D&D 5E Cantrips, a Curious Thing


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Staffan

Legend
13th age has a neat solution to this. Cantrips, as such, do not exist. Instead, each individual spell is either at-will, per-battle, recharge X (roll X+ on d20 after battle to recharge it), or daily (or some other variants per class). So as a 5th level wizard, you have 4 5th level spells, 4 3rd level spells, and 1 1st level spell, and you likely want to use at least one of the 5th level spells on an at-will spell.
 


Blue

Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal
Responding to the first post, before my thinking gets swayed or focused in particular directions by other posters. I have an alternate take on just about everything said. I don't know if it's true.
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.
I believe Cantrips exist for gamist and narrative reasons, I don't know how that lines up with how you use the word "mechanical" here.

Narratively is the more important of the two. In early D&D, low level magic users got compared to potion bottles. You cast your single spell of the day and then you were an extremely cut-rate fighter for the rest of the day, throwing darts or using your crossbow. It did not feel magical.

So cantrips were a gamist way to replace "at-will attack in a non-magical feeling weapons" with "at-will attack with a magical feeling spell". They purposefully do lag behind the at-wills that a martial can do, but are also supposed to stay relevant so don't lag too far behind.

(Oh, and I'm focusing on the combat cantrips as you are, but the non-combat cantrips I think are even more important in 'minor bits of magic that make a caster feel magical'. But they seem out of scope for this conversation, and they don't scale with level.)

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).
There's one incorrect word here that changes the entire meaning. "D&D's spellcasting systems all evolved...". That word renders the rest false. If you replace it with "prepared spells prior to spell slots" you're on the money. But later additions to spellcasting, including both the cantrip and having spells known and spell slots separated are not Vancian. 5e does not have a single true Vancian caster in the idea of pre-casting, since you can use any slot to cast any of your spells. All of that has been replaced.

So we can, and must, discard that Vancian narrative as it is not supported in 5e.

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!
I'm not sure I should get into this as it is a tangent to the main point, but from a class balance perspective these are on completely different metrics. If low level spells continued to beat high level martial at-wills, then there would never be class balance since casters also would have high level spells, and there's only so many Actions of casting per adventuring day. So leveled spells need to not scale. On the other hand, cantrips aren't being judged as spells of a particular level, they are being judged as "inferior martial at-wills", and as mentioned above they need to stay relevant and worth spending an action on, so as at-wills increase they need to keep pace, though a few steps behind. It's why they scale with character level and not with caster level, so that some multiclassing choices won't render them irrelevant.

Once you look at the appropriate metrics for this to work as a game it makes sense.

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.
Here you're looking for an in-world explanation of a gamist design choice. I don't think we've ever been given an official one. My own personal take is a bit like upcasting (another non-Vancian concept), where with experience you can put more "oomph" into something. For leveled spells they have a measured effort / resource cost, so that needs to be boosted up and is a choice to use. But cantrips the amount of magical put in is so light - the reason you can cast them without using resources - that putting in more magical energy is still a trivial amount, so you are effectively always upcasting them when you can. But again, that's just personal headcanon to explain something we haven't been given an in-world explanation for. It just as easily could be the "10,000 hours to master", where cantrips are the only spells you do enough to master like that, or some other explanation. That one also fits well into Wizards getting signature spells with Spell Mastery that no longer use resources to cast.
 

Cruentus

Adventurer
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.
Except that the game has taken the Wizard, from being less useful at low levels until they get into their power groove (which one knew and accepted for playing a Wizard), and now made them ‘useful’ and ‘contributing’ out of the gate and into their power groove and beyond. While the fighter, arguably more useful at the beginning - swinging swords is free, after all - to then being sidelined while the Wizard handles combat, control, buffing (albeit a lot less than previous editions), as well as all kinds of out of combat applications.

So we stop the Wizard from twiddling his thumbs a bit (early in his career), but allow the fighter to keep twiddling his thumbs every time there is a non-smash things with a sword situation, and almost every non-combat situation while the Wizard uses ‘free’ and slotted spells to overcome whatever. Sure, sounds fair. And we’re right back where we started, where one class twiddles, and guess what, it ain’t the Wizard. (Cue discussion about mystic fighters and buffing this, which requires a buff of that, but then we need to buff the other thing. You do know, you can’t buff everything forever, right?)
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
Except that the game has taken the Wizard, from being less useful at low levels until they get into their power groove (which one knew and accepted for playing a Wizard), and now made them ‘useful’ and ‘contributing’ out of the gate and into their power groove and beyond. While the fighter, arguably more useful at the beginning - swinging swords is free, after all - to then being sidelined while the Wizard handles combat, control, buffing (albeit a lot less than previous editions), as well as all kinds of out of combat applications.

So we stop the Wizard from twiddling his thumbs a bit (early in his career), but allow the fighter to keep twiddling his thumbs every time there is a non-smash things with a sword situation, and almost every non-combat situation while the Wizard uses ‘free’ and slotted spells to overcome whatever. Sure, sounds fair. And we’re right back where we started, where one class twiddles, and guess what, it ain’t the Wizard. (Cue discussion about mystic fighters and buffing this, which requires a buff of that, but then we need to buff the other thing. You do know, you can’t buff everything forever, right?)
The real root of this problem is that spells give narrative control to the caster. A wizard casting fabricate can build an effective raft or boat or whatever, with an action regardless of their experience with boats or rafts.
A fighter, no matter how skilled in raft making is likely to be allowed just narrate that they build a raft. This is as much a problem with the tradition of D&D DM'ing as it is with the rules.
 

The real root of this problem is that spells give narrative control to the caster. A wizard casting fabricate can build an effective raft or boat or whatever, with an action regardless of their experience with boats or rafts.
A fighter, no matter how skilled in raft making is likely to be allowed just narrate that they build a raft. This is as much a problem with the tradition of D&D DM'ing as it is with the rules.
Maybe this is why this problem never seems to happen to me in real life? I don't play with dm's who wouldn't let a fighter build a raft. Maybe not as easily as using a spell slot, but if you have the time then it goes to whoever would know the most about boats.

I've also found that, at least in 5e, the fact that you can't prepare every spell means that in practice you can only do so much. Having the right spell for every situation assumes you have an infinite spellbook and a long rest between knowing what you're up against and needing to act on it. That doesn't seem to come up much when I play but maybe I'm the outlier?
 

Clint_L

Hero
Maybe this is why this problem never seems to happen to me in real life? I don't play with dm's who wouldn't let a fighter build a raft. Maybe not as easily as using a spell slot, but if you have the time then it goes to whoever would know the most about boats.

I've also found that, at least in 5e, the fact that you can't prepare every spell means that in practice you can only do so much. Having the right spell for every situation assumes you have an infinite spellbook and a long rest between knowing what you're up against and needing to act on it. That doesn't seem to come up much when I play but maybe I'm the outlier?
No, I have the same experience. I find many of the arguments on this issue quickly devolve into hyperbole and black/white statements.

In practical terms, the old design for magic-users was terrible. Most of the game took place (and still takes place) at low levels. Overwhelmingly so, if WotC is to be believed. Cantrips were brought into make classes like magic-users (now wizards) viable during that long stretch of the game. 5e is not perfect, but class design is far, far more balanced than it was back then, so to assert that we have just swapped one problem for another is simply not accurate.

Cantrips are regularly used because spell casters have limited enough slots that they regularly run into situations where their best option is to use a firebolt or whatever - not as strong as what the ranger/barbarian/monk can do, but not useless, either. This is good design; it gives the player something to do while leaving room for other classes to shine on those turns, and thematically makes more sense than the wizard just chucking daggers, which is what magic-users used to spend a lot of time doing, back in the day. It also usually gives casters a viable, if somewhat weak, option against foes that are resistant or immune to a lot of their other magic.

My main issue with cantrips is that there are such clear winners and losers among the many spells on offer, so that what seems like a lot of choice really isn't. A ton are just minor variations on firebolt, for example. Others (i.e. guidance) are obviously so much better than their peers that they are no-brainers.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
Maybe this is why this problem never seems to happen to me in real life? I don't play with dm's who wouldn't let a fighter build a raft. Maybe not as easily as using a spell slot, but if you have the time then it goes to whoever would know the most about boats.
Gating stuff behind a die roll that you can just do given time is deeply embedded into D&D.
I've also found that, at least in 5e, the fact that you can't prepare every spell means that in practice you can only do so much. Having the right spell for every situation assumes you have an infinite spellbook and a long rest between knowing what you're up against and needing to act on it. That doesn't seem to come up much when I play but maybe I'm the outlier?
No you are not an outlier but if one has a spell prepared (or a ritual) that solves the current problem then it solves the problem. All other solution need the permission of the DM. Whether this is a problem or not will vary by table but a lot of DMs default to "no" as the response to declarations of actions out of the usual.
Or they ask for a skill check with a pass/fail response instead of success - success with complication/costs as the resolution model.
 

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Supporter
Maybe this is why this problem never seems to happen to me in real life? I don't play with dm's who wouldn't let a fighter build a raft. Maybe not as easily as using a spell slot, but if you have the time then it goes to whoever would know the most about boats.

I've also found that, at least in 5e, the fact that you can't prepare every spell means that in practice you can only do so much. Having the right spell for every situation assumes you have an infinite spellbook and a long rest between knowing what you're up against and needing to act on it. That doesn't seem to come up much when I play but maybe I'm the outlier?
As I've said elsewhere, and I hope we don't belabor this point too much (it's been discussed to death elsewhere), the concept of martial/caster disparity occurs because spellcasters have a higher ceiling than non-casters. It's quite possible in a given game (and in many, I believe) where the caster focuses on spells that synergize well with the rest of the party (such as damage dealing) and doesn't often have a silver bullet prepared at any given moment, because, again, spell preparations are limited.

However, in those instances where a caster player focuses on trying to trivialize combat encounters with effects that basically render foes useless, or a situation comes up where they either have, or can easily take a rest to prepare, a silver bullet, it's quite possible for a non-caster player to feel like their contributions are less than others- not all players feel this way! Some are quite content to get into visceral melee combat and the wacky things casters get up to, well, that's what casters do, right?

So the issue has always been one about potential- the caster has the potential to warp the game around their abilities far more than the non-caster. Based on the campaign, player skill, and sometimes, pure chance, the problem might never manifest.

But that doesn't mean it's not there. It's like the design flaw in a car that only causes accidents in a small percentage of owners. It's certainly a problem, and one that should be remedied, but until a certain number of incidents occur, no recall will occur.
 

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