Friday, February 5, 2016

Magical Skills (Cantrips)

You'll probably want to read this post first, for a little background. Oh...and this little follow-up, too.

"Wizard Week" (apparently) continues here at Ye Olde Blog. Wouldn't say that was my original plan for the week, but I can roll with it. Anyway...

After bitching and moaning about my five year old's magic-user's limitations (the child in question? we've yet to get back to the game. Probably in a couple more years...), I received a lot of feedback...which I do appreciate, by the way. But the one comment that made the biggest impression was this bit of an (off-hand?) remark from Thomas Williams, stating:
Oh, and finally, I think if consulted, the spirit of EGG he would say that MUs played by children under the age of 10 can blast doors with a 1-2 on a d6 (modified by INT) ;-)
Thomas, that's kind of brilliant.

Back in...oh...2009 or so I was trying to think up little things to add to the magic-user character to be "more magical." Because a guy who carries around a single spell in their head (as the 1st level B/X magic-user does) ain't all that. And one of the things I considered was the addition of minor magic, something "not unlike AD&D cantrips." Which, I should note, is something I never really allowed or used back in the days when I did play AD&D.

[cantrips weren't outlawed or anything...they simply didn't seem worth inclusion. My co-DM used them a bit, but mainly for NPCs of the "jokey," humorous variety. That's what cantrips were seen as by our group: comic relief. Certainly not a valuable magical resource]

The apprentice hard at work.
It was a suggestion, but one without a specific system, and something I didn't really try to pursue. But a lot of other folks ARE doing cantrippy things to their campaigns. I had at least four different people suggesting the addition of cantrips to help "boost" the beginning mage, and I know of a couple others who allow cantrips as part of their house campaigns (mages in Alexis's campaign, for example, receive 2-3 cantrips on average, plus a couple more with every level. Of course, his 1st level mages can cast three 1st level spells to begin...). Even so, I wasn't very keen on the whole cantrip concept. I just wasn't interested in adapting a batch of 0-level spells from AD&D to B/X, let alone trying to create my own list.

[and, dammit, a 1st level magic-user isn't supposed to be an "apprentice," anyway...]

But after seeing the simplicity in Tom's suggestion...of basically re-skinning existing B/X systems as magical variants...I have a way to give cantrips a try. Here's the proposed text:
By the time human magic-users are ready to begin their adventuring career (i.e. have achieved 1st level) they are presumed to have been trained in the theories of magic and spell creation. The fact that they have created and cast their first 1st level spell is proof they are ready to "graduate" and go out into the world. 
While training, apprentice magic-users learn and practice basic theorems and rudimentary spells, called cantrips. These mercurial magics are unreliable compared to the greater, formulaic spells used by adventurers, but they are good practice for the student precisely because of their difficulty and magic-users retain knowledge of this training even after finishing their studies. 
All magic-users know the following cantrips: 
  • Charm of Opening (2 in 6): With a word of command, a locked/stuck door shudders and bursts open. Does not function on doors that are magically held or locked.
  • Dowsing for Traps (2 in 6): With the use of a dowsing pendant or apparatus, the magic-user can discover if a particular object or area is trapped or not. A failed roll means that the result of the dowsing is inconclusive.
  • Ignite (2 in 6): May start a small fire, such as for  torch, without the need of a tinderbox.
  • Premonition (2 in 6): A minor form of ESP, the magic-user can detect the presence (or lack) of living creatures within a short (30') distance, such as on the other side of a closed door. A failed roll indicates nothing can be sensed. Premonition faces the same restrictions as ESP.
  • Revelation of Secrets (1 in 6): With a few minutes meditation, the magic-user can sense the presence of concealed objects (secret doors and hidden compartments, for example) and gains knowledge of the means to reveal the same. This spell will not detect invisible or magically concealed objects.
  • Water Finding (1 in 6): As dowsing for traps, but will discover the location/direction of natural freshwater outlets (streams, springs, wells, and rivers). This spell only functions outdoors (i.e. in the wilderness). 
The numbers in parenthesis indicate the character's chance of successfully casting the cantrip. Magic-users with an intelligence score of 13+ have a number of bonus points (equal to the number of bonus languages known) to distribute amongst these skills; for example, a magic-user with a 17 intelligence could add one point to ignite and one point to premonition, raising the chance of each to 3 in 6. Mastery of cantrips proceeds over the length of a magic-user's career; with each level earned, a single point may be added to any one of the character's cantrips. 
Each cantrip may be used but once per game session; however, a cantrip only counts as "used" if its casting is successful. A magic-user could thus attempt a specific cantrip multiple times, though not for the same purpose (for example, if a dowsing for traps fails in a particular room, it may not be tried again in the same location, but may be tried in different room later in the adventure).

Thus ends the text.

Astute veterans of B/X will recognize that each of these cantrips is a slightly re-skinned version of a standard adventuring procedure (hearing noise, breaking down doors, foraging in the wild, etc.). The main difference here (besides magical "color") is that the cantrips gain bonuses for a magic-user's (presumably) better than average intelligence, and increase over time...possibly increasing to the level where the cantrip can be used automatically (6 in 6) like any other spell. The trade-off is that, like all spells, each can only be used a single time in the game session...the charm of opening could not be used to blast every door in the dungeon, for example (unlike the bruiser fighter's muscles).

A final note, and then I'll leave off: I'm not a fan of cantrips that add attack or defense (i.e. combat) abilities to a mage. There's a reason magic-users are "nerfed" regarding weapon use and armor allowed; adding cantrips that "correct" this design choice run counter to the spirit of the game in my opinion. Shield and magic-missile are powerful, formulaic spells that address the imbalance, but within the spirit of the game concept. We don't need weaker magic giving MU's the equivalent of leather armor or a throwing dagger, for example.

But I plan on talking specifically about weapon limitations in a follow-up post.
: )


  1. Interesting. Not sure I like infringing on the thief's niche for finding traps or the demihumans for finding secret doors though.

    1. Thanks for the compliments JB, I didn't expect you to take an of the cuff remark and turn it into a system.

      Given that they are once per day effects I don't agree that they really infringe on the Thief's niche. Though let's be honest as bemoaned just a couple of posts earlier the 1st Level Thief barely infringes on its own niche ;-)

      In any case pretty much all characters have at least a 1 in 6 chance at the unskinned version of these cantrips.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

    3. Indeed, other PCs do...but there are some inherent benefits of doing things with magic.

      Aside from the bonus from high INT (a MU might find secret time...better than an elf!), there are some advantages to not having to "touch" doors to break them or listen. Specifically, I'm thinking of traps and rot grub.
      : )

      I'm also considering the removal of thieves "find traps" wasn't present in earlier editions after all. But as you pointed out, a one-time "dowsing" isn't the same thing as the thief's use-at-will skill.

  2. This is great, I have never considered cantrips paired up with a d6 roll before. If you are looking to keep things more "fire and forget" maybe allow the WIS mod as a bonus too or +2 pips a level after LEV 1 but any attempt uses up a daily use. I try to discourage the "trying again over and over" until a 1 is rolled. (Unless a wandering monster table roll is involved)

  3. Good stuff! I have introduced some zero level spells to my game as the campaign is on a slow progression track. M-Us were a bit on the short end of that as they have less to do at lower levels. I'm adding this to the game.

    David S.
    Minnesota, USA

  4. Hmmm doesn't look bad, the once a day along with a die roll limi looks a bit extreme but it certainly sets cantrips apart from the more effective 1st level spells

    1. @ JDS:

      That's really the beauty of it...rather than try to think up crap-tastic cantrips that make an orc sneeze or whatnot ("zero level" spells), why not make them useful but unreliable...though with the potential to BECOME reliable as the mage grows in ability.

      The fact that they seem like minor versions of later spells (premonition-ESP, open-knock, etc.) is stylistically neat, too.
      : )

  5. One thing I've done to give low level spell users (not just MUs) a little less suckiness is to define a side effect for any spell they have memorised, which they can use at will as long as the corresponding spell is still in memory. For example, being able to blow open a non-magically locked door on a 1-2 if they have Magic Missile in memory; being able to make someone they speak to drowsy on a 1-2 if they have Sleep in memory, being able to restore 1hp to someone if they have CLW and so on.

  6. In my opinion, the "Prestidigitation" cantrip (I'm not sure which edition introduced this spell; I first saw it in 4th edition) is the only one necessary to make the magic-user feel "magical".

    1. @ Cavalier:

      In the high magic world of 4E, prestidigitation certainly does the job.