When a weapon-like spell or ability critically hits, exactly what parts do double damage? Here are some examples of such things with increasing levels of complexity:

  • ray of frost (Player's Handbook)
  • ray of enfeeblement (PHB)
  • melf's acid arrow (PHB) /belker claws (Spell Compendium version)
  • brimstone blast (Complete Arcane - bonus burn damage applied during the round in which the ability is used)
  • eldritch chain (CA -- due to wording, think of successive critical strikes)

It would seem, as written, that everything tied to a weapon-like spell/ability is simply doubled, but there have been dissenting opinions. Are there cases in which the complete damage assigned by a spell is not doubled?

  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan For the record, the only one that’s been printed in more than one 3.5e source is belker claws, which appears in Planar Handbook and Spell Compendium. Pretty significant difference between the two, though—thanks for pointing it out (going to have to update my answer for it). \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 3, 2018 at 2:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I do suspect some of the examples were never a source of confusion and were included for completeness (I guess?) but whatever, that’s fine. But to be honest, aside from belker claws, the rest are all Player’s Handbook or Complete Arcane (the primary source for all things [eldritch-invocations] per that tag), so it is... kinda sorta reasonable to assume anyone with the expertise to answer the question would recognize them? Maybe? \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 3, 2018 at 3:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @heyicanchan exclusion was not my intention. I've edited the question to include sources. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3, 2018 at 6:18

1 Answer 1

  • ray of frost

Straight-forward case. You roll 2d3 cold damage instead of 1d3 cold damage.

  • ray of enfeeblement

Not a weapon-like spell:

Any spell that requires an attack roll and deals damage functions as a weapon in certain respects, whether the spell deals normal hit point damage, nonlethal damage, ability damage, or energy drain.

Not on this list is an ability penalty, such as the one ray of enfeeblement applies to the target. Thus it cannot score a critical hit and there is no “damage” to double.

  • Melf’s acid arrow

Complete Arcane actually explicitly calls Melf’s acid arrow out by name, saying

Only damage that the spell deals in the round it strikes is increased by a critical hit. For example, if you score a critical hit with Melf’s acid arrow, only damage dealt in the first round of the spell’s duration is doubled.

So only the original 2d4 damage is doubled, to 4d4, and 2d4 damage is dealt each round thereafter.

  • belker claws

This appears in two different sources, Planar Handbook and Spell Compendium. It changed pretty significantly from one to the other, so I’ll address each:

  • Planar Handbook version: belker claws deals 3d4 damage with a touch, and each touched target takes an additional 3d4 damage for a number of rounds thereafter equal to a third of the caster level. The touch attack may also apparently be used repeatedly (exactly how many times is unclear but ultimately not relevant to this question).

    For any single attack, the initial 3d4 damage is doubled to 6d4. As with Melf’s acid arrow, the 3d4 damage each round thereafter is unaffected.

    When you use the spell to make multiple touch attacks, each touch is a separate attack, a separate roll, and a separate opportunity to roll a critical hit. The initial damage is doubled to 6d4 for any attack that confirms a critical, regardless of how long the spell lasts. Note in the quote above that the rule focuses on “the round [the spell] strikes,” not when it’s cast. Strike multiple times, and roll multiple critical hits, and you double the damage multiple times.

  • Spell Compendium version: belker claws deals 2d12 damage up-front. It is unclear if “the smoke lasts another round” refers to the smoke on your hands (allowing you to make more attacks) or if it refers to the smoke you are shoving into someone’s lungs (making it a damage-over-time effect).

    Either way, though, the answer is clear: if it’s damage-over-time, then only the initial damage is doubled. If it’s multiple attacks, then you can double it to 4d12 every time you roll a critical hit.

  • brimstone blast

Identical situation to Melf’s acid arrow, the initial eldritch blast damage is doubled but the lingering 2d6 fire damage per round thereafter is unaffected.

If you want to say that the 2d6 fire damage per round actually starts the same round as the initial brimstone blast hit (consistent with something being set on fire, but not apparent from the brimstone blast text or mentioned in its example), then that is the same round as the weapon-like spell “strikes,” per the rule about damage over time, and thus would be doubled to 4d6 (still remaining as 2d6 in subsequent rounds).

  • eldritch chain

As with belker claws, separate attacks should roll separate critical hits. But there are questions.

First, if you score a critical hit on one of the later attack rolls, one would expect that doubling the halved damage would just cancel out. Arguably, however, you should use D&D’s peculiar multiplication here, for a \$\times\left(1-\tfrac{1}{2}+1\right) = \times1\tfrac{1}{2}\$ multiplier, which is decidedly odd. Odd, but probably not game-breaking or worth getting worried about. It is worth asking the DM about though if you plan on expecting the 50% more damage there.

The bigger question is what happens if you score a critical hit against the first target. Eldritch chain states that “Each target struck after the first takes half the damage dealt to the first target.” There is no actual wording there that says that you should ignore one-off modifiers to that damage like a critical hit, and since the damage of the subsequent hits is based on the damage of the first, the doubled damage seems like it should pass along to the remaining targets (and be eligible to score their own criticals, increasing their own multiplier and then you get into a whole argument about whether that should be additive or multiplicative with the original critical hit multiplier).

Strict RAW, without wording saying otherwise, it seems like eldritch chain can have an initial critical hit pass that damage on to each subsequent hit. And, again RAW, there isn’t any “memory” of how that damage got that way, so you wouldn’t count its \$\times2\$ multiplier from the critical hit as part of it—it just is the damage it is. You halve that, and in the case of a subsequent critical hit, you then double that halved damage (which again may mean a \$\times1\tfrac{1}{2}\$ multiplier). Definitely talk to your DM before you expecting any of that to work, however.

Personally, I would probably allow it, just because critical hits are rare enough that I wouldn’t be overly concerned about it—not enough to take a player’s toys away, anyway. If you really started optimizing it, though, I might put my foot down.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry for the unclear sources. I've edited the question. For Brimstone Blast, the complication on that spell lies in the 1st-turn burn damage. Is that doubled? Apologies for including a non-weaponlike spell. I had a brain fart and picked the one spell that Complete Arcane specifically calls out as non-weaponlike. Doh! \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3, 2018 at 4:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wanted to clarify -- it is my understanding that Brimstone Blast's bonus fire damage actually begins the round in which Brimstone Blast is used per the rules on catching fire in the DMG, so a 6th-level warlock would get 2 ticks of burn damage on the round cast and then continuing 1 round after. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3, 2018 at 9:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WannabeWarlock I don’t think it does, though I agree the wording is unclear: first, brimstone blast changes your eldritch blast damage to fire. Then it says “A creature burning in this way never takes more than 2d6 points of fire damage in a round, even if it has been hit by more than one brimstone blast,” which really seems like a global thing, like any fire damage counts—though that’s just weird if taken to the extreme. But I think that would nix the 2d6 on the initial hit because you already did more than 2d6 with the hit? \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 3, 2018 at 13:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ @WannabeWarlock Anyway, the example seems to clearer, and doesn’t seem to have 2d6 damage on the initial hit: “a 15th-level warlock deals 2d6 points of fire damage for 3 rounds after the initial brimstone blast attack.” No mention of 2d6 damage the same round as the initial attack, though admittedly it doesn’t strictly say there wasn’t such damage (and an example would be a secondary source anyway). All told, the invocation is kind of a mess (and really weak, to boot). I’ll add something to the answer, but I think it probably doesn’t matter. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Apr 3, 2018 at 13:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ I believe the fire damage comment is intended to prevent stacking the dot like warlocks do with vitriolic blast, but honestly I'm not sure vitriolic stacks either due to the rules on duplicate spell effects on a creature. I'll probably ask another question on that topic. I agree either way that it is poorly worded. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 3, 2018 at 16:16

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