Revisiting the Past: Why Cantrips Bug Me in 5e

Way back when the world was flat and I was playing 1e AD&D in the mid 1980s, a book came out that threw a number of monkey wrenches into our nice, ordered existence… Unearthed Arcana.

There were some cool things like Cavaliers and extended item lists. There were some weird things like the new stat of Comeliness. And then there were cantrips.

To refresh your memory from that book…

“Cantrips are the magic spells learned and used by apprentice magic users and illusionists during their long, rigorous, and tedious training for the craft of magic-use. An aspiring magic-user or illusionist may use 1 cantrip per day as a 0-level neophyte (-2000 x.p. to -1 001 x.P.), 2 cantrips per day as a 0-level initiate (-1 000 to -501), and 3 cantrips per day as a 0-level apprentice (-500 to -1). Cantrips must be memorized just as higher-level spells are.

Most cantrips are simple little spells of no great effect, so when the individual becomes a 1 st-level magic-user, the knowledge and information pertaining to these small magics are discarded in favor of the more powerful spells then available. However, a magic-user may opt to retain up to four cantrips in place of one 1st-level spell. This assumes that the magic-user has, in fact, retained his or her book of cantrips – a tome as large as a good-sized book of higher level spells.

All cantrips are 0 level, have a 1 “ range, have a generally small area of effect, require only soft, simple verbal and somatic components, and are cast in a very short time (VIO to VZ segment). Only those which involve living creatures afford any saving throw. Individuals in a state of extreme concentration (such as when casting a spell) do not have that concentration broken by person-affecting cantrips. The effects of cantrips, and the people and items affected by them, radiate a very faint magical aura.”

If I was to provide a simple definition of a cantrip, it would be: “Tiny utilitarian spells with extremely specific results.”

Here’s a few of these spells:

  • Chill – Creates a 1″ cube of cold that chills a liquid to 40 degrees in an instant. Great trick for parties and when you need to chill your ale.
  • Color – Changes the color of a cubic yard of fabric. Great if you want to change your tunic to match the color of the servants’ tunics in the building you’re trying to steal something from.
  • Yawn – Makes a single target yawn with a brief wave of drowsiness. Great way to briefly get a guard to close his eyes.

Ok, so these are like what you might find in a Swiss Army knife of spells. Little tools for just the right situation. They don’t do any damage. They may affect a target, but the target gets a save. And most of them are just for personal use pretty much.

When a wizard got to 1st level, they could choose to sacrifice a 1st level spell so they could keep a small list of four cantrips available as they move on in the world.

It wasn’t overpowered back then. They were of limited usefulness and I wonder if you could almost build a character that only used cantrips. Would be great as a second class for a thief, for instance.

(Way back when we even created an entire school of wizardry simply called “Lesser Wizardry” that was nothing but cantrips. I’m pondering bringing that to Mazes & Perils as a Hedge wizard of sorts — nothing but no-damage, low-impact spells.)

But let’s contrast that with 5th Edition.

Out of the box, as a 1st level Wizard in 5e, you can cast 3 cantrips per day. And some of these are crazy.

  • Acid Splash: 60 foot ranged spell attack. Does 1d6 to one or two targets if they fail a Dex save. And it goes up to 2d6 (5th level), 3d6 (11th level), 4d6 (17th level).
  • Fire Bolt: 120 foot ranged spell attack. Does 1d10 and sets flammable things on fire on the target. And it goes up to 2d10, 3d10, and 4d10 the same way the Acid Splash does.
  • Ray of Frost: 60 foot ranged spell attack. Does 1d8 and slows the target.

Sure, some of them are like those original cantrips, like Mending and Gust. But come on… These spells should be 1st level. Cantrips should not be doing damage.

And then there’s this:

“A cantrip is a spell that can be cast at will, without using a spell slot and without being prepared in advance. Repeated practice has fixed the spell in the caster’s mind and infused the caster with the magic needed to produce the effect over and over. A cantrip’s spell level is 0.”

This essentially makes a 1st level Wizard deadly in combat. You can choose 3 cantrips and 2 1st level spells. A 5e starting wizard could go completely offensive… Three offensive cantrips. Two offensive 1st level spells like Magic Missile and Witch Bolt. They never run out of the ability to cause damage.

Don’t get me wrong. Wizards can be deadly. But they should be deadly at later levels. The trick is to survive those first two or three levels.

So I disagree with the way that 5e wizards are constructed right now. I think if I was to run a 5e campaign for a group other than the kids I’ve been running with, I’d probably drop cantrips entirely. Or at the very least, kill all the damage-causing or overpowered cantrips from the available list. Maybe even just add the old list from Unearthed Arcana again…

(Let me say that I enjoy 5e for 5e and will continue to play it as written with my kids. I’m just saying that Mazes & Perils and the Old School ways don’t quite jive with it 100%.)

What do you guys think?

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42 thoughts on “Revisiting the Past: Why Cantrips Bug Me in 5e”

  1. Oh yes… Totally agree. It’s not my k KY issue with 5e but one of many, and one of several magic issues. In order to provide some sense of balance it seems like 5e keeps upping the ante in many ways, ultimately creating a very high powered game at very low levels that make survivability much more likely…I tackle this on my blog as well in a few posts.

  2. This didn’t “just happen” with 5th edition. This has been in place since 3.0. There was little opposition to the changes heralded by 3rd, so it is only to be expected that this continues to 5th edition.

    Back then, the justification was: it is annoying/demeaning that the caster has to resort to throwing darts (wizard) after casting their one (or two) spells per day. That also led to the “five minute workday” problem, which had parties attempt to go to rest after every single encounter.

    That said – the current (and most recent editions) of the game are balanced among the various classes, with each class being considered in the light of “table time” – in other words, there has been a conscious attempt to not gimp any class with regards to both power and meaningful action at the table for the duration of an adventurer’s day.

    Further, I would say that “back in the day”, while I personally enjoyed playing characters from low (and even 0th) level, there was a very common tendency for people to simply skip a few levels and start as high as 3rd or 4th for every campaign.

    For myself – rather than tinker with the existing game rules (RAW), I would for my own campaign – introduce (just as Unearthed Arcana before), a 0th level with negative experience points, and introduce a subset of cantrips that can be learned. At 1st level, these cantrips can be continued in the aforementioned 4 for 1 deal with the more powerful cantrips that become available from the 5th edition rules list. Likewise (for the sake of balance), your 0th level fighters might be proficient with only simple weapons (and farming implements), and so on.

    1. I honestly have very little experience with wizards in 3/3.5e… there was a large gap between my 1e/2e days and 4e/5e days — so you are likely correct and it’s just a hole in my experience.

      And I like your approach with the negative XP and the cost for carrying them forward as they discuss in the older UA. I just think they have a utility that most wizards would prefer to keep with them. In a Jack Vance way, it may be that there’s simply no room for such “useless” spells in the castle of mortal memory — but I would still like to have them around. 🙂

      Thanks for chiming in!

  3. I think a good way to adjust the 5e damage cantrips is to impose a harder success rate. For example for a Wizard it is proficiency (+2 at level 1) + INT (usually +3) which = +5 to hit. You could say that all 0 level spells that roll to hit are base rolls until say level 5 or so.

    1. That’s one way to adjust it. I still disagree with cantrips causing direct damage though. That’s the beauty of these rules however — they can be adjusted and tweaked to suit our own particular tastes. 🙂

  4. While I agree with you, wholeheartedly, you (we) are living in the past. I love the UA cantrips for the same very reason – very minor magic with minimal effects. They could be quite useful and players often got very imaginative with them, which was (I feel) part of their intent. And yes, 3/3.5 had cantrips, too, but they were limited is use (per day) and not terribly effective – more so than the old 1e ones, but far less than what 5e does with cantrips.
    But I accept that I’m living in the past with some of these feelings. They’ve taken away a lot of non-combat options (skills, crafting, spells, and other various non-combat rules) in 5e that made the game a bit more than just about fighting. Granted, the additions of backgrounds are a nice nod to story and roleplaying.
    Overall, I like 5e. I look forward to a time when they add more options for those who want a bit more diversity in their games.

    1. I am definitely living in the past with exploring the Old School feel. And I love 5e. It’s an interesting dichotomy living with a foot in both worlds.

      As with all things, I fully expect some people to agree and others not to. 🙂 That’s a good place to be — and has generated some great conversation. So thanks for chiming in!

  5. I enjoy the 5th Ed cantrip rules. It means that a wizard always have some utility. And as Dominic mentions above, the need to rest every encounter is removed.
    It brings more balance to all the classes. In first and second ed(and BECMI) the M-U was seriously underpowered at low-level and godlike at higher levels. Cool if that’s what rocks your boat, personally I don’t think that everything needs to be balanced all the time(that’s something that was off-putting about 4th edition to me), but I do enjoy the flow of 5th.
    Is it the fact that it’s called cantrips and those according to UA shouldn’t do damage? Would it be better to call the at-will ĺike in 4th?

    1. I get why cantrips were updated to be more utility in 5e and give wizards a bit more effectiveness at lower levels. And I’ve played with those rules in place. I really enjoy most of what 5e has to offer and this is just a philosophical difference for me.

      It goes back to Jack Vance and the cost of spellcasting, but it’s definitely an old school approach.

  6. It really boils down to what you want out of a game system. Dominic captured why the evolution happened in D&D editions. Personally, I think you really need rules to make for a fair combat resolution system and the non-combat stuff should just be roleplayed with skills just factoring in how well something gets done.

    So what they did with Cantrips was give the spellcasters a way to be effective in combat without having to take a rest after every significant encounter. Other systems handle that problem differently, but most try to handle it these days.

    If you are unhappy with cantrips as they are, make house rules to scale their effectiveness back. Just make it clear what the rules are so that you don’t blindside your players.

  7. the Reason 5e has offensive cantrips that are capable of inflicting damage is to prevent the 5 minute adventuring day. in older editions, wizard had their one arrow, i mean their one magic missile, then they were stuck throwing darts that had absolutely zero accuracy the rest of the day. i’m glad 5th edition fixed this by including a form of offensive spell the wizard can spam with reasonable levels of accuracy. a fighter could still do more damage due to being able to add their primary attribute to the damage roll. but at least the wizard isn’t trying to find a place to rest every 5 minutes to recover their one arrow. 5th edition characters are all a bit more damage focused than their prior selves from earlier editions. but that is because every class has a bit of proficiency in the 3 pillars of combat, exploration and interaction. so even though the wizard is now a better damage dealer than it was before, the fighter isn’t completely helpless at exploration and interaction either due to the addition of backgrounds. if anything, offensive cantrips are like the reserve feats from 3rd edition complete mage. reserve feats basically gave you a spam attack that got stronger as you gained levels, and dealt respectable damage. but a wizard could choose one in place of scribe scroll or one of their other bonus feats.

    1. I don’t disagree. 5e did what it did for good reason. I just don’t have to like it. I think the slow burn of a wizard struggling to survive until they can amass true power is where it’s at. But apparently I firmly have my feet in a Vancian mindset. 🙂

      1. i hated the 5 minute adventuring day. but i would rather the offensive cantrips and other combat spells be segregated in their own category separate from utility spells. i would rather an offensive spell be part of a list of combat spells separate from exploration spells or interaction spells. with its own separate pool of uses.

  8. wizards needed a form of reliable offensive output for the lower levels. because taking highly innaccurate pot shots with thrown darts was not reliable. i mean, you needed like a 20 to land a hit against a respectable armor class, it sucked.

  9. Yeah, for me cantrips are a step in the wrong direction. I understand their basic purpose, to enable full casters to keep up (very loosely speaking) damage wise with the big hitters/provide some at will utility. But for me, being able to spam magic makes it less “magical”. It also meant, balance wise, that the devs had to tone down their other, more powerful magic. In earlier editions, magic was very limited per day, and spells were powerful as a result. Save or die was common. Not so anymore. And in my view, this is for the worse. I prefer the old school balance. Having said all that, I like 5e well enough – it’s quite fun.

    1. to me, it makes sense that if you know how to cast the big and taxing spells, that you would also be able to cast a less powerful and less energy consuming form of the spell as a means to stretch your magic over multiple fights. i mean, you would realistically learn the less exhaustive and less exerting form spells before you learn to devote more energy to them to amplify them. most wizards would teach their apprentices to spam ray of frost at will long before they teach them the limited use cone of cold. because the act of spamming ray of frost helps the wizard build the stamina required for them to finally use cone of cold.

  10. I think it wouldn’t be too hard to tighten these cantrip rules up, leaving us with something interesting. The problem is that when you combine offensive cantrips with the ability to learn so many and cast them at will. The one of those that is the most interesting to me is the ability to cast at will. I would dump offensive cantrips (maybe keep a couple that do a tiny amount of damage, 1d4 at the most) and give a character the ability to swap 1st level spells with cantrips on a 1-for-1 basis, in return for unlimited castings. I like the idea of a very minor spell that the caster can spam at will. It allows wizards to be always a bit, well, magical, without being overpowered.

  11. What do you think about these changes?

    Attack cantrips no longer scale.

    Warlocks get a feature at 5th level that allows them to cast Eldritch Blast at up to two targets at a time, scaling to three and then four.

  12. Proposed solution in 3 parts:

    Spellcasters now use the variant spell points system as found in the 5e DMG.

    Eldritch Blast becomes a Warlock class feature instead of a cantrip.

    Harmful cantrips are banned. Utility cantrips cost 1 spell point to cast.

    1. An alternative to the final rule is that harmful cantrips no longer scale, and cost 1 spell point to cast like the utility ones.

    2. Okay last update for today I swear;

      I’d change the 3rd part of my proposed solution to this:

      Harmful cantrips now cost 0 spell points starting at 1st level. They cost additional spell points at higher levels: 5th level (1 spell point), 11th level (2 spell points), and 17th level ( spell points)

      1. I need to dig into your solution, but I definitely like the fact that it’s scaled back considerably. Good food for thought. Thank you!

  13. My solution that I’m using for a homebrewed campaign of mine is below. Keep in mind that there are only warlocks and wizards as spellcasters in my homebrew.

    – Warlocks lose cantrips from Pact Magic feature. Eldritch Blast instead becomes a class feature. Pact of the Tome gets cantrips as normal.
    – Wizards use spell point casting system from DMG
    – Wizards lose cantrips from Spellcasting feature. They now get a new class feature at level 1, which lets them spend a spell point to cast magic stone cantrip. Perfect way to give cheap ranged DPS.

    Then, watch your warlocks and wizards scale and be strong.

    1. Oh, and rituals are gone from the homebrew. #NoFreeMagic

      I justify giving the warlocks eldritch blast because I figure that they get all of their magical energy from their patron, including their cantrips. And I figure the patrons are powerful enough to allow warlocks to spam eldritch blast in combat.

  14. Although I haven’t played the earlier editions, or any OSR variant of D&D, I definitely think magic should always have a cost. One rule I’m considering is the “Pax Arcana”.

    Casting a spell that doesn’t expend a spell slot (such as cantrips or rituals) now requires a spellcasting check, representing the challenge of shaping the powerful energies that suffuse the multiverse for “free”.

    Before you cast such a spell, make an ability check using your spellcasting ability. The DC equals 10 + the spell’s level. For cantrips, the DC equals 10 + the number of damage dice. On a success, your spell can be cast as normal. On a failure, nothing happens. If the check fails by 5 or more, a magical catastrophe occurs. The nature of such calamities often echoes that of the attempted spell, though the caster should always expect the spell to go awry in some terrific or terrifying manner.

    I’m considering this one, but I can see it being a tough sell for some players. I’d love to hear feedback on this idea!

    1. @Edric – I really like this approach. It only adds a little fiddly bit to casting of these minor bits and most wizards should be able to cast it without fail (high Int or Wis) — but every now and then it will provide some great role playing moments with a failure. Thanks for the suggestion!

  15. I have an update on the Pax Arcana, one that still allows for rituals and eldritch blast:

    **Pax Arcana**
    Casting a spell that doesn’t expend a spell slot (such as a cantrip or ritual) can normally happen once every ten minutes, due to the difficulty of harnessing enough ambient magical energy for the spell to properly manifest.

    If you attempt to cast a spell without expending a spell slot more than once every ten minutes, you must make a DC 5 ability check using your spellcasting ability. If you succeed, your spell is cast as normal.

    Each additional time you breach the Pax Arcana, the DC increases by 5. After at least 10 minutes of obeying the Pax Arcana, the DC resets to 5.

    Due to the peculiar nature of the spell, *eldritch blast* is immune to the effects of the Pax Arcana.

  16. Simple. Houserule it so cantrips have 0-level spell slots, and add material components that are consumed with the spell. Force them to roleplay gathering the components. Hell, force them to roleplay in general. If they don’t like it, they can leave. It’s YOUR game, and YOUR story. Players are a dime a dozen and are easily replaced. Show those absolutely FILTHY mixmaxing munchkins who’s boss!

  17. I think a lot of this argument is about what kind of fantasy world is your reference point. I don’t even think its some much a case of low vs high magic, but does get into the new rules versus old school style of roleplaying and what kind of fantasy world is being referenced by the rules. I believe that for those of us who limit or eliminate cantrip use in some way like the first few editions of DND did, our reference point is age of Hyboria in Conan, or Lankmar, or Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings. For those who argue about the need for balance between the wizard casting a fire bolt at will and an archer firing arrows the reference point is a fantasy world like World of Warcraft, or Diablo, or a Moba like game. To me it’s all about your preference for what kind of fantasy world you want to be adventuring in.
    When someone says they wouldn’t play a wizard if they couldn’t cast firebolt every round like an archer can shoot an arrow, its an argument about balance, which is very important in a video game like WOW. From my own point of reference I think if you want to cast fire bolts every round maybe you really don’t want to play a wizard, maybe you really would rather be playing an archer. But if my reference is world of warcraft, then it only makes sense that everyone is a blaster of some sort, whether your arrows are real or magical. To me the feel of playing a spellcaster in middle earth or hyborea is that you do have to play in a way that’s fundamentally unique to other classes such as a fighter.
    I limit cantrips to the # of your spell modifier a day, and each increase in level you choose one cantrip to become a first level spell. So as you gain spells you lose cantrips as you progress, sort of a midway point between their original use in DND and the 5e rules. For those who prefer the video game aesthetic of 5e rules as written, this will feel like a game breaker. For those looking for a middle earth aesthetic it makes more sense. I think it just depends on what kind of fantasy world your looking to adventure in. Everyone’s sense of adventure is different.
    (P.S. except for EB for the warlock who retains it as an at will power)

  18. My problem is an archer has so many arrows. He guards the tower from his position and only has so many shots. A 1st level caster with a range cantrip can shoot from the same position all day and Never run out of ammo lol. Nor does this effect his or hers exhaustion levels. Pretty sure if your an archery guy or a tank type you cant keep going all day as you will wear out. I could go on with more detailed info but im sure you all see where im going here.

    1. @James – totally see your point and agree. There should be a limit to what magic can accomplish, as a finite resource. I guess it all depends on the rules and setting we all want to play in. Plenty of room for everybody, but I definitely agree. 🙂

  19. I also miss the days of the “cantrips are there for flavor”.
    Admittedly, the constant rest and recover concept can be lame, but imagine the characters are in a tense situation where rest isn’t possible. In older editions, the spells run out, the HP is dropping from everyone. Things get tense. Survival becomes questionable. People have to get creative about what to do next.
    Same situation with 5e – not as big of a problem because endless damage-based cantrips are there.
    It feels like D&D started going “Non magic users need more to balance them out with magic users…let’s give them more things to try to bridge that gap.” And then they went, “We need to give early level magic users something to balance them out with non magic users…let’s give them something to bridge that gap.”
    And now, at least to me, I feel like it has become a system that has homogenized all the classes into more or less similar builds with different paint jobs and a few unique elements tacked on to each that are about as meaningful as adding a bumper sticker to the equation.

  20. Cantrips suck from every aspect except the spellcaster player who just wants to pew-pew’s perspective.

    They suck because while they do less damage than martial weapons due to a lack of ability modifier, they have extra boons to compensate (loss of reaction, flammability, slowed speed, disadvantage on next attack roll, no benefit from cover…).
    They suck because they have none of the drawbacks a martial weapon does (limited ammo, monsters’ damage resistance or immunity to nonmagical attacks)

    They suck because from a non-“adventurers off in their world” standpoint it’s even MORE caster supremacy.
    They suck because an at-will form of distant attack is rife for abuse. I’ve had bard players kill commoners with Vicious Mockery for trivial reasons, which they wouldn’t do if Vicious Mockery had a cost.

    I’m a 5E native, I don’t feel we should go back to ONE SPELL PER DAY AND YOU’LL LIKE IT. But I feel that unlimited magic turns magic into mundane, and leads to world where casters WOULD rule all. There’s got to be a better approach.

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