As a new DM I'm running my first adventure for my kids (Lost Mine of Phandelver). My daughter took the high elf wizard and she was wondering whether she should use weapons instead of her cantrips when she runs out of spell slots.

Indeed, high elf being proficient with weapons, she could use a bow that does 1d8+2, adding also the modifier to the attack roll, or a sword instead of shocking grasp for example... When cantrips don't get any modifiers.

Not really sure what to tell her. Thanks in advance!

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    \$\begingroup\$ What range of character levels do you care about? \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14, 2021 at 20:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's for LMoP so up to level 5 for now. We'll see if they would like to keep going with the same characters or maybe try something else after that. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14, 2021 at 21:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Related (does this answer your question): "Weapon attacks compared with damaging cantrips?" \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15, 2021 at 3:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think that this should be closed, as min-maxing is a valid criteria for 'should'. \$\endgroup\$
    – tuskiomi
    Feb 15, 2021 at 18:34

8 Answers 8


You don’t give us a criterion for “should”

If your criterion is damage potential - maybe. The long bow has a higher average damage on a hit than a Fire Bolt (6.5 vs 5.5). However, if her Intelligence bonus is better than her Dexterity bonus then the bow will miss more often. Where the crossover point on damage output is depends on the difference in the bonus and the AC of the target.

If your criterion is looking like a bad-ass wizard shooting fire from your fingers, then no.

If your criterion is looking like a bad-ass elf sniping foes with her ancestral weapon, then yes.

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    \$\begingroup\$ @JeremyBelolo Any attack involves rolling a d20 and adding a bonus, and comparing that against the target’s AC. A cantrip uses a spell attack, so the bonus is proficiency plus spellcasting ability (Intelligence for Wizards). A longbow uses a ranged weapon attack, so the bonus is proficiency (assuming you are, as an elf is) plus Dexterity. So for an elf that has more Intelligence than Dexterity, the cantrip is more accurate than the longbow. The longbow probably does more damage. The cantrip might have a little extra beyond pure damage. And so on. Pros and cons will depend on the elf and target \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Feb 15, 2021 at 0:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ Might also be worth noting that, barring Multiattack or other weapon-focused features, Cantrips will outstrip weapons in damage output as you level up. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15, 2021 at 15:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ Beyond min/maxing, you can simply role-play it even if the INT bonus is weaker than the DEX. People do not simply do whatever + is there highest in real life (e.g.: weak drunks), so there's no reason to min/max it. The character can do whatever they want. \$\endgroup\$
    – Nelson
    Feb 16, 2021 at 3:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Exactly this. My High-elf wizard doesn't use his bow at all, just spamming firebolt because he isnt a pleb who fights with normal weapons. Yes I (as a player) miss out on some damage but he (as a character) doesn't care and refuses to accept it int he first place (that some puny arrows could outperform his cataclysmic fire bolt \$\endgroup\$
    – Hobbamok
    Feb 16, 2021 at 8:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ Also VERY important thing to not discount. The longbow range is VASTLY greater than cantrip ranges. Honestly, my suggestion would be to have both, use each when important. Some enemies are resistant to magic/specific damage types, and variety is the best remedy. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 16, 2021 at 17:43

There are pros and cons to both, but she should avoid melee weapons.

Especially at low levels, wizards should try to avoid melee combat since they tend to have lower armor class and lower hit points. This is strictly a survivability issue, but there is also the fact that elves and wizards in general tend to have lower Strength, which is tied to melee success. She ought to carry at least a dagger though--sometimes a wizard has no choice but to engage in melee.

A bow is an excellent choice for a wizard since it allows them to contribute to combat when they are out of offensive spells, or when they want to save those spells for a later challenge. The only downsides to a bow are that she must carry the arrows (not really a huge deal unless she's exceptionally weak) and those arrows are finite. Still, she will have the offensive cantrips for when she runs out of arrows (and depleting them reduces their weight), so the greater damage that a bow can do--compared to offensive cantrips--is definitely worth spending the gold on a bow and arrows.

Finally, arrows have the advantage of being able to hurt certain creatures that might not be hurt by a fire bolt, for instance, due to immunity to that kind of damage.

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    \$\begingroup\$ High Elves are proficient with Short Swords, so she should be using one of those instead of a Dagger, since it'll do another point of damage over the dagger on average. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Feb 16, 2021 at 11:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nick012000 Although you can throw a dagger, which can't be done with a short sword. \$\endgroup\$
    – gto
    Feb 16, 2021 at 23:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ This answer seems to ignore the existence of cantrips. Wizards already have a consistent way to deal damage at range without spending resources, and thus continue to contribute to combat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ben Barden
    Feb 17, 2021 at 14:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ I literally address cantrips twice in this answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – ruffdove
    Feb 18, 2021 at 0:45

Assuming 10 strength/14 dex/16 int, we get:

Longbow is +4 attack for 1d8+2(6.5) damage at 150/600 feet.

Rapier is +4 attack for 1d8+2(6.5) damage in melee (using tasha's rules to swap proficiency)

Short Sword is +4 attack for 1d6+2(5.5) damage in melee

Long Sword is +2 attack for 1d8+0(4.5) damage in melee

Firebolt is +5 attack for 1d10(5.5) damage at 120 feet

Shocking grasp is +5 attack for 1d8(4.5) damage in melee, and shuts down reactions (allowing you to flee and not get an opportunity attack).

DPR AC 13 AC 18
Longbow/Rapier 4.1 2.6
FireBolt 3.9 2.5
Short Sword 3.5 2.1
Shocking Grasp 3.2 2.0
Long Sword 2.5 1.4
  1. Missing sucks. When in doubt, bias towards accuracy.
  2. Against a low AC foe (13), the rapier/longbow does 7% more damage per round than the firebolt.
  3. Against a high AC foe (18), the longbow/rapier does 1% more damage per round than the firebolt.
  4. The short sword competes with shocking grasp similarly.
  5. The long sword option sucks.

That gap is pretty small between rapier/longbow and firebolt. So it ends up being a matter of style - does the player want to play a elf wizard who uses longbows, or shoots fire from her fingertips?

Unless the wizard becomes a bladesinger, by tier 2 cantrips pull ahead; you'll both probably boost int rather than dex, and they get a 2nd damage die.

If the player likes using weapon, the bladesinger is a solid continuation. At level 6, a 18 int/14 dex bladesinger on an AC 16 foe puts out:

  • +7 to hit @ 2d10 damage firebolt (7.2 DPR)
  • +5 to hit @ 1d8+2 damage arrow (3.5 DPR)

and can do both as an action. A non-bladesinger only does the firebolt.

  • \$\begingroup\$ That was VERY interesting, thanks \$\endgroup\$ Feb 15, 2021 at 20:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ "Longsword is +4 attack for 1d8+2(6.5) damage in melee" This is incorrect. Longswords aren't Finesse weapons, so she'd be rolling her Str to hit and damage, not Dex. She'd need to use a Short Sword instead, which would do 1d6+2(5.5) damage. \$\endgroup\$
    – nick012000
    Feb 16, 2021 at 11:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ @nick fixed; used rapier. Can swap profs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Feb 16, 2021 at 12:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ High Elves don't get racial proficiency with the Rapier \$\endgroup\$
    – Erik
    Feb 16, 2021 at 13:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @erik they do after tasha's; swap it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Feb 16, 2021 at 13:35

Weapons can be better than cantrips at lowest levels depending on the situation. I played a High Elf wizard with a bow and even used a pair of shortswords in melee due to my lucky Dex, +3. This made me pretty competitive with Mage Armour and Shield at level 1.

The core issue is that they will never really get any better, whereas cantrips will get substantially better as she levels up. In addition one can find other improvised uses for them which it's hard to use weapons for, such as Fire Bolt setting objects like oil or rope on fire.

So depending on your stats, you may find specific justifications for using weapons in specific scenarios, especially at lower levels, which is fine. However in the overall experience, cantrips are better.

That being said, as also further advice from an experienced wizard, usually the better approach is to cantrip/weapon first, then use your spell slots only if really needed, as having to long rest to get them back is suffering. Managing your available slots and keeping resources available is a large part of playing a long rest caster.


In your question you had specifically mentioned

Shocking Grasp Evocation cantrip Casting Time: 1 action Range: Touch Components: V, S Duration: Instantaneous Lightning springs from your hand to deliver a shock to a creature you try to touch. Make a melee spell attack against the target. You have advantage on the attack roll if the target is wearing armor made of metal. On a hit, the target takes 1d8 lightning damage, and it can’t take reactions until the start of its next turn. The spell’s damage increases by 1d8 when you reach 5th level (2d8), 11th level (3d8), and 17th level (4d8).

I would not recommend a low level Wizard enter into melee combat, as the cantrip requires. That being said, if an enemy were to engage in melee combat with the Wizard, Shocking Grasp can make running away a good option. Shocking Grasp denies an enemy their reaction and saves the Wizard from an Opportunity Attack.

To make the opportunity attack, you use your reaction to make one melee attack against the provoking creature. The attack occurs right before the creature leaves your reach.

A long bow has the advantage of being a ranged attack but it has a disadvantage of using Dexterity on the attack and damage rolls. Adding Dexterity to the list of important stats may not be worthwhile when ranged cantrips are available to wizards.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Well yes, but she already have nice DEX : +2. It's the pregen wizard for LMoP : dndbeyond.com/characters/28349540/ql1w0f \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14, 2021 at 21:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ Jeremy, +2 DEX is really not that high for using DEX-weapons. Assuming she is proficient with bows, and she's at level 1, she will only have a +4 bonus on using them. That really isn't that high. I personally love it when players give flavor to their characters that isn't necesarrily technically the strongest choice (e.g. a bow wielding high-elf wizard). But you definitely you should be aware that in this case It's probably a much better choice to use the cantrips. \$\endgroup\$
    – Opifex
    Feb 15, 2021 at 9:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ The pregen only has +3 for INT, so its a choice between +4 and +5. \$\endgroup\$
    – Taemyr
    Feb 15, 2021 at 10:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ Shocking grasp is worse for a wizard wanting to run away than the disengage action, or often the dodge action, or just running. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Feb 15, 2021 at 17:37

I recommend the cantrips.

Compare the wizard to the axe fighter. He has d12+3 base damage, average 9.5; the wizard's Ray of Frost is d8, average 4.5. The fighter is also way tougher, meaning he can (and should) tank for the others, which the wizard can't or she'll go down. If you want to have good regular damage, play a fighter.

Wizards aren't about that sort of fight. They're about casting Sleep and incapacitating 3 enemies, or Burning Hands and splashing 4. Tell your daughter to focus on that, and she'll be great (as soon as she has more spell slots: there are power spikes at levels 3 and 5).

So given her regular attacks aren't going to inflict meaningful damage either way, what can she get out of her standard action? Setting up herself or the rest of the party for later turns. Ray of Frost to slow an enemy and keep it from reaching her, Shocking Grasp so she can get out of melee without suffering AoO. Take on side duties, viz I took a healing potion so I could play backup healer for the cleric, because that way the characters with better damage output wouldn't have to waste their turn reviving anyone who fell.


This is a supplemental answer to the useful damage computations done above. I think the main advantage of using a bow is that, at low levels, you can basically do the equivalent of Firebolt without having the Firebolt cantrip. (It might do slightly better or slightly worse average damage, depending on whether you have 14 or 16 dexterity, but it is in the same ballpark.) No existing answer seems to mention that cantrip choices are a very limited resource and that freeing one slot up for say a utility cantrip or a more situational combat cantrip can be a major advantage.

Gameplay wise this seems to be the biggest difference between using a bow or a cantrip as your main attack.

  • \$\begingroup\$ as soon as you get to level 5 that changes, and High elves get an additional cantrip on top of the original 3 that a wizard gets. FWIW. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 26, 2022 at 18:38

In addition to mechanical differences, there are narrative differences which can in one game be insignificant and in another decisive.

In more “realistic” style: a longbow-using wizard can do something useful (deal damage) without revealing that he is magic user. At level 1 the mechanical difference is really small, at higher levels he is contributing less than he could with cantrips, but if his main goal is to wait for right moment to cast a powerful spell, shooting arrows explains the characters presence in the fight as bad archer. If he cast a cantrip, he becomes a high value target and could die the next turn, or the enemy will react to the fact that they face a magic user in another way (retreat, call reinforcements etc.).

In "classic" style: Players enter room with enemies and start fighting, enemies attack what is near them and don't do anything special beyond their stats, hiding that the wizard is a wizard is useless, no one cares.


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