Cantrips in OSR Games

I’m a massive fan of cantrips. In roleplaying/D&D terms cantrips are low–usually zero–level spells that mages have and can cast without using any of their spell slots. These aren’t big powerful spells, they’re small little cool things that various magic-users can do by harnessing their innate arcane mastery, for example: lighting a candle.

Unfortunately cantrips aren’t really a things by default in my beloved OSR games and, whilst I’ve seen a few implementations of them in various books, none of them have really captured my imagination or made me want to include them in my games. With my CSI: Great Lunden (you can see the player handout I did here) game starting in a few weeks (yikes – that came round fast) I wanted to have some way to represent cantrips in the game that was going to be easy and not require a whole slew of new mechanics.

Cantrips are one of the things I really enjoyed about 5E D&D, effectively there’s a list of 0-level spells you get to pick from, each with some really minor effect but–since they don’t cost spell slots–you can just keep on using them. I love this because it means that your mages (especially a low level) is still going to have some magic stuff they can do even when they’ve blown through their two magic missile spells (or whatever is in their arsenal).

Since we’re running LOTFP for our Midderlands game there are only three spell-casting classes that I really need to concern myself with:

  • Cleric
  • Elf
  • Magic-User

Elves and Magic-users both utilise the same sorts of spells so I really only need to focus on Arcane and Divine spells, so I decided to dig out my 5E PHB and have a look at some of the cantrips available for those two types of magic.

Arcane Cantrips

Basically the arcane cantrips seem to fall into the following rough categories:

  • Inflict a small amount of damage.
  • Make a really weak illusion.
  • Create illumination.
  • Send small messages.
  • Perform magical tricks.

Divine Cantrips

Divine cantrips seem to run along the following lines:

  • Create illumination.
  • Giving allies a small bonus to dice rolls.
  • Repair objects.
  • Inflict small amounts of damage.
  • Perform small, wondrous signs.

At first I considered just adding some additional spells to the existing list for LOTFP but I don’t really see a massive benefit to adding yet another thing for the player characters to track in the game. Then it occurred to me that I could just create a list of minor magics that PC Magic-Users and Clerics could just do (since most of the damaging stuff is less effective that using a weapon anyway).

My Cantrip Idea

So, for my Midderlands game, I’m considering allowing Magic-Users and Clerics to perform effects from the following lists at will:

Cleric Cantrips

Clerics may perform one of the following effects as their action per round, doing so does not cost any spell slots, however casting the cantrip must be their only action, they may not move or do anything else taxing.

  • Cause an object to shed light in a 20′ x 20′ radius (the light can be coloured as desired). This effect ends if the Cleric creates a light on another object or dismisses it as a free action.
  • Repair a single small break or tear in object (this cannot restore magical functionality to broken arcane items).
  • Make their voice boom three times as loud for 1 minute.
  • Cause flames to flicker, brighten, dim or change colour for 1 minute.
  • Cause harmless ground tremors for 1 minute.
  • Create a sound (such as a rumble of thunder) that originates from a point of your choice within 30′
  • Instantaneously cause an unlocked window or door to burst open or slam shut.
  • Alter the appearance of your eyes for 1 minute.

Magic-user Cantrips

Magic-users may perform one of the following effects as their action per round, doing so does not cost any spell slots, however casting the cantrip must be their only action, they may not move or do anything else taxing.

  • Cause an object to shed light in a 20′ x 20′ radius (the light can be coloured as desired). This effect ends if the Cleric creates a light on another object or dismisses it as a free action.
  • Throw a bolt of magic energy at a person, make a ranged attack, if successful the target takes 1D6 damage.
  • Magically move an object weighing no much than 10 lbs 30′.
  • Repair a single small break or tear in object (this cannot restore magical functionality to broken arcane items).
  • Create an illusionary sound or image of an object within 30′, the illusion lasts for 1 minute or until dismissed. Images have no substance and are easily determined to be false if examined, objects created must be no larger than a 5′ cube.
  • Create a harmless sensory effect such as a puff of wind or faint musical notes.
  • Instantaneously light or snuff out a candle, torch or small campfire.
  • Instantaneously clean or soil an object no larger than 1 cubic foot.
  • Chill, warm or flavour up to 1 cubic foot of non-living material for 1 hour.
  • Make a colour, mark or illusionary image appear on a surface or object for 1 hour.
  • Create a non-magical trinket or illusionary image that fits in your hand and lasts until the end of next turn.

Those are the lists I’ve got so far (based on the 5E cantrips), I will probably tweak them or trim the lists down before implementing them in the game. Let me know what you think.

Image used for the article is A Suitable Present taken from the Old Book Illustrations website: https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/illustrations/suitable-present/

One thought on “Cantrips in OSR Games”

  1. I do like the idea of cantrips in OSR games but light is one of those things that I do’t like being free. Light as a cantrip can completely do away with the fear of running out of torches. I don’t like Darkvision on races either. PCs should fear the dark.

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