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The cantrip Mold earth allows

"shapes, colors, or both to appear on the dirt or stone, spelling out words, creating images, or shaping patterns"

Could those shapes be a series of ledges and/or indentations to make a ladder for climbing out of a pit or up a stone wall? The degree to which those letters/patterns have depth isn't specified.

The steps would disappear after 1 hr., and only two 'areas' of such steps could exist, but within those limits ascent could be via a series of castings of this spell:

  1. Cast and climb as high as possible on that first section.
  2. Cast again above the first area and climb as high a possible on it.
  3. Repeat.

Presumably, one would ascend at at rate of 5' per round this way: the excavation use of mold earth specifies a 5' cube. There is no specification of the area that can be affected by a shaping use of this spell, but 5' x 5' seems reasonable and consistent with that 5' cube.

The higher level spell stone shape allows more sophisticated, and durable manipulation of stone: as a weapon or coffer, and possibly with 2 hinges and a latch. Would using mold earth to create steps steal the thunder from stone shape? I would argue that the 1 hr. duration and limits on 2 'areas' (however big those might be), and the implied limit that mold earth can only work--literally--superficially (as the "shaping patterns" suggests), could be sufficient to keep this use of the cantrip from being overpowered.

However, another objection might be that the spell as written specifies creating shapes, patterns, colors, and letters suggests manipulations of the stone that are visually detectable--I could see those at more in line with creating a sign is viewable, or readable like braille, but not climbable. That is a harder argument to rebut.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This isn't answer-worthy, but I would probably rule that Mold Earth can slightly lower the DC needed (or for certain cases, grant advantage) on an ability check (athletics or acrobatics, most likely) to scale the wall, but does not make it a trivial climb. Think of it as exaggerating existing grip points to make them easier to grasp, but not making stairs. \$\endgroup\$ – Glen O Jul 30 at 5:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ @GlenO We prefer to avoid answering questions in comments, feel free to post your own answer. \$\endgroup\$ – Thomas Markov Jul 31 at 11:41
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Up to DM ruling, but probably not intended

You’ve already laid out the arguments pretty well in the question itself, so let me just restate them here:

The spell doesn’t precisely limit the degree of manipulation you can perform, so strictly speaking it’s up to your DM to decide what’s reasonable and what’s not here – however, the wording IMHO makes it pretty clear that the changes are intended to be cosmetic in nature. If the intent was that the surface can be manipulated in a more-or-less arbitrary way like that I don’t think all of the examples would’ve been purely visual changes.

Also, as you say there already is a spell for manipulating a 5 foot cube of stone in an arbitrary way; And Stone Shape is 4th level.

All that being said, you’re not going to break the game by allowing this either. You’re not going to reach a climbing speed of greater than 5 feet per round this way, and unless the wall was originally completely unclimbable an athletic person is still going to be significantly faster than that. And of course even if you have ledges in the wall the average Sorcerer or Wizard is still not going to be able to use them to get past an overhang.

I don’t think allowing this specific use would steal too much thunder from stone shape either; For one, it doesn’t really have that much thunder to begin with and for the other the main use of stone shape would probably be to create a passage through Wall (or block it) rather than trying to make climbing easier (which is already trivial by the time you get access to 4th level spells as Spider Climb and Fly exist).

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No.

From D&D Beyond the Mold earth spell description is:

You choose a portion of dirt or stone that you can see within range and that fits within a 5-foot cube. You manipulate it in one of the following ways:

If you target an area of loose earth, you can instantaneously excavate it, move it along the ground, and deposit it up to 5 feet away. This movement doesn’t have enough force to cause damage.

You cause shapes, colors, or both to appear on the dirt or stone, spelling out words, creating images, or shaping patterns. The changes last for 1 hour.

If the dirt or stone you target is on the ground, you cause it to become difficult terrain. Alternatively, you can cause the ground to become normal terrain if it is already difficult terrain. This change lasts for 1 hour.

So we have 3 possible effects, lets examine each:

  • If you target an area of loose earth you can instantaneously excavate it, move it along the ground, and deposit it up to 5 feet away. This movement doesn’t have enough force to cause damage.

Since we are speaking of stone, it is not applicable.

  • You cause shapes, colors, or both to appear on the dirt or stone, spelling out words, creating images, or shaping patterns. The changes last for 1 hour.

With this ability you can change the appearance of the stone, I.E. draw on it. Not change its shape.

  • If the dirt or stone you target is on the ground, you cause it to become difficult terrain. Alternatively, you can cause the ground to become normal terrain if it is already difficult terrain. This change lasts for 1 hour.

A wall is clearly not the ground, so it is not applicable either. Even if you would use is on a slope instead of a wall, this would not work since spells only do what they say. Nothing indicate you can change the shape. Only render it "difficult" or "normal". (To render stone a difficult terrain, it can become slippery for example).

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