11
\$\begingroup\$

As a D&D 5e GM and ex-D&D 3.5e GM, I have found that cantrips are too strong:

  1. After a certain level, they deal more damage than some level 1 spells.
  2. You can use them indefinitely.
  3. It makes a spellcaster almost never need a weapon (and so "weapon-needing" classes become bad).

The first problem leads to the other two, so in my game I have created a house-rule to prevent cantrips becoming more powerful by levelling up.

For example, the description of fire bolt says:

You hurl a mote of fire at a creature or object within range. Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes 1d10 fire damage. A flammable object hit by this spell ignites if it isn't being worn or carried.

This spell's damage increases by 1d10 when you reach 5th level (2d10), 11th level (3d10), and 17th level (4d10).

My house-rule would remove the increased effect at higher character levels, so that the description merely reads:

You hurl a mote of fire at a creature or object within range. Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes 1d10 fire damage. A flammable object hit by this spell ignites if it isn't being worn or carried.

Will changing all cantrips in this way be balanced?

I want to make spellcasters less overpowered, so that non-spellcasting classes can shine again.


My problem is not just the cantrips, but the fact that spellcasters have super-powerful spells that make them superior to some classes. In all other versions of D&D that I have played, they were "balanced" by the fact that once they have used up all their spells, they're not as effective (I said "balanced" because they are almost all Tier 1/2 in other editions). But now, they can cast super-powerful spells and still be at least not useless after using all their spells. (So they were the better classes before 5e, and became even better than before in 5e.)

\$\endgroup\$
  • 10
    \$\begingroup\$ Related: Is the old “Linear Fighters Quadratic Wizards” problem still around in 5e Basic? \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Jun 28 at 8:24
  • 12
    \$\begingroup\$ Also very related: Weapon attacks compared with damaging cantrips? \$\endgroup\$ – Tiggerous Jun 28 at 9:13
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Rorp, you may want to edit some of your clarifications from the comments into your question itself, where relevant. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Jun 28 at 9:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ @rorp I got confused about your first comment, you are saying that after you implemented the houserule, your players didnt pick spellcasters afterwards? They did play spellcasters before, though? \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 28 at 9:38
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Would you limit the number of beams from an Eldritch Blast to one also? \$\endgroup\$ – Alk Jun 28 at 13:20
6
\$\begingroup\$

Maybe instead of trying to compare spell casting classes and martial classes, try looking at the same class at different levels.

To just look at cantrips we could assume all spell slots have been used. We could also look at a spell casting class that relies heavily on cantrips, the Warlock. Both Warlocks have the Eldritch Invocation Agonizing Blast.

Example of imbalance

Level 20 Warlock and a level 2 Warlock vs 2 CR 1/4 Skeletons with 13 hit points. Both Warlocks hit with Eldritch Blast. The 20th level Warlock rolls a 1 on his damage die + 5 extra damage from Agonizing Blast (his Charisma mod) for a total of 6 damage. The level 2 Warlock rolls a 10 on his damage + 3 extra damage from Agonizing Blast for a total of 13 damage.

In the above example both Warlocks hit but only the level 2 Warlock was able to take out his Skeleton. It may seem unfair to give the level 2 max damage and the level 20 minimum damage but the odds are equal for both rolls. An unbiased example would have the level 2 dealing 8 points of damage average while the level 20 dealing 10 damage average. Even in the unbiased example the level 20 Warlock cannot on average, drop the 1/4 CR Skeleton to 0 hit points in one turn. The same level 20 Warlock without the house rule would do 40 points of damage on average. With 24 points of damage minimum and 60 points of damage maximum.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 7
    \$\begingroup\$ I see the downvotes but I like this answer. It gives a concrete example where a level 2 is hitting almost as hard as a level 20; even if they both rolled 10s, you're looking at 15 dmg vs 13. Maybe add a section showing what the level 20 would average, with the cantrip increases, to further drive the point home? A level 20 doing MAXIMUM 15 damage on what is essentially their goto "basic attack" is laughable. \$\endgroup\$ – Kalmino Jun 28 at 19:39
  • 10
    \$\begingroup\$ As written, this example is a bit weird to me. You are comparing max roll of a low level to the min roll of a high level character. Is there intuitive understanding that the high level character should be overperforming here? Not deserving downvotes but certainly not better than @JDM7's answer \$\endgroup\$ – OganM Jun 28 at 20:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I hope I have cleaned up my answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Alk Jun 28 at 23:15
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Perhaps also comparing a 2nd level archer with a 20th level archer would more directly address the question's concern? \$\endgroup\$ – mattdm Jul 1 at 15:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mattdm I chose to only highlight the Warlock to show how the house rule would effect them as they have a total 4 spell slots between rests. \$\endgroup\$ – Alk Jul 2 at 3:25
69
\$\begingroup\$

No, this makes the current system less balanced.

The current system for cantrips gaining damage at regular intervals is the magic users' equivalent of the "Extra Attack" feature that other classes get (rogues get increased Sneak Attack damage instead).

Consider the humble Path of the Zealot Barbarian. At level 5, they can do the following using a Greataxe (with a pitiful 16 Strength):

(1d12 + 5) + (1d6 + 2) + (1d12 + 5)

This allows them to do a total of 15 to 42 damage each round (at an average of 28.5). Yes, they have to get up close, but they take half damage from slashing, piercing and bludgeoning, and have the HP (and probably AC) to tank it anyway.

The Fire Bolt is looking at 2 to 20 damage (average 11).

This kind of thing is present in other classes as well, but you get the point. If anything, the scaling of cantrips is already underpowered, but that's why you have proper spells to work with.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – Rubiksmoose Jun 28 at 16:28
33
\$\begingroup\$

This is not a good way to solve the problem you're trying to solve.

What you're effectively moving towards is a "fun tax." You're balancing X% of gameplay at an overpowered level against Y% of effective non-participation in gameplay. Game designers talk about this from time to time, and the outcome is almost always negative.

My problem is not just the cantrips, but the fact that spellcasters have super-powerful spells that make them superior to some classes. In all other versions of D&D that I have played, they were "balanced" by the fact that once they have used up all their spells, they're not as effective (I said "balanced" because they are almost all Tier 1/2 in other editions). But now, they can cast super-powerful spells and still be at least not useless after using all their spells. (So they were the better classes before 5e, and became even better than before in 5e.)

For now, let's assume your balance assertions are right: Wizards have a powerful arsenal of spells that unbalances them, and you are trying to fix that.

I'm also excluding warlocks from this discussion. Warlocks are a special case in that their cantrip is much better than average, and their non-cantrip spellcasting is severely limited. If your issue is with warlocks, that is a different issue.

Rests

Resting is primarily in the hands of the player characters, and allows them to reset their casters' spells. Given the choice between taking a rest or being useless, most players will choose to take the rest.

The 15-minute adventuring day is already a known problem, and this fix would make it worse. You're giving players much more incentive to follow this immersion killing pattern.

There are solutions to the 15-minute adventuring day. Ways to put pressure on the party. But these ultimately all involve taking a choice away from the player characters. Less choice is bad, and forcing the DM to build every scenario with high time pressure is awkward.

Min Maxing

Even with rests out of the equation, the players still get to choose when they are overpowered and when they are underpowered. The most common result of this is a "nova" mentality... Go all out on the important fights, and hold back on the "trash."

This means that on the fights you care about, the wizard is still overpowered. You're trying to compensate for this by underpowering the wizard on the fights that don't matter. This still leaves you with a fundamental problem: When it matters, the wizard is overpowered.

Cantrips Aren't That Great

This is why your "fix" isn't the end of the world (except for warlocks), and why you still have full casters on your table.

At fifth level, a dueling fighter gets two attacks at 1d8 + 5. This is much better than a wizard's single attack at 2d10 + 0.

A rogue at that same level can easily get 4d6 + 3. Which is, again, clearly better.

Making a class's weakest attack weaker isn't going to undo phenomenal cosmic power.

If Something is Broken, Fix That

If you feel that full casters are overpowered, then you should fix the overpowered abilities. "Fixing" weak abilities to make the class less fun is just passive aggressive.

If the problem is that the wizard can tear a hole to another dimension, or that they can sweep a room clear of goblins in a fiery conflagration, then lowering their damage output by 10% on the fights that don't matter isn't going to change things. They can still do the broken stuff just as often as they did before.

Is It Really Broken?

My general experience is that casters are good, but not good to the exclusion of all other classes. This is backed up by analysis on overall damage output and cantrips specifically which shows that there is much greater parity in this edition.

While full casters still get access to abilities that mundane classes can't replicate (teleportation across large distances, or creating doors from nothing) the gap in day-to-day adventuring has narrowed.

There are a few reasons for this:

  • The Concentration mechanic drastically limits a full caster's options. Many effective, non-damage spells require concentration, making them mutually exclusive.

  • A large emphasis has been placed on giving the other classes utility and special abilities beyond "I hit it with a basic attack."

  • The overall curve of damage has been flattened.

Purpose

The purpose of cantrips isn't to make full casters unstoppable engines of arcane destruction. The purpose of cantrips is that a wizard can do "wizard stuff" for the whole adventure. You don't have this awkward transition where you're Gandalf in one scene, and a crossbowman in the next.

Nerfing a flavor ability like this isn't going to solve larger balance problems.

\$\endgroup\$
18
\$\begingroup\$

This makes damage cantrips mostly useless

You say you come from editions past, so I'm going to to focus this answer on one of my gripes 3.x: garbage cantrips and wizards holding crossbows.

Many of the classes have limited/expendable resources. Monk's have ki points, barbarians have rages, even fighters have action surges, second wind, etc. If they choose not to use those things, they can still feel like they're participating in combat.

Casters will likely eschew firebolt for crossbow bolts and focus their cantrips on utility, underperforming in non-spell rounds.

This decision was likely for inclusivity

5e developers did a lot of work to give everyone something to do every round and feel impactful (well, 4e did it, I guess), as well as making the classes feel distinct.

\$\endgroup\$
  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ To each their own. I feel the exact opposite; one of my biggest gripes about editions after 3.x is that they don't require wizards to use mundane weapons when (or to prevent) their spells from completely running out. To me, a wizard being reduced to crappy near-useless spells, and then eventually, a dagger or crossbow, is iconic. I appreciate that feeling of vulnerability it adds. \$\endgroup\$ – Southpaw Hare Jun 28 at 20:29
8
\$\begingroup\$

I'd like to address your closing assertion:

In all other versions of D&D that I have played, [casters] were "balanced" by the fact that once they have used up all their spells, they're not as effective (I said "balanced" because they are almost all Tier 1/2 in other editions). But now, they can cast super-powerful spells and still be at least not useless after using all their spells.

Let's compare Wizards in AD&D, 3E, & 5E based on spell slot count and total slot-levels (aka mana points):

\$ \begin{array}{|r|r|r|r|r|r|r|r|} \hline Level & 1E~\# & 1E~lev & 3E~\# & 3E~lev & 5E~\# & 5E~lev & ratio\\ \hline 1 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 1 & 3 & 3 & +200\% \\ 2 & 2 & 2 & 2 & 2 & 4 & 4 & +100\% \\ 3 & 3 & 4 & 3 & 4 & \sim7 & 10 & +140\% \\ 4 & 5 & 7 & 5 & 7 & \sim8 & 11 & +65\% \\ 5 & 7 & 11 & 6 & 10 & \sim10 & 19 & +65\% \\ 6 & 8 & 14 & 8 & 15 & \sim12 & 22 & +50\% \\ 7 & 10 & 20 & 10 & 20 & \sim13 & 27 & +30\% \\ 8 & 12 & 27 & 12 & 27 & \sim14 & 31 & +15\% \\ 9 & 13 & 32 & 14 & 34 & \sim16 & 41 & +20\% \\ 10 & 15 & 39 & 16 & 43 & \sim17 & 46 & +10\% \\ 11 & 18 & 51 & 18 & 52 & \sim19 & 53 & +5\% \\ 12 & 21 & 66 & 20 & 63 & \sim19 & 53 & -15\% \\ 13 & 25 & 78 & 22 & 74 & \sim20 & 61 & -20\% \\ 14 & 26 & 85 & 24 & 87 & \sim20 & 61 & -25\% \\ 15 & 28 & 94 & 26 & 100 & \sim21 & 70 & -25\% \\ 16 & 31 & 115 & 28 & 115 & \sim22 & 70 & -30\% \\ 17 & 33 & 130 & 30 & 130 & \sim23 & 80 & -30\% \\ 18 & 34 & 139 & 32 & 147 & \sim24 & 85 & -35\% \\ 19 & 35 & 147 & 34 & 163 & \sim25 & 92 & -35\% \\ 20 & 37 & 162 & 36 & 180 & \sim26 & 99 & -35\% \\ \hline \end{array} \$

Note: 5E figures include Arcane Recovery, so exact spell count may vary.

Compared to old editions, 5E full casters are way ahead at low level, about equal at 11th level, and far behind at high levels. Furthermore, 5E spells don't scale with caster level like previous editions (damage dice, range, duration, etc). Old school casters are more than quadratic, while 5E casters are barely above linear. This change is A Very Good Thing.

Cantrips with scaling do less DPR than weapon-focused classes with Extra Attack and other features. If you're comparing balance to previous editions, removing cantrip scaling is completely the wrong approach.

\$\endgroup\$

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.