In D&D 5e cantrips are "0-level" spells that can be cast essentially without limit or restriction, but are often relatively weak or designed with very basic utility functions. Due to the finite nature of higher level spells, cantrips are a staple for spellcasters. Thus, choosing the right cantrips is an important choice, and I'd like to address some considerations for doing so.
Firstly, know that cantrips vary by class. Bards, Cleric, Druids, Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards have cantrips. Other class may acquire them through other means, but when they do so, it is always borrowing from the list of one of the previously mentioned classes. To more organize this breakdown, we'll go class by class here. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, we'll limit ourselves to the Player's Handbook, but know that there are other sources when you can find more interesting or better cantrips. Perhaps I'll cover these another time. For now though, let's start with Bard cantrips.
Bards have access to Blade Ward, Dancing Lights, Friends, Light, Mage Hand, Mending, Message, Minor Illusion, Prestidigitation, True Strike, and Vicious Mockery. Okay, that's a bit to digest all at once, so we'll go spell by spell. Blade Ward grants resistance to physical damage types for one turn, and it only works on yourself. Considering you can always take the dodge action to impose disadvantage, that's usually a better use of your time since preventing damage altogether is better than taking less. Essentially, Blade Ward is only good if you *know* the attack will hit, but at that point you're better off getting out of range via disengage action and/or dash or using some other form of protection or retaliation besides Blade Ward. Honestly, I'd pass on it. Now, Dancing Lights. This one is okay. Essentially, you get some moving orbs of light. On the plus side, light is often useful if you don't have darkvision. And being able to move them within the range of 120ft allows you to use them for short range scouting. However, the negative side is that a significant number of player races have darkvision so light isn't necessary. More importantly, moving these lights is a bonus action, and in the action economy of D&D, this makes them somewhat less useful in combat. Also, they take concentration, which is kind of a big deal for spellcasters who need to concentrate on more useful spell. I'd only grab this if you or your party members lack darkvision, and you really want to play a slow and cautious approach to your adventuring and want to use the orbs to help exploration. Friends. This is good. It does take concentration, and lasts a minute, but it's not something that you'll generally use in combat. It confers advantage on charisma checks against the target, and when the spell wears off, the target knows you effected its mind. Good for getting past NPCs who you'll never see again. Like getting the guard to let you out of your cell if you're in prison. You can always deal with them once you're free. Light. Simple staple. Exactly what it says on the can. Grab if you're lacking darkvision. Mage Hand gets a big yes. Essentially, it's 10 pound telekinesis within 30ft. Awesome for picking locks and opening things from a safe distance to (hopefully) avoid traps, as well as being able to just pocket things or get in those hard to reach places. Mending is okay. Minor repairs to an object. When adventuring, you break things intentionally and unintentionally. I'd never say this is a bad choice of cantrip. Message is a decent pick as well. It's basically a short range magical walkie-talkie. If you like splitting the party a little bit for flanking or complex maneuvers, I'd grab this. It's generally worthwhile. Minor Illusion is a good pick too. It's your all-purpose illusion and distraction spell. There are some limits, but it's surprisingly flexible for a cantrip. This is a solid choice. Prestidigitation is your general utility spell. It has various minor magical effects, and is generally fun for little roleplay flavor. You can't much go wrong with it. True Strike at first glance seems good, and it's not bad. If you absolutely need advantage, this is one way to confer it. But you're much better off getting it from some other source. And when you think about it, you use your action to cast True Strike, so you're forgoing rolling that d20 to hit one turn, to instead roll both next turn. So...really it doesn't do much. It's best used in conjunction with someone buffing you, or the activation of another ability that will make the later attack better for some reason. Oh, and it takes concentration, so that's another downer. Vicious Mockery. Just pick it. Target takes a Wisdom save, if it fails it gets disadvantage on one attack and takes 1d4 (scaled by level) psychic damage. Yes, Wisdom save is an easy resist, but disadvantage is a good thing, even if just for one attack. More importantly, psychic damage. Yes, it's low. 1d4 (scaling) isn't much. But very few things resist psychic damage, so as long as they fail that save, the damage will get through the full 1d4 (or more, scaling) without and resistances or immunities.
On to the Cleric. Any repeating spells won't be addressed, so refer back to the Bard if it's already been talked about. Clerics get their choices from Guidance, Light, Mending, Resistance, Sacred Flame, Spare the Dying, and Thaumaturgy. Guidance is useful. Concentration gets you a +1d4 to an ability roll on anyone you touch. Good for those skill checks you really want to pass. Light and Mending were addressed with the Bard, so see above. Resistance is a bit underwhelming. Acts like Guidance, but with saving throws instead of ability checks. However, you often find yourself not expecting to make a saving throw, so you generally aren't prepared ahead of time to cast this on someone. Plus it's concentration. Considering Bless (a 1st level Cleric spell) is also concentration and confers the same bonus over multiple rolls instead of one, and confers the 1d4 to attack rolls as well, you're usually better off just spending the spell slot for that one if you suspect saving throws are in play. Sacred Flame is a solid choice. It's the Cleric damage cantrip. Target within 60ft takes a Dex save, and takes 1d8 (scaling) radiant damage on a fail. Dex saves are easy to make for some enemies, but 1d8 is decent damage for when something fails. Plus, it's radiant, which is also something not commonly resisted. Oh, and it ignores cover entirely. So go ahead and grab this. Spare the Dying is...situational. Instant stabilize on touch. For comparison, a healer's kit allows you to auto stabilize anyway, and they're both an action. Sure, you could use this if you don't pack a healer's kit, but why wouldn't you? They're 5gp for 10 uses. That clocks in at 5sp for a stabilize. There's literally no reason not to just spend th gold instead of wasting the cantrip slot. And if you'r still concerned, you can always just take the Medicine roll to stabilize anyway, as a Cleric, you'll probably be good at it via stats, and also probably have proficiency, especially if you're the kind of person who wants to play healer. Or better yet, use a heal spell or a potion to restore HP. that's much better than a stabilize. Usually not worth your time. Thaumaturgy. It's basically Prestidigitation for Clerics. General utility and flavor. Use for funsies.
Now for Druids. Druidcraft, Guidance, Mending, Poison Spray, Produce Flame, Resistance, Shillelagh, and Thorn Whip make up your selection here. Druidcraft is your all-purpose utility spell for this class. Sidenote, being able to tell the weather can be quite handy in some circumstances, such as predicting a storm while on a ship at sea. Guidance is covered under Cleric, Mending is covered under Bard. Poison Spray is decent damage. 10ft range is short, but the target takes a Con save and suffers 1d12 (scaling) on a fail. Short range, but good damage. And since the less hardy creatures are the ones who are more likely to fail the saves, this higher damage tends to mean more for them. Produce Flame is basically a smaller and more restrictive version of Light, but with the option to also just throw the flames at people for 1d8 (scaling) damage. Utility and damage combined. I'd probably grab it more often than not. It's good, but not a must have. Shillelagh is a solid choice. It casts on a bonus action, and makes the damage die of a club or quarterstaff a d8. Not bad if you're doing melee as a Druid, and you don't have the wildshapes to spare on a bear form or any better spells. Thorn Whip is likewise decent. A d6 melee damage (scaling). Plus you can pull enemies 10ft closer to you within it's range, so it gives a little bit of battlefield control too.
Next up is the Sorcerer. Apart from the repeats on previous spell lists, we have Acid Splash, Chill Touch, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp. So let's look at these attack spells. Acid Splash is good. 60ft range. 1d6 damage (scaling) and can hit two people if they're next to each other. Target gets a dex save. probably not hitting a ton, and not hitting hard, but if you can consistently target clumps for that 2 person hit with a cantrip, you're in good shape. Chill Touch is very good. 120ft range means it's on the up end of ranges for most damage cantrips. Deals 1d8 (scaling) damage,and prevents healing the target until your next turn. Spell attack, not a saving throw. Also, confers disadvantage to undead attacking you until your next turn. Situational bit at the end there, but handy at times. I'd pick this often. Ray of Frost has 60ft range. It's a spell attack, so no saves here. 1d8 damage (scaling of course), and slows enemy movespeed by 10ft a turn. That last bit can be quite handy for battlefield control if you know how to use it. A solid choice all around. Shocking Grasp has it's uses, but it tends to get beat out by other spells. It's a melee spell attack with a scaling 1d8 damage, and targets hit can't take reactions. this makes it good for slowing down boss monsters who tend to have reactions, or in general for being a cantrip useful against higher level enemies where reactions come into play. And it rolls at advantage against targets in metal armor. Other cantrips beat it out on damage, and being a touch attack isn't great, but there's a time and a place for it.
The only cantrip a warlock gets that hasn't been talked about already is Eldritch Blast. It's a staple of the class, and a lot of class features influence it. Damage is always 1d10, but you get more beams at the same amount of damage as level increases. It's a ranged spell attack with 120ft range, so it's useful enough at a distance. Also, force damage isn't half bad. Not the least resisted thing in the world, but it's not exactly as easy to resist as a mundane attack. If you're a Warlock, take it. If you get it by dipping into it from elsewhere, it's still a good pick.
Every cantrip the Wizard has access to has already been covered, but they have a pretty wide selection to choose from. After reading through all of these evaluations, hopefully you can find the cantrips that are right for you. There are a lot of good choices, a few great ones, and a handful of not so good ones as well, but remember, cantrips are unlimited use. So even a bad cantrip can be good if used enough.
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- Draconick, Digital and Dice Contributor
I, Nick “Draconick” Johnson, am a writer and roleplaying enthusiast with over ten years of experience in various tabletop roleplaying games both as a player and as a GM. I am also somewhat involved in other forms of tabletop gaming such as wargaming, board games, and card games. It is my hope that by creating and maintaining this website that I can share my unique take on all things within our hobby and to foster a community of like-minded individuals.