Light – Cantrip or First Level Spell?

In the good old days, the Light spell was a first level spell, that could be used to blind a foe. Then it became a cantrip and lost it teeth, and dungeoneering changed forever.

From first level spell to cantrip changes a lot of the dungeon exploring game play. Minor changes in spells can change the structure of the game, and it removes some of the challenges of exploring the dark depths.

I have with interest read DMDavid’s posts on how spells can ruin adventures (Spell can ruin adventures, Spells that ruin adventures, revisited and Spells that ruin mystery and treachery), and there is no doubt that Detect Lie, Zone of Truth and Etherealness can spoil the fun of exploring a dungeon – and yet something as simple as a cantrip can, perhaps not ruin, but still limit a part of the fun of exploring a dungeon.

When exploring dungeons limited resources are a part of the challenge, and every time an effect such as a spell replaces a limited resource something is lost. Recently I have begun playing the DCC module The People of the Pit with a Dungeon Crawl Classics party and with a D&D 5th edition party, and their progress and challenges are in some places quite different.

For the DCC group carrying torches and lanterns, they have to be careful, when solving challenges spending resources – for instance they wanted to burn the bones of the physical remnants of a group of ghosts, and they had to consider how many flasks of oil, they dared spend, as they also needed the oil for their lantern. For the other party, they simply had all the light they wanted, and flasks of oil and torches could be freely spent against foes. Likewise, there was not much worry about lights going out, finding ways to cross basins, while keeping a flame burning, and into every pit is thrown a stone with a light spell in order to determine its depth.

Back in the day, when I played AD&D or D&D becmi, light was a resource, and the group’s spellcaster had to choose between using the Light spell as an offense blinding a foe or a limited light source.

I am not interested in the players tracking each and every torch, as it becomes tedious and adds no fun to the game, but using torches or lanterns, the PCs risks losing their light and being trapped in darkness, and it forces the wizard to choose and use their spells carefully (The role of light becomes obvious, when taking a look at RPGs such as Torchbearer, where light is a central part of the economy for how much can be explored).

The structural change in the game is also visible in other areas, where the simple cantrips changes the game considerably even though they have no or little use during combat.

I had the same issue when I recently ran Tomb of Horrors with a 5th edition party. Light was not an issue (but then again high-level parties do have the benefit of avoiding a lot of the usual challenges. It is a part of being a high-level character), but here another cantrip began causing problems. The spellcasters kept examining, pulling, twisting and turning everything using the Mage Hand cantrip, which being evocative of the wizard, also spared the thief for investigating a lot of objects. Gygax never wrote Tomb of Horrors to handle the new and almost limitless resources of a spellcaster with cantrips ad ritual spells

A minor change in D&D 3rd edition back in the day also took the teeth out of a wilderness campaign, I was running. The players discovered that they had easy access to a Resistance spell that lasted 24 hours and that protected them against heat and cold. This minor spell was of little use against magical fire and cold attacks, but it made traveling through a desert harmless, and the challenges of surviving the harsh climate disappeared from the game.

Next time I am starting a D&D-campaign up, I will be changing a series of spells. Light will once more be a first level spell, but also one that can be used offensively. If dungeoneering is central to the game, Mage Hand will likewise also change.

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About Morten Greis

Historiker, etnolog, brygger, fægter, rollespiller, science fiction entusiast History and Ethnology, brewer and fencer, roleplayer and science fiction enthusiast View all posts by Morten Greis

6 responses to “Light – Cantrip or First Level Spell?

  • kimleerpg

    Good points — but only really applicable to the humans and halflings. Everyone else can see in the dark just fine.

    • Jon Bupp

      If I were to change light to a 1st level sorrel, I’d probably change darkvision to more closely match ye olde infravision, which limits its effectiveness.

      • Morten Greis

        It would be a thing to take into consideration. I my groups most of the characters are human, so darkvision/infravision is a minority and thus often not that much of an issue. Having one in the party, while the rest are unable makes it risky to rely much on the darkvision ability.

  • Gerald Williams

    Mage Hand doesn’t need to be changed, just how useful it seems to be. Sure, the caster can twist, pull, and push, but without tactile sensation they can’t feel changes. They have to directly observe the effect of their manipulations.. which puts them in the line of fire when a trap goes off. A professional rogue is feeling for slight shifts that pre-warn of possible traps or secret compartments, the Mage Handy magician doesn’t come close.

  • Morten Greis

    @Kimleerpg – true, but humans are not that uncommon my gaming groups, and neither are halfings, so it is often an issue.

    @Gerald – the mage hand might not – based on your assumptions – have these tactile elements, but that is not necessary, when the desire is to trigger traps without standing in front of them. For instance in Tomb of Horrors many traps fire a spear at the person opening the door or trigger some effect, when an object is manipulated, but few of these effects reach a mage partially hiding behind a corner 30 feet away. The spell simply does a lot of the rogues work.

  • Counting Arrows, Tracking Rations – Survival Horror in the Dungeon | Roles, Dice and Fun

    […] This is a follow-up post to my last post about The Light spell: Cantrip or 1st level spell? […]

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