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For PCs, cantrip damage increases with their total character level and not their class level (see this question for reference).

However, NPCs do not normally have class levels, and their stat blocks don't state a total character level.

How can I determine the number of damage dice to roll for an NPC's cantrip?

  1. Should I use their number of hit dice as their total character level?
  2. Should I use their stated Spellcaster level? (What if they don't have one?)
  3. Some other method?

A couple of examples to illustrate my concern:

  • An Archmage (SRD p. 395) has 18d8 + 18 hit dice and is an 18th level spellcaster, so methods 1 & 2 here would produce the same result.
  • Nezznar the Black Spider (LMOP p.59) has 6d8 hit dice and is a 4th level spellcaster, so methods 1 & 2 would produce different results.

    The fact that Nezznar has more hit dice than spellcasting levels implies to me that Nezznar has, in some unspecified way, multiclassed - and that 6 would be his total character level - and the number I should use for cantrips, not 4 (his spellcasting level).

A good answer would also cover NPCs with Innate Spellcasting and no spellcasting level. See for instance:

  • A Green Hag (SRD. p 319) has 11d8 + 33 hit dice but no spellcasting level.
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Spellcasting

For spellcasting, you use the listed spellcaster level as read on page 10 of the Monster's Manual:

The spellcasters level is also used for any cantrips included in the feature.

This means an archmage is treated as level 18 for the purposes of cantrips and Nezznar is treated as level 4 (despite his greater number of hit dice).

Innate Spellcasting

Innate Spellcasting will sometimes list a specific level (in which case use that one), but otherwise you use the monster's CR:

[also page 10 of the Monster's Manual]

If a monster has a cantrip where its level matters and no level is given, use the monster's challenge rating.

For the Green Hag, this means it is treated as level 3 for its cantrips.

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You choose the level in the following order:

  1. Is a spellcaster level given? If so, use that level.
  2. Use their challenge rating.*

*For reference, see MM, p. 10:

If a monster has a cantrip where its level matters and no level is given, use the monster's challenge rating.


You state:

The fact that Nezznar has more hit dice than spellcasting levels implies to me that Nezznar has, in some unspecified way, multiclassed - and that 6 would be his total character level - and the number I should use for cantrips, not 4 (his spellcasting level).

Do not confuse monsters with player characters. Generally, NPCs don't have classes the way players do, nor are they limited by what is available to player characters.
Therefore, even if an NPC/monster is listed as a "Xth level spellcaster", that does not in any way mean they have any other similarities to player classes. A monster that is, for example, a 5th level spellcaster with access to cleric spells (--> Bone Naga), does not also gain any cleric features of that level.

Therefore, since nothing states that hit dice = level, this value can't be used for cantrips. In fact, that's not even a clear rule for PCs - that players gain one hit dice of HP per level is listed explicitly in every classes' description. (Yes, it's effectively a rule, but not class-independent as per RAW)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Adding to this, the correlation between hit dice and CR is very loose. A monster will have however many hit dice is needed to reach the desired amount of HP for the monster, taking into account its CON bonus to HP and the fact that hit die size is based on monster size. The desired HP in turn depends on the target's AC (more AC -> less HP, usually) and its offensive capabilities (higher offense -> lower defenses at a given CR, usually.) So the number of HD a monster has is completely meaningless as a metric. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval May 25 '18 at 13:13

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