Tactical Cantrip Usage 101: A Fey Trickster’s Handbook
Abstract This guide aims to find tactical (combat) uses for cantrips (minor Wizard At-Will spells). The different cantrips and their potential uses will be discussed, followed by a listing of class features that assist in the utility of cantrips. Finally, magic items that boost (and/or provide) cantrips will be looked at. Texts are referenced in shorthand brackets, e.g. (PHB, 100) means Player's Handbook, Page 100.
After having used Gnomes since their (re)inception into D&D 4E, I’ve been struggling to find a use for their free Cantrips/Encounter. The fact that they are Encounter powers (as opposed to At-Wills for the Wizard) and that two of them actually require a feat (Fey Trickster) to get, exasperates the need to use them prudently. Therefore, making them useful tactically could be one of those ways; affecting combat is important as combat losses might also mean losing your character. This would also have the side effect of making them more attractive to combat-oriented gamers.
Granted, well accomplished Wizards might argue for the fact that they are “role-playing powers” or that they should be used only out of combat (or before it begins). However, Wizards get cantrips as simple At-Wills, precluding the need to save them for a better time or to ensure that each casting is as useful as possible. Still, it does not mean that using them as RP/non-combat powers is necessarily a bad or flawed thing.
Though this guide is targeted at non-Wizard Gnomes that have taken, and might want to justify the Fey Trickster Racial Feat, any character that has access to cantrips (i.e. Wizards or magic item owners) may make use of the suggestions contained herein. Also, this guide is by no means an exhaustive, all-encompassing guide to cantrip usage; I’m sure there are many more ways to use cantrips, both in and out of combat.
Background and Terminology of Cantrips Spoiler:Show
In 3rd Edition and earlier, cantrips were classified as 0-Level Spells, some of which could actually deal damage. Currently, in 4th Edition, the “0-Level” prefix has been removed, and they were made into At-Will Wizard Class Features. Further, those that could deal damage have been removed, while the strictly non-combat ones were made into Rituals/Alchemy. This has left behind a few “functional” ones. They are as follows (with 'standard' colour ratings):
You may gain Combat Advantage once per encounter by making, and succeeding at a Bluff check against the target’s Insight check (PHB, 183). With cantrips, you can either make a Bluff more convincing (gain bonuses to bluffing) or distract the target (apply penalties to the target’s Insight check). A drawback to this method is that it is quite subjective, and is strictly up to the DM’s discretion as there are no official rules on this. Some DMs will apply a flat bonus/penalty once you declare that you cast a cantrip for the Bluff check. Others might require that you do something (i.e. roleplay) with the cantrip to make it more convincing. This will be elaborated on in the cantrip listings’ RP sections.
You can attempt to hide from a creature even without cover and concealment, if the creature is Distracted (PHB, 188). It is possible to distract an enemy creature before combat begins with the help of cantrips. This is useful because creatures that are not aware of a character will grant combat advantage. Characters with powers that work on CA, such as Rangers and Rogues, benefit very well from such a use, e.g. Sneak Attack. Again, like Combat Bluff, this is up to the DM’s discretion.
Arcane Admixture (AP, 130) + Class Features/Powers that affect Keywords [Experimental] Spoiler:Show
The feat wording instructs you to “Choose one arcane power that you know, and choose (a damage type)...The power now deals that damage type in addition to its normal damage type and gains that keyword.” This does not necessarily imply that the spell has to have any “normal damage” in the first place, but instead it may initially have “no damage type”. Should this be legal, one could be able to apply a damage type to cantrips, thereby increasing the utility of cantrips in combat via Powers/Feats/Vulnerabilities that activate when a “(Damage) Keyword” is used. More on this if it proves usable.
Creates an illusory sound from a specified place; akin to magical ventriloquism.
Combat Bluff RP: Tell the target to, “Look, behind you!” as the Bluff check, and cast Ghost Sound to cause a voice to say, “I’b a bonster, rawr!!!” to emanate from the space behind him.
Stealth Assist RP: Create a diversion with the sound of somebody walking/whispering loudly to get a creature (sentry or guard) to turn in the opposite direction.
Associated Items: Magician’s Ring
Though useful, GS does require a Standard Action to cast, which may very well be better spent on doing something else. After all, the point of a *minor* magical effect is to be able to do something with a minimum of effort. However, it is Ranged 10 (the longest range among the cantrips) and can therefore affect the battle from quite a distance. Even better when combined with a Magician's Ring and/or a Staff of Unparalleled Vision.
Causes an object or area to glow brightly for a while.
Combat Bluff RP: Not exactly direct, but when a melee character like a Fighter gets stuck at range (e.g. like a chasm with Kobold archers on the other side), Light can be cast on his hands/weapons to make it look like he’s casting a spell in order to Bluff the enemies into thinking he’s the Wizard. The Wizard might then proceed to seize CA then. This will probably work better in conjunction with an illusion or magical item that obscures the plate armour that the Fighter usually wears.
Stealth Assist RP: N/A. You would not cast this to try to maintain stealth. However, you might try casting Light on (the clothes/weapon of) a stealthy enemy to prevent, or at the very least, hinder his ability to sneak away. This could be similar to the Drow’s Darkfire ability, except that it does not grant CA. Nevertheless, as Light does not have an “Attack” listing, theoretically, it should work automatically, but a wily DM might impose a “Dexterity vs. Reflex” check on you. This essentially counts as carrying a Light Source while trying to perform a Stealth Check (PHB, 188).
Similarly, you may also try casting Light on an arrow/quarrel/other projectile and aim to "tag" an elusive, stealthy enemy; akin to how a tracer round works in real life. (ChuqKnoriz, 2009)
Associated Items: Staff of Light, Gauntlets of Brilliance
Arguably the most directly useful and obvious cantrip, the ability to illuminate a dark place indefinitely is indispensible; especially in campaigns with lots of dungeons and a DM that actually keeps track of range of vision and visibility.
Conjures a floating spectral hand that manipulates an object of your choice.
Combat Bluff RP: N/A. MH is not exactly a ‘subtle trickery’ spell.
Stealth Assist RP: Use to create a diversion like shifting rocks or leaves to cause an unwary guard/sentry to look the other way.
Associated Items: Staff of Spectral Hands, Hedge Wizard’s Gloves
MH can be remarkably useful in disabling and/or deactivating traps. Use it to do things like pull a tripwire or to pull a deactivation lever on the opposite side of a trap. Or place an alchemical grenade in the hand and use it as the fantasy version of a guided missile. Use it for Thievery checks to lift a (sheathed) weapon, or remove the ammunition of an enemy before combat begins. Also, potentially, it allows you to switch weapons or equip/stow shield with a single minor action, as opposed to two minor actions or a standard action respectively, if done by mundane means. This is useful for those who wish to change their tactical options in the midst of battle without taking the Quick Draw feat.
Combat Bluff RP: Make a small weapon (e.g. dagger/shuriken) or alchemical grenade invisible as part of a Bluff check to convince an enemy that you are potentially unarmed. You could use MH to ready those items clandestinely as well. Furthermore, the magic casting effect explained in the Combat Bluff RP entry for Light can also be duplicated (perhaps more convincingly) with the Prestidigitation spell as well.
Alternatively, you may make it look like you're casting a powerful spell (Bluff check) to make an opponent flinch, thereby gaining Combat Advantage for an actual attack. The fact that Pd takes up a Standard Action makes it almost mandatory to use an Action Point to gain the attack though.
Stealth Assist RP: The GS spell could be backed up with the convincing smell of an approaching creature, especially if the target creature in question has a keen sense of smell. Also, the ability to rapidly extinguish a light source is very useful when infiltrating an area or in gaining stealth.
Associated Items: Hedge Wizard’s Gloves, Magician’s Ring
This is probably the most difficult cantrip to use tactically due to its short range, Standard Action requirement, and general description. However, because of its general description, Prestidigitation probably works best when used in conjunction with the other cantrips.
Summoner's Slip (11th level) Class Feature: Allows a free action teleport whenever the character uses a conjuration (or summoning) spell. MH has the Conjuration keyword, qualifying it for the free teleportation.
Protective Essence (20th Level) Daily Power: Deals Charisma-modifier damage each time an ‘arcane power’ is used. This includes all cantrips as well.
Magical Items Some items provide free cantrips, the others provide valuable boosts to the cantrips: Spoiler:Show
Staff of Spectral Hands (AV, 107): Gives ability to maintain multiple MHs; very useful if you want to be "handy"... Use in combination with the "Guided Missile (Alchemical Grenade)" maneuver to create your very own "Cluster Munition" effect. Only attempt if you're really into some major artillery fetish and/or are funded as much as an actual real life field artillery unit.
Hedge Wizard’s Gloves (AV, 135): Gives At-Will MH and Pd; for non-Gnomes who just need to have their cantrip fix.
Magician’s Ring (AV, 157): Gives At-Will GS and Pd AND doubles their range; very useful to extend the anaemic range of Prestidigitation. Also for non-Gnome cantrip addicts.
Staff of Light (AV, 105): Causes damage to Undead when Light is cast on it; excellent combat utility for the Light spell.
Gauntlets of Brilliance (AV, 133): Gives At-Will Lt; also provides a useful, albeit non-cantrip related ability.
Staff of Unparalleled Vision (AV, 107): Adds range to Ranged/Area arcane powers; good to increase Pd range.
Orb of Indefatigable Concentration (AV, 94): Sustains arcane powers that have “Sustain Minor” with Free Action; good for MH usage.
Cantrips are relatively useful spells in the right situation, though their use might not be very obvious at times. The choice of not dealing damage and/or providing direct combat utility can be a turnoff for ‘powergamers’/’hack ‘n slashers’ (like me at times). The fun, however, of Cantrips is not for awesome displays of unstoppable arcane power, but for the different ways it can improve RP, and when in the right context, even influence combat. Cantrip usage, I find, is all about “bricolage”, which is using what you have, to do something different that is also useful. Therefore, we should not dismiss the lowly Cantrip as merely a non-combat RP power; instead, we should let our imagination find ways to use them in new innovative ways. After all, as Gygax intended D&D to be, the imagination’s the limit.
Any other suggestions as to how to improve both the guide, as well as cantrips will be greatly appreciated. Also, I need confirmation on the Admixture feat. Lastly, would anyone know any more spells/features/feats that activate when an arcane/conjuration/illusion power is used?
I think Prestidigitation is more useful than you say. Even though it is pretty worthless in combat, it can help get the jump on enemies, coordinate allies, or evade fights altogether if used in the right circumstances. How? Hidden messages. If your party splits up to explore a dungeon, you will need to communicate even if you can't see or speak to each other. If one group encounters traps, they leave a message on the ground before the traps appear. If a patrol moves through an area, a message can be left to alert the other group before they encounter said patrol. If an area of a dungeon has a certain kind of monster (undead, lurkers, or shapechangers in particular), a message can be left to alert the rest of the party to their nature. Prestidigitation can create small marks and symbols for 1 hour, but that isn't nearly subtle enough for a Wizard with 18 Int! Instead, give all of your allies simple instructions to take a pouch of salt and pour a short line on the ground, and to taste the salt whenever they encounter some. Salt won't tip off the enemies in all likelihood (it looks like stone dust, why investigate?), but with PD you can flavor it in a number of ways. Flavor one 1-pound bag of salt with lemon flavor, one bag with strawberry flavor, and one with a spicy flavor. You can keep 3 PD effects going for 1 hour, so you would have to either regroup every hour or use an item to give other party members access to the cantrip. There are 7 possible messages given 3 effects and the ability to combine any number of pouches of flavored salt (Bag A alone, Bag B, Bag C, Bag A+Bag B, Bag A + Bag C, Bag B + Bag C, and all 3 Bags). You can extend this number if you use shapes as well, such as by drawing an E/W line with Bag A and a N/S line with Bag C. Actually, you can do all this without PD if you use ordinary spices. How about that... Maybe it isn't so useful after all. Anyone got any other uses for the cantrip? The only one I can think of is writing without a pen by using the color items ability.
Well, actually, I was thinking more of direct combat use, or at the very least pre-combat use, i.e. just before combat ensues; how to use cantrips to gain an edge in those situations when the swords swing and the spells fly.
Therefore, I focused on the rules that enabled one to use a skill check to gain a combat edge - that of the Bluff check. Using cantrips to help out seemed like a novel thing to do (maybe I should patent it :P). But I'm sure somebody's done it before me already.
I also wanted to "crystallise" the tactics that cantrips could actually do, to showcase their interesting and viable side, I hope.
Some good concepts here. I currently play a doppelganger rogue with hedge wizard's gloves in my campaign. I am always trying to come up with way's to use prestidigitation in combat. Unfortunately it is really difficult when you have to take that standard action into account.
I mainly use the gloves to alter/fade the color and change the cleanliness of my clothing when infiltrating rooms. But this is a pre-initiative action.
Thing's that can be done during combat: - Cast light on an arrow and shoot an enemy who keep's popping out of cover/concealment to gain a bonus on perception to find them - Use prestidigitation to run around the room and snuff torches and campfires to plunge the area into darkness (but this hinders the pc's without darkvision)
You can attempt to hide from a creature even without cover and concealment, if the creature is Distracted (PHB, 188).
And as far as this goes, creatures can only be distracted outside of combat. A creature in combat is assumed to be paying attention in all directions. Even though I believe this to be a crock. Anybody who has been in any kind of combat or mock-combat can tell you that you can't constantly pay attention to everything going on in a 360 degree circle. That's what a flanking maneuver in combat is. Sneaking up from behind while they are concentrating on fighting your buddy in front of them.
And gaining bonuses during a bluff to gain CA or a bluff to hide is great in concept. I keep picturing the '80's ninja flicks and the flash pellets they use. But again, you are hampered by that pesky standard action forcing you to use an action point to do it. I would rather use an action point to get another attack.
Yes it's true what you say about combat awareness. However, I believe it's probably for simplicity's sake on the developers' part to 'smoothen' combat. On the same note, the "Distracted" state could also just be the non-tactical version of granting CA. As opposed to being in combat (when eyes are most likely on you), where CA is gained not by distraction (i.e. evading attention), but by actual overt maneuvers/positioning/attacking that force an opponent to divert attention to/away from you. So it's "Distracted vs. Diverted" I guess.
That's still not an adequate explanation, I know, because people still can, and will get distracted during combat.
I've also edited the Light spell to include the "Tracer-Round Move". Thanks!
About Prestidigitation, yes. It's the fact that it's a Standard move that kind of makes it hard to use but still...Ninja Tropez for teh win!
Meanwhile, I'm also trying to make a character build that will try to actually use cantrips to (relatively) devastating effect. Any help would be much appreciated.
A Gnome Rogue/Wizard (Bonded Summoner) perhaps? He can take Phantom Echoes to gain even MORE CA, and Teleport around like an Eladrin crack addict for even more flanking/tactical maneuvering to boot. :D