Monday, June 18, 2012

Getting D&D cantrips right

I gave my opinion of the wizard class and cantrips before, and I'm still more or less of that mind. So the first playtest with boring at-will attack cantrips was a bit disappointing to me. Thankfully, Mike Mearls has indicated they are or have been considering a different approach to cantrips and that cantrips might be a little strong as they're currently implemented. The whole and most relevant quote goes like this:

mepstein73: Hello! Just wondering why the wizard's cantrips are so strong. Ray of Frost can end combat pretty quickly, and Magic Missile is very powerful if it's unlimited/day. 
Mearls: I think that for at-will abilities, we might have made them a little overpowered a bit in terms of math and feel. For instance, does it feel OK that magic missile does auto damage every round? The speed thing on ray of frost is tricky, because it can vary from being very powerful to being useless. I think getting the minor spells right will take a few iterations. 
Jeremy Crawford: When we playtest things, we prefer to start powerful and tone things down, rather than starting weak and beefing things up, hence the spells' potency.

Some friends reports and forum posts have suggested that the at-will cantrips and the auto-hitting magic missile specifically make the playtest wizard boring. The wizard isn't even rolling to hit with magic missile, whereas the sun cleric at least needs to hit with his lazers.

I really hope they tone down the cantrips in D&D Next. Hopefully in the next version of the play test. I think that these cantrips need to be really carefully crafted, as well as numerous. There should be clear low-level effects and/or guidelines in the DMG for adjudicating the low-level effects of cantrips. Low-level effects, or example, should be seen in the light spell. The light cantrip shouldn't be better than a torch. Call it torchlight, floating lantern, or whatever. Light, as a first level spell, used to double as a blinding spell (target your enemies eyes!), so that seems about right for a first level spell. Plus there's that creative use of spells, right? A sorcerer would almost never take light as a first-level spell, but creative uses makes these spells useful.

There should also be two or more cantrips per school of magic (just like at each spell level). This is both in general for variety, but also assuming that specialty wizards will reappear. I love abjurers, but if you only have one abjuration cantrip option, that's not too thematic.

Now, one problem with fantasy literature, TV, and film is that the wizard often has a role of an aloof mentor or as a bumbling fool. In terms of He-Man, the wizards are the Sorceress and Orko for the good guys. The PC wizard needs to be something a little in-between. When used creatively, and in the right situation, wizard spells should make an encounter dramatically easier for the PCs.

So I'm going to try my hand here at two possible cantrips:

Ray of Frost
Minor Evocation
You fire a pale beam of blue-white energy which leave thick frost in its wake.
 Effect: You target one creature, item, or area within 100 feet, leaving a thick coating of frost and chilling items or creatures.
 If you target a creature's legs, you must hit with a ranged attack. Success reduces the creature's speed to 0 until your next turn.
 If you target the ground, any creatures on that 5 foot square must make a dexterity save or fall prone. Until the beginning of your next turn, creatures that move through the area must also make the same save or fall prone. If the ground is wet, the target has disadvantage on the check.
If you target a creature's body and that creature is a reptile, amphibian, or fire elemental, you must hit with a ranged attack. If you are successful, deal 1d6 damage.
If you target a body of water, a 5 foot section of it freezes and becomes solid for one minute, though creatures moving across it must make a dexterity save or fall prone.

Minor Necromancy
You point your finger at some vermin and intone the dreaded words of extermination, leaving the poor creature dead. From fruit flies to rats, vermin dare not approach you.
Effect: You kill one non-magical living creature (plants included) within 30 feet with two or fewer hit points which is no larger than a large cat or small dog.
 If you target a swarm of non-magical living creatures that individually would ordinarily have two or fewer hit points, you deal 2d6 damage to the swarm.

What I'm trying to do there is to show that cantrips have a variety of uses, even if they are rather limited (i.e. exterminate). But crucially, players are going to ask if they can use a ray of frost to freeze the ground. Or put out a small fire. Or freeze a puddle of acid so it's safe to walk across. The goal isn't necessarily to define all the spells possible effects and uses, but to give some obvious suggestions. In this way, a list of general effects might be useful for cantrips: If not intended for doing damage, they generally do, say, 1d6 damage. If used in an appropriate/clever way, double that damage, give advantage on the attack roll, or disadvantage on the save. Save DCs should be around X. Using a cantrip to set up another attack should grant advantage to that other attack.

Also note that the damaging effects in the spells above are situational. Surely a Shocking Grasp or Chill Touch spell will have a damaging effect. No problem. But maybe some cantrips are only situationally attack spells. And, ideally, the situational uses will be stronger than the all-purpose uses. In this case, exterminate is pretty effective against swarms of small, living creatures. Its probably very effective against those pesky flies, mosquitoes, or rats. Or head lice. That one doesn't have to be spelled out, however. Ray of frost is less effective against creatures that may be vulnerable to cold, but many of them will also be vulnerable to cold and take additional damage from that.

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