Cantrip Scrolls

Let’s consider the warlock and the eldritch blast ability. The warlock as a D&D class was first introduced in the 3.5 supplement Complete Arcane, and then perpetuated as a core class in the Fourth Edition Player’s Handbook. This is notable because it is one of the first appearances of a class with at-will spell-like powers. Other than the blast ability, the warlock is basically a slightly tougher magic-user with a more custom spell list (though the spells are called invocations).

In the original game, all weapons did 1d6 damage. Thus, a magic-user with a bandolier of daggers is not all that different mechanically from an eldritch blasting warlock. The major difference is that the warlock cannot be disarmed short of being restrained and has theoretically infinite ammunition, whereas the dagger throwing magic user has only practically infinite ammunition (most thrown daggers can be easily recovered after battle) and can be more obviously disarmed. A warlock’s eldritch blast might also be able to damage monsters which can only be harmed by magic.

Despite the fact that daggers do not generally run out, there is a sense of scarcity associated with anything that is numerically tracked on a character sheet, and this resource management is important to the feel of traditional D&D. The eldritch blast does not break the game mechanically, but it does break the game thematically.

What if we wanted to provide an alternative to the dagger mage with slightly more arcane flavor but that avoids the thematic problems described above. Enter the cantrip scroll. Any magic-user can create a cantrip scroll. It takes one day of work and 1 GP worth of supplies. Cantrip scrolls function just like other scrolls (they take a full round to intone, do not allow movement, and are consumed when used). The alternative to the eldritch blast is the malign ray: enemy must save versus magic or take one die of damage, range as thrown dagger.

    There could also be cantrip scrolls with other functions. I prefer to think of arcane magic as inherently chaotic (following the lead of LotFP), so I don’t think they should have more constructive abilities; they should be limited to minor effects consistent with an agent of chaos.

    This post began in my head as an old school take on the eldritch blast. To be honest, there wasn’t really a problem to be solved (I actually quite enjoy playing the traditional magic-user with no at-will powers and only one slot for a prepared spell at first level). I was just sitting in the dentist’s chair with nothing else to do and got to thinking: how is this at-will power really any different than a magic-user with a bag of daggers?

    8 thoughts on “Cantrip Scrolls

    1. LS

      That’s an interesting concept. Help me out here, though, because I feel like my lack of thorough 1st edition knowledge is hindering me: wouldn’t requiring a full day be spent on the cantrip scroll make it actually quite limited? Eldritch Blast is infinite, Daggers are effectively infinite, but the scroll would require a caster to find a lot of downtime frequently, since they’d be using it much more than once per day while adventuring.

      On an unrelated note, the D&D 3.5 warlock is one of my favorite classes in the game. My longest-lived PC ever (6 or 7 years now) is a Warlock, and I so loved playing him that I’ve also spent 5 years playing a warlock in WoW.

      1. Brendan

        That’s true, and I think the impact of the cost will depend on how frequent and capacious downtime is in a given campaign. Another attractive alternative might be to make the cost equivalent to a dagger (2 GP, I think) and then allow a magic-user to make as many as they wanted between adventures and leave the constraint up to encumbrance (5 scrolls per encumbrance slot is what I currently use, the same as for daggers or other smallish but not trivial items).

        I’m also quite happy with making the attack resolved by an enemy saving throw rather than an attack roll because it gives the malign ray a unique character and also makes it able to target a different weakness in monsters (something 4E tried to do with the three extra defenses but mostly failed at).

        I also really like the warlock class, though I have never been able to play one in a 3E lineage game.

      2. LS

        Leaving the constraints up to encumbrance strikes me as a good idea, though I’m a little surprised that you use 5 scrolls/1 encumbrance. I wouldn’t imagine a spell would add so much weight to a piece of parchment!

        I have no problem with Malign Ray requiring a saving throw, and again I am not familiar with early editions the way you are. However, I would point out that in 3.5, the reason Eldritch Blast is handled by a ranged touch attack roll is because very few spells actually use attack rolls to deal damage. So in 3.5 terms, I would not say that resolving it with an enemy saving throw gives it a ‘unique character.’ Whether or not that remains true for early editions, I can’t say.

        For the better part of a year I’ve been working on an updated Warlock class in between other projects. Mostly I’ve been trying to work out how to creatively and intelligently buff the class to bring it in line with Pathfinder’s more powerful base classes. There’s not a lot of historical information available on Warlocks, actually. Aside from a few things that I’ve found (they cast “Breens” and wore magical vests), most of my ideas have come from World of Warcraft. x’D

      3. Brendan

        I try to keep my encumbrance system as abstract as possible with the idea that things will average out. Some other items will err in the other direction (e.g., I allow 5 torches per encumbrance slot which is probably pretty unrealistic). If a particular character’s load seems overly illogical in a given case (either through trying to get around the spirit of the rules or because of something that seems more reasonable), rulings can always be made on a case by case basis. Also, I’m assuming that the scrolls are stored in a way that can be easily accessed in combat (single tubes around the belt, a bandolier, or something similar). That seems like it would be bulkier than a stack of papers.

        Or maybe magic power actually adds weight. Another reason for the spell book to be left at home. And perhaps an indication that an item might be enchanted. And another way to incentivize not carrying too many magic items. Sometimes offhand comments like this can lead to really interesting implications.

        Yeah, most earlier editions don’t use attack rolls for most spells. The defense is usually the saving throw, meaning that magic-users and fighters are usually attacking different weaknesses in enemies.

    2. Talysman

      A full d6 damage seems a little high for a cantrip, but it’s an otherwise good idea. I did something similar with cantrips, which eventually wound up in a Fight On! article (“Cantrips Gone Wild!” in FO #13.) I charge 3d6+2 for cantrip scrolls and figure they’d take about an hour to prepare. The other idea I had was cantrip wands (cost: as cantrip scroll +10 gp, requires appropriate piece of wood, contains 1 spell, chance of being damaged from overuse.)

      1. Brendan

        chance of being damaged from overuse

        Wand overheating!

        Situation roll implementation: if wand was fired on the previous round, 1 in 6 chance of overheating. Previous two rounds, 2 in 6, etc, max 5 in 6. Chances then decrease again as the wand “cools down” (no exact tracking necessary here, there should just be a general sense that as you use a wand frequently, it becomes more and more likely to jam).


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