them really makes the magic-user into an artillery set-piece.

    I use them always, all mages know them all, the are free to cast, the do not require memorization.

    Here's a little link to more cantrip info for 0D&D.

  9. I was a big softy, so I let 1st level magic users have four cantrips in addition to their one first level spell. Things like Knot, Untie, Dusty, Bluelight, Footfall and others can all be pretty useful in a dungeon.

    I can see the argument for letting cantrips be free to cast, but not with the standard list - too powerful. Even with the alternate list you linked, I'm leery about letting 1st level characters have access to unlimited magical power, no matter how low level that power is. I can think of numerous situations that would be made much less interesting by unlimited casting Unseen Hand or Clean. And I would hardly call Jack Vance's wizards nothing more than artillery set-pieces.

  10. Would be cool to see a low magic campaign use only cantrips. Anyone every done anything like that?

  11. The game I played in, cantrips were rarely used. The game I ran I had people use them all the time in really innovative ways - especially for multiclass mage/thieves. The same thing as one of my players games that he played in back in the day.

    In my current campaign, the houserule is that mages have a number of cantrips memorized equal to their Int, and can cast X + level per day without them being forgotten. This encourages them to use magic, but doesn't have them eating up actual spells in the process - though they are always free to burn one of thier memorized spells to get an extra 4 cantrip per spell level for the day.


    (X is a "Power" attribute, I know heresy, but it is also a stat I use for some limited bonus spells for mages. I also use it as the target for Energy Drain instead of levels - works much better IMO)

  12. I never really DM'd in the 80s and if I didn't play a Barbarian I usually died. So Magic Users were never something I even attempted. Now though as a DM, gaming mostly C&C and PFRPG, the RAW all have Catrips/0-level spells at 1st Level. Seems to work pretty well. IIRC it gives the wizard the ability to use magic like acid splash causing 1d3 damage or some other variation with some stand off. So while they can stand in the back of combat and chuck darts or swing with their dagger, they can use a spell which is much more thematic doing the same damage and not disrupting 'balance' so to speak.

  13. In my games, I give magic users the spells Read Magic, Detect Magic, and Cantrip for freebies. I let them cast these spells at will, as many times as needed per day, because I see these things as the push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups of the magic user. In other words, to a level one mage, reading, detecting, or causing minor magic effects should be peanuts. Another way of saying it: Cantrips, etc are to mage as sword flourish is to warrior. At least in 2e, where cantrips are about as useful as a sword flourish.

  14. It's funny this should come up- just in the last session of my own game, the PCs found they needed a specific cantrip and put it to excellent use.

    Personally, I love cantrips. Really lets you use your imagination; remember sometimes it's not a choice between 4 cantrips and magic missile. Sometimes the choice is that or burning hands.

  15. I like the notion of some number of free cantrips daily - as others have noted, some actually are useful in a dungeon, and others can be useful in city encounters. Other literary inspirations: Mary Stewart's books about Merlin, who even when weak can start a fire via magic; Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books, in which minor (student) wizards can cast werelight (essentially magelight) and other little things at will, without expending any real power.

  16. I think I match that same year as a time I was pretty burnt out on dungeons being the “tentpole,” even though I was still pretty much a kid. In recent times I had a bit of resurge in interest in classic dungeons, but reading things in the OSR the last couple years seem to have burnt me out once again.

    As for cantrips, I always looked upon them more as just “minor magics” that wizards could use for minor purposes. A way for a mage to show off without having to blast off his sleep or burning hands spell. The day to day life of a wizard should be full of little magical things they do. Create a bee to bother a noisy peasant in the tavern, or mend a pretty lasses new dress who just tore it on a fence post.

    But when I used them out of the UA back in the day, they ultimately got abused more than used to amuse. A bee summoned because the player thinks he can hold off several ogres with it, and the like. My players always seemed to think they were more powerful than they really were. Luckily, nobody seems to want cantrips in my games anymore so it’s no biggie.

  17. An old time DnDer, great blog with a great feel to it.

    Ive just started mine and I hope to achieve this level of presentation, style and professionalism.


  18. I ran a Hackmaster game for a crowd a few years ago, running Temple of Elemental Evil straight out of the box, and my player first used the cantrip to promote hair growth to make lareth's locks grow, then a tie cantrip to them under his chin... then an ignite cantrip to set them on fire.

    Poor Lareth...

  19. Rev Pavane! Thanks for that lead on historic armor.

    I like Cantrips a lot and encourage the Magic Users to use them. I have done away woth Vancian magic and the whole contrived concept of "level" as much as possible. I didn't like the idea of a first level magic user being able to cast only a single spell and ending up a D&D artillery piece.

    My model for magic spell casting is based on the performance art. Magic IS part performance. Oh, a first level mage can only prepare only a single spell, but it's mot a 100% that the spell will work. Each spell as its own percentage for success, based on how well the Magic User is familiar with the theoretical underpinnings of that particular school of magic, how well s/he learned the spell, and on the sell casting skills themselves. So, magic user goes into battle and casts a spell. In the real world Magic User gets stressed by arrows, enemies, shouting and the confusion, etc etc. A successful, AIMED casting of the spell is only possible with near perfect technique and casting form. Every minute in battle, and near hit, the wizard gets a little more tired, little more stressed, pay a little less attention to his CASTING TECHNIQUE. Wizard's chance of casting a successful spell successfully decreases over time as he gets tired of being in battle and loses hit points (possibly), gets shoved or the concentration broken. Eventually, the wizard gets sloppy enoyugh to the point, where a spell will not go off. At that point the Magic User can't cast that spell any more until s/he snaps out of the fray, rests, practices the proper form and techbique for casting that spell. In a way like a gymnast after a performance. Thus, a first level magic user can cast his Magic Missile spell once or twice, three times or more if he gets really lucky, or less, if totally unlucky. I usually let them try until they get off at least one spell.

  20. As far as spell levels are concerned, the level of the spell expresses the level of COMPLEXITY of the spell. To make it more relecvant, the Spell's level = level of magic user when that spell first becme available to thrm. Hence, Magic Missile is the FIRST level spell of the Evocation School (Everyone wants Evocation). I eny it to the player characters. Only the Wizards Guild teaches Evocation to the select special absolutely loyal few. It costs a lot of money to become a licensed Wizard, joiun the Guild, and matriculate as a student at tghe Magical College. Most Mages make their momey (an tons of it), casting Tenser's Floating Disks, Turn Stone to Mud, Locate Object, and spells such as ESP and Wizatd's eye for high price. What fool wants to go adventuring? Those not rich enough to join the Wizards Guild. Anyway, Magic Missile is spell level ONE, Fireboll, typicaly a Third level spell, becomes available to FIFTH level Magic Users in AD&D, and hence, becomes a FIFTH spell. Each additional spell level is TWICE as complex as the previous one. The effect is exponential. Thus, a for a first level Magic User, a Fireball is 16 times as complex as a Magic Missile spell. It takes three weeks of study and practice for a properly educated first level magic user to learn a first level spell under a comnpetent teacher. For a good teaher of the appropriate level to teach a 1st level Magic User a Fireball Spell will take about a year, after whichthe 1st level Magic User's chances to learn the Fireball spell is 1/16th of the chances to learn the first level spell. For a self-taught wizard working wiothout an instructor, the study period for the Fireball spell is 15 years. 9 th level Wish spell becomes an 18th level difficulty spell. It will take an 18th level Wizard workingwith proper teachers, 3 years of study for chnace to learn thhis spell. Self taught 1st levrl wizard will have to spend 7,561 YEARS of solo study before the chance to learn that spell. The chance to learn a Wish spell for a 1st level unitiated magic user is 1/262,144 of their ability to learn a first level spell. Assume that for a frist level Magic user a chance to learn the first level spell is between 12 and 35%.

    I am a very reasonable DM, ANYBODY has the potential to learn ANY spell, provided they find knowledge, and put in TIME and ELBOW GREASE. Of course, they can either advance as a Magic User OR they can roll their between 12 and 35 or so on percentile dice yielding results between 000001 and 999999.

    Among other things, Midlands Model explans why Elves and the long lived undead, such as Liches, would need long life spans to master Magic.

    Cantrips give the 1st level magic users same abiolity to practice their craft as 9th level wizards, albe it on a smaller scale. Wizards get the cantrips only from the schools of magic that they know.

  21. PaladinSix said...
    "It occurs to me that by the early 1980s, Gygax (and perhaps others at TSR) were running out of new and original ideas to write about in the context of traditional dungeon-crawling"

    That's an interesting observation and one that I have given though to at times as it really seems in the early days it was a bit of a "boy's club" were you had to personally know and be involved with Gygax to write a module or ad some new rules, and it was only after he left that you saw a bit more diversity in designers and writers working for TSR. I wouldn't say that's necessarily a bad thing as we got some fantastic material and all the classic modules came from that time period, but you do need to have new people bringing in fresh ideas . Hence why anthologies/ short story compilations are still a great platform in the literary world.

  22. I must admit I like cantrips very much but they were horrible at a four cantrips to one 1st-level spell exchange rate. We were power mad I guess because we played allowing MU's to memorize as many cantrips as their number of languages known. Players found plenty of uses and gamed the heck out of those cantrips.

  23. Cantrips are for the "imaginative" Magic User . . . you really have to be creative to get real use out of them in an "Adventure."

    But at the same time, they would be "standard" fare around a Magic School of Laboratory -- fetching and carrying and pouring that strange mixture into another vial -- from safety!

    I like playing a Magic User -- it's my favorite character -- and I always try to find a use for cantrips. It just makes the "world" and the game more real.

  24. We used and enjoyed cantrips in 1st ed. We were always role-playing, and having the cantrips allowed us to be more "magical" beyond the very limiting spell slots.

  25. "Cantrips are a vital part of making a Magic-User a Magic-User. They USE magic... They use magic to do everything... Cantrips are the common magic that make mages magical. They are the little spells that a character steeped in arcane knowledge and brimming with power perform without a thought. And as such they are vital to the character class."--The Degenerate Elite

    I'd never thought about it that way before. But, now that you've explained it so clearly & compellingly, I agree completely. Thanks!

    "I use them always, all mages know them all, they are free to cast, they do not require memorization."--The Degenerate Elite

    That's how I'm going to use them from now on, too. Thanks again!

    And thanks for the link to even more cantrips, too!

  26. James wrote: First, I think Gary came up with cantrips because they were a natural outgrowth of his world-building. ... Second, I think Gary had tired of dungeons ...

    That's reading a lot into the existence of cantrips that isn't supported by any clear evidence, textual or testimonial. From what I recall from Gygax's own comments at the time, he was simply so busy running TSR's expanding enterprises and writing new material that he didn't have time to run games. That doesn't mean he had tired of old-school dungeons or had decided to focus on world-building.

  27. We used cantrips “back in the day,” but not very often. If I had a MU with 3 or more 1st Level spells I often sacrificed one to get 4 cantrips. I usually found a way to use at least 1 cantrip/adventure but I really took them more for fun than practicality.

    I think 4E turned a lot/most of the non-combat spells into “rituals” of various levels, that can be cast at will (though perhaps with a cost) when conditions permit.

    Pathfinder (and maybe 3E, though I don’t remember on that score) seems to have turned a lot of non-combat, utility spells into cast-without-cost cantrips; I haven’t had a chance to test them for balance yet but it seems like a reasonable way to allow even low level magic-users to do “magical things” frequently without sacrificing their game-play magic.

  28. "Hairy" has saved the day in more than one of my games.

  29. I was absolutely enchanted with cantrips when they first came out (pun intended). I used them and I feel they really became fully developed by 3rd edition along with their clerical counterparts, Orisons.

    I am considering going back to playing an earlier-inspired edition (Labyrinth Lord) and I would find some way to include cantrips into the game.

  30. I have sometimes let characters have use cantrip per level. It just made sense to me as the type of magic that would be used in their daily existence.


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