Editing 6 D&D Cantrips
We're starting a new series in our D&D content, today looking at some of the worst cantrips in all of D&D and how, with a few changes, they can become appealing choices for spellcasting characters or magic initiates. We will cover these more or less in egregious order, starting with the cantrips that are slightly bad, and working our way to the truly horrible cantrips.
By way of introduction in case you are not familiar with the magic system for Dungeons & Dragons, a "cantrip" is a spell without a spell level, so it does not consume a spell slot when you cast it. This means you can cast it as often as it allows you to cast it, instead of the typical limit of casting a spell 1-4 times per day. This also means that cantrips are generally weaker than other spells, though that does not make them all weak. Some are amazing, and possibly better than many higher level spells as they can grow in power over time.
So with this in mind, let's look at some spells:
So for starters, this spell (which was first released in the Elemental Evil Player's Companion supplement, then released in Xanathar's) is not a horrible spell, but it's puzzling why it is built the way it is. It requires a saving throw (as opposed to a spell attack) that uses a Constitution Save, which is generally the easiest saving throw in the game as most NPCs have a bonus to Constitution, but not all have bonuses to the other stats. So while the range on this cantrip is decent, it is harder to make it work than most other cantrips. To show the issues with this spell we'll compare it to two similar cantrips: Ray of Frost and Poison Spray, as they are similar in nature.
Ray of Frost has the same range (60ft) as Frostbite, but it has two notable changes that make it far better. First, it does d8s of damage instead of d6s, and second it is a magic spell attack, so it uses your casting modifier against the target's Armor Class, which will likely be an easier difficulty to hit (especially if you can get advantage) than hoping that the target doesn't pass a Constitution saving throw. Plus you have a chance to crit on Ray of Frost, doubling its damage, and it reduces the movement of the target, helping to keep the mage safe from melee targets.
Poison Spray only has a 10ft range, and while it doesn't grant disadvantage to the next weapon attack a creature makes like Frostbite does, it deals d12s worth of damage, so if you hit you hit hard. And in my mind, that's a good trade-off for lower range and no negative effects on the target (other than taking a boatload of poison to the face, which admittedly is a pretty big negative penalty).
Recommended Change: I'd increase the damage to d8s. This way if you hit you do decent damage (at least on par with most of the cantrips that you have access to and that other casters in the party will have access to), inflict a penalty that is useful in certain situations (don't do this to a spellcaster), and if they shrug it off the risk is worth it due to the potential reward.
Frostbite definitely has its place, and if I was playing a more elemental-style caster I'd totally take the spell for thematic reasons. But I do wish it was better worded to be more on-par with other cantrips.
#5: Mold Earth/Shape Water
These cantrips are basically the same, and on its face neither are really bad. The issue with these is that they just aren't that useful. Both allow you to move earth or water around, change the color/opacity of the substance, and create difficult terrain. All of this sounds good - the issue is that you can only do so in a 5ft cube, so it's not that useful except to spell messages for someone else to read for 1 hour.
Again, this is not a horrible set of cantrips - just not that useful in most situations, so it's going to be passed over in most cases if someone has a choice between it and a different cantrip. And that's sad, because these should be evocative and exciting like Thaumaturgy, Prestidigitation, and other non-combat cantrips.
Recommended Change: I'd make two changes to this. First, I'd allow it to be cast as a bonus action rather than an action, allowing you to have greater use in casting it as you can attack, dash, grapple, or any number of other things while also casting the spell. And, considering what the spells do, I don't think this will break the game.
The second change I'd make is that I'd expand the number of versions you can have active at a time from two to five, and I'd increase the radius of the change from a 5ft cube to a 10ft cube. This would give you opportunities for a wider range of utility and mobility-related benefits, making the spell more attractive.
So far we've only looked at spells that are less than ideal, not truly bad. As we head into the top four, that's about to change.
Okay: taking this cantrip is a dangerous game for any adventurer. The spell itself is very useful when it's being used: it makes performing Charisma checks easier, and makes it likely that you'll get past guards, escape a criminal warlord with your life, etc. And all of that is good.
The issue with the spell is what happens after it ends: not only does the creature know that you used magic on you, but it becomes hostile to you, regardless of what you talked about, what you made them do, etc. They just become hostile.
Consider this: if a bard casts Friends and convinces someone to give freely of his ale, makes a ton of people happy, gets a good party going, and potentially makes new allies or business partners out of the event, do you know what the NPC does after the spell wears off? He gets mad at you. Why? Because the spell says so. Why does the spell say so? No idea.
Recommended Change: Change the wording of the spell to "...and may become hostile toward you" instead of "and becomes hostile toward you." Give the players the warning: "O be careful little mouth what you say." Then let them do what they want and live with the consequences, be it good or ill.
I have no problem with the concept of a person being aware that magic was used on them - that's thematically cool and realistic within the world. What I take issue with is the whole, "and regardless of what you do, the person hates you" aspect of the spell that makes no sense, especially since this is a cantrip: it's not powerful magic, so why would someone be automatically hostile to you when you cast Friends but not when you cast Suggestion, Charm Person, or another similar higher level spell?
So change this cantrip. It will be taken more often, and may get more use.
#3: Blade Ward
The next three are all "combat spells" that are basically never used because they have serious mechanical issues. The first we will discuss is Blade Ward, which allows you to use your action to grant yourself resistance to weapon damage until the end of your next turn.
So let me parse that out for you: if you give up your attack, disengage, dodge, and dash actions for a turn, you can take half damage from weapon attacks (not all attacks, just weapon attacks) for this turn and next turn.
Here's the issue with this spell: in almost every situation, a person who gets access to this spell (bards, sorcerers, warlocks, and wizards) have better ways to use their actions to avoid taking damage rather than use this cantrip. The only person who might be tempted to take this is an Arcane Trickster, as you could use this as your action (giving up Sneak Attack, so there's that) and then disengaging or dodging as a bonus action, but even then...is it better to do that or is it better to disengage and dodge on the same turn to avoid taking damage at all?
More than that, if a weapon attack does a specialized form of damage (like poison, acid, radiant, or necrotic damage), guess what: that damage is dealt normally. So it doesn't even protect you from that.
Recommended Change: I recommend two changes to this to make it appealing. First, make it last for 1 minute. If you're going to give up an attack with a class that probably doesn't attack with its bonus action (which is pretty much true for pretty much all of them save a sorcerer with Quickened Spell), you're giving up a lot. And since it's very specific in what you get resistance to, I don't think it's that serious of an issue.
Second, I recommend that it grant resistance to non-magical bludgeoning, slashing, and piercing damage regardless of its source (weapon attack or otherwise). There are a number of special abilities that fling you against a wall or knock you prone or whatever that deals bludgeoning damage that this will not protect you from, and if you're going to give up your action, you should get more out of this.
If you don't increase the duration to 1 minute, I'd recommend just giving it full resistance to all forms of piercing, bludgeoning, and slashing damage, as you are, again, giving up your action to get this benefit. It needs to give a greater benefit to the arcane casters that are taking this over and against other cantrips, and a long term halving of damage from the most common types of damage in the game might tip the balance in favor of taking and casting it.
#2: True Strike
Holy cow this spell is bad. The spell allows you to take your action (so you will not be performing an Attack this turn) to give yourself advantage on an attack you make by the end of your next turn. That's right: instead of making two attacks (and potentially hit twice), you can make one attack with advantage. Mathematically this is really bad: you have a far better chance of dealing more damage if you just attack twice, which is why no one uses this spell.
And the worst part about this is that this is a cool idea: guide an attack to make it more likely to hit. But as-written, it falls flat (and has for years).
Recommended Change: I'd make three changes. First, I'd allow you to cast it as a bonus action. On its own this might make people take it, as you could use a bonus action to cast it, then cast a higher level spell as an action with advantage. That on its own might encourage a sorcerer or wizard to take the spell.
Second, make the benefit apply to anyone: anyone who attacks the target until the end of your next turn gets advantage, and if you think this is overpowered, you can make the spell end when the target takes damage. This gets past the issue of, "What if my attacks fail because I roll low," as you could set it up for your attack, but can also help an ally in case you miss. If I was an arcane caster and I had access to this cantrip, I'd take it just for that (because I like being a party member who shares).
And finally, I'd consider allowing it to extend its duration to 1 minute taking your concentration. Giving me a chance at advantage (and/or allies advantage) against the Big Boss of the fight for a full minute is no joke, and even if it means I need to concentrate on it I think I'm okay with that. It dramatically increases my damage over time, let alone my allies if that's allowed, all off a spell that otherwise would never be used.
I was also talking with a buddy of mine, and Ben noted that you could also fix this by allowing it to be cast using a reaction, representing seeing an attack come against you and you react by placing your weapon in such a way that you can strike back as a retributive strike with your next attack. I really like this idea.
True Strike as-written is bad, but believe it or not there's one that's worse.
You would think that this spell would grant you, you know, resistance to something, right? Believe it or not, it doesn't. Instead, for 1 minute (while concentrating on the spell), you get to apply a d4 to a saving throw you roll once during that time. So as a cleric, artificer, or druid, instead of concentrating on something like Bless or Spiked Growth or Shield of Faith or another excellent spell, you get to give a creature near you a single d4 on one saving throw they roll. If they don't get targeted by something that makes them roll a saving throw? No benefit - just a wasted action (that's right: it's not a bonus action, or a reaction, but your action) and required you to use your concentration that could have been used on something else.
This is a mess - a good concept (help allies with saving throws, so "Budget Defensive Bless" for non-clerics to take), but poorly executed.
Recommended Change: I recommend three changes. First, ditch the concentration. If this was like Bless in benefitting every saving throw, that would be one thing. But it's not: it's one saving throw. So do we really care that you need to concentrate on this until someone may or may not be struck with an effect that requires you to pass a saving throw? I don't think so.
Second, allow it to target someone up to 30ft away from you. Why does the person need to be within 5ft of you to gain a benefit to a single saving throw they may or may not make? There's a reason Bless has a range on it, and that same reasoning applies here. No one will use this spell if they have to get right up next to someone to cast it on them.
And finally, if you want to keep the concentration, apply it to all saving throws instead of just one. It's still "Budget Bless," and arguably what makes Bless so good is that it also benefits attacks, and this one doesn't.
Alternatively, if you don't want to keep the concentration, allow it to be cast as a reaction. This means that casters get to choose to either grant a boost to saving throws, or they can cast Shield, but they can't do both. It also allows them to react effectively to the two types of attacks (spell/weapon attacks, and saving throws).
When this series is over, we'll be creating a document with the "homebrew versions" of the spells in this series to make it easier for you to use them in your games (and for my players to reference if they play in any of my games). We hope that this series is helpful in showing the places where cool concepts exist but need a bit of tweaking in order to make them more appealing to our players.
Until next time,