Last Updated on October 25, 2023
Cantrips, more than any other type of spell, define what role you play in your party.
It does not matter if you are a full caster, like wizard or sorcerer; a half-caster, like ranger or paladin; or a one-third caster, like Arcane Trickster. Your cantrips will determine your effectiveness.
What Is a Cantrip?
A cantrip is a spell you can cast as often as you like. Most get more powerful as you gain levels, and many of them are useful both in and out of combat.
These spells are the reasons why, in 5th edition DnD, Wizards don’t need to carry any type of weapon.
In 3rd and prior editions, Wizards all carried staffs. Think about it, why does Gandalf give the mahogany beat down to so many Orcs? He was back in 1st edition and had to save spell slots. There were no cantrips back then.
The competent adventuring party makes sure they have all of their bases covered.
Here, we go in depth into the topic of party composition. For now, suffice to say we identify 7 different needs that a party can have, and players should try to cover those needs as best they can between their characters.
Those roles are tank, nuker, scout, support, utilitarian, controller, and face.
Most characters will not find it difficult to cover more than one role, even spellcasters.
Of course, the Bard is the most versatile of classes to make fit into any of them. Here is a list I found on the boss’s desk of the best spells for Bards.
Best Cantrips for Each Role in the Party
Spellcasting Tanks, while not common, are definitely possible to build. In general, these will be Druids or Clerics, though Rangers, Paladins, Barbarians, and Monks do have some options available.
Tanks pride themselves on the ability to both take and dish out damage. Personally, when I think of a tank, I never forget the giant rocket launcher they have on their nose.
In DnD, however, a tank is called so because of its armored properties.
A tank will get up in melee and command the attention of the enemy, absorbing the damage and whittling away at the foe’s HP while the rest of the party thinks of something useful to do.
We chose these spells for the tank because they are all within melee range and either improve your attacks, provide a limited AoE (Area of Effect), or provide a defense.
This Druid Spell turns your natural attack into a 1d10 (per five levels) acid-damage-dealing melee-attack spell, which means it uses your wisdom modifier.
Normally, I would have chosen shillelagh instead, but that spell unfortunately does not scale as you level.
If, however, you have a very common homebrew rule adding +1d8 to shillelagh’s damage per five levels like every other cantrip, then it will be drastically better than primal savagery.
This Cleric spell has a radius of 5 feet centered on you.
This means that when you are in the thick of battle and surrounded, you can cast this spell and affect every enemy on your case, dealing radiant damage (which almost no one has resistance to).
There are other spells that do similar effects, such as thunderstep or sword burst, but as a Cleric you are more likely to find yourself surrounded than your average glass cannon of a Wizard. They are smarter than that.
This spell often gets a bad rap simply because it takes one action to cast. What’s the point of spending an entire turn gaining a resistance to damage just so you can stand there and take it?
Well… that is the point. You can take it.
Cast this spell when you know you are about to provoke an attack of opportunity. If you are a Barbarian, cast this spell right before you rage and do something stupid like charge into a hoard of pointy metal objects.
At 5th level, this means that for 2 turns you will only be taking ¼ of the damage dealt to you.
Spellcasting With Martial Classes
There are two ways to gain a couple cantrips for your martial class.
Rangers and Paladins both have access to a fighting style via Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything that allows them to take two Druid or Cleric cantrips, respectively.
If you are a Barbarian or Monk, you may consider taking the appropriate Magic Initiate feat.
Consider, if you will, a Kensai Monk with Magic Initiate Druid that can cast Shillelagh and has the Polearm Master Feat. You will be throwing d8’s for days…
Nukers are those characters who can do a lot of damage in a single attack. This role is often filled by Rogues (for sneak attack), Rangers (for their massive free damage bonuses), and Monks (for their sheer number of attacks per turn).
Spellcasting Nukers are often called the Glass Cannon. Usually filled by Wizards, Warlocks, and Sorcerers, this type of Nuker is one that can deal MASSIVE DAMAGE but at the expense of having extra Hit Points.
For these roles, we chose cantrips that deal damage at long range, have a bit of an AoE, and maximize your damage output.
This is a standard, damage-dealing cantrip available to Sorcerers, Wizards, and Artificers. It deals 1d10 per five levels you have to a single target and ignites flammable, unattended objects. You can’t argue with simplicity.
The go-to Warlock cantrip is often lauded or derided as an overpowered cantrip. In truth, it is identical to a Heavy Crossbow that does force damage.
The agonizing blast invocation will allow you to add your Charisma bonus to your damage, and to every other arcane caster’s envy, you can split the damage up to target multiple targets.
This spell literally cannot go wrong.
Scouts are wide and varied, but in general they allow your party to achieve secondary objectives beyond just beating up the bad guys.
If you need someone to disarm or activate a trap during a boss fight, free a prisoner, steal a magical McGuffin, or, as the name implies, scout ahead, these are your people.
Typically, a scout role will be filled by the Rogues, Rangers, or Monks in the party. However, a properly built Bard, Druid, or Warlock can fill this role nicely.
We chose these cantrips because they will free up your actions or communicate with your party members.
When you scout ahead or achieve a secondary objective, there is always the proverbial saying, “wait for my signal.”
This could be something specific, like hooting like a barn owl 3 ½ times, or something vague, like an arrow through the BBEG’s chest or an ear-splitting explosion.
Or our favorite, your best impression of a terrified 7-year-old.
With message, however, that vagary is no longer needed. Simply get within 120 feet, and let them know what is, what has been, or what will be.
These signal lights can act as signals for your party at long range, light the scouted path for your party, or serve as distractions for the enemy.
Consider organizing a simple communication method as you scout ahead and leave these lights behind you. If they turn red, that means the party should stop and be silent. If they turn green, that means it’s time to move.
Now if only there were a color that meant move forward cautiously or even slow down and be prepared to stop…
There are a zillion ways to use this cantrip wisely.
As a scout, stealth is the name of your game. Sometimes, if a sentry just won’t move, you might try throwing your voice or imitating the sound of footsteps.
If you are being chased by thugs, run toward red and blue flashing lights or the sound of the city watch.
This spell is limited only by the quickness of your thinking.
Support roles are an easy one for spellcasters. These casters provide buffs and debuffs, a natural function of magic.
Most often, Support roles are filled by Bards, Clerics, and Druids.
Artificers also make for good support casters if you prefer arcane spells but, like many players, they dislike Bards. Archfey Warlocks and Abjuration Wizards can also meet this need.
This is a no-nonsense, simple 1d4 boost to any ability check that you can hand out like strangers do candy.
Suddenly everyone wants to come to you for a little encouragement before they have to do anything.
This illusion spell supports your party by weakening the opponent’s defense against saving throws.
Make sure to cast this spell right before your Nuker buddy drops a fireball. The target will receive a 1d4 to their save.
Alternatively, if you are a sorcerer, you can use the metamagic option Twin Spell to cast this and a spell that forces a saving throw, such as ray of sickness, at the same time to ensure your success.
Utilitarians get a kick out of changing the paradigm. Yes, you can stand in the back and throw spells at the bad guy, but with a little utility, you can suddenly be standing behind a 5-foot wall throwing spells at the bad guy.
See? Much better.
These cantrips were chosen because of their ability to alter the battlefield or contribute to creative problem solving. After all, what is magic for, really? It is a method of creative problem solving.
Fireball is creative, right?
To keep it simple, prestidigitation is like the swiss army knife of spells. It’s the ultimate trinket!
- Communicate with signals and written language as if it were graffiti.
- Kill the lights.
- Start a fire with a spark, especially if you happen to accidentally drop a can of lighter fluid using mage hand.
- Make someone’s food taste awful! Or cover the taste of poison.
- Have you ever had warm coffee on a cold day? You are now a tea kettle.
- Add a little flair to your sleight of hand.
A spell like this in combat or in social situations requires a bit of on-the-fly wit and a special talent for making people uncomfortable. We trust you can handle that.
Mold Earth / Control Flames / Gust / Shape Water
This is technically four spells, I know, but they are all kind of the same in that they are the basic manipulation of a chosen element.
Therefore, whichever one of these you pick depends mostly on your flavor and personality.
The truth is, each one of these can be used to alter the battlefield in your favor.
Using your chosen element, you can create cover by excavating dirt and digging a foxhole, make a little iceberg, blow up dust or debris, or make flames flare up in front of you.
With these spells, you create terrain and environmental effects. It’s like you are the GM of your own little 5-foot square.
The Face is the person you want dealing with social situations because, let’s face it, adventurers are weird. You and your friends are weird. Hopefully at least one of you knows the rules to the social game.
The Face is that person. Like the Support role is sometimes called the Mom-Friend, the Face is the friend you send in to talk to your Mom so that you can go do something stupid and risky.
This spell is a tricky one. Yes, you get advantage on all Charisma checks, but they know you are charming them.
However, this doesn’t mean that they have to become hostile. Some people like to be charmed. In fact, some people won’t give you what you want unless they are charmed.
Politicians, celebrities, and regular people out there in the professional world know this and take advantage of it.
People want to be charmed, enchanted, and swept off their feet in the real world, both personally and professionally. They like the attention. DnD just gives us a little magic to make it easier.
Consider using this damage-dealing spell in a noncombat situation. Just because it is psychic damage doesn’t mean it can be traced back to something caused by the caster.
I mean, sometimes words hurt, despite what children say. Use this as a chance to slip in a little insult, and ask your DM to combine it with an Intimidation check.
Cantrips are all about versatility and quick thinking. Don’t just take our word for it!
Play around, have fun, and gather stories to regale your friends at the tavern after the adventure.
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Rich is an avid D&D player and DM. He has been playing since the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st and 2nd editions. He has run campaigns of various editions with family and friends for over 20 years. Playing DnD 5th Edition in person at local game stores and online with VTT’s over the past 10 years has provided a consistent connection to how the game has grown. He strongly believes in understanding the source material, but catering the games to your individual players. Feel free to ask anything in the comments or drop him an email: [email protected].