Ghost Hand

Cantrips: free magic anytime, anywhere, but only sort of

Cantrips are a Dungeons & Dragons spell you can cast repeatedly in the game, with no cost and no preparation needed. Getting to know these handy tools will let you keep a trick or two up your sleeve to use whenever you want, as much as you want. You don’t have to be a wizard to know cantrips, and many classes will have one or two for you to try.

What is the difference between Cantrips and spells?

A cantrip is a free and usually weak bit of magic. They’re not meant to strike the killing blow, and not meant to do any real impressive effects. It’s usually  just not that big a deal. They are level 0 spells. They cost nothing, not even a spell slot, so fire away.

A spell costs you something.

A spell usually takes various components, and uses your character’s spell slots, a limited and precious resource when trying to pace out your attacks in the heat of battle.

Penguin -vs- Carnotaurus

A cantrip is like a penguin. No one would say no to a penguin, right? But if you’re in the middle of fighting a demogorgon, you don’t want a penguin by your side. Comparatively, spells are like a pen full of various carnivorous dinosaurs. When the time comes to pull one of those into your melee to deal some damage, you’ll want the carnotaurus tearing it up, not the penguin flipping about.

A natural flow, not a break in tempo.

About pacing during a battle- here’s where cantrips usually get put to one side to make way for the big guns. If you’re in the middle of a fight, you’re wanting to select the best spell to do the most amount of damage or have the greatest effect on the situation, to your advantage of course.

Flame in Hand

Action action we want action!

Unless a cantrip is exactly the right thing for the job you need at that exact time, it is rarely the right move to bust out while your companions are slinging spells and swinging swords. And this is because, while I’ve been referring to them as free, cantrips do have cost, and in the heat of battle, their cost draws from your most precious and limited resource: actions.

Are cantrips free?

If you want to use a cantrip ability, even a very very small one, it will cost you a whole action. “But it’s just a little flame in the palm of my hand!” you cry. Your DM shakes their head. They cost nothing, except maybe the patience of your DM and fellow players, especially if you overuse them.

Out-of-combat -vs- roll for initiative

Using a whole action in a tavern when you’re in the middle of dinner is nothing. Who wouldn’t want a penguin at the dinner table? Using a whole action when you’re about to be smashed to smithereens by that demogorgon, and you use that whole action to make… a penguin? Yeah you’re not going to last long, and your party is going to be (understandably) pretty peeved at your choices.

Time is the only currency

When you’re out of turn order and not in a fight, time is plentiful and characters can do anything possible. But when you’re stuck in the very limited structure of a fight which allows you a move and an action each turn, time is truly the only currency, and every decision will add up. 6 seconds. Each turn is 6 seconds long. Uncage your carnotaurus, don’t pat your penguin.

Hand Light

Can you cast cantrips as a bonus action?

There are exactly two cantrips that may be cast as a bonus action and they are Magic Stone and Shillelagh. And to be honest, they shouldn’t take a full action to use. Cantrips aren’t usually super powerful, but if you use them right you can absolutely justify why they’d take a whole action to cast.

A free spell that you can use any time you feel like it, what more do you want?

Be content to be able to deal 1d10 fire damage at range whenever you want! Or conjure a cube out of thin air! Some cantrips are crazy cool!

How long do cantrips last?

My handy table below will tell you how long each cantrip lasts. If it’s not instantaneous, generally a cantrip lasts either one round, one minute, ten minutes, or one hour, with one notable exception. The cantrip “Encode Thoughts” is the only one that lasts longer, and it has a duration of 8 hours.

Life in Jar

Can you use a cantrip and a spell? 

When Penguins attack!

The rules around spell casting are quite specific.

Most spells including cantrips require your full action so in most circumstances you will have to choose between a circle spell or a cantrip.

However there are certain spells that require a bonus action to cast and in these circumstances you can combine two spells into one turn giving your Penguin teeth!

Penguins of Madagascar 1

If a circle spell uses a bonus action to cast the rules are very specific in that a player can only cast a cantrip spell as their action, not another circle spell.

Cantrips become incredibly valuable when cast in combination with these bonus action spells to allow some classes to maximise damage within a round of combat.

There are a few optimal spell combinations for players that want to dish out as much damage in one turn as possible. One such spell combination is the cleric’s “spiritual weapon” requiring a bonus action to cast. After attempting to smite your enemy with your holy weapon a cleric can then follow up with a  cantrip for an extra chance at more damage.

Clerics are not the only class that can combine cantrips with spells in an optimal way. Some classes even get unique features that allow them to combine their cantrips with other actions that would normally be illegal.

Fighters that take the Eldritch knight archetype eventually can cast a cantrip as an action and still make a weapon attack as a bonus action that would otherwise cost an action, giving them an extra bit of versatility in combat. Sorcerers can use their meta magic to cast two cantrips in one turn.

And don’t get me started on Warlocks! Eldritch blast spam anyone?

D&D is full of these exceptions to rules and it is here that cantrips can be very powerful and worth using over normal spells.

How do I know when to use a cantrip instead of a spell?

Like the above examples there are class combinations that encourage and reward players that use cantrips but outside of these specific situations, circle spells are superior more often than not.

But that does not mean cantrips do not have their place in the world.

In combat cantrips are best used strategically. Some combats are drawn out and can see casters burn through their resources very fast.

It is always wise to keep some juice in the tank, you never know what is lurking around the next corner.

What was that? Roll for perception!

Icy Hands

Do you need to roll for cantrips?

This depends entirely on the spell. Some catrips are like weapon attacks, requiring a dice roll to hit or miss.

Other cantrips force a saving throw from an enemy. There is no rule of thumb. Cantrips are quite versatile.

How many cantrips are there?

Check out this handy table!

Spell Name School Range Duration Components
Acid Splash Conjuration 60 Feet Instantaneous V, S
Blade Ward Abjuration Self 1 round V, S
Booming Blade Evocation Self (5-foot radius) 1 round S, M
Chill Touch Necromancy 120 Feet 1 round V, S
Control Flames Transmutation 60 Feet Instantaneous or 1 hour S
Create Bonfire Conjuration 60 Feet Concentration up to 1 minute V, S
Dancing Lights Evocation 120 Feet Concentration up to 1 minute V, S, M
Decompose Necromancy Touch 1 minute V, S
Druidcraft Transmutation 30 Feet Instantaneous V, S
Eldritch Blast Evocation 120 Feet Instantaneous V, S
Encode Thoughts Enchantment Self 8 hours S
Fire Bolt Evocation 120 Feet Instantaneous V, S
Friends Enchantment Self Concentration up to 1 minute S, M
Frostbite Evocation 60 Feet Instantaneous V, S
Green-Flame Blade Evocation Self (5-foot radius) Instantaneous S, M
Guidance Divination Touch Concentration up to 1 minute V, S
Gust Transmutation 30 Feet Instantaneous V, S
Hand of Radiance Evocation 5 feet Instantaneous V, S
Infestation Conjuration 30 Feet Instantaneous V, S, M
Light Evocation Touch 1 hour V, M
Lightning Lure Evocation Self (15-foot radius) Instantaneous V
Mage Hand Conjuration 30 Feet 1 minute V, S
Magic Stone Transmutation Touch 1 minute V, S
Mending Transmutation Touch Instantaneous V, S, M
Message Transmutation 120 feet 1 round V, S, M
Mind Sliver Enchantment 60 feet 1 round V
Minor Illusion Illusion 30 feet 1 minute S, M
Mold Earth Transmutation 30 feet Instantaneous or 1 hour S
On/Off Transmutation 60 feet Instantaneous V, S
Poison Spray Conjuration 10 feet Instantaneous V, S
Prestidigitation Transmutation 10 feet Up to 1 hour V, S
Primal Savagery Transmutation Self Self S
Produce Flame Conjuration Self 10 minutes V, S
Ray of Frost Evocation 60 feet Instantaneous V, S
Resistance Abjuration Touch Concentration up to 1 minute V, S, M
Sacred Flame Evocation 60 feet Instantaneous V, S
Sapping Sting Necromancy 30 feet Instantaneous V, S
Shape Water Transmutation 30 feet Instantaneous or 1 hour S
Shillelagh Transmutation Touch 1 minute V, S, M
Shocking Grasp Evocation Touch Instantaneous V, S
Spare the Dying Necromancy Touch Instantaneous V, S
Sword Burst Conjuration Self (5-foot radius) Instantaneous V
Thaumaturgy Transmutation 30 feet Up to 1 minute V
Thorn Whip Transmutation 30 feet Instantaneous V, S, M
Thunderclap Evocation Self (5-foot radius) Instantaneous S
Toll the Dead Necromancy 60 feet Instantaneous V, S
True Strike Divination 30 feet Concentration up to 1 round S
Vicious Mockery Enchantment 60 feet Instantaneous V
Virtue Abjuration Touch 1 round V, S
Word of Radiance Evocation 5 feet Instantaneous V, M

Sparks in Hands

What are the best cantrips?

Again, situational. You might do well to think of cantrips from a role-playing perspective. For instance, if you are RPing Thor son of Odin, God of Thunder, you’re going to want to start every encounter off with a bang by casting the cantrip Thunderclap.

If you’re playing a bard who’s savage with their verbal insults, you’ll want to unleash Vicious Mockery every chance you can get, with sick burns (verbal, no fire actually used) that do psychic damage on your flabbergasted foes.

Bear in mind, Psychic damage is the least resisted damage type in the game so sticks and stones are not the only thing that can break bones…well blood vessels in your brain, but same, same.

Just be sure to read the cantrip’s description. Some are situationally very powerful.

This highlights another  example where a cantrip can be beneficial in fighting foes that have lots of damage resistances and immunities.It is always better to do some damage then no damage.

Penguins of Madagascar 1

Do cantrips scale with character level?

Yes! At 1st level they are basic, but damage cantrip will increase in power at 5th, 11th, and 17th level.

Cantrips for fun and profit

Being able to cast little bits of magic with little or no consequence can expand the range of options available to you while you’re out of combat, and when you’re in it, you might be able to get creative with them to save yourself or your party members from something dire.

Mostly you’ll want a carnotaurus, but sometimes you’ll be wanting a penguin, and that’s just fine.

Stavros

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