In a recent question about prestidigitation, one of the answers mentioned the idea that, when interpreting the effects of a spell, you should assume that a spell can never be used in a way which would make it equal or better than a spell of higher level; in that case using the Prestidigitation cantrip to accomplish something which seems to be more suited to the non-cantrip Purify Food and Drink.

The concept seems like common sense; if you could Purify food or drink simply through the "cleaning" function of Prestidigitation, then Purify has almost no value. On the other hand, the only official information I saw was that the 3.5e definition of Prestidigitation stated unambiguously that it could not duplicate any other spell effect.

TL;DR: Is there an official source that states spells should not be able to duplicate a higher level spell effect? Or is this just a common sense guideline to help determine the limits of spells with more vague descriptions?

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    \$\begingroup\$ "you should assume that a spell can never be used in a way which would make it equal or better than a spell of higher level;". That's not what the answer says. The answers says "spells can't imitate the effects of other spells.". That means prestidigitation cannot even be used in a way that makes it similar to but strictly worse than spells of lower levels. \$\endgroup\$ Dec 29 '17 at 0:16

There is no specific rule which says a spell can't mimic a higher level spell. D&D 5th edition tends to be terse and specific, and avoids obscure gotchas that don't appear in the spell description.

Jeremy Crawford's rulings also tend to agree with what the rules literally say, rather than suggesting that other game content implies a rule in this circumstance, as was sometimes done in earlier editions of the game.

D&D 5e players who previously played D&D 3.5 often still make rulings based on what they remember from 3.5, since that game defined what makes sense to them. In particular, D&D 3.5's prestidigitation specifically forbade that spell from copying the effect of any other spell (even other cantrips), to prevent it from being used as a catch-all due to its especially open-ended ability.

There was no general rule in 3.5 that said a spell couldn't simulate a higher level spell, and likewise there is no such general rule in 5th edition either.

There is only the general sense of game balance, which is considered important in both of these editions of D&D, and was strictly adhered to by WotC's writers, and should inform DM's interpretation of the rules. For example, if a loophole in a spell definition allows for technically infinite power, this is clearly not what the designers intended.

However, a low-level spell is not intrinsically forbidden from doing something that a higher level spell can do. The balancing factor applied in such cases is usually only the limitations of the individual spell. If a cantrip can do X and Y, then (in 5th edition, at least) the reason it cannot also do Z is purely that the cantrip's description does not say it can do Z.


Borrowing from this question, the notion of spells only doing what they say they do is an extension of Jeremy Crawford's design principles; namely, that there are no secret rules. In his Sage Advice column, he has answered numerous questions by stating that if X feature/spell/item/whatever was meant to work that way, it would be worded that way. For example, this question about Enlarge. With that in mind, Rule 0 is still very much a thing. If you're the GM, and you think something should work a certain way, then it does.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "spells only doing what they say they do" rule is hardly relevant here, as the main example is a spell that say what it does in very broad terms, open for interpretation and creative use. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mołot
    Dec 28 '17 at 16:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ No, the main example by Kamil Drakari is fairly explicit in it's scope and does what it says it does. This answer does state that you should read the scope of the spell. As always, a DM may expand that scope, but in general the scopes are pretty clear (unless you're talking about illusions.) \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Dec 28 '17 at 17:06

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