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Deep Dive: Prestidigitation



If you've played D&D for any amount of time, there's no doubt that you've encountered the cantrip spell known as Prestidigitation. However, here's a quick recap and description of the spell found on page 267 of the Player's Handbook in case you need a refresher or if you're new to the TTRPG scene:


This spell is a minor magical trick that novice spellcasters use for practice. You create one of the following magical effects within range:
  • You create an instantaneous, harmless sensory effect, such as a shower of sparks, a puff of wind, faint musical notes, or an odd odor.

  • You instantaneously light or snuff out a candle, a torch, or a small campfire.

  • You instantaneously clean or soil an object no larger than 1 cubic foot.

  • You chill, warm, or flavor up to 1 cubic foot of nonliving material for 1 hour.

  • You make a color, a small mark, or a symbol appear on an object or surface for 1 hour.

  • 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.

If you cast this spell multiple times, you can have up to three of its non-instantaneous effects active at a time, and you can dismiss such an effect as an action.

For a cantrip, that's some pretty powerful stuff. Granted, most of the effects are really minor compared to some other cantrips, but the sheer number of practical applications that Prestidigitation has is limited primarily by your imagination as a player or as a GM/DM. If you can envision it, you can most likely achieve it. Here's our Deep Dive into what makes this cantrip so special.


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HISTORY

So, when did the cantrip we know and love as Prestidigitation first come into being? Well, after digging through some old books, it looks like Prestidigitation first appeared in 3rd Edition circa the year 2000. Before then, there existed a more powerful spell called Cantrip in 2nd Edition circa 1989 that essentially did most of what Prestidigitation did. It looks like they switched out the name and took Cantrip to use as an overarching spell term for beginner's magic spells one can cast on a whim in later editions.


APPEARANCE

So how does one look while they're casting Prestidigitation? Well, Prestidigitation relies on both Verbal and Somatic requirements for the spell, which means spoken words and intricate hand gestures. Here's what it says in the Player's Handbook on page 203 about Verbal and Somatic requirements:


VERBAL (V) Most spells require the chanting of mystic words. The words themselves aren't the source of the spell's power, rather, the particular combination of sounds, with specific pitch and resonance, sets the threads of magic in motion. Thus, a character who is gagged or in an area of silence, such as one created by the silence spell, can't cast a spell with a verbal component.

SOMATIC (S) Spellcasting gestures might include a forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures. If a spell requires a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.

So, just as with most spells, someone casting Prestidigitation would be muttering an incantation while gesticulating with their hands in some way, most likely dependent on which effect they were going for with the spell. The only exception to this is if one takes the Subtle Spell feat from page 102 in the Player's Handbook which allows you to cast spells without using Verbal or Somatic components, meaning you could cast it without saying anything and without gesticulating.


DURATION

Because this cantrip has so many different effects, there is no one single duration that will extend to each ability it grants. The official spell entry in the Player's Handbook says "up to one hour" but that's because the longest effect from the spell lasts one hour. Here are some of the different time amounts it gives for each effect:


  • INSTANTANEOUS: Harmless sensory effects, lighting or snuffing out flame, cleaning or soiling an object

  • ONE HOUR: Chill, warm or flavor nonliving material, make a color or small mark or symbol appear on an object or surface

  • 12 SECONDS: Creating a nonmagical trinket or illusory image that can fit in your hand (basically these last until the end of your next turn)

It should be noted again that you can have up to THREE of these effects going on at once, so if you're really creative you can maximize an illusion or effect to its fullest potential. The potential is so great, in fact, that several folks have created entire videos on ways in which to use the spell. Here's one of my favorites:




CREATIVE LIMITS OF THE SPELL

Though the very nature of Prestidigitation is based on just how creative the spellcaster can be, there are actually some limits on what it can do aside from the length of certain spell effects. I went straight to the FAQ section of D&D Beyond to gather them for you here:


Can prestidigitation create fire? Yes! But with some caveats. According to the rules as written (RAW), prestidigitation can light a candle, a torch, or a small fire. Be mindful that unless you're starting a fire in a very dry and flammable place, it's going to take a while for that fire to become significant. When it comes to lighting other surfaces—or enemies!—on fire with prestidigitation, it's going to be up to your DM's judgment on whether or not you're overextending the power of the spell.
Can prestidigitation cure a hangover? No, prestidigitation isn't a healing spell. However, you could change the taste of an alcoholic beverage to trick an unknowing NPC into accidental intoxication, right before a battle or a surprise attack. That would be cool.
Can you use prestidigitation to shave? Like so many things, this could be the DM's call. As written, prestidigitation can only do small, temporary, sensory changes. The spell might be able to wash your face, but something like a shave would likely take more power than is available in the spell.
Can prestidigitation create a key? You can certainly use prestidigitation to create a key, though whether that key worked on a lock would be a whole different matter. Some elements your DM might require to make an effective key with prestidigitation would be having an existing copy of the key or having proficiency with thieves' tools.
Can prestidigitation desalinate seawater? Though you can warm and cool a beverage or disguise the flavor of seawater so that it tastes fresh, prestidigitation has its limits and cannot turn seawater into drinkable freshwater.

Anyway, that about covers it for our Deep Dive into the Prestidigitation cantrip. From its beginnings as a multi-purpose spell called Cantrip in 2nd Edition, to the versatile cantrip spell that everyone loves called Prestidigitation in 5th Edition, what's very clear is that quick thinkers and creative types will really be able to make the most out of its abilities. Is there anything you'd like to add about or think I missed about the spell? Hit us in the comments below, and as always - thanks for reading! - Joe




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