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D&D 5th Edition - Toning down Cantrips

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D&D 5th Edition - Toning down Cantrips

Posted by admin at June 01. 2015

Posted by Hawkeat October 05. 2014

Attached as PDF for easier readability and print-ability *pdf file link is at end of this posting (scroll down).

Hawke's Modifications to D&D; 5th Edition Cantrips

In my opinion (such as it is), the cantrips in 5th edition are too powerful to be listed as cantrip/orison, and violate the original intent of cantrips when first introduced in the AD&D; 1st Edition Unearthed Arcana, “Cantrips are the magic spells learned and used by apprentice magic-users and illusionists during their long, rigorous, and tedious training for the craft of magic-use.” “Most cantrips are simple little spells of no great effect...” “All cantrips are 0 level, have a 1” range, have a generally small area of effect, require only soft, simple verbal and somatic components, and are cast in a very short time (1/10 to ½ segment). Only those which involve living creatures afford any saving throw.” “The effects of cantrips, and the people and items affected by them, radiate a very faint magical aura.” “Note that despite their simple components and short casting times, only two cantrips can be cast during any round by a single magic-user or apprentice.” - Unearthed Arcana, p 45, 1985.

5th Edition tried changing the definition of cantrips to “simple by powerful spells that characters can cast almost by rote” 5th Edition D&D; Player's Handbook p. 201, 2014. This of course didn't just start with 5th edition, but it was taken even further than previous editions and inflate their effects even more.

Instead, I have taken the list from 5th edition, (this same exercise could also be applied to previous editions effectively too) removed all the spells that are “too powerful” to be cantrips and have the moved to 1st level, retaining as cantrips those that qualify to only “have 1” range, …. small area of effect”. If the cantrip was previously a 1st level spell, that is an automatic change back to first level spell isntead of cantrip. Additionally, I have brought back into the list those cantrips from the old UA, and that were the seeds for some great clever uses in ROLE-playing situations, including my personal favorite, firefinger.

Criteria for deciding if a cantrip should be a 1st level spell instead:

  • f the cantrip was previously a 1st (or other) level spell, then it is automatically switched back to 1st level.
  • If the cantrip has information that increases its effectiveness when the spell caster is a higher level, then that also should become a spell instead.
  • If the cantrip has more than a 1” range it should be considered as a possible candidate to become a first level spell instead.
  • If the spell can stop or cause more than 1 hp of damage (any kind, including but not limited to non-lethal, psychic, lethal, etc.), then it should not be a cantrip.


Alternate rule:

If the larger variety of cantrips you feel is not sufficient, as some people argue that having such powerful cantrips in 3rd through 5th edition help keep spell casters in the battle longer, whereas in the “old days” they would cast, especially at low level, 1 or 2 or 3 spells, and then be spent. That could be considered by some to be a valid point, but they have overcompensated with the cantrips beginning in 3rd edition and incrasingly inflated with 5th edition. To compensate for moving all the powerful cantrips (back) to first level, though 5th edition has already added additional first level spell slots for some classes, DM's may opt to allow 1 or 2 (or more, DM's discretion) additional spell casting slots at first level (only), to help them have a better start.


Cantrips Lists

With notes whether to keep as cantrip or move to 1st level instead:
If no mark in front, then it is a cantrip as per the 5th edition rules.
→ An → (arrow) indicates this cantrip should be treated as a 1st level spell (many/most of them were first level spells in previous versions of D&D;), rather than as a cantrip.
± If there is a ± (plus/minus) sign, this is a cantrip from other sources (such as AD&D; 1st Edition Unearthed Arcana) and can be optionally added (or not) depending on DM preferences.
² A numerical super script indicates a footnote number indicates some note for that spell that is recommended to be different than the default as listed in the 5th Edition Player's Handbook.
? A ? (question mark) indicates I am not fully decided on this spell, for not treat as cantrip, but might be modified in the future pending play testing and feedback from others.
¹ Source is Unearthed Arcana.
³ Source is D&D; 3.5 Player's Handbook.
3b Source is D&D; 3.5 Spell Compendium


Alphabetical Cantrips List (5th Edition Only)

→ Acid Splash
→ Blade Ward
→ Chill Touch
→ Dancing Lights
? Druidcraft
→ Eldritch Blast
→ Fire Bolt
→ Friends
? Guidance
→ Light
Mage Hand
→ Mending
? Message
→ Minor Illusion
→ Poison Spray
→ Produce Flame
→ Ray of Frost
? Resistance
→ Sacred Flame
→ Shocking Grasp
Spare the Dying
→ Shillelagh
? Thaumaturgy
? True Strike
→ Vicious Mockery


Alphabetical Cantrips List (Complete) (5th Edition plus Unearth Arcana 1st Edition and others)

→ Acid Splash
±3b Amanuensis
±¹ Bee
±¹ Belch
→ Blade Wrd
±¹ Blink
±¹ Bluelight
±¹ Bug
±¹ Change
±¹ Chill
→ Chill Touch
±¹ Clean
±¹ Color
±¹ Colored Lights
±¹ Cough
±¹ Creak
±¹ Curdle
±¹ Dampen
→ Dancing Lights
±3b Dawn
±¹ Dim
±¹ Dirty
±¹ Distract
? Druidcraft
±¹ Dry
±¹ Dust
±¹ Dusty
→ Eldritch Blast
±¹ Exterminate
→ Fire Bolt
±¹ Firefinger
±¹ Flavor
±¹ Footfall
→ Friends
±¹ Freshen
±¹ Gather
±3b Ghost Harp
±³ Ghost Sound
±¹ Giggle
±¹ Gnats
±¹ Groan
? Guidance
±¹ Hairy
±¹ Haze
±¹ Hide
±¹ Knot
±³ Know Direction
→ Light
Mage Hand
±¹ Mask
→ Mending
? Message
±3b Minor Disguise
→ Minor Illusion
±¹ Mirage
±¹ Moan
±¹ Mouse
±¹ Mute
±¹ Nod
±¹ Noise
±¹ Palm
→ Poison Spray
±¹ Polish
→ Produce Flame
±¹ Present
±¹ Rainbow
±¹ Ravel
±¹ Rattle
→ Ray of Frost
? Resistance
→ Sacred Flame
±¹ Salt
±¹ Scratch
±¹ Shine
→ Shocking Grasp
±¹ Smokepuff
±¹ Sneeze
±¹ Sour
Spare the Dying
±¹ Spice
±¹ Spider
±¹ Spill
±¹ Sprout
→ Shillelagh
±3b Silent Portal
±3b Sonic Snap
±3b Stick
±¹ Stitch
±¹ Sweeten
±¹ Tangle
±¹ Tap
±¹ Tarnish
? Thaumaturgy
±¹ Thump
±¹ Tie
? True Strike
±¹ Tweak
±¹ Twitch
±¹ Two-D'lusion
±¹ Unlock
±¹ Untie
→ Vicious Mockery
±¹ Warm
±¹ Whistle
±¹ Wilt
±¹ Wink
±¹ Wrap
±¹ Yawn
Link to all the rules modifications:

Re: D&D 5th Edition - Toning down Cantrips

Posted by admin at June 01. 2015

d by Hawkeat October 12. 2014

One of the comments on my youtube channel put it succinctly regarding our shared attitudes about what has happened to cantrips: "cantrips are the role playing spells". More wonderfully entertaining clever stories have been told and retold generated from a creative use of "firefinger" and other "useless" cantrips than ever have been with the extremely over powered zero level spells.

Re: D&D 5th Edition - Toning down Cantrips

Posted by admin at June 01. 2015

Posted by Hawkeat October 14. 2014

My philosophy, for what it is worth, regarding party balance, is that the party is balanced by the variety of character personalities, backgrounds, skills, equipment, etc. allowing opportunities for at least one PC to have some exceptional ability for different circumstances. Of course players can choose what they like, I generally do not restrict the choices the players make, I just try to encourage a lot more of a ROLE-playing approach than a lot of D20 players these days seem to consider.

In some situations some characters will have a chance to shine, while others will have to hold back. I don't want players and scenarios to be limited to cliche's and archetypes, but I'll use a few to illustrate some points...

  • When in the High Elven royal court, the barbarian half-orc should probably remain silent while the party's Elven Cleric or Diplomat or other characters with similar negotiation skills does most of the talking.
  • When confronted with complex trap-puzzles, the rogue-types and/or thinkers should probably step up rather than the hack and slashers.
  • When trying to sneak in and steal the Prince Kadakithis's royal sceptre, the stealthiest and quietest members would be best engaged in the activity, and the other party members will have to either act as back up or stand down and wait
  • When someone needs to wade through ancient tomes of forgotten lore, finding key clues that will change the course of the party's goals, maybe even impact the future of the entire kingdom, what backgrounds, connections, abilities, and skills do you want brought to bear in such a situation? Though there might be combat solutions, that is probably not the optimal approach. :)
What the 3rd, 4th, and 5th edition successive increases in combat use of cantrips does is completely change the attitudes of spell casters, especially novice players, to use less creative and thoughtful approaches, and act more like a hack and slasher. Which, for hack and slash players is just fine. That just isn't my style.

The original use of the "role-playing spells" known as cantrips, in 5th edition become just another bashing combat tool, diverting that much further away from the desired R-O-L-E-playing and focusing more on R-O-L-L-playing's emphasis on combat capabilities rather than much more varies non-combat capabilities.

If you want a lot of combat and action in your campaigns, and are bored with complex character interaction, lots of dialogue, diplomacy, politics, puzzles, riddles, avoiding combat whenever possible, etc, then you will be bored with what I have lined up in most of my campaigns.

There are lots of opportunities to get into fights, but that will likely be suicide in either in the short term or longer term if that is the approach you want to take (looking for trouble).

There _is_ combat, but that is probably only about 10-20%% of my campaigns at most. So for every 10 hours of gaming, there would only be about 1-2 hours of combat (about one combat per game session with game sessions averaging about 4-5 hours each).

This varies of course, but seems to hold up in general.

The "spellcasters" have the visible powers of their great magics, but should also have many other abilities based on their Intellect, Wisdom, Charisma, including persuasion, herbalism, knowledge, professions, lore, lore, and more lore.

PC's aren't limited to this approach, but neither are they limited to just being spell-casting hack-and-slashers.

They don't have to become "dead weight" just because they are out of combat spells. Quite the contrary, many of the greatest solutions to challenges come from ideas, not brute approaches or even necessarily magic approaches, and typically spell casters have either superior intellect, wisdom/intuition, or charisma/persuasiveness on their side beyond their spell casting to help come up with creative solutions to stay "in the action". :)

I recently played a spell caster, and I went with zero combat spells, and I was more actively engaged in helping the party, then ever the other spell casters were that used combat-focused spells. They "ran out" of blasting spells, and didn't have much to fall back on due to that mentality. I was able to keep constantly contributing to the good of the party, some with magic, but often through other abilities, ideas, and actions.

All of the above said, I don't usually require the party to have any "required" archetypes, I've had groups of all Elf-rangers, or a gang of rogues, or a band of warriors, though each had distinctive backgrounds that gave them some unique history/abilities/perspectives that would be of use. How they ROLE-play is more important than their mechanics. :)

I totally understand those who do not agree with my approach, and there is nothing wrong with the differences they have for those DM's and players that prefer to implement the D&D; rules as written, and don't mind generally more hack and slash approaches to RPG.

Personally, after playing 3 groups through 5e, the cantrips issue totally changed the dynamics in (my view, for what it is worth) a negative way, encouraging spell casters to become "blasters" rather than "thinkers" or "intuiters" or "persuaders".

I hope this helps explain in an effective way to you why I take the proposed approach with the house rules.

My goal is to encourage as much ROLE-play as possible, without using a completely different system.

There is no problem with disagreeing, I welcome it (as long as in-game it doesn't interfere with game-play) :) and I do intend to make additional "tweaks" to the house rules (Especially the combat crits) as game play sessions provide additional information to help guide the process.

What do you think?

Happy Gaming!

Re: D&D 5th Edition - Toning down Cantrips

Posted by admin at June 01. 2015

Posted by Hawkeat October 15. 2014

Just a reminder to those new to 5e, it includes ritual casting now (I've used that for years thanks to Thieves' World campaigns), so be sure to read about how that works when weighing the variables. :)

Re: D&D 5th Edition - Toning down Cantrips

Posted by Hawke at October 12. 2016
It is mostly an old school mentality. Gary Gygax introduced a lot of mechanics in the past that made no sense what soever. Most especially make no sense in current editions and require heavy tweaking to implement in current. Tomb of horrors is a perfect example, particularly from the original module to Return to the Tomb of Horror. These difference not only highlight extreme mechanical differences, but how stories are told. This gets even more apparent as you get into later editions. Changing Cantrips is grossly unbalancing in 5th edition, as a great number of abilities are balanced for cantrips as is. Warlocks are a perfect example. Warlocks in 5e were designed around cantrips for damage, particularly eldritch blast. This is further reinforced by the fact that green-flame blade was introduced. There is also a scaling balance if these cantrips are moved to 1st level, not to mention unneeded overlap with spells at 1st level. Spell casters are pretty useless unless they are casting spells and were really not fun in 3.5 and previous editions when they ran out of spells. This is extremely apparent at low levels when a caster could easily run out of spells in one encounter. And then there is the concentration mechanic. This was implement to stop really broken spell combinations in 3.5 and below. Cantrips were also balance around this idea give spells casters more options while they have a concentration spell. Eldritch Blast and Hex are perfect examples of this as they were intended to synergize 100%. The argument for true strike is invalid since the balance is in the fact that it takes a full round to get advantage, when there are usually better ways of getting advantage without using a full action. Most people consider true strike useless and never select it. In any case there are a number of cantrips that are utility and cover pretty much any situation, with ones like Prestidigitation being a catch all. While examples are numerous and glaring as to why messing with cantrips in 5e is a bad idea. I will leave you with the fact that a crap load of mechanics are balanced around them and even though you think it is a small change, it is actually a game altering change that can mess with balance in very bad ways. Particularly ways that make the game far less fun to play.




Re: D&D 5th Edition - Toning down Cantrips

Posted by Hawke at October 12. 2016

As I point out many times, everyone has different play styles and preferences. I offer my differences for those with similar tastes, styles, and interests, everyone's mileage will vary based on those preferences.

For a more detailed response, including participant enjoyment measurements, here is a longer response for those interested in such a long read:

I fundamentally disagree with the "need" for such over emphasis on mechanic "balances" at the cost of immersion, story, richness of play experience, etc. While I don't like totally abstracted game systems like the new Firefly RPG (we all liked the Serenity version much more), and I have an active group that loves old school Rolemaster, I am also very fond of The One Ring RPG more toward the Serenity/Firefly approach to RPGing.

On a side note, my youngest son's groups (he runs/plays 2-3 per week), after years of playing them, have all abandoned D&D 3.5, 4, & 5e, and branched out to other games, but most notably one of the groups really prefers old school AD&D 1st edition much more now. They range in age from 12 to 17.

Overall I prefer to run campaigns that emphasize ROLE-play rather than ROLL-play campaigns, though I will run the occasional more basic Pick Up Games (PUGs), as with the Tomb of Horrors experiment. In my regular games however, I strongly encourage players to focus on the background depth and motivations of the characters avoiding reliance on numbers as much as possible, and enjoying the complex plots of the stories, rather than min-maxing statistics, etc. I really liked 5e's adoption of Rolemaster, Pendragon, and other game system's non-mechanical features in those areas. As far as D&D versions, when I have to run d20-based games, I like 5e far more than 3.x & 4, and even somewhat more than 2nd edition.


Generally the players in my campaigns learn it is better to not rely on blasting their way through everything, whether with sword or magic. They learn the best approach is to take a more immersive thoughtful approach, rather than a mechanical approach (most of the time, there are always exceptions and surprises of course).

After having run the changes I made to cantrips (and the 4+ other changes listed) through dozens of groups with different players, the general consensus from my participants, from their responses completing leisure experience feedback surveys, especially the educational and therapeutic groups completing a wide range of surveys,, but also the standard diversional groups, has been the typical 80/20 rule.

About 60% really very much like and prefer my house rules, with another 20% being "okay" with my tweaks to 5th edition.

On the other end of the spectrum, about 10% are vehemently against the changes and my style (enough so that out of more than a 100+ of my 5e players over the years, 1 person decided up front to leave the campaign because of the handout with the rules changes, 1 other left shortly after a few sessions over the rules changes, and 1 other left after the second session because I record my game sessions on video/audio for research purposes (they all sign releases). Finally the remaining 10% disagree with the changes, but enjoy my games enough overall to live with the changes.

These changes are very much intentionally significantly altering the game system "balance" from what I perceive as a more "video gamer mentality" to what I believe is more "appropriate" for a tabletop role-playing gaming mentality. These rules changes adjust the 5e system to be more balanced, for our play style. Including the other significant changes such as the short and long rest ridiculousness changes as well, because they are so far off from my preferences, and those of most in my groups.

And as for fun, I don't know how many other GM's have their participants complete satisfaction surveys, but many of my groups that I run do so.

I found reasonably higher satisfaction rates from individuals and groups using my house rules (with a typical 5-level Likert style scale scoring on average around 4.6), than those groups that we used only the core rules (scoring more around 3.7 on average).

Now of course, that is the beauty of RPG, not only are we allowed to make changes to these rules that are not set in stone, we are encouraged to adapt them to our own play styles. And everyone has the freedom to enjoy making whatever tweaks works best for their groups, and join or leave the groups to find the best fit for their own play style.

So more power to everyone for each of their gaming styles, and Happy Gaming! :)

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