What are the Effects of “Maximizing” Damage on an Effect?

In 5th Edition D&D, there's a few circumstances where a character's damage might be "maximized".

For example, the Evocation Wizard's Overchannel ability:

Starting at 14th level, you can increase the power of your simpler spells. When you cast a wizard spell of 1st through 5th-level that deals damage, you can deal maximum damage with that spell.

Overchannel, Player's Handbook, pg. 118

Or an entry on the Wild Surge table:

33-34     Maximize the damage of the next damaging spell you cast within the next minute.

Wild Magic Surge, Player's Handbook, pg. 104

The way I see this, there's two valid ways to treat this effect:

1. Treat the damage dice as though each die rolled its respective maximum value
2. Treat the damage as though it is the sum of the maximum values that each possible die could have rolled

These two effects might seem similar, and in most situations they are, but there's a few circumstances where they might be different. For example, for an Attack-Roll based spell, the damage of interpretation 1 is doubled on a crit, because you're doubling the quantity of dice that are being used to calculate damage; but under interpretation 2, it would not be, because critical hits do not double flat damage modifiers, and taking the maximum value of all the rolled dice would turn it into a flat modifier.

Conversely, there are spells which depend on a specific value rolled on the damage dice to change its behavior, like with Chaos Bolt:

You hurl an undulating, warbling mass of chaotic energy at one creature in range. Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes 2d8 + 1d6 damage. Choose one of the d8s. The number rolled on that die determines the attack's damage type, as shown below.

...

If you roll the same number on both d8s, the chaotic energy leaps from the target to a different creature of your choice within 30 feet of it. Make a new attack roll against the new target, and make a new damage roll, which could cause the chaotic energy to leap again.

Chaos Bolt, Xanathar's Guide to Everything, pg. 151

Under interpretation 1, the Chaos Bolt always deals Thunder damage, and always leaps to a new target on a successful hit, because each of the d8s are being treated as having each rolled 8. Under interpretation 2, however, the d8s are rolled, and then ignored for the purpose of calculating the total damage, because the damage is simply being set to the maximum possible value of 22, without setting the values of the individual dice.

So which is it? Is there rules support to show that Maximizing Damage should be handled one way or the other?

Additionally, since I've raised the spectre of an attack-roll based spell like Chaos Bolt, the issue of the Attack Roll itself also needs to be raised: should the Attack Roll be treated as an Automatic hit (or crit!) because failing to do so will result in the spell dealing less than maximum damage? Or is "Maximizing" damage meant to only mean damage after a successful attack roll, which therefore means the attack roll cannot be overridden? For spells that have Saving Throws, should the targets of these spells be treated as automatically failing their Saving Throws, since failing to do so would result in the spell not dealing maximum damage?

• This question was opened to deal with the implied question found in this post: "How does an Evocation Wizard's Overchannel ability interact with Chaos Bolt? " – Xirema Oct 11 '19 at 19:08
• I'm having a very hard time understanding the difference between the interpretations, could you explain it further? – Medix2 Oct 11 '19 at 19:11
• @Medix2 Refer to my answer here to see a concrete example of the difference. If that's not clear enough, pester me in chat and I'll further explain. – Xirema Oct 11 '19 at 19:13
• I am afraid that I can't see a difference in the 2 effects you specify, are you saying "Pretend you rolled max damage" vs "Roll damage, and then pretend the values are max"? I can see a difference there, but it boils down to "Do you bother rolling damage" rather than having anything to do with the total. – SeriousBri Oct 11 '19 at 19:30
• If I am interpreting the difference between case 1 and case 2 correctly, and ignoring the bits regarding attack rolls and saving throws, I believe the question can be succinctly defined as, "If a spell is 'maximized', are damage dice ever rolled?" Is that correct? This interpretation does fit all your raised examples - if no dice are rolled, you can't roll twice as many dice on a critical hit. Likewise, if no dice are rolled, the results of Chaos Bolt become ambiguous. – Izzy Oct 11 '19 at 20:08

Simply put, "Maximizing Damage" is not defined in the 5th Edition rules. So what it means depends on what the DM decides it means.

"Okay, but what's a sensible definition?"

I would argue, based on how I've ruled at my tables, that the sensible definition is to simply rule that all dice rolled are treated as though they rolled their maximum values. This is the easiest way to rule, as I will demonstrate by comparing to other possible intepretations, and constitutes interpretation 1 that I cited.

The reason I like this interpretation is that it doesn't require additional thought about how effects should work. Spells like Chaos Bolt depend on the specific numbers rolled to justify their effects. Any other intepretation means the spell is being treated as though it rolled maximum values on the dice without actually rolling those numbers, and while I won't argue that method is strictly invalid, I do think it over-complicates the process and makes ruling on effects more difficult for the DM.

Now, this interpretation does make spells like Chaos Bolt stronger, as it allows them to automatically chain from target to target so long as the spellcaster can keep succeeding on their Attack Rolls (and they still have additional untargeted targets to hit). But most effects which can cause damage to be maximized are either extremely unreliable (Wild Magic Sorcerer's Wild Magic Surge, constituting a 5% x 2% == 0.1% chance of proccing on any cast spell) or have deep Opportunity Costs (Evocation Wizard's Overchannel, limited to 1 use per day or else suffer increasing Necrotic Damage).

So while there are probably some very powerful ways to exploit this behavior, I'm confident that the uses are limited and unlikely to completely break the game in normal play.

"The effect deals the maximum possible damage"

I don't like this ruling which is essentially Interpretation 2, for different reasons depending on the type of effect.

First: Attack Rolls. The only way for an effect to deal "maximum" damage is that the effect must not only hit the target; but also be a critical hit. So maximizing damage in this manner means any attack-roll-based effect automatically becomes a critical hit.

This is a tremendous increase in power, which not only increases the total damage by doubling the average to the maximum value, but also doubles it again for the critical hit damage. I don't think this is a ludicrous interpretation of the meaning of "Maximize", but the increase in power is more than I'd be comfortable supporting as a DM.

The raw damage is less of an issue for Saving Throw-based effects, given that (except in specific exceptions) these effects nearly always deal half-damage on a successful saving throw, so if we interpret "Maximizing Damage" as meaning "Always fails the saving throw", the increase in damage, while still a theoretical x4 multiplier, is still less dramatic. But if "Maximizing Damage" means always failing a saving throw, then that means the tertiary effects of the spell also always takes effect. This to me is far more objectionable.

So those two factors combined make me think this is probably a wrong interpretation, especially if we also take into consideration things like Vulnerability vs Resistance ("Is the spell really dealing maximum damage if the target is benefiting from Resistance?").

"The Effect deals damage as though the dice rolled their maximum values; but the dice aren't meant to have rolled their maximum values"

This interpretation is a more tempered version of Interpretation 2. Attack Rolls don't automatically Crit, and Saving Throws don't automatically fail. Spells like Chaos Bolt always deal maximum damage, but it doesn't automatically chain to new targets, because the caster still needs to roll the dice, even if the dice aren't being used to determine the actual damage.

I think this interpretation is probably the easiest to balance around, and if keeping the game balanced is your principal concern, I think this interpretation is probably better. But the reason I don't like it is because it breaks the contracts of how certain effects work, and requires a lot of extra effort by the DM (and the players, for that matter).

For example: Chaos Bolt can never deal 3 Thunder Damage, no matter what the caster rolls. It can also never deal 22 Acid Damage, no matter what the caster rolls. In fact, the only time the spell can deal 22 Damage is if it is dealing Thunder damage; and the only time it can deal 3 Damage is when it is dealing Acid damage. These are constants set by the spell, which uses the 2d8 damage dice to determine damage type.

But if we use this interpretation of what "Maximizing Damage" means, then it suddenly becomes valid for a Chaos Bolt to deal 22 Acid damage, or 22 Fire damage. That's actually kind of cool—but it also means that in maximizing the damage, we've invalidated one of the invariants of the spell, which is that Acid Damage tends to be weakest; Thunder Damage tends to be the strongest. That's a strange outcome of simply "Maximizing Damage", and as a result, I don't think it is a correct way to interpret how "Maximizing Damage" works.

As I said before, the rules for "Maximizing Damage" are not written in the 5e rules, so we need to come up with our own. I've submitted here which interpretation I use at my table, and why I don't use the other interpretations, but I can't say those other interpretations are strictly invalid, and I think other people could probably make a good case for why they might prefer those other interpretations instead.

It is your first one. You treat all die as if they rolled the maximum value. So if you over charge a spell that has an attack roll and crit, then you deal max damage for that crit.

Attack Rolls and Saving Throws are not damage, thus they are treated as normal.

If you overcharge a spell or wild surge for max damage but miss the Attack Roll, then you do no damage.

If the target succeeds their saving throw then they would take half of the maximum damage.

As for Chaos Bolt, the way it reads, the first one would do max damage, that damage would in fact be Thunder, and bounce if it hits. After that, it is a normal roll and since you are performing a separate roll for damage you would roll like normal.

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