Sunday, October 4, 2015

Cantrips in AD&D (1st Edition)

Looking over these things as they appear in Dragon magazine (issues #59 through #61, also printed in Unearthed Arcana), I find myself wondering why people think of Gary Gygax as some kind of game-design genius, and say that the game went to pot after he left TSR.

I'll wait for the torches to go out, and the pitchforks to rust, before I continue.

As useful as these are mechanically (some more so than others; couldn't bee, bug, gnats, and spider have been combined into a single entry, since they're almost identical in effects?) I find the detailed descriptions of the verbal and somatic components of these 0-level spells to be more than a little silly. For instance, from the description of the quite handy firefinger cantrip:
The caster speaks a word of power over elemental fire (ron-son, zip-po, or the much revered word, dun-hill), extends the forefinger, and makes a downward or sideways motion with the thumb.
(Dragon #60, p. 19)
Good gods! And I thought some of the material components of normal spells were jokey and anachronistic!

A legendary artifact.

Seriously, this would totally ruin the atmosphere of the game if left as written. I prefer to run a game with a modicum of seriousness, and let any humor come from the players or from the natural order of play (such as a rat exploding when hit with a magic missile for full damage). Just imagine a wizard in a fantasy film - if not The Fellowship of the Ring, then at least Willow - distracting a villain by wiggling their fingers and saying "kitchy-kitchy-coo", causing the villain's nose to be tweaked. (No, seriously, this is the actual description of the tweak cantrip.) Using a piece of copper wire for a message spell seems positively proper compared to crap like this.

Maybe Gygax was trying to alleviate concerns about this game being too violent, but turning a game of swords and sorcery into Harry Potter and the Wiggly Wizards seems like a very bad idea in hindsight. (Some people have expressed similar concern about the wild mage class from 2e's Tome of Magic, but at least that has some kind of actual impact on gameplay.)


  1. Lol. You obviously never played The Fantasy Trip with such classic spells as "Take That You Fiend" and "Yassa Massa".

    1. Since originally writing this post, I've also become acquainted with Tunnels & Trolls in addition to TFT. I think there's a place for levity, but the issue is when players fixate on the silliness to the exclusion of everything else.