Inspired by this question: Would granting every PC the choice of a feat or a cantrip be unbalancing?

Some classes get cantrips, some don't. Some races get a free cantrip (such as via the high elf's "Cantrip" racial feature or via the tiefling's "Infernal Legacy" feature), and some don't.

What would be the consequences regarding balance of giving every PC a free cantrip at level 1, regardless of their race or class? In each case, it would be restricted to a relevant spell list (e.g. druid spell list for wood elves, wizard spell list for rock gnomes, etc), where "relevant" is defined as "what arbitrarily makes sense to the DM" (i.e. what makes sense to me), which I'm not going to explore in this question (beyond the above example).

Also, for races that already get a cantrip (since some classes get an arguably less useful cantrip, such as an Aasimar who gets light), let's say that they can choose a different one from a related spell list (cleric in this case) if they wish (they don't get 2 cantrips "for free"; if they want more, they can pick a spellcasting class and get more that way). Furthermore, I don't care about if a variant human picks Magic Initiate to start with 3 cantrips, since they burned their level 1 feat to get those extra cantrips.


Although this was inspired by another question, I'm already doing something similar on a smaller scale in my home games; all elves get the "Cantrip" racial feature, not just high elves (unless they have a cantrip already, such as drow and their "Drow Magic" feature; also note that, unlike my above suggestion, I haven't been giving the option of swapping that out, so drow are stuck with dancing lights, for example), so I thought it might be worth asking this question to see what the effects of what I'm already doing are (although I can say that, because my player's elves tend to be spellcasters, and on reflection they tend to be high elves as well, so far the effects of my houserule haven't really been very noticable to us).

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    Wait, why do classes which start with cantrips get an extra while races which get one can only change what is given? What's the justification for not making other races also trade out a minor feature in exchange for the cantrip? – mattdm Dec 6 at 12:11
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    @mattdm Just "everyone has a cantrip", not "some people have two cantrips". There wasn't really much more thought behind it than that. The current answer already points out that this isn't fair on those that get a cantrip, but at this point I feel that removing this from the question would then unfairly invalidate that answer... – NathanS Dec 6 at 12:21
up vote 5 down vote accepted

It's only slightly more powerful than normal, but would make existing spellcasters less special.

To begin with, you're giving every character something else on top of their race, class and background abilities. This is by definition going to make them more powerful or versatile than standard, if only slightly.

How much more powerful? Not hugely. Cantrips are already available to a 1st-level party and elves already get one wizard cantrip for free, so it's not entirely beyond the range of capabilities of a 1st-level character.

In terms of effectiveness, assuming the players will naturally choose optimal spells:

  • The fighter normally deals 1d8 with a longbow or 1d10 with a heavy crossbow. A fighter who learns fire bolt will deal 1d10 damage. At higher levels they will deal more damage, but they would have had multiple attacks with weapons anyway.
  • The fighter who takes true strike will use it to gain advantage at the start of every combat encounter where they party has the element of surprise to prepare buff spells. However, in such a situation they may already be ruled to have advantage from having surprise.
  • Any character might take spare the dying, which will prevent wounded characters from dying. This seems entirely reasonable to me.
  • More characters will find it easier to deal elemental type damage against creatures who are resistant to weapons.
  • More characters will be able to inflict tactical penalties like shocking grasp preventing reactions or thorn whip's ability to pull creatures closer.

All in all, this isn't massively overpowered (but beware of of other sourcebooks, which may add spells intended for a wizard that are overpowered in the hands of a fighter).

The main issue here is that you're handing out other classes' abilities, which makes spellcasters less special. A wizard at 1st level has only two 1st level spells per day and his main utility after that consists of three cantrips. If you give everyone a cantrip, you're breaking the separation of party roles and making the party's arcane spellcasters less important.

  • Though I like how the other answer points out the imbalance of giving cantrips to only those races that don't already have one, I feel this answer gets to the crux of my issue more, talking about how devaluing spellcasters (wizards in particular, I suppose also sorcerers by extension) is the worse issue here rather than balance, hence I'm accepting this one. – NathanS Dec 7 at 8:52

No, with an "if"

If you're giving each player a free cantrip then it's okay. If, as you state, you'd only be giving one to those that don't already get one then that is unfair, the races that get one already do not get it "for free", it is always in place of other racial features or additional boons. For example, high elves get a cantrip where dwarves get +1HP per level so you'd essentially be giving the dwarf a new racial trait and punishing the high elf for already having said trait.

This video ranks the races based on race points for each feature, such as bonus stats, features, etc. it is however just one opinion but I feel it is a good example of race evaluation that highlights adding a cantrip would increase the value of one race over another

A single cantrip isn't that big of a deal for PvE. You'd still have to choose to use your action in combat to cast it over attacking another way, which for non-magic folk will probably be better used on a weapon attack or class feat and for magic users its just another weapon in their arsenal. The one time it'd be useful really is if a melee character is out of range, but they'd most likely be positioned to be in the fray where they need to be.

Is it a nice little boon? Yes
Does it cause unbalance? I don't believe so.

  • The video you linked to is extremely debatable. Do you have evidence to back up the claims made by the video? Or is it just a "what feels right" situation? – David Coffron Dec 6 at 10:00
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    I've seen a few of these 'feature-ranking' articles around. None are official and I've just assumed they have been 'post-calculated' on the basis that Wizards balanced (at least roughly) the races to start with. Nevertheless, I agree with the essential logic that the races are supposed to be balanced to start with, which for some races already includes a cantrip and for others it means different features. So an extra cantrip for everyone would be fine; a cantrip for only some races would disadvantage others as per JDM7's answer. – PJRZ Dec 6 at 10:32
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    @DavidCoffron it is entirely that guys opinion, I was just using it as an example of how you could evaluate a race based on its features and how adding a cantrip to some and not all would be unfair for some players, potentially forcing them to choose a class that doesn't have one and in turn gaining that extra edge. I shall edit my post accordingly – JDM7 Dec 6 at 11:41
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    It is worth noting though, that while a spellcaster only really gains flexibility from additional cantrips - spells such as Booming Blade and Green-Flame Blade pretty well give melee fighters free damage and utility. As such, giving everybody a cantrip - may not be as balanced as it sounds. – Bilkokuya Dec 6 at 14:35
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    I once played an RPG (not D&D, a different game) where the GM decided to give all characters in the party a free skill... but my character's class already came with that skill, so I got nothing. I can't comment on balance, but it was definitely a bit demoralising. Give all PCs a benefit, or none. – BittermanAndy Dec 6 at 16:40

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