Last Updated on January 22, 2023
A cantrip article for rogues, one of D&D 5e’s most iconic martial DPS classes, might seem like an odd choice. However, cantrips can greatly enhance a rogue’s effectiveness at what they do best, and these days the line between martial and spell caster is thinner than you might think.
There are a multitude of ways for a rogue to get cantrips and even spells in D&D 5e. In addition to feats and races that grant a few select spells, rogues also have a subclass, the Arcane Trickster, that grants access to a few wizard spells, and they can always multiclass into a more traditional spellcaster!
If you’re looking for a good set of cantrips for your rogue, or simply don’t yet know what cantrips can offer your sneak-attacking character, read on. Spoiler alert: Booming Blade is a must-pick.
As mentioned above, there are a few ways for a rogue to get cantrips. While there are a few races that grant interesting magical abilities and a few feats that grant cantrips like Magic Initiate, the best ways to get cantrips are through multiclassing or picking the Arcane Trickster subclass. These methods offer the most versatility for the least cost — feats can be a pretty hefty penalty for some characters who really need those ASIs, and racial magic tends to be somewhat limited and specific.
Of these, I recommend going with the Arcane Trickster subclass unless you have a specific build in mind. You shouldn’t dip just for cantrips since that does cost sneak-attack-damage progression. If you’re desperate to have cantrips without the Arcane Trickster subclass, a feat is the way to go (especially if you’re a variant human and get an extra feat at the start).
While spells gained from multiclassing depend on the other class you choose, Arcane Tricksters gain Mage Hand automatically along with two other cantrips. They also get a bonus cantrip at 10th level. For a melee class, three to four cantrips are pretty solid and are better than the two cantrips offered by Magic Initiate.
For this article, I’ll be mostly assuming that your rogue has taken the Arcane Trickster, as there aren’t really any options for cantrips not on the Arcane Trickster’s spell list that are significantly different or better than the spells that are available to the subclass.
If you aren’t sure whether or not the Arcane Trickster subclass is for you, check out this article that goes into greater detail about the build.
Feats, races, multiclassing, and the Arcane Trickster subclass provide a variety of methods for attaching cantrips to your rogue. However, with the exception of multiclassing, none of these methods allow, even optionally, for swapping your cantrips out.
That means it’s especially important that you select the cantrips that work best for your build the first time around… or have a forgiving DM who’ll let you switch.
A rogue’s role in a party is a striker with a secondary role as a general skill monkey for dungeons, traps, and other sneaky activities. Thus, cantrip picks should primarily be oriented around helping the rogue make their sneak attacks, or barring that, picks ought to be utility cantrips that the other fancy full casters won’t have.
Of course, these choices are oriented around a rogue who’s a rogue. In other words, if you have a rogue who doesn’t play like a rogue, then this rationale won’t work well. For example, if your rogue is multiclassed and more druid than rogue, you should probably check out this article about how to pick your druid cantrips. And if you aren’t sure what multiclass options work well with rogues, this article should help!
Top Cantrip Picks
Assuming you’re looking for cantrips for a rogue playstyle, here are the best cantrips you can take regardless of how you’re getting them.
Booming Blade is by far the best cantrip for melee rogues. This cantrip, if you aren’t familiar, allows you to make a melee weapon attack that does some small bonus damage and larger bonus damage if the target moves 5 feet or more before your next turn.
This can be a decent damage increase for many martial characters, but it’s often overshadowed by Extra Attack. However, rogues only make one attack per turn, and since you can’t apply sneak attack damage more than once a turn, they usually don’t want to make more attacks.
That makes Booming Blade a straight damage upgrade for any melee rogue — sadly, the cantrip doesn’t work on ranged attacks.
Moreover, this cantrip has excellent synergy with the feat War Caster. War Caster allows you to replace an attack of opportunity with the casting of a spell that targets just the enemy that provoked the attack.
You can use Booming Blade with War Caster (see here if you don’t believe me), getting a free extra attack that round. Moreover, sneak attack is only limited to once per turn, not once per round, so you can potentially get your sneak attack damage twice in a single round.
If you can take even just one cantrip as a rogue, you should make it this one as there’s literally no downside.
This spell, similarly to Booming Blade, also grants bonus damage on hit and is a straight upgrade from a rogue’s regular strategy. It’s a comparable choice to Booming Blade but slightly worse.
Firstly, the bonus damage is only triggered on hitting a second opponent, making this spell reliant on having nearby enemies. Personally, I’m not a fan of relying on positioning so heavily for a spell to be useful.
Secondly, because the bonus damage applies only to another creature, Green-Flame Blade isn’t usable with War Caster without forgoing the bonus damage. For me, that makes Booming Blade the superior option, though if you aren’t planning on taking the War Caster feat, the difference is small enough that I’d call this cantrip a side grade.
Mage Hand is an iconic utility spell that at least someone in your party should have. It can open dangerous containers, trigger traps, hold tools, and much more.
Rogues who have specialized in the Arcane Trickster class also gain several bonus advantages when using this spell. They can use the hand created by the spell to pickpocket items or place items on a person. They can turn the hand invisible and even disarm traps and pick locks with the hand. Plus, they can use their Bonus Action, not their action, to control the hand.
At level 14, Arcane Tricksters also gain the ability to use the hand to distract an enemy as a Bonus Action. The distraction lasts until the end of your turn and grants you advantage on your attacks against that creature — an easy way to gain sneak attack.
Minor Illusion is another excellent utility cantrip that every party should have. The distractions, blinds, diagrams, and other special effects it can generate are perfect for an enterprising rogue looking for the perfect place to hide or an easy way to distract/position an enemy.
The uses of this spell are so broad in fact that we have a whole article dedicated to them! My current favorite use is to create a box or false wall that a character can hide within/behind.
Shape Water is a utility cantrip that players who like to use their environments or who are in a waterborne campaign will find especially useful.
A creative DM might even allow you to use the ability to freeze water to disarm certain kinds of traps or break certain locks as the pressure exerted by water expanding as it freezes can be significant.
Another utility cantrip, Mold Earth stands out for its ability to alter the terrain. Technically, if you coordinated with other party members, you might be able to bury someone alive with it, but its real use is in digging trenches or excavating tunnels.
While there’s no particular synergy between this cantrip and a rogue’s abilities, it is a solid utility spell and one you should consider picking up if no one else in your party has it.
These are cantrips that can be useful for some playstyles and builds, but you should know how and when you’ll use them before picking them.
Thunderclap / Sword Burst
These spells do similar things: deal AOE damage to anyone within 4 feet of the caster on a save. Sword Burst is arguably a little better since it does force damage rather than thunder damage, but the difference is negligible.
Rogues are a high-damage martial class, but they are also not as resilient as paladins or fighters. As such, being surrounded can be bad news for a rogue, even with their Cunning Action.
These spells can provide convenient damage in these situations, and the damage can be decent when multiplied by several enemies. Of course, it’s usually better not to be surrounded, but things rarely go according to plan.
This kind of spell is a little weaker for rogues specifically since their Sneak Attack damage can often outpace the damage from the spell against multiple combatants. Still, if being surrounded is something that worries you (for example, you’re playing in a zombie-focused campaign), these spells are a good choice.
Let’s be clear, True Strike is not a great cantrip. At the cost of an action, you get advantage on your next attack, which pales in comparison to simply attacking twice.
However, this spell does have its uses for certain rogue playstyles. If you find your party often has the opportunity to ambush your foes (for example, through the old scry-and-fry method), you can use True Strike before combat starts to get free advantage.
A build that operates like a sniper in a homebrew campaign, doing extensive damage slowly, might also benefit from this spell.
If you’re unfamiliar, scry and fry is a classic D&D tactic where your party scries on your foes until they’re distracted or defenseless and then teleports to their location to kill them or steal their magic amulet. It’s pretty effective.
Finally, your rogue playstyle might benefit from a certain roguish charm — Friends. This cantrip is more typically used in high-Charisma builds as it grants advantage on Charisma checks against a non-hostile creature.
However, after the cantrip’s duration is up, the creature knows you used magic to influence it and will usually be pretty upset about that fact. Social builds and social campaigns, therefore, paradoxically don’t see this cantrip used much, but a rogue with a devil-may-care attitude and a quick tongue might find it a very fun cantrip in the right kinds of situations.
Cantrips and Rogues: Final Thoughts
Generally, a martial character’s action economy is kind of filled with their martial attacks. That can make balancing a hybrid playstyle difficult. Should you cast a spell or attack?
For rogues, however, cantrips can provide a straight upgrade (provided those rogues primarily use melee weapons, of course). That makes them worth pursuing, even if you have to take a feat or lock yourself into a subclass to do it.
Then again, maybe you’re just into cantrips for the sheer utility. In that case, this guide should help you decide what magical after-effects will work best for your character and play style.
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Growing up I spent most of my time reading, so when I first started playing RPGs in middle school and got a copy of DnD 3.5’s rules I loved their collaborative take on storytelling. These days I like to use RPGs to develop my creative problem-solving skills as well.