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In the campaign I'm running, I have a wizard PC who saves his spells mostly for RP and utility purposes. He enjoys spells like Legend Lore, Misty Step, Find Familiar etc. So, he falls back on cantrips a lot after he burns through his few spell slots with combat spells.

While I'm fine with this, I feel like he's getting the short end of the stick when he's reduced to a Ray of Frost that does 1d8 (they're all level 3 right now, fairly new campaign) damage and slows someone each turn. This is even more important because it's a "numbers over power" campaign where the enemy often arrives in armies of dozens, where slowing one NPC has no real impact. I'm having a similar problem in another campaign with a warlock who, after using his invocations, has nothing to do but spam Eldritch Blast all day to deal damage to anyone.

My question is thus: What is the proper way to calculate cantrip/spell damage, and how can they boost it to be more in line with the other players?

From what I understand spells work like this: if it's not a saving throw or an AOE, or if it states to use one, you have to make a ranged attack check, which is 1d20 + prof + modifier.

Then damage is calculated as spell damage +...nothing? This hardly seems fair when all physical classes get to throw in str, dex, and con to all sorts of modifiers when they fight. Am I missing something here? Maybe it's more balanced than it seems and we're missing the obvious.

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You're right. It's only base dice, no modifiers.

This probably sounds terrible, however, there is a good reason:

It's more balanced than it seems.

It's hard to tell sometimes; believe me I know. But, until you get more hands-on experience with the game, you have to give the game you're playing a "grace period" where you trust that the designers made the correct decisions, even if it seems like they didn't at first. Every campaign you play or DM is going to be different. If you change players or DM, then the campaign will be completely different. Some of those games, you will have players that built weak casters, and experienced grognards that built martial types. Although it is a roleplaying game, the "player skill" of the game comes in with decision-making during game time, and character building during creation.

That said, if you GM a game and you consistently encounter the same balance issues across encounters, then yeah, you should feel confident that houseruling whatever the issue is will improve your experience.

Your Wizard's spell slots are pretty big.

Bear with me a moment and imagine that the Wizard class is actually Batman. The biggest strength of the Wizard is that they have a tool ready for every situation -- at least, if they're a good Wizard. That's the player-skill-decision-making part. The spells your Wizard picked aren't bad, they just make him very good at things that aren't combat. Your Wizard has a ton of tools for dealing with non-combat situations. Imagine if Batman didn't bring his Batarangs when he went out on a mission. He's still the best detective on the planet, but now he isn't as effective as he would be in a fight. Spells are really, really good at solving specific problems.

That said, given the nature of the encounters you described, you might try throwing your Wizard a bone if you haven't already. D&D is more than just combat, and if you aren't giving your non-combat specialist Wizard any non-combat to specialize in, he'll feel like a useless player. If your player is concerned about his build, then you can allow him to switch out a cantrip, or give him a couple of good AOE scrolls in the next loot pile to scribe.

In addition, cantrips scale at certain levels. It's not immediately, but you can be sure that the cantrip will be a good standby at later levels.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This was really helpful, and it is my fault that more RP events dont come up, the party gets into fights ALOT, so It's difficult for me to create good opportunities for him to utility his way to a solution rather than blowing it up, but I'll work on it. Scrolls are a good fallback too \$\endgroup\$ – Nemenia Sep 24 '15 at 22:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ A follow up about the spells you described: legend lore is going to be very useful when you find out that villain X is hiding out in ruins Y. "I cast legend lore to find out more about ruins Y." "Ruins Y is said to be an ancient Elven crypt built for a royal dynasty." It would probably be stated more cryptically, but any foreknowledge is extremely useful for a Wizard because it allows them to know what spells to prepare for the incursion -- in this case, spells that are effective against the undead. Just an example of how useful non-combat spells can be. \$\endgroup\$ – Lucas Leblanc Sep 25 '15 at 13:49
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First let's eliminate a misunderstanding:

From what i understand spells work like this. if its not a saving throw or an AOE, or if it states to use one, you have to make a ranged attack check, which is 8 + prof + modifier.

No, it takes an attack roll only when it says so. If it's not a saving throw or an AoE effect, and it doesn't say it takes an attack roll, don't add one. That's not how it's supposed to work, and it will make a lot of useful spells seem worse than they are. There are a lot of spells that just work, with no checks, saves, or attacks required at all.


With that settled…

  • Spell attacks get no damage bonus. They do the damage that they say they do.

  • Cantrips get better as the caster increases in level, because the spells say so. Ray of frost, for example, increases its damage when the PC gets to 5th, 11th, and 17th levels. (PHB, p. 271) You don't need to do anything there to make them better.

Part of the problem here is under your control: doing “numbers over power” is a great way to make single-target spellcasters less useful. Change up your encounter design a bit, so there are not just encounters with hordes of weak enemies, but also encounters with strong singletons or small groups of strong-ish enemies, or a mix of both horde and individual enemies, and suddenly the wizard and the warlock will seem much more powerful even when they're down to just cantrips.

Cantrips can also benefit from magic items. At 3rd level you're probably not ready to sprinkle too many magic items into the campaign, but consider the wand of the war mage, which will make it easier for a spellcaster to succeed on attack rolls, which will increase their overall damage output over the course of a combat.

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You are right, spells do not in general get a damage bonus based on stat. There are a number of important abilities that can change this (Warlock can get Cha to Eldritch, Evokers can get Int to cantrips, Dragon Socerers can get Cha to favored element).

This leads to cantrips falling a little behind the weapons of combat classes in damage (1d10+nothing vs 1d8+str/dex; both double at 5th level). However, this is more than made up by the damage potential of real spells. The damage-per-second of wizard vs fighter looks a lot better when the first round is a fireball instead of a cantrip!

As SevenSidedDie pointed out, single target spells suck against the swarms of orcs your players usually encounter. Suggest some AoE spells. A single fireball could easily toast a dozen of the orcs! After that the wizard could twiddle his thumbs and watch for the next 10 rounds as the fighter tries to catch up.

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You're not missing anything: spell damage is calculated as laid out in each spell's description.

The reason that this is balanced is that the 'martial' classes, which get to add an ability modifier to damage, don't have a choice of using their weapon to learn lore, befriend animals, set alarms, &c.

(Note that cantrip damage will scale with the caster's total level, but still not as... impressively as some of the martial damage options.)

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Wizards are the only casters who can use rituals (beginning at Level 1) without preparing them (no slots required).

Your wizard doesn't need to be running out of spell slots and falling back on cantrips in the first place. Learn a bunch of ritual magic and use at will, and the slots for combat.

First level ritual spells that you can use:

  • Alarm 1st-level abjuration (ritual) Usable by Wizard

  • Comprehend Languages 1st-level divination (ritual) Usable by Bard, Wizard, Sorcerer, Warlock

  • Detect Magic 1st-level divination (ritual) Usable by Bard, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, Wizard

  • Find Familiar 1st-level conjuration (ritual) Usable by Wizard

  • Identify 1st-level divination (ritual) Usable by Bard, Wizard

  • Illusory Script 1st-level illusion (ritual) Usable by Bard, Wizard, Warlock

  • Tenser's Floating Disk 1st Level Conjuration (ritual) Usable by Wizard

  • Unseen Servant 1st-level conjuration (ritual) Usable by Bard, Wizard, Warlock

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