D&D 5E Cantrips, a Curious Thing

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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
"Free" magic isn't really that new, it started with the 3.5 Warlock (and his cousin the Dragonfire Adept), and the 4e design team ran with it. So we're talking, what's it been...dear God, 19 years? Man I'm old.

Now I realize not everyone was happy with the concept then, and still aren't- that's not really what I want this thread to devolve into. I think the idea is here to stay. Now that having been said, I don't see why there can't be variant rules to give these things a cost for people who want to run games with an old school feel, and it's one of those things that should have been in the DMG, in my opinion.

I just really thought about the oddness of how cantrips are very unlike leveled spells and felt that this was one of those things where the game mechanics don't make much sense in-universe. And sure, of course, as D&D isn't a simulation, of course there's going to be things like that. But I've got the kind of brain that says "hey, maybe it'd be a fun thought exercise to consider the ramifications of this if the game mechanics really were informing the narrative?".

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Also, as an aside, my own personal preferences for a magic system are way different than the current model. I don't mind the idea that a magician can use magic in every round, but the idea that non-magical classes have to struggle to do certain things that spellcasters can do easily, like, say, attack a group of foes, or deal energy damage to foes, bothers me.

We have at-will cantrips because people don't like playing a wizard that has to revert to using simple weapons or darts. You either give them cantrips or everyone has wands or scrolls up the wazoo so after the first level or two they're always casting spells in combat.

2nd and 3rd (3.5) suffered from this at least I feel that way. 4E gave at-will powers to every class which essentially were the precursors of 5E's cantrips.
The 5E PHB says this about cantrips (PHB p.201)


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.
Repeated practice makes them special and therefore they scale.

Mechanics-wise, scaling cantrips which usually only applies to cantrips that deal damage would become meaningless over time without scaling. This is a way to give spellcasters some way to conserve spell slots and do something more or less meaningful even when they have cast all their spells for the day. All the while letting them feel like a spellcaster.

In a way, it is also a quality of life improvement for the character and the player alike.


Of course, they could be handled like extra attack.
But if you do that then people could target multiple enemies with their cantrip, which makes it more powerful in ways. In addition, with things like sacred flame suddenly you're going from one save to multiple which is a bit messy for your last resort spells.


Victoria Rules
Yes, the evolution of cantrips is very curious as well. In the beginning, they were "minor spells"; according to the 1e Unearthed Arcana, you can cast two cantrips in one round and you could prepare (I think, I always have trouble parsing the text, especially since it opens talking about 0-level magic-users, which I don't even think is a thing) four cantrips with one first level spell slot.
Confirming it's four per slot.

The biggest issue I had with the UA cantrips list is that so many of them are minor variants on the same thing. About six of them, for example, summon some sort of annoying insect; so why not just have one cantrip called "Insect" to cover them all? By combining similar cantrips like this I beat the list down to about 25 from its original however-many.

Also, UA introduces the concept of 0th-level for all classes and goes into detail about it in the Cavalier write-up (as they are the only class for whom it really matters). Further, the concept of 0th-level had previously been introduced, or at least waved at, in an adventure module. The name of that module escapes me at the moment, but it's one where the characters start out pretty much as commoners and through their actions during the adventure each picks up a class by the end.

Voidrunner's Codex

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