D&D 5E Cantrips, a Curious Thing

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
I want to preface this by saying this is not a call to change how cantrips and spells work; I presume that the current system exists for reasons related to mechanical balance. So please, no comments like "lol wut, do you want to make casters stronker?", or "I hate at-will cantrips!" (we're assuming that's just how things are for the purposes of this discussion). That's not the point, really. What I'm curious about is the narrative; D&D's spellcasting systems all evolved from an interpretation of what's going on in Jack Vance's Dying Earth novels (or, as I'm more familiar with, Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber)- the Wizard takes time to "pre-cast" a spell in advance, to be released at a later time by leaving a few threads of magic unwoven (or something to that effect).

You can see this in play with Rituals, which can be used with no "cost" in spell slots, but take a lot of time to use. But Cantrips exist in this funny space, where they can do a lot for a very minimal cost, even if they eventually outperform low-level spells!

Most spellcasting classes can use Cantrips. Small bits of magic that can be used over and over again; mechanically, there's no real problem with this- it gives spellcasters something to do each turn, and lets them conserve spell slots.

However, something strange is definitely going on, because some of the Cantrips of higher level spellcasters get stronger over time, while the power of a spell slot doesn't change. Now, I'm just going to come out and say I don't think Cantrips are really infinite in universe; that's simply a game mechanic not wanting to actually place a limit on them. I'm just assuming that Cantrips can be used "an arbitrarily large amount of times" in universe.

But even that's a little strange. Consider: Fire Bolt is a ranged spell attack that deals 1d10 fire damage at level 1. At level 5 it becomes 2d10, at level 11 3d10, and level 17, 4d10.

Ice Knife is a 1st level ranged spell attack that deals 1d10 piercing damage, then explodes, causing the target and everyone within 5' to make a Dex save or take 2d6 cold. It never gets better than this, not even at levels 5, 11, and 17; instead, you'd have to use a higher level spell slot...but all that does is increase the secondary damage by 1d6. The initial d10 piercing never gets better.

What's going on, do you suppose, in-universe, that allows someone to wield a cantrip more efficiently and still maintain an arbitrary amount of uses per diem, but does not allow you to wield a spell more efficiently without using more and more of your allotment of magic energy? Even a Wizard who has attained Spell Mastery and could use Ice Knife at will like a cantrip, still only ever gains the minimum effect!

The only class that automatically scales spells is the Warlock, but even they are limited to X casts per day, as they must rest an hour to recover their slots.

So what is going on with Cantrips that causes them to function so differently from other spells? Why isn't there a dedicated Cantrip caster, who gets a large number of Cantrips and focuses on empowering them, not really caring about "spell slots" (the Warlock can be built in this fashion, but even they can mess around with leveled spells, not to mention Rituals)? You'd think there'd be some kind of Fighter or Rogue archetype called the "Cantrip Master" or something.
 

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UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
Thinking too hard about D&D again?

This is a consequence of the nature of the game. It was never designed with a specific world building in mind and many hands with differing views of what is reasonable were involved over time. This is one of many threads that lead to similar world building questions. The trope filled and grab bag nature of D&D design from the get-go has always this consequence and there is no one answer to the question.
It is also, why the better D&D fiction has ignored the game mechanics and simply described the action (including magic) in a narratively coherent way, leaving the question as to how to replicate that mechanically to the reader.
Effectively it means what ever you want it to mean. I know I am sidestepping the question somewhat but pretty much every other answer here will offer a differing view.

As to cantrips; well one view could be, that the firebolt cast a twentieth level is not the same as the firebolt cast at first. The spell has been refined and perfected with use and practise but the Ice Knife is pretty much the same spell.
 

Vaalingrade

Legend
Cantrips use your own power and are raw expressions of that power. As long as you can think, you can cast cantrips and like a muscle, use over time strengthens what you're able to exert.

Even for Clerics, this is a raw expression of their faith rather than some conduit to their god.
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen (She/Her/Hers)
If we understand prepared spells as being sort of “pre-cast” to be released at a later time, then I believe Cantrips are meant to be spells that are so rote and practiced, the character doesn’t need to do that “pre-casting” part. They can just cast it, in the moment, from memory, whenever they wish. The spell gets stronger because the caster gets stronger, and just as they can prepare stronger spells or stronger versions of their weaker spells, the handful of spells that they have learned by rote are also stronger.

Think of it like you’re creating the “spell slot” needed to cast your cantrip as you’re casting it.
 

greg kaye

Explorer
...
So what is going on with Cantrips that causes them to function so differently from other spells? Why isn't there a dedicated Cantrip caster, who gets a large number of Cantrips and focuses on empowering them, not really caring about "spell slots" (the Warlock can be built in this fashion, but even they can mess around with leveled spells, not to mention Rituals)? You'd think there'd be some kind of Fighter or Rogue archetype called the "Cantrip Master" or something.
💯 I agree that there's inconsistency but I'd vier toward asking why other spells function differently than cantrips. Short answer is probably because it would add a lot of detail to the spells.

Other than that we might wonder why a 20th-level spell caster isn't any better at using a 1st-level slot to, say, cast sleep than a 1st-level caster.
We might wonder, for instance, with cure wounds, why your applied ability modifier does not improve with experience.
 
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Quickleaf

Legend
z2QoB95.gif


You kidding? It takes time to ham up your Verbal and Somatic components this good.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
💯 I agree that there's inconsistency but I'd vier toward asking why other spells function differently than cantrips. Short answer is probably because it would add a lot of detail to the spells.

Other than that we might wonder why a 20th-level spell caster isn't any better at using a 1st-level slot to, say, cast sleep than a 1st-level caster.
We might wonder, for instance, with cure wounds, why your applied ability modifier does not improve with experience.
Certainly that's how spells used to work in previous editions, but the 5e team decided that they didn't want low level spell slots to become too good. Of course there are still low level spells that remain useful at all levels because they don't upgrade, which leads to 1st level slots being devoted to Shield, but that's an entirely different discussion.

IF you can practice a spell to the point that it can be cast quickly and becomes more powerful over time, it begs the question of why these specific spells, and not any spell you want to master.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Thinking too hard about D&D again?

This is a consequence of the nature of the game. It was never designed with a specific world building in mind and many hands with differing views of what is reasonable were involved over time. This is one of many threads that lead to similar world building questions. The trope filled and grab bag nature of D&D design from the get-go has always this consequence and there is no one answer to the question.
It is also, why the better D&D fiction has ignored the game mechanics and simply described the action (including magic) in a narratively coherent way, leaving the question as to how to replicate that mechanically to the reader.
Effectively it means what ever you want it to mean. I know I am sidestepping the question somewhat but pretty much every other answer here will offer a differing view.

As to cantrips; well one view could be, that the firebolt cast a twentieth level is not the same as the firebolt cast at first. The spell has been refined and perfected with use and practise but the Ice Knife is pretty much the same spell.
Always, lol.

And yeah, I'm aware that not all game mechanics are meant to be described as they function, but it does lead to a narrative dissonance (and there are some gamers who get very hung up on form not matching function).

But as it stands, magic users have multiple "gas tanks". There's your first level spell tank, your second level tank, and so on. But occasionally you can cast a ritual with no fuel requirements (though it may require additives like expensive material components), and then there's cantrips, which apparently run on off the 13.5 to 15 volts your alternator produces for you just driving your car around. And this would be all well and good (if a bit strange, because one wonders why you don't just have a spell point system or something) if cantrips didn't become more efficient than some low level spells.

Personally, I'm leaning towards a theory that the model for how spellcasters gain spell slots and new powers is something set by the Gods of Magic (and the reason Warlocks break this model is because you're getting your power from an exploit, not an intentional mechanic). Some internal energy is consumed to cast spells (this is a big difference from earlier editions, which stated that almost all the energy of spells have an external power source, and that even casting a level 1 spell would leave a caster fatigued and gasping for breath).

But the magic that powers Cantrips and Rituals is derived from an external source, one that is limitless, but can only be tapped for a very specific amount of energy. What this source is can be left to the imagination; the Gods, the Weave, the "Plane of Magic", arcane energies leaking through cracks in the barrier between the planes and the outer realms, the dreams of a sleeping eldritch creature, whatever.
 


James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
If I was on desktop instead of phone, I post that Gygax quote about D&D was designed to be a game more so then simulation.
Yes, I agree, I believe I know the quote you're referring too, from the 1e DMG. But sometimes I have to deal with people who demand a narrative explanation for mechanical abilities. As a result, I don't see the harm in having one ready to go, beyond "it's magic!", "a wizard/god did it", lol.
 

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