One of the nice things about D&D 4e was that wizards and other spellcasters got to step back from the old routine from previous editions of relying on the crossbow during easy fights or after they expended their paltry assortment of spells at low levels. They had at least 2 powers they could use over and over again to do solid damage equivalent to a basic melee strike (often with very cool added bonuses).
Alas, in 5e the crossbow comes to the forefront again. A layperson may be forgiven for assuming that a low level wizard doesn’t really need a crossbow; after all, they have plenty of cantrips they can fall back on to do a wide variety of elemental damage. My response is that unless they are fighting monsters with vulnerability to fire, cold, or electricity, the crossbow is almost always a better bet until level 5.
My reasoning is simple:
- Damage: A wizard using point buy is often going to have a 14 or 16 Dexterity, depending on their race. With a 16 Dexterity, a wizard does 1d8+3 damage with a crossbow, blowing the 1d10 firebolt out of the water. That’s an average of 2 extra damage, which may not sound like much until you consider that it’s a 36% increase in damage that has less variance, making it much more likely to make the difference between an injury and a kill. Obviously, the effect is less potent for a 14 Dexterity Wizard, but 1 damage is still significant when the damage values are so low.
- Spell Effects: Fire Bolt, Ray of Frost, and Shocking Grasp have relatively minor spell effects. In short, the effects of these spells are very situational. Fire Bolt is good for environmental effects, like setting an oil slick on fire or lighting a torch, but has no direct effect when used against a target. Ray of Frost has some use in the first round of combat or when an enemy if fleeing, interfering with their ability to approach and escape effectively, but its utility is limited during the bulk of combat when significant movement across the battlefield tends to become less important. Shocking Grasp is arguably the most useful, but it’s melee only; it’s really best as a way to do some damage and still withdraw (presumably to pull out your trusty crossbow). And of course, both Ray of Frost and Shocking Grasp only do 1d8 damage, which puts them even further behind the crossbow in the damage department.
- Crossbow is better than ever!: The light crossbow has the loading quality, which is no surprise. What is surprising is that all the loading quality does is restrict you to one attack per action, bonus action, or reaction. Since wizards almost never get more than one attack per action, this tag is no real impediment. In contrast, in 3.5, a light crossbow required a move action to load, which could be a real pain.
In short, because crossbows add your ability bonus to damage, they tend to do a lot more damage than similar cantrips, which use a bare damage die. The cantrips, while situationally useful, just don’t pack enough of a punch to justify their use during the majority of combat. The same principle holds true for clerics, who would be well advised to steer clear of Sacred Flame (which only does 1d8 damage) and focus on a melee weapon (probably a mace) or a ranged weapon (hello again light crossbow), depending on their ability scores and preference.
All this becomes moot at 5th level, when cantrips do 2X damage dice and melee and ranged weapons see no change for Wizards. Of course, by that point, wizards have access to 9 1st-3rd level spells and the ability to refresh up to 3 levels of spells after a short rest once per day.
While I don’t think the damage-cantrips are useless (they have situational benefits), I would advocate steering clear of them at level 1 and then picking up your favorite damage-cantrip at level 5, when it has some more obvious benefits over the mighty light crossbow. Mage Hand, Minor Illusion, and Prestidigitation are all super fun, lending themselves to a wide variety of wacky uses, and it’s hard to imagine not wanting all three in your wheelhouse. Even the humble Light spell has more utility than most of damage-cantrips, but maybe that’s just because I don’t like keeping track of torches.
What do you think, dear readers? Do you agree with me that it is annoying to keep track of torches, or is that one of the things that makes D&D meaningful and fun?