Dungeons and Dragons, at its core, is a magical world. Gods exist and not only directly answer prayers, but grant power to their Clerics. Magicians know words of power that can create something from nothing. Sorcerers draw upon their internal energies to manipulate the world around them. Creatures exist who live upon the energy in your dreams, others who can draw upon your life force, and creatures grow impossibly large. Different realms of reality that have no edges exist either alongside or invisibly overlapping our own. Even Fighters and Thieves can perform superhuman acts, not to even mention the Monk whose abilities are non-magical but impossible in the real world.
All of that said, much of the world seems to be blatantly ignorant of this magical life around them. Stories often revolve around how peasants are shocked and awed by minor cantrips or are shocked by the existence of extra planar beings. This in settings whose history goes back hundreds if not thousands of years often stuck at the medieval level. Books exist in these settings, as do Bards and other story tellers. Many creatures are immortal, or live for hundreds of years themselves. The idea that such worlds would some combination of medieval Europe and magic, with methods of recording and beings that can tell the tales, stretches one’s suspension of disbelief to suggest that the magic would not influence day to day life.
Further, the average citizen would live a very short life, if one expects a typical NPC (Non Player Character) to only be level 1, having on average between 2 and 6 Hit Points. Chances are good that someone who falls 10 feet would fall unconscious. Fireballs (with their 20 foot radius effect, and picked up at level 5, so doing on average 17.5 Hit Points of damage) would wipe out crowds with ease. And a 5th level character is not considered incredibly powerful!
All of this is done in support of the idea that the PCs (Players Characters) are special, they’re not just good at what they do, they’re amazing. Even a 2nd level character is head and shoulders above the average person, and because everyone is so weak, they need heroes, like the PCs, to save them from the darkness and danger that is all pervading.
To me, these concerns have forced me to first consider that the typical NPC would have a level between 3 and 5, and that spells would be far better understood. Low level spells, particularly 1st through 3rd level, would be seen on a regular basis. Higher level spells that are particularly flashy, and thus good fodder for stories, would also be known, as would spells that greatly contribute to one’s community.
I’m sure I’ll update this in the future, looking at higher level spells that either would have direct uses or would inspire people to create conventional countermeasures, but for the moment let’s have a look at several 0th level spells and their consequences.
Arcane Mark – A simple way to put a seal of authenticity on something. There is no mention of how easy or hard it would be to copy someone else’s mark, but that it is ‘your personal rune or mark’, which to me implies that it would be different from someone else’s, by magical necessity. You could have this at the hand off of a particular product, as a mark of quality.
Create Water – 2 gallons of water per level. Under Starvation and Thirst, a ‘Medium creature need(s) at least a gallon of fluids’ while ‘In very hot climates, characters need two or three times as much water’. Given my suggestion of even a typical character being at least 3rd level, that would be 6 gallons of water, enough for 2 to 6 people a day, depending on the climate. A settlement need not have a water supply if they have someone who can cast this cantrip.
Detect poison – While it’s limited to ‘one creature, one object, or a 5-ft cube’, it would make poisoning a lot more difficult. Poisons would be more threats for folks eating food from an unreliable source or on weapons.
Know direction – Every town would likely have a permanent marker pointing in the direction of north. Maps would also be more accurate, as you can orient whatever you’re observing to a direction.
Mending – ‘restoring 1d4 hit points to the object’ ‘Casting Time 10 minutes’ ‘one object of up to 1 lb./level’ So for lighter objects, 3-5 lbs, you could repair something 15 times faster than a smith (1 point per hour, vs. 2.5 points per 10 minutes).
Purify Food and Drink – Following up on Detect poison and create water, this is far more effective. ‘1 cu.ft/level’ is 8 gallons of water, enough for 3-8 people (drink up that swamp water everyone!) per level, and if you can separate out the rotten food from the good food, it means spoilage over long trips is a thing of the past. It’s like refrigeration.
Another thing to note is that the cost of creating magic items that could cast these spells once every day is quite low. ½ (0th level spell) x 3 (3rd level caster, get those just out of apprenticeship journeymen to make them) x 2000 gp x 1/5 (1 charge per day) = 600 gp. That’s a suit of Half Plate or hiring a caster to cast that spell every day for 40 days (1/2 x 3 x 10gp = 15 gp / day). Even upping the magic item to 3000 gp (removing the number of charges, making its effect continuous) would make for economic sense: imagine grain being fed into 3 cubic foot barrels, then a device casting Purify Food and Drink on every barrel being passed through. No more rotten grain, no matter how far you have to transport it. This sort of investment would be incredibly useful for a city. It would also mean that craftsmen would rarely get involved in repairing light items, as it could be done far faster using a magic item that could cast Mending without end.