Cantrips are the cornerstone of a caster’s basic abilities. A cantrip is a spell that can be cast at-will and does not use up a spell slot. There are a lot of fantastic cantrips and a large majority of them are basic combat staples which give your casters something to do when they’ve run out of all their other spell slots for the day.
Outside of combat specific cantrips there are set of spells that are purely utility. These spells include Mage Hand, Light, Prestidigitation, Dancing Lights, Thaumaturgy, Message, and Mending. These are all great spells and each has their own specific uses such as magically lighting a room or communicating with your allies secretly.
While these non-combat cantrips are great early on, there is one major issue with them in the game: They do not scale or grow in power.
You might think that’s to be expected; the spells have their specific uses after all. But while this is true for non-combat spells, the rule does not hold for combat-oriented cantrips. Many of the combat focused cantrips scale with the game. As your characters grow stronger, their cantrips do more damage.
This makes total sense from a mechanics standpoint, balancing the game as players progress to higher and higher difficulty areas. However, that same balancing never occurs for the non-combat spells. Mage Hand can still only lift 10lbs when cast by a 5th level player. Light still only sheds light in a 30ft radius. Why don’t these spells get better as you level up too?
The Problem with Non-Combat Spells
Combat is a central piece of DnD. Most of the rules are designed for combat scenarios and very little of the game’s rules delve into other aspects since those aspects are squarely in the realm of role play. Non-combat spells are almost entirely designed to be narrow and specific in their purpose. Mage Hand can’t be used to make attacks because it disrupts the balance of the combat-focused parts of the game. It’s not that it would be overpowered, just that it would be a wrinkle in an otherwise relatively well balanced system.
Keeping with the Mage Hand example, its limit on weight is set up for similar reasons. Telekinetic powers that can be used at will make it hard for Dungeon Masters to design problems for them to overcome. When your players have a tool as useful as a strong telekinetic force, every problem beings by looking at that as the solution.
This problem expands to many of the non-combat cantrips, as they quickly become alternative solutions to a lot of situations. If you power up Prestidigitation to its logical end point, it’s essentially just Wish. This is not something the game was necessarily designed to handle.
Non-Combat Spells Shouldn’t be a Problem
While the issues outlined above are certainly problems, careful design can overcome them. I’m not faulting Wizards of the Coast for not writing out rules for these things. They likely saw an issue that would complicate a lot of game play and mess up the use of other higher level spells and decided to avoid it altogether. While I do understand their reasoning, I think there are a lot of ways to tackle these problems.
Small, Incremental Growth
Cantrips are powerful because they can be cast at-will for free. To combat the overuse of something that could be game breaking, we need to make the power increase incremental and limited. Using Mage Hand as an example, every 3rd level you could increase its range and weight limit. Sure, this would make it able to solve more problems as the game moves forward, but it might allow your players to take paths that don’t involve combat.
With spells like Prestidigitation you can easily increase the number of active effects allowed, the size those effects can cover, and the effect’s duration. Another alternative would be to allow players who use it to keep themselves clean, or alter their appearance indefinitely once they reach a high enough level, so long as they are only affecting themselves or something on their person.
Overlapping Spell Access
Now that we have the easiest part out of the way, we need to touch on spells that overlap with power. Mage Hand’s big brother Arcane Hand (or Bigby’s Hand) is just a high level version of Mage Hand that looses its restrictions. The biggest issue with this in game is not that the spell exists, but that players have to spend a learned spell acquiring a spell they essentially already know.
To rectify this, if a player has a cantrip that overlaps, they simply learn the higher level spell for free upon gaining the level to cast it. What’s the big difference then between the two spells? In this case, it’s speed and combat potential. You’re spending a spell slot to turn a utility spell into a combat spell and that seems more than fair.
For spells like Prestidigitation, you might replace access to Illusion magic. Instead of replacing all of these spells wholesale, the use of a spell slot is required for the intricacy of the spell. While Prestidigitation is great for simple illusions and appearance changes, more complex illusions require more magical power to be sustained and will still need to use that spell slot and have a specific spell be used. If you think Prestidigitation should allow a caster to learn a bunch of different spells, simply give them the option of choosing one for free as a focus instead of giving them all the related spells for free.
Expanding Cantrip Utility
Lastly, if we want to make these non-combat cantrips better at later stages of the game, we need to improve their overall usefulness. Light is one of those spells that never gets any better, and while useful for races who don’t have darkvision, it could be so much more. We could improve the number of items you can cast it on at once, increase its radius, and so on, but these are just the incremental improvements we already discussed. What might be more useful would be expanding the range of options with the spell from the get go.
Improving this spell at higher levels may give you the option to cast a blinding light that is hard for enemies to look directly at and imparts disadvantage to those trying to attack anyone near the light source. You could also go in a different direction and make it a personal light source that sheds light only the caster can see, illuminating their way without alerting others. Perfect for any caster that doesn’t have darkvision.
Better Cantrip Progression is Achievable
This whole discussion was not meant as a rallying cry against the rules, but instead as a way to highlight areas where you can improve magic mechanics in your game. These alterations might not be for everyone and certainly don’t work with every setting or adventure. That being said, there are plenty of games that these really would make sense and could present your players with tons of quality of life improvements. You never have to play the game strictly as written, and improving non-combat cantrips is an easy customization that can provide tons of fun for all the casters in your group.
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