Top 10 Utility Cantrips in D&D
A few weeks ago we did a post on the top ten damage cantrips in D&D, and today we're following up with the other side of the coin: the top ten utility cantrips in the game. A "utility cantrip" will be defined as, "a cantrip that is useful out of combat, with bonus points if it can also be used in combat," so to be clear: some attack cantrips do have uses out of combat (Produce Flame, Fire Bolt, etc.), but their combat abilities will really only come into play in this assessment if two spells are basically exactly alike except one can also deal damage or do battlefield control.
We will be ranking the cantrips based on five categories: utility in exploration, skill checks (which includes actually performing a skill check as well as setting up for a skill check, as setting the mood might encourage the DM to give you advantage on the check or even allow the check to happen at all), trap disarming (which includes finding, disarming, and/or evading a trap and/or its effects), puzzle solving (including allowing you to work through or around a puzzle), and ancillary benefits (for the catch-all of thins that some cantrips can do).
We will start by looking at some honorable mentions, and then go into the top ten.
The Top 10 Utility Cantrips
Honorable Mentions: The following spells are very good choices, but did not make the top ten, so if you have a chance to take them you should, but perhaps not before you take the others on this list: Produce Flame (Score of 3, a good option for light creation that can also double as a decent short-range damage option if you need it), Light (the best light creation cantrip bar none, useful for exploration and detecting traps, but beyond that it doesn't really do much for you), and Minor Illusion (a very useful spell situationally and a flavorful spell thematically).
So with that, let's move into the top ten!
#10: Mending (Score: 4)
Mending is a very niche spell: you can repair items so long as the repair is only 1ft or less at a time to repair. That being said, this niche is very common: you can use it to repair a severed rope, reset a tripwire that has been cut, reattach a tree branch, replace a shield, and more. Running out of materials in some situations can be lethal and Mending helps to fix this.
It can also be used to help with skill checks. Not only can it insure that you have the tools you need to perform a check, but it can be used to assist in Charisma checks of various kinds by allowing you to present gifts or threats to someone you speak with. All in all, a useful spell, if a bit limited in scope.
#9: Thaumaturgy (Score: 4)
This is a spell that I wanted to place higher, but I can't compared to the others above it (and it loses to Gust due to its battlefield utility). Thaumaturgy is "non-arcane caster's Prestidigitation," and it's a bit more limited in what it can do while opening up a few new options.
The biggest advantages of the spell is the ability to open an unlocked door or window from 30ft away and the ability to "set the scene" before talking to someone. Need to sound a bit more menacing, have burning eyes, and cause the earth to tremble under the target as you interrogate them? This spell does all of this for you. Met someone who you've learned really likes people with blue eyes? Boom: your eyes are blue. And with a good duration, no concentration, and up to three effects active at a time, it's a very useful utility spell.
#8: Gust (Score: 4)
This spell has two primary sides to it: the ability to push back a person near you if they fail a Strength saving throw (which allows it to win ties against other 4s in the rankings) and the ability to create visible wind effects and move objects. While this would be more useful if the wind could blow from any direction (and not just away from you), but even without that this is a very useful spell.
Need to push a vial to an ally? Place it on the floor as an item interaction and then blow it without causing any damage (so says the spell) to your ally. Want to "set the stage" for a Charisma check by making your cape billow in the wind, or your hair fly back behind you, revealing your gorgeous locks? This is your spell.
It's not an incredible non-combat spell, but it has a lot of uses both in and out of combat. It's by far the cheapest form of battlefield control, and the fact that you can use it for that and other things when you are not fighting is a boon.
#7: Dancing Lights (Score: 5)
This spell is pretty straightforward: you can form four lights that let out torch-level light around it, or combine all of them into a vaguely person-looking shape. And with a range of 120ft you can send these waaaay out in front of you to show what is waiting for you while exploring.
The spell suffers from a relatively weak light source (Light provides double the range for longer) that need to stay relatively close to each other (all in the same place, or each ball must be within 20ft of another), so it doesn't have as much utility as it could have compared to other spells (like Light, for example).
It has other utility than shedding light, though, which helps its score: if you need a distraction, you can make it look like a person is walking in one direction while you and your party go the other way past the distracted guards. You can light a good bit of area on all sides of a party, allowing you to benefit the Perception checks of your allies both in front and behind. So all in all a useful spell, just not as strong as the others at this level.
#6: Control Flames (Score: 5)
This spell, I confess, is kind of a letdown for me. It has a lot of useful abilities which is why it lands this high: you can use it to light or snuff torches (which can help you with Perception checks or Stealth checks respectively), move flames (clearing a path for the group, putting someone in darkness, etc.), and fun effects like color changes and making images appear in the flames. So if you need to create a map of an area all you need is a campfire: you can light it with this cantrip and then animate a map in the flames for your party to see.
It has a few issues, including but not limited to the fact that if you move the flames to a space with a person it's up to the DM as to whether it does damage, how much damage it does, whether it requires a Dexterity saving throw to avoid damage, etc. It also has a number of limits on what its powers can do, and truthfully I'm not sure why it has those limitations. But on the whole it's a useful spell: lots of options for use in a lot of situations.
#5: Message (Score: 5)
We're in the top five, and all of these can be used basically all the time to good effect. Message places lower than the rest purely because it applies to less situations. You can use it in and out of combat, and it has uses in interrogations (making people hear voices is unnerving), coordinating movements while scouting or setting up a skirmish, all kinds of things.
It's not a particularly useful skill when it comes to dealing with traps, but it is a very useful ability when working with puzzles. Some puzzles require the party to split up and do things in different places all at once (or at least sometimes my puzzles do - maybe I'm alone in this? Who knows), so when this happens, being able to coordinate actions with Message is very useful.
#4: Druidcraft (Score: 5)
There are three utility spells that are very similar: Thaumaturgy, Druidcraft, and Prestidigitation. The unique abilities of Druidcraft are more unique, and I think most people would put it last in the list, but I think this is a more accurate place for ranking its utility for a few reasons.
First, like the others, you can light or snuff torches and campfires, which is very useful in its own right. It has misdirection capabilities like the others, and while not as effective at scaring people as Thaumaturgy it has several useful options for making a good impression on people. Need a bouquet of a dozen roses? Give yourself a bit more than a minute and you've got them, so long as you're near a rose bush. Doesn't even have to be in season: you've got room to work.
But also it has the ability to predict the weather. This is not a roll: you get to know what weather is coming your way for the next 24 hours. Now admittedly it's the weather where you are, so if you are teleporting somewhere else it won't tell you the weather there, but news flash: this is a cantrip, so you can cast it as many times a day as you'd like. So just cast it every now and then to see what the weather looks like where you are now.
When it comes to exploration, knowing that there's a storm coming in a few hours, or that the seas are going to be rough, or that hail or fire will be dropping from the sky is a very useful thing, and only Druidcraft gives that to you. And while some commentators say, "well everything you learn from this you can also learn from a Survival check," the issue is that it's a roll: you don't know if you're going to get accurate information. This spell says you get accurate information: it's an automatic success that tells you everything, and that's no small benefit.
#3: Prestidigitation (Score: 5)
I should note that the only reason that this spell is not #2 is because it lacks combat utility (or at least, it lacks reliable combat utility: you can put out torches that are lighting the room in case you're fighting in the dark against enemies who lack darkvision, but that doesn't often happen).
In all other respects this is a great cantrip all around: you get useful benefits when exploring as you can light things, clean things, and more. It's useful when talking to people for similar reasons to Thaumaturgy. It has the ability to create trinkets and mundane items, so no more going without a tool that you need. It also technically means that if you have seen a key that you need you can make that key - not just any old key, but the actual key. It won't have the magic associated with that key, so keep that in mind, but in all other respects it mimics the key. All of this is good.
As an all-around spell it's hard to beat this one: so many useful things all packed into one spell. If you have the ability to take this spell you won't go wrong in choosing it.
#2: Mage Hand (Score: 5)
Talking about all-around useful spells, imagine a spell that can help you hold back branches while traveling in a forest, point in your direction to tell party members where you are at a given moment, move light objects for you, hand potions to someone, chuck potions down someone's throat from a ways away, bring you food, spring potentially dangerous traps from a safe distance away from you, and stroke your beard while you torture someone. Would you find that spell useful?
You bet - it's one of the most useful spells in the game bar none, and literally the only downsides of this spell are that a lot of the dice-related effects are up to the DM and it can't attack people or perform the help action (though if you want a bard subclass that fixes this, check out the College of Creators on our site). But even without that I think it's clearly a top three utility cantrip, and I'm not surprised to see it as #2.
But all of these pale in comparison to one...
#1: Guidance (Score: 8)
Scoring far higher than the rest, it didn't surprise me that this would be the top cantrip on this list. While exploring this is by far the best cantrip, helping you or a party member on literally any skill check you need. This helps with exploring as you can spot threats, make Athletics checks, determine how safe an area is, perform feats with your feet (acrobatics - see what we did there?) that you would otherwise struggle to do, and know more about the world around you thanks to this cantrip.
It has utility in social interactions, interrogations, disarming traps, learning about puzzles, spotting useful items, performing arcane rituals, opening locked doors, barricading said doors when we discover something dangerous on the other side, oh: and did I mention that since Initiative rolls are skill checks you can also use this to give someone - like your Assassin Rogue - a bonus to their next Initiative roll?
This is the ultimate utility spell. It's best when accompanied by other niche spells, but as-is this is an incredible spell. Of all the utility spells in the game, none are as strong as Guidance.
Before closing out, I'm going to take a few moments to mention a few oddities that I don't really understand from the cantrips in the game. First of all, believe it or not, Create Bonfire was not ranked because all it does is damage - technically speaking it does not create light. I expected it to place at least around Light and Produce Flame, but surprise: the bonfire does not make light, so it has no non-combat utility, so we didn't rank it here.
I also find it strange that Control Flames allows you to have three instances active at a time while Mold Earth and Shape Water only allow for two. They all came out at the same time, so presumably they were all tested at the same time, but for whatever reason you aren't allowed to have as many earth and water effects active at once. I am not per se complaining (though I would change those), but I do find it odd.
All that said, utility cantrips can sometimes be passed over for combat spells, and while I do think everyone should have at least one attack cantrip in their arsenal if they have access to cantrips, your second spot should be filled by a utility cantrip in case your DM doesn't plan for you to just do combat the entire time. And even if you do, some of these do have very useful combat applications if you are creative enough with how you use them. So take a good look at the utility cantrips, and select one that will play to your playstyle to help you shine.
Until next time,