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Friday, April 13, 2012

Attack Cantrips

Brendan's post on cantrips reminded me of some stuff I'd done with them, but also raised a side question: the damage limit of a cantrip. You see, a 1st level spell, if it does damage, is somewhere in the 1d6 range. A cantrip should thus do less damage, or if it does a d6 for damage, there should be some other limit to it, to keep it in the 0-level spell range. Efforts to create ultra-low-level damage spells seem like power creep, especially since there's usually no attack roll and it's harder to "disarm" an M-U than a thief or fighter (unless the M-U is using cantrip scrolls or wands.) If there's a saving throw, a cantrip suddenly becomes more likely to hit than a thrown dagger.

My thought is to make attack cantrips fit a simple template: standard attack roll, 1 point of damage, has one additional effect on a 5+ roll (on 1d6). It's no more difficult to roll this than a mundane attack, and we can vary the additional effect to create a variety of cantrips:

Bolts of Bedevilment: knocks target backwards.
Sorcerer's Sting: pain causes target to drop objects in hand.
Enchanted Embers: can set beard or clothing on fire (extra point of damage unless put out.)
Necromantic Numbness: deadens nerves (-1 on actions for 3 rounds.)
Dazzling Dagger: shower of sparks blinds for 3 rounds.

As a bonus, here's a link to the updated "Cantrips Gone Wild!" article that I wrote for Fight On! #13. You can use the rules there for cantrip scrolls or wands with these attack cantrips. A 1st level Magic-User with a Staff of Cantrips imbued with Bolts of Bedevilment, Enchanted Embers, Blow Air, Spin Air, Create Flash, Stifle Voice, Open Door, and Summons Spider could actually terrify an ordinary peasant, even though technically all the powers are very low level.


  1. I agree regarding power creep, and perhaps "cantrip" was a poor name for the idea, since it has so many previous meanings. For example, in Second Edition, cantrip is a first level spell that has a duration of one hour per level and may never inflict any damage. In Third Edition, wizards can prepare a certain number of different cantrips that are then essentially at-will powers (this is more or less how I played back in the 90s; wizards could use cantrips whenever without preparation, but cantrips could never have game mechanical benefits other than very minor things like knocking a vase off of a mantel). I can't find any mention of cantrips in a quick glance through my AD&D Players Handbook.

    Instead of cantrip, perhaps "minor scroll" would be a better name, since this is not an ability that can ever be prepared without a scroll. Thus, there will always be a GP and encumbrance cost. Also, I would only use d6 damage in a game without variable damage. If I was playing in a game with variable damage, I would probably have the malign ray cause hit die damage also, which would make it d4. My main goal was to make this attack competitive with a thrown dagger but not strictly better than a thrown dagger (as the 3E warlock's eldritch blast is).

    I like the list here of extra cantrips and I need to check out your article in Fight On! #13. I haven't had time to read the last few issues thoroughly. I have a few more cantrip scroll ideas of my own that I'll put out another post on.

    1. Yeah, it may just be the use of the word "cantrip" that throws me off. Cantrips weren't in the 1e PHB, but were introduced in The Dragon and later in Unearthed Arcana as 0-level spells, pretty much the same in power as the way you describe the 2e and 3e cantrip power levels. There's a cantrip in Unearthed Arcana that will do 1 point of damage to a tiny bug, mouse, or other 1 hp vermin-sized creature, which seems about right to me in terms of power level.

      The Google Docs link I included in this post is essentially the same as the article as it appeared in FO #13; in fact, I actually submitted that document to Calithena. The only difference is that I corrected a mangled sentence and changed the cost of a cantrip wand.