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I'm relatively new to DnD in general and 5th edition is my first experience with Dungeons and Dragons. I am confused with some spell mechanics.

Spells usually state that they do damage, such as:

Burning Hands (Lv 1)

A creature takes 3d6 fire damage

Ray of Sickness (Lv 1)

On a hit, the target takes 2d8 poison damage

But some spells only dictate that the hit points are affected:

Sleep (Lv 1)

Roll 5d8; the total is how many hit points of creatures this spell can affect.

Color Spray (Lv 1)

Roll 6d10, the total is how many hit points of creatures this spell can effect.

In this case what would I do? Do I do 5d8 of damage if I cast Sleep or 6d10 of damage if I cast Color Spray. If so why on earth would I use any other Level 1 spell as these two would be exponentially better than anyother DnD 5e level 1 spells?

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up vote 22 down vote accepted

Affecting a number of hit points is not the same as dealing damage

"Number of hit points affected" is a patch for old-school "number of hit dice affected" abilities. For example, if you roll your 6d10 and get 20, you can use your color spray on a creature with 20 or fewer HP, or two creatures with a combined total of 20 HP, or whatever. You would not affect a creature with 21 HP.

This is the advantage of damage - if you were to deal 20 damage, the 21 HP creature would still be injured by your spell. Color spray would not do anything.

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In a sense it's also the disadvantage of damage: if you dealt 20 hp of damage to a 5hp creature it likely doesn't "roll over" the way these do. I'm not sure I'd present one as an advantage over another; they're just different. – nitsua60 Mar 19 at 1:09
It's an advantage that damage has over non-damage effects, in the same way that a knife has the advantage of accuracy over a nuclear warhead. ;) – SPavel Mar 19 at 1:18

Those clauses in Sleep and Color Spray determine targets affected, not damage.

Later in each spell description we are told what happens to anyone who falls prey to Sleep or Color Spray.

(Later in the spell description is also detailed exactly what to do with the 5d8 or 6d10 result.)

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If you look at Sleep, it states:

Roll 5d8; the total is how many hit points of creatures this spell can affect....each creature affected by this spell falls unconscious...

With the key word "affect" and the lack of a damage type, this indicates that sleep doesn't actually cause harm but rather add a status to enemies that you manage to overpower.

Casters are more than simple ranged damage. A lot of their usefulness comes from their sheer utility from spells like sleep and color spray. Both of these spells allow for the caster to control the battlefield by deciding who to fight and when, turning the tides in your favor by eliminating threats without the need to be powerful enough to kill them immediately.

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