D&D 5E Cantrips, a Curious Thing

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
We have at-will cantrips because people don't like playing a wizard that has to revert to using simple weapons or darts.
And that's the problem. People expect wizards to be able to do far too much far too soon, and then also expect their powers to increase with levels just like the other classes. Result: problems.

At 1st level a wizard IMO isn't much more than a commoner with a lot of potential and some smarts; and should be using that high intelligence to help navigate the party through the hazards of whatever the first adventure or two might be rather than expecting to be able to cast spells at every opportunity.

Then later, as levels come and powers advance for everyone, the wizard grows into being able to cast more and better spells.
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.
Or, and far better, you stop expecting them to be able to cast loads of magic right out of the gate.
 

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James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
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.
I know 0-level is a thing, the adventure you're thinking of is N4, Treasure Hunt, I believe. And I know Cavaliers had sub-levels. But that the only place you find this information about 0-level magic-users (and 0+ level) is in this section on cantrips is pretty wild.

As a complete aside, this has long been an issue with me and the 1e Unearthed Arcana; even when it has information I know is in there, I always have a hard time finding it!
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
And that's the problem. People expect wizards to be able to do far too much far too soon, and then also expect their powers to increase with levels just like the other classes. Result: problems.

At 1st level a wizard IMO isn't much more than a commoner with a lot of potential and some smarts; and should be using that high intelligence to help navigate the party through the hazards of whatever the first adventure or two might be rather than expecting to be able to cast spells at every opportunity.

Then later, as levels come and powers advance for everyone, the wizard grows into being able to cast more and better spells.

Or, and far better, you stop expecting them to be able to cast loads of magic right out of the gate.
As for using their high Intelligence to solve problems, a lot of the time that falls more on player Intelligence than character Intelligence; 5e doesn't really give Intelligence a lot to do. You might be able to get some useful information (or not, depending on how much the DM is able or willing to give you) and find traps and hidden doors. Even solving puzzles and riddles tends to be something DM's want the players to figure out, not their characters (though you might get a hint).

So it's not really a great niche in of itself; you could play a high-Intelligence member of some other class and offer more utility. And that's not even getting into discussions about spellcasters who are not Wizards.

That's reason enough, to me, for something like cantrips to exist. Again, however, I fully support the idea that the game should have some provision for doing without them, if that suits your playgroup. I will say, however, having played more than my fair share of "1st-level spell on legs" Magic-Users in the day, I'm very happy to have more to do.

Now as far as precise balance of spellcasters; I have my own opinions on that, but I'll save those ruminations for more topical threads.
 

greg kaye

Explorer
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.
Yep, back in ad&d once your magic user had fired off their spells, it was back to throwing darts for 1-3 damage or daggers for 1-4 damage either that or just carrying the torch. You stuck with it at low levels because you leveled spells were relatively powerful.
Pathfinder 2e cantrips have less on damage die but with modifier added which allows for progression.
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Pedantic

Legend
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.
Personally, I'd prefer to move utility cantrips back to a slotted model (if for no other reason than I'd like Light to be a bit less automatic) but offload repeated basic magical attack onto items. Cantrips could just be wands that default scale with specific mental stats for attacks, and better cantrips can be better wands. You can even give the ability to craft them to your caster classes, so they don't have to go shopping around for them if you want to guarantee they can throw Firebolts.
 

DEFCON 1

Legend
Supporter
And that's the problem. People expect wizards to be able to do far too much far too soon, and then also expect their powers to increase with levels just like the other classes. Result: problems.

At 1st level a wizard IMO isn't much more than a commoner with a lot of potential and some smarts; and should be using that high intelligence to help navigate the party through the hazards of whatever the first adventure or two might be rather than expecting to be able to cast spells at every opportunity.

Then later, as levels come and powers advance for everyone, the wizard grows into being able to cast more and better spells.

Or, and far better, you stop expecting them to be able to cast loads of magic right out of the gate.
There's a very good reason why the game has moved away from this AD&D way of thinking. Cause the AD&D folks who want it can just keep playing AD&D, while the rest of us who think a magic-user who doesn't get to regularly use magic until like three years into the campaign is a stupid concept can now have our own game too, LOL.

You already have your 2E game... you don't need to take 5E away from the rest of us as well. ;)
 

"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?".
My own take on "unlimited" cantrips is that it's like "unlimited" sword swings. No one really thinks a fighter can swing a sword 38,400 times in a day - it's just the the limit is too high to worry about in normal play. So we skip the part where we track sword swings. Or fire bolts. "You can only cast fire bolt 30 times a day" isn't really different at the table than you can cast it at will.

The fact that cantrips also scale is just a response to hit point bloat, but it does make sense that a 17th-level wizard is better at setting people on fire than a 1st-level wizard, even using the simplest, least taxing spell in their arsenal.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
My own take on "unlimited" cantrips is that it's like "unlimited" sword swings. No one really thinks a fighter can swing a sword 38,400 times in a day - it's just the the limit is too high to worry about in normal play. So we skip the part where we track sword swings. Or fire bolts. "You can only cast fire bolt 30 times a day" isn't really different at the table than you can cast it at will.

The fact that cantrips also scale is just a response to hit point bloat, but it does make sense that a 17th-level wizard is better at setting people on fire than a 1st-level wizard, even using the simplest, least taxing spell in their arsenal.
Playing devil's advocate here, since my preference is of course the 4e method:

The problem isn't that cantrips scale. It's that they scale and first-level spells do not. So you get better at setting people on fire, but only with the most ultra-basic way of setting people on fire. The ever-so-slightly less-basic method never gets better no matter what your expertise becomes. At level 11, fire bolt becomes strictly better (3d10) than chromatic orb (3d8) unless you're fighting something immune to fire damage. At 17th level, fire bolt is strictly better (4d10=22 avg) than single-target scorching ray (6d6=21 avg.) And Warlocks can even one-up that, what with eldritch blast and Agonizing Blast.
 

pemerton

Legend
The problem isn't that cantrips scale. It's that they scale and first-level spells do not.
One's innate, the other's rote?

Or something like that.

I mean, obviously the whole set-up has no rationale to it beyond ensuring balance within the framework of D&D's resource management and combat systems; but it's not that hard to put a lampshade over it.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
One's innate, the other's rote?

Or something like that.

I mean, obviously the whole set-up has no rationale to it beyond ensuring balance within the framework of D&D's resource management and combat systems; but it's not that hard to put a lampshade over it.
Sure. I gave my own alternative explanation earlier (cantrips are powered by your total capacity for magic, whereas slotted spells are discrete-sized chunks--one might draw comparisons between inductors and capacitors in electrical circuits.) Just explaining why some folks get twitchy-eyed about it, a desire for symmetry (if "weak" spells get stronger, shouldn't all spells get stronger?) Unfortunately, a great many game design ills come from such benign aesthetic desires.
 

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