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Can I use a spell out of combat? Another form of putting it would be using spells meant for battle during a non-combat scenario.

If so, what are the rules for doing so for casting the spell?

An example of using a spell out of combat would be using ray of frost to freeze a river, or using burning hands to burn through some ropes,

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Yes

You can use spells meant for battle outside of combat. There is no additional rule outside the already established rule, i.e: target restriction and spell components.

Many spells built for combat specifically tell you to choose or target creatures. Unless the spells say that you can target an object or aim it at a location, you can't do so.

Ray of frost can only be targeted on creature, thus you cannot use it to freeze a river.

A frigid beam of blue-white light streaks toward a creature within range.

Burning hands can be targeted on anything, not only a creature. It sets flammable objects on fire (those that are not being worn or carried). Usually rope is flammable and is an Object, so your second scenario can work.

The fire ignites any flammable Objects in the area that aren't being worn or carried.

Some DMs might stick to RAW and disallow use of ray of frost to freeze a river, but some might allow a looser interpretation of the spell description and allow it. Always ask your DM first, "Can I use spell to do X?"

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Yes, you can use spells when combat is not taking place

There isn't a prohibition against using spells when combat isn't taking place; if there were, the prohibition would be spelled out in Chapter 10 regarding the use of magic since that prohibition would be a significant limitation on using magic.

From a "simulationist" point of view, it makes no sense that if a spell can be cast during the stress and chaos of combat, it can't be cast when in a less stressful situation: outside of combat. (How much realism or verisimilitude1 applies to a given table is something that the DM and the players iron out over time).

There is a different cantrip for that (freezing water)

Since ray of frost targets a creature, and a river is not a creature, it's not a good tool for "freezing a river" for a few reasons.

  1. The game mechanics perspective - a river is not a creature

  2. Another is that the river flows / moves. Each ray of frost is chasing a moving target or is hitting a different piece of the river ... but that may be going too far into simulationism to answer this question.

  3. The last objection is that "that's a big reach for a level 0 spell" but that isn't fatal if a DM likes this imaginative use of cantrips to solve problems.

    But why not choose the right tool for the job?

In Xanathar's Guide to Everything, and in the Elemental Evil Players' Companion, you will find a cantrip called Shape Water. Here are the salient features:

Range 30' / Duration: Instantaneous or 1 hour (see below)
You choose an area of water that you can see within range and that fits within a 5-foot cube. You manipulate it in one of the following ways:

  • You instantaneously move or otherwise change the flow of the water as you direct, up to 5 feet in any direction. This movement doesn’t have enough force to cause damage.

    {snip}

  • You freeze the water, provided that there are no creatures in it. The water unfreezes in 1 hour. If you cast this spell multiple times, you can have no more than two of its non-instantaneous effects active at a time, and you can dismiss such an effect as an action. (EE Players' Companion, p. 21)

Granted, the limits on this spell leave you with only two 5 foot cubes of ice, not a whole river, but perhaps you can work with your DM to spread out that volume into a different shape of the same volume if you want to cross the river.

Cantrips are level 0 spells: is that enough magical power?

A cantrip is a spell that can be cast at will, without using a spell slot and without being prepared in advance. Repeated practice has fixed the spell in the caster’s mind and infused the caster with the magic needed to produce the effect over and over. A cantrip’s spell level is 0. (Basic Rules, p. 78)

A cantrip, as a 0 level spell, may not be powerful enough to freeze a river. This would typically take a higher level spell to have the effect that you are looking for. I found that even the 4th level spell Ice Storm, or the 3rd level Sleet Storm, won't handle a job that big. Creative application of other spells may be in order. For example, wall of water and a cantrip (like ray of frost) together could build an ice bridge ... with a little creativity.

Wall of Water / 3rd-level evocation / Casting Time: 1 action / Range: 60 feet / Duration: Concentration, up to 10 minutes
You create a wall of water on the ground at a point you can see within range. You can make the wall up to 30 feet long, 10 feet high, and 1 foot thick, or you can make a ringed wall up to 20 feet in diameter, 20 feet high, and 1 foot thick. The wall vanishes when the spell ends. The wall’s space is difficult terrain. {snip} Spells that deal cold damage that pass through the wall cause the area of the wall they pass through to freeze solid (at least a 5-foot-square section is frozen). Each 5-foot-square frozen section has AC 5 and 15 hit points. Reducing a frozen section to 0 hit points destroys it.

While concentrating on a wall of water, begin freezing 5' square sections of it using ray of frost every six seconds. As long as the cantrip doesn't do 15 HP to a given section, there's your icy bridge. Work with your DM on varying the shape as needed, to, for example, make it twice as long but half as high ... in an "out of combat" situation. I'd rule in favor of that.

The burning hands will work, but you may not need to use a first level spell. There's a cantrip for that also.

Burning hands will set fire to flammable objects. So too will fire bolt.

A flammable object hit by this spell ignites if it isn’t being worn or carried. (Basic Rules, p. 90)


1 Verismilitude : the appearance of being true or real. synonyms: realism, believability, plausibility, authenticity, credibility,

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Generally? Yes. In fact, it's sometimes encouraged as a clever way to solve problems. Whether or not it works will be up to the DM and potentially an arcana check.

(Because many spells specify that you have to target a specific creature, an Arcana check to see if you can manipulate the spell to do something it shouldn't do in an out-of-combat problem-solving situation seems like a reasonable DM ruling.)

An example I witnessed recently:

Wizard: I would like to use Scorching Ray to set this forest on fire to slow the people pursuing us.

DM: Okay. Make an arcana check.

Wizard: That's a 3.

DM: Unfortunately, since you're so frazzled, and since this spell is generally used to do burst damage to a creature target, you can't quite figure out how to cast it to set these damp woods on fire.

It will also depend on if you're capable of casting the spell at the time-- if your hands are bound, you will have some issues with certain spells! However, creative uses of spells and items are common, and I see no reason why you wouldn't be able to give it a shot. Figuring out how to wrangle out-of-the-box solutions is part of being the DM, and this seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to attempt.

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    \$\begingroup\$ A few questions: What is the purpose of the arcana check? Is it to know that this will/won't work? If you roll high enough, does that allow you to bypass the targeting requirements of the spell (requiring a creature)? Have you playtested this yourself, or is this just an idea? THere are spells that do explicitly create the effects you're talking about as well. Enabling other spells to bridge that gap makes potentially lower level spells more effective than meant to be, \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Nov 12 '18 at 20:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch It's based on what I've seen others do (above example was from Critical Role a couple weeks ago), but it's also because this seems to fall under a house ruling sort of situation. RAW, I don't think most of these options would work. Many spells specify that you have to target a specific creature, as you pointed out. That's why I would require a check to see if someone can manipulate a spell to do something it shouldn't do in an out-of-combat problem-solving situation. It seems like something that would need a case-by-case ruling by a DM. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Caboose Nov 12 '18 at 20:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkTO I believe they are answering the second part of the question but not the first. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Nov 12 '18 at 21:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkTO I didn't think the first part of the question required much more of an answer than my first line of this answer: "Generally, yes." It didn't seem like it needed a ton of explanation to me, but if OP clarifies and my answer is no longer fitting, I will edit to include more on that point. \$\endgroup\$ – Blue Caboose Nov 12 '18 at 21:36

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