DnD 5e - Magic Finger Wiggles - The Practical Guide to Prestidigitation and Similar Cantrips
Last Updated: May 24th, 2019
I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
- Green: Good options.
- Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
I will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, even if it is my own, because I can't assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. I also won't cover Unearthed Arcana content because it's not finalized, and I can't guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
Prestidigitation is an old spell, dating back several editions. It has been a fixture of the Wizard's arsenal for decades, and while its precise capabilities have changed in every edition, it has remained a powerful source of magic miscellany.
In 5th edition, Wizards of the Coast introduced similar spells (Druidcraft and Thaumaturgy) which fill a similar function but are tailored to the classes that use them, granting a similar magical utility option to every full spellcaster class.
In this article we'll explore Prestidigitation and similar spells, exploring exactly what they can and can't do, and weighing the merits of each spell against the others.
Mostly exclusive to Druids, and we should all be very happy about that fact because Druidcraft is garbage. It does less than Prestidigitation and Thaumaturgy, and the unique things that it does are really unappealing. Honestly, I can't think of a single reason to take this spell over literally any other cantrip in the game.
Even the etymology of the word "Druidcraft" is disappointing. It has two roots: druid and craft. "Craft" means an occupation or skill, and "Druid" refers to the Druid class. It's literally "a skill that a Druid has".
Unlike Prestidigitation, all of Druidcraft's effects are instantaneous. Druidcraft has 4 listed functions.
You create a tiny, harmless sensory effect that predicts what the weather will be at your location for the next 24 hours. The effect might manifest as a golden orb for clear skies, a cloud for rain, falling snowflakes for snow, and so on. This effect persists for 1 round.
In most cases, you can also tell the weather by looking at the sky. With some rare exceptions, the weather on a given day will be close to the weather on the previous day. You could probably replace this function with an Intelligence check.
You instantly make a flower blossom, a seed pod open, or a leaf bud bloom.
This is a neat trick, but I can't think of any truly interesting ways to use it. Maybe you could open flowers to flirt with people? Or maybe you could open a seed pod to eat the contents? That's all I've got.
You create an instantaneous, harmless sensory effect, such as falling leaves, a puff of wind, the sound of a small animal, or the faint odor of skunk. The effect must fit in a 5-foot cube.
This mimics the "harmless sensory effect" option of Prestidigitation.
You instantly light or snuff out a candle, a torch, or a small campfire.
This mimics the same function of Prestidigitation.
Prestidigitation is truly without equal. No cantrip is so versatile, so flexible, so useful as Prestidigitation. There are imitators (specifically Druidcraft and Thaumaturgy), but there are no competitors. With 8 specific functions, each of which is distinct, useful, and interesting in its own right, Prestidigitation is a staple in any arcane spellcaster's arsenal.
Prestidigitation's word roots are french in origin, from Preste, meaning "nimble or "quick", and from Digitus, meaning "fingers". The suffix -ation is a "process suffix", which means that applying it to a word makes that word into an act or a process. So Prestidigitation roughly means "the act of quick fingers".
Prestidigitation lists 6 specific functions. You can have 3 non-instantaneous effects running at the same time, and ongoing effects last up to an hour. The spell notably omits a mechanism to directly dismiss ongoing effects, but you can remove them by creating new ongoing effects, which removes the older ongoing effect first.
You create an instantaneous, harmless sensory effect, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, faint musical notes, or an odd odor.
This is your general magic nonsense option. It's similar to Minor Illusion, but without the option to create a persistent illusory effect. If you need a distraction or to draw someone's attention, this is how you do it. You can do a lot by clever us various sounds, but it requires that your DM be willing to play along.
DMs: If your players are constantly trying to trick enemies using this, consider having the creatures make a Wisdom saving throw or a Wisdom (Insight) check to notice that the sounds are fake and magical in origin.
You instantaneously light or snuff out a candle, a torch, or a small campfire.
Nice, but typically you can do this with flint and steel, which are staples of adventuring equipment.
You instantaneously clean or soil an object no larger than 1 cubic foot.
The cleaning capability appears to only be limited by the volume, so you can clean all manner of filth and gore off of objects, provided that they fit into the size parameters.
Think of the size restriction like the rules for carry-on baggage on an airplane. If you can't squish it into the space, it's not allowed. But as a DM I wouldn't disallow cleaning a cloak simply because it's longer than 1 ft. when it's not rolled into a ball.
Unfortunately, RAW you can't use this effect to clean yourself because you are not an object. You'll need to bathe like a regular person.
You chill, warm, or flavor up to 1 cubic foot of nonliving material for 1 hour.
My best friend would be sorely disappointed if I didn't include this, so:
The snozzberries taste like snozzberries.
The ability to change the temperature and flavor of food would be a profoundly useful talent in real life. Imagine always having cool drinks and warm meals. Imagine never worrying about foods you dislike because you can simply change their flavor. Unfortunately, you can't do anything about texture, so you'll still need to use your imagination when you eat your chocolate-flavored porridge.
In-game, the uses are less obvious. You may be able to do some trickery to disguise the taste of poison or rotten food or something, but uses like that are uncommon. Instead, your wizard is more likely to cast Prestidigitation when they get tired or trail rations.
You make a color, a small mark, or a symbol appear on an object or a surface for 1 hour.
Unlike other Prestidigitation options, this option does not specify a size limitation. The closest we get is "small", but in game terms that's still as large as a halfling. There are other questions, too: can you set the color of the mark/symbol? Are the effects opaque? Can you cover up other thinks? What constitutes a "mark" or a "symbol"? Can you use this to write a word? What constitutes a "surface"? Can I affect a creature's skin?
As a DM, here's what I suggest: The effect can be up to 1 foot square. It is mostly opaque, but you can still clearly make out the details of whatever the effect covers. You may affect the surface of a willing creature's body. Obscuring the creature's appearance is not effective enough to provide any advantage on checks to hide or to disguise the creature.
You create a nonmagical trinket or an illusory image that can fit in your hand and that lasts until the end of your next turn.
This is the equivalent of pulling a paper flower out of your sleeve. It's great if you want to get someone's attention (flash a piece of jewelry or a gem) or if you want to show someone an image of something, like a missing item or a person's face. This has some overlap with Minor Illusion, but it's not as effective if you want to do serious illusion stuff.
The Cleric's equivalent of Prestidigitation, Thaumaturgy has a very divine feel. Everything you can do with it feels signfiicant and ominous like the wrath of and angry god. But in strictly mechanical terms, Thaumaturgy just isn't as good as Prestidigitation. It does fewer things, and the things it does are less diverse and useful.
One interesting advantage: Thaumaturgy only has verbal components. While that's probably not going to come up, it's interesting that you can use it while restrained or while keeping your hands at your sides or something.
Thaumaturgy is Greek in origin, and has two roots: Thauma, meaning "miracle" or "wonder", and Ergon, meaning "to work". It literally means "To work miracles", which may be the most cleric thing I've ever read.
Thaumaturgy's effects are all fairly similar, focusing on things that a cleric might do when their god is angry with someone: shouting in an unnaturally loud voice, causing the earth to shake, distant thunder, etc.
Your voice booms up to three times as loud as normal for 1 minute.
Wonderful for giving speeches, and an extremely generous DM might let you use it for Intimidation checks somehow.
You cause flames to flicker, brighten, dim, or change color for 1 minute.
It's unclear if this has any effect on the light level provided by flames, but you can do cool things like have purple torches. You want purple torches, right?
You cause harmless tremors in the ground for 1 minute.
The tremors only apply within range, so the 30 ft. range on Thaumaturgy limits your options. But you can produce this effect then leave the area, leaving any creatures in the area to enjoy some unsettling but otherwise mundane tremors.
You create an instantaneous sound that originates from a point of your choice within range, such as a rumble of thunder, the cry of a raven, or ominous whispers.
This is similar to Prestidigitation's harmless sensory effect, but you're limited to auditory effects.
You instantaneously cause an unlocked door or window to fly open or slam shut.
The word "fly" here means that the door/window opens or closes quickly and dramatically. So no gently shutting a door that you forgot to shut is out of the question.
You alter the appearance of your eyes for 1 minute.
"Alter" isn't strictly defined, so it's unclear what the limitations are. Want bug eyes? Allowed. Cyclops eye? Yes. Big ol' anime eyes? Absolutely. No eyes? Technically allowed, I think.