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Despite being "at will", how often can a cantrip be cast outside of battle? For example, how long must a player wait before shooting 2 fire bolts, and is there a limit to how many could be cast or can they just go at it continuously for a day without incurring penalties?

Some Background

I have recently started DM'ing and there's a few concepts that still elude me, or at least I am finding some trouble reconciling my interpretation of the rules and practical balance.

As I understand it, cantrips can be cast "at-will". That's fine inside of battle, but outside of it, things begin to get extremely broken. I have a player whose solution to most challenges is to "fire bolt it". Is there a reinforced door? A stone wall? A shielded altar? He will just fire bolt it for 8 consecutive hours... Now, on most occasions I have been able to come up with counter-measures, like, bouncing the fire bolts back at him when they hit the altar's shield, but still, it sounds ridiculous to me that you could just cast continuously for 2/3 of a day if you wished it so, without incurring any penalties... it's simply absurd on so many levels! And yes, I know you technically could say "I hit it with my club for 8 hours", and it would be just as ridiculous in my mind that there would be no fatigue, no weapon deterioration, etc...

I have told my player he can cast once every 6 seconds (since that's the duration of a turn in battle), but I have no idea if that is correct, and it still feels unbalanced.

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    \$\begingroup\$ ...What are the other players doing during all of this? I know if I were a player and someone wanted to try to use a firebolt for 8 hours I would be a very pissed off player in real life. \$\endgroup\$ – RyanFromGDSE Nov 30 '17 at 18:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RyanFromGDSE If everyone at the table agrees, the DM can just say, "Okay, y'all spend the next 8 hours blazing away at the rock," or whatever and — poof! — the time passes. It's not like to see if the process yields results that the players have to wait eight hours in real life. ;-) \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Nov 30 '17 at 18:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ My Pathfinder party were wondering just how far we could go by constantly casting Create Water: rpg.stackexchange.com/questions/35242/… \$\endgroup\$ – Josh Nov 30 '17 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are other party members (in character) ok with waiting for 8 hours of fireballing? \$\endgroup\$ – n0rd Dec 1 '17 at 1:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Shouldn't stone walls be immune to fire damage? And what's the difference between fire-bolt-spam and holding a torch to something for the same amount of time? \$\endgroup\$ – Nat Dec 1 '17 at 7:28
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About the Rules

You are correct that even if you can do something as much as you want, it still takes time to do. Something that takes your action in combat should not be do-able more frequently than once per 6 seconds outside of combat most of the time (there can be some exceptions, but spellcasting would not usually be considered a candidate for that). So far, so good.

And you are also correct to point out that spamming fire bolt is no different from spamming “club.” For all we know, it’s actually easier—we know that swinging a club takes a certain amount of physical effort, but we have no real-world experience with cantrips and so don’t really know how much effort that would take.

But D&D 5e doesn’t include rules for getting tired faster when you’re working hard: you get tired when you are forced to be tired by magic or some other effect. Even going without sleep doesn’t apply any penalties—you have to make a Constitution check to do it, but if you pass that check, you’re right as rain without sleep. Regular activities do not cause fatigue in D&D 5e.

Likewise, there aren’t rules in D&D 5e for your club wearing down as you bash things with it. Damage to items happens from particular effects that damage items, not through regular use.

And the reason why is because D&D 5e is trying to emulate a very particular form of high-adventure, high-fantasy narrative. The focus is on the quest, the defeat of enemies, the thwarting of schemes, the saving of the hostage/town/kingdom/world. Its rules are focused on bringing those things to life—and it tends to avoid rules that aren’t crucial to doing so.

That’s because rules have costs. They cost Wizards of the Coast, in that people have to spend time thinking up, writing down, editing, and testing those rules, which is significant because time is money and they’re in the business of making money, but also because players want more material to play with and time they spend on extraneous details means less time for the big stuff.

And even if you somehow magically got the rules without it cutting into Wizards’ time to produce other content, rules have costs at the table, too. You have to read them, understand them, remember them, and adjudicate them at the table. You have to keep track of more details, you have to apply more temporary effects to your character sheet, and you have to deal with more corner cases.

About What D&D Means to You, Means to Your Player, Means to Wizards of the Coast

All of this is to say, you and your friend have different ideas about what kind of game you’re trying to play—and D&D 5e certainly seems to be a bit more on your friend’s side than yours. D&D is a game of fantastical characters doing fantastical things—overcoming human limitations is entirely par for the course. And I mean, people in construction or demolition may very well spend something like eight hours a day swinging an axe or hammer to break things down (or put things together), so it’s not as if this really is superhuman.

There are “grittier” game systems that track these kinds of things with more detail, that apply penalties to characters as they perform regular tasks without breaks (whether those are rest for themselves or care for their equipment). D&D 5e does not; it ignores or abstracts those away. That is because of the kind of game D&D 5e is trying to be. You can change D&D 5e to be more of the kind of game you want—but be aware that this may not be a change your group wants. This player, for instance, seems quite happy with his “fire bolt it ’til it’s gone” strategy. He or she may not like a game where you have to spend time and effort tracking your activities and applying penalties for fatigue, penalties that discourage strategies like this. That may very well sound like un-fun work to this player, whose result is a negative thing that inhibits their enjoyment of the game. At the extreme end, a change like that could make the game “no longer D&D” for them, and they may not feel like they’re getting what they signed up for—and they may not want to continue playing. So changes you make should be done with care and consideration for the group as a whole, and deserve a discussion with the group. D&D gives the DM the authority to make these kinds of changes, but D&D doesn’t give the DM the authority to make a player play, so it behooves you to avoid making sweeping changes like this by fiat alone.

The Alternative

So the problem that you actually have is that the player is trying to turn to fire bolt as their sole solution to all problems, which makes for a repetitive, unfun game where the overwhelming majority of the actual system (to say nothing of the other players) don’t actually come into play. One reason someone might not do that is if they got tired, hence this question—but you might be falling into the X–Y trap here, because that isn’t the only reason why someone might not see fire bolt as their one-stop shopping for solutions.

An obvious other reason to not use fire bolt is time; fire bolt doesn’t do a whole lot of damage so it’s going to take an awfully long time to get through anything big and sturdy with it. And D&D characters are frequently pressed for time, so that’s definitely a good issue to raise—but D&D characters are not always pressed for time, and some D&D characters may not be very often at all, if they are more adventurers and treasure hunters than world savers. Clearly, since this strategy has worked for them in the past, your players have not always been pressed for time.

But the really big reason why fire bolt isn’t usually seen as a versatile multitasker is because it really only ever does one thing: a small amount of fire damage. Think of the real world: do you see flamethrowers as a great, common solution to a lot of problems? I don’t; we don’t even use them for warfare anymore because flamethrowers were particularly suited to trenches and small bunkers and we don’t see a lot of those any more. So even as a weapon, they’re a pretty niche weapon.

So when you say that fire bolt has become an overly-centralizing tactic in your games, I start to suspect that you need more variety in the challenges presented to your players. I mean, it’s awfully hard to see how fire bolt helps in any kind of social situation (I guess you could threaten someone with it, but threats are often not a great tool, and even then you still need the Charisma to make the threat convincing). For that matter, fire bolt is often not a great choice for actual combat, because you want to deal more damage than that (enemies aren’t going to just sit there and let you plink away at their hp, they’re going to trying to do something about your hp).

Need to make the players work to get through somewhere? Consider a chasm—can’t rightly see how a fire bolt is going to help you cross one of those. Magical fire-proof wards are another thought, though a bit lame—feel free to break those out some of the time, but relying on them too much will come off as punishing the player. Or, make something on the other side highly flammable! So ok, sure, you managed to melt a hole through the steel door... and the heat of the door and/or some stray sparks from the fire bolt set fire to the priceless shroud you were trying to get at. Or, worse, the barrels of explosives stuck in there with the treasure. (Try to give the players warning about this kind of thing, though, or again it can seem like petty revenge for overuse of fire bolt, which is un-fun.)

Ideas for player challenges abound, and it would be way too much for an answer here to really try to get into all of them. But I do want to leave you with one more thing: The Angry DM’s 5 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenaged Skill System. The Angry DM is highly opinionated and, well, angry, and uses a lot of (self-censored) swearing in his blog posts, so fair warning there, and I disagree with him strongly on a number of things—but on this I think he’s spot-on. He’s talking about D&D 4e in his blog, so some of the specific mechanics work a little differently, but what you’re really interested in are the ideas.

In particular, he addresses the idea of players doing the same thing repeatedly until it works: he treats that as entirely predictable and expected. He talks about this in “Rule #2: Only Roll When There is Chance of Success, A Chance of Failure, and A Risk or Cost of Failure,” so that’s in the context of whether or not you should ask for a die roll—but it’s also relevant to whether or not you should be concerned about this behavior in the first place.

The assumption is that, lacking any constraints, the party will keep trying something over and over until they succeed. The DM should take that into account. When the party attempts an action, assume they mean to keep trying until it succeeds. If the party could freely do so, then it is not worth rolling. They succeed. And beware not to impose constraints that don’t really exist. “Because it will take an hour” is not a constraint. “Because it will take an hour and the place will explode in two hours” is a constraint.

Here, he suggests embracing this kind of behavior, expecting it, building it into your plans. I suggest that as well. You don’t need a fiddly (or fiat-y) fatigue system to prevent “fire bolt it ’til it’s gone” from becoming the be-all, end-all solution to problems. You just need to plan for it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 3 '17 at 21:13
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Exhaustion for your General Problem

If you're concerned about a character exerting themselves for extended periods of time, you may consider requiring Constitution saving throws to prevent exhaustion. For your specific scenario, I could not locate any specific rules associated with extended combat situations, however, swimming for more than 1 hour requires a DC 10 Constitution save (pg. 116 of the DMG).

Rules for Objects for your Specific Problem

For your specific situation, I would also recommend becoming familiar with the rules associated with Huge and Gargantuan Objects, Objects and Damage Types, and Damage Threshold on page 247 of the DMG.

These rules provide guidance on how to handle attacking and damaging very large objects.

For example, your situation with a sorcerer attack a stone wall with fire bolts could be resolved as follows:

  • The stone wall is resistant to damage from fire, so half damage from all attacks.
  • You can set a damage threshold for the wall of 30, thus any damage less than that is only superficial and doesn't actually damage the wall.

By implementing these rules, you can quickly make it clear to the player that their attacks are not working beyond causing only superficial damage to the object.

Bear in mind, 5e is written with a mindset for rulings over rules. In the absence of a specific rule for your situation, you are encouraged to come up with a ruling to adjudicate the situation, so don't be afraid to try something for a session and modify as you see fit.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you, that has been most informative. For the stone wall I actually "unknowingly" applied the damage threshold rule and informed the player that the fire bolt failed to damage it - that did not dissuade him from continuing to attack, but that's a different problem :) \$\endgroup\$ – thewaver Nov 30 '17 at 15:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pyrotechnical Did you get a circumstance bonus on answering this question? \$\endgroup\$ – Nat Dec 1 '17 at 7:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you give stone a DT of 30, be prepared to suddenly see a lot more of it. \$\endgroup\$ – the dark wanderer Dec 1 '17 at 20:57
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As written, yes, you can cast fire bolt every 6 seconds forever.

But also, as the DMG itself says, the rules are there to serve you, not the other way around. They don't model every little detail, because modelling every little detail isn't fun. So, when your player says they'd like to spend the next several hours casting fire bolt at something, you can just go ahead and say one of three things:

  • "Okay, you keep sending fire bolt at it, but it doesn't seem like it'll actually do anything. How long do you want to stand there hoping something changes?"
  • "Yes, fine, it takes you n hours to destroy it. What do you do next?" (Don't bother actually rolling for large numbers of castings, just either make up a number that seems reasonable for what it would take, or if you insist on doing math just take the average damage roll at 6 seconds each and see how long it would take.)
  • "Okay, after spending n hours, a plot complication occurs." (Either a guard going by, or the crypt they thought was empty really wasn't, or a messenger arrives with news of something more urgent. Or fine, their metaphorical or physical club breaks, or they get tired and hungry and suffer some exhaustion.) This can of course be combined with either of the first two choices in various ways.

The whole premise of RPGs is that you can play "let's pretend" and have some organized system of helping tell your collective story. You roll a die when failure causes one interesting part of the story to happen, and success causes a different interesting part of the story to happen. But if there are no interesting consequences of failure, and no interesting consequences of success, why are you and your players spending time telling about it? What are the characters as a group trying to accomplish? Focus your collective storytelling on that, and only have barriers to their objectives if overcoming them will be interesting.

It's absolutely fine if players overcome challenges in ways different than you were expecting. But if there's no time pressure, then it doesn't really matter how they do so. So just let them do so, and move on with the story.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1; In my games, there simply aren't any doors that will be destroyed after 8 hours of firebolting. The player tells me their intent is to firebolt the door until it's destroyed, and I make a snap judgement about whether that seems like it would plausibly work, and then I either describe the door slowly (or quickly) being worn down by their repeated firebolts, or I describe the door getting blackened and charred but otherwise seeming non-the-worse. Either way we're on to the next scene beyond the door or the next thing someone wants to try in under a minute (real time). \$\endgroup\$ – Ben Dec 3 '17 at 5:39
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You can cast every 6 seconds, but just because there's no resource cost doesn't mean it's not physically and/or mentally draining. Part of 5e's design philosophy is to not have specific rules for every little edge case and rely on the DM to apply common sense rulings. If someone decided to use the Dash action repeatedly for an hour, few people would argue that a CON saving throw against exhaustion wouldn't be appropriate in that circumstance. The same applies to cantrips.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you. My thoughts exactly! However, do you have any "recommendation" on what a balanced allowance would be? Just to give me some perspective. \$\endgroup\$ – thewaver Nov 30 '17 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ I would argue that a Constitution saving throw against exhaustion would be inappropriate in that circumstance. In my opinion (and the apparent opinion of its current authors), D&D is about larger-than-life heroes and villains in great quests or schemes to save/take over/destroy the world; tracking minutiae like this and punishing characters for acting out their narrative role seems entirely out of keeping with the spirit of the game and I would not be interested in playing in such a campaign. It’s perfectly fine that you would enjoy that, but you should’t assume everyone would. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Nov 30 '17 at 15:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Dash is a good example, as it is also at-will. Check out how Dash is limited for extended chases in the DMG (page 252), and think about how cantrips could be limited with the same mechanic. You can only Dash 3+Con Mod times before having to make checks. Maybe repeated spellcasting would also use Con Mod or spellcasting ability Mod with similar checks or you grow exhausted from that. \$\endgroup\$ – Nick Brown Nov 30 '17 at 17:57
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At-will is at-will

You can cast firebolt as often as you like. It's not the ultimate penknife though; firebolts have a limited range of household applications.

What can't they do?

Next time your player tries to firebolt their way through a problem, ask yourself "if I were in this situation (and capable of using firebolt), would I use it?".

If the answer is no, why not? Maybe this reason for not doing it is what happens. The lock breaks but isn't destroyed; it's just stuck now. The forest/tapestry/book/bridge catches fire (and maybe the smoke draws unwanted attention). The firebolt just doesn't work because stone doesn't burn very well.

If the answer is yes, let it happen. The fire lights. The small animals are scared away. The army outside sees the signal as intended. Reward outside the box thinking and let natural consequences take care of "I have a hammer so everything is a nail" thinking.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Incidentally, one of my (pathfinder) players is in love with the Create Water cantrip and uses it at every appropriate chance. He doesn't spam it because he knows that doesn't work, but he gets a lot of mileage out of clever tricks with it. \$\endgroup\$ – frodoskywalker Nov 30 '17 at 20:15
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Time is your limiter

The time for an action is 6 seconds, so you can cast a cantrip every 6 seconds. As you said, given enough time, your players can wear anything down (much like a river creating the Grand Canyon.)

And it may not be on their side

Unless they're sitting somewhere very private, spending the time necessary to wear something down with firebolts may not be possible. Random encounters can stop them from doing this, NPCs who don't want property destroyed, or really anything else that'll stop someone from just sitting there being the Big Bad Wolf.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Dec 3 '17 at 21:14
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Rules-wise, I don't see how you can defeat the attitude of this player, because he will find another way to continue with this. And, since he is obviously making the game a pain in the butt for other players and for yourself, as a DM, I would appeal to his common common sense if I was wearing your shoes.

First, I would talk to him, and start pointing that D&D gives people many different opportunities to solve an imaginary problem beyond using the same thing over and over again.

Second, I would make clear that the main objective of D&D is making it fun for EVERYONE in the table, not just for one guy in a fit of lack of imagination, this kind of behavior is ruining everyone else's fun - even if it is ruining only MY fun as a DM, I would say it plainly: after all, if not for you spending your time to prepare the game the whole group would be doing other stuff.

Finally, if the said person could not find its common sense, I would simply kick him from the group, simple as that. DMs go through a lot of stuff to make people at the table have a good time, and these people should be more appreciative.I know this is specially hard to do when the disruptive player is a good friend outside the game table, but something that I had learned in 30 years of D&D is that not always your best friend is the best person to be in your table.

Ending the problem sooner rather than latter will spare you both of a lot of arguing and hard feelings, and you will be able to focus your strength to go on with the players who are really interested in the game.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi there! Welcome to the Stack. We follow more of a Q&A format, check out the tour! The question in the OP was about Cantrips, not about a problem player. The mention in the question was more about the ruling (every 6 seconds) than the player. \$\endgroup\$ – Jason_c_o Aug 28 '18 at 4:55

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