Way back when the world was flat and I was playing 1e AD&D in the mid 1980s, a book came out that threw a number of monkey wrenches into our nice, ordered existence… Unearthed Arcana.
There were some cool things like Cavaliers and extended item lists. There were some weird things like the new stat of Comeliness. And then there were cantrips.
To refresh your memory from that book…
“Cantrips are the magic spells learned and used by apprentice magic users and illusionists during their long, rigorous, and tedious training for the craft of magic-use. An aspiring magic-user or illusionist may use 1 cantrip per day as a 0-level neophyte (-2000 x.p. to -1 001 x.P.), 2 cantrips per day as a 0-level initiate (-1 000 to -501), and 3 cantrips per day as a 0-level apprentice (-500 to -1). Cantrips must be memorized just as higher-level spells are.
Most cantrips are simple little spells of no great effect, so when the individual becomes a 1 st-level magic-user, the knowledge and information pertaining to these small magics are discarded in favor of the more powerful spells then available. However, a magic-user may opt to retain up to four cantrips in place of one 1st-level spell. This assumes that the magic-user has, in fact, retained his or her book of cantrips – a tome as large as a good-sized book of higher level spells.
All cantrips are 0 level, have a 1 “ range, have a generally small area of effect, require only soft, simple verbal and somatic components, and are cast in a very short time (VIO to VZ segment). Only those which involve living creatures afford any saving throw. Individuals in a state of extreme concentration (such as when casting a spell) do not have that concentration broken by person-affecting cantrips. The effects of cantrips, and the people and items affected by them, radiate a very faint magical aura.”
If I was to provide a simple definition of a cantrip, it would be: “Tiny utilitarian spells with extremely specific results.”
Here’s a few of these spells:
- Chill – Creates a 1″ cube of cold that chills a liquid to 40 degrees in an instant. Great trick for parties and when you need to chill your ale.
- Color – Changes the color of a cubic yard of fabric. Great if you want to change your tunic to match the color of the servants’ tunics in the building you’re trying to steal something from.
- Yawn – Makes a single target yawn with a brief wave of drowsiness. Great way to briefly get a guard to close his eyes.
Ok, so these are like what you might find in a Swiss Army knife of spells. Little tools for just the right situation. They don’t do any damage. They may affect a target, but the target gets a save. And most of them are just for personal use pretty much.
When a wizard got to 1st level, they could choose to sacrifice a 1st level spell so they could keep a small list of four cantrips available as they move on in the world.
It wasn’t overpowered back then. They were of limited usefulness and I wonder if you could almost build a character that only used cantrips. Would be great as a second class for a thief, for instance.
(Way back when we even created an entire school of wizardry simply called “Lesser Wizardry” that was nothing but cantrips. I’m pondering bringing that to Mazes & Perils as a Hedge wizard of sorts — nothing but no-damage, low-impact spells.)
But let’s contrast that with 5th Edition.
Out of the box, as a 1st level Wizard in 5e, you can cast 3 cantrips per day. And some of these are crazy.
- Acid Splash: 60 foot ranged spell attack. Does 1d6 to one or two targets if they fail a Dex save. And it goes up to 2d6 (5th level), 3d6 (11th level), 4d6 (17th level).
- Fire Bolt: 120 foot ranged spell attack. Does 1d10 and sets flammable things on fire on the target. And it goes up to 2d10, 3d10, and 4d10 the same way the Acid Splash does.
- Ray of Frost: 60 foot ranged spell attack. Does 1d8 and slows the target.
Sure, some of them are like those original cantrips, like Mending and Gust. But come on… These spells should be 1st level. Cantrips should not be doing damage.
And then there’s this:
“A cantrip is a spell that can be cast at will, without using a spell slot and without being prepared in advance. Repeated practice has fixed the spell in the caster’s mind and infused the caster with the magic needed to produce the effect over and over. A cantrip’s spell level is 0.”
This essentially makes a 1st level Wizard deadly in combat. You can choose 3 cantrips and 2 1st level spells. A 5e starting wizard could go completely offensive… Three offensive cantrips. Two offensive 1st level spells like Magic Missile and Witch Bolt. They never run out of the ability to cause damage.
Don’t get me wrong. Wizards can be deadly. But they should be deadly at later levels. The trick is to survive those first two or three levels.
So I disagree with the way that 5e wizards are constructed right now. I think if I was to run a 5e campaign for a group other than the kids I’ve been running with, I’d probably drop cantrips entirely. Or at the very least, kill all the damage-causing or overpowered cantrips from the available list. Maybe even just add the old list from Unearthed Arcana again…
(Let me say that I enjoy 5e for 5e and will continue to play it as written with my kids. I’m just saying that Mazes & Perils and the Old School ways don’t quite jive with it 100%.)
What do you guys think?