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Witch bolt is situational, mediocre, or borderline useless, depending on who you ask. In play, I have seen it consistently chosen by new players (or players inexperienced with casters), who are frequently disappointed with the spell's performance.

In this question, I will look at what makes the spell unique, how it falls short, and at my attempt to bring it in line with other spells. First, the original:

Witch Bolt

1st-level evocation

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V, S, M (a twig from a tree that has been struck by lightning)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

A beam of crackling, blue energy lances out toward a creature within range, forming a sustained arc of lightning between you and the target. Make a ranged spell attack against that creature. On a hit, the target takes 1d12 lightning damage, and on each of your turns for the duration, you can use your action to deal 1d12 lightning damage to the target automatically. The spell ends if you use your action to do anything else. The spell also ends if the target is ever outside the spell's range or if it has total cover from you.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the initial damage increases by 1d12 for each level above 1st.

Notable problems

  • Witch bolt's damage starts bad and scales worse. This answer covers the math nicely. Its damage comes up short in every practical situation. To make matters worse, only its initial damage scales. A 9th-level witch bolt (which hurts more to type than to be targeted by) does the same damage on subsequent rounds as a 1st-level witch bolt.
  • Witch bolt only works against one creature. Hex and hunter's mark last through the entire fight, if not through multiple fights. You can transfer them from one target to the next. If your witch bolt target dies, the spell is done. That's not the only way the spell could end, because...
  • Witch bolt ends if your target takes a leisurely stroll out of range. Or behind a wall. Or a window. Its range is 30 feet. Many creatures don't even need to try very hard to escape. It also ends if you spend your action doing anything else.

Unique features

  • Witch bolt is the only 1st-level concentration spell that deals damage directly. Hex, hail of thorns, and hunter's mark all require a separate attack to actually deal their damage.
  • Witch bolt is also the only spell in which one successful attack roll causes damage over more than two rounds. Booming blade and Melf's acid arrow have lingering damage, but do not last as long.

Goals

  1. Keep what makes the spell unique. Removing concentration or automatic damage may make it easier to improve, but then it would no longer feel like witch bolt.
  2. Bring its damage in line, without making it overpowered. Witch bolt's automatic damage on subsequent rounds presents a unique balancing challenge. Done properly, a damage-focused caster should seriously consider (but not always select) an improved witch bolt, particularly in Tier 1 and Tier 2.
  3. Reduce the spell's "noob trap"-ness. Improving its damage will help, but the finicky "stay within 30 feet, maintain line-of-effect, and don't do anything else" leads to a lot of new player "gotcha" moments. It reads like Palpatine blasting Luke in Return of the Jedi. It plays like scuffing your wool socks on the carpet and chasing your brother around the house. It even includes falling on the hardwood floors (missing your attack roll).

Once more, with usefulness

With those goals in mind, here is my improved version of the spell:

Witch Bolt (improved)

1st-level evocation

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Self
Components: V, S, M (a twig from a tree that has been struck by lightning)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute

For the spell's duration, you are surrounded by crackling, blue energy. Make a ranged spell attack against one creature of your choice within 30 feet of you. On a hit, the target takes 1d12 lightning damage.

On each of your turns until the spell ends, you can use your action to target the same creature or a different one. If you target a creature that you have already hit with this casting of witch bolt, you may cause the target to take 1d12 lightning damage automatically, without making an attack roll.

At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the damage dealt on a hit increases by 1d12 for each level above 1st. Additionally, the automatic damage dealt increases by 1d12 for every two slot levels above 1st.

This new witch bolt's targeting was inspired by eyebite. The improved spell's range is changed to Self, and it allows you to spend an action each turn to choose a new or existing target. A range of Self also makes the new witch bolt ineligible for sorcerer's Twinned Spell, which should be factored in to balance considerations.

If you target a creature that you have not hit before, you need to make an attack roll. Otherwise, you can deal automatic damage, like the original witch bolt. (This intentionally allows the caster to choose to roll to hit an already-hit target - potentially dealing more damage - or to take the safe, automatic damage.)

The spell no longer stops when a creature dies or leaves range. The caster merely needs to move back into range to continue using it.

Additionally, the automatic damage is increased every other spell level (like spiritual weapon). I also considered giving the automatic damage full scaling, but that may make it too strong when combined with the other improvements.

Does increasing subsequent turn damage and improving targeting meet my goals for witch bolt? Are there any feats or class features that throw its improved damage and targeting out of line with other spells? Has it become less of a noob trap?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Rather than all the scaling etc i would have it knock prone medium and smaller creatures. \$\endgroup\$ – Amethyst Wizard Jan 3 at 3:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ I am not sure about balance, but turning it multi target ruins the feel for me. My players and I like to imagine this continuous line of lighting stretching from caster to target for multiple turns. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Jan 3 at 9:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri I agree, but I also think that it really does improve the spell to re-direct it to another creature. Maybe the following change: Make the 'tether' of lightning still happen. If the tether is broken by the creature going out of line-of-sight, etc, you can make the new attack roll against another creature. Also give the caster an optional bonus action to drop the tether. This would keep the feel of the spell while also giving the caster more flexibility. \$\endgroup\$ – TheLittlePeace Jan 3 at 16:55
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TheLittlePeace I'd like to keep the tether somehow, but I couldn't figure out a way to include it clearly and concisely, without harming balance. It's definitely something that makes witch bolt unique, so I'd be interested in answers that address it. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jan 3 at 20:16
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AmethystWizard Knocking creatures prone is an interesting idea, but may stray too far from the original feel of witch bolt. If I wanted to completely rebuild the spell, imitating Palpatine's force lightning (and its tendency to make people collapse) would be at the top of the list. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jan 3 at 20:20
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No

  1. Weird interactions. As is, the optimal strategy (when upcasting and with a chance to hit greater than ~60%, which is easily achieveable) would be to always make the attack instead of dealing damage automatically once the spell connected. That would get you (at 5th level) up to 5d12 every turn instead of 3d12. This isn't really in the spirit of the original spell. Additionally, the way it's currently written suggests, you can attack creature A, then creature B, and next - because you've previously hit creature A - deal damage to A automatically. That is also not really in the spirit of the original spell.

  2. Too little damage. In 5e monsters are notoriously short lived with fights averaging 3-5 rounds. I propose the following design goal: After two rounds, Witch Bolt should have done a bit more damage than a comparable spell plus a cantrip; lets take Guiding Bolt (14 average) and Firebolt (5.5 average) for a total of more than 19.5 points of damage. Otherwise, why even commit to damaging a single target instead of choosing the very valuable flexibility that comes with spells that do all their damage at once? As it is, your version - like the original - takes 3 full rounds just to do 19.5 damage.

  3. Too complicated. In my experience, if you try to "fix" a rule with a house rule instead of "replacing" it with homebrew, you need to stay very close to the original spirit and wording. Look at the Way of the four Elements, for example. A lot of people aren't happy with it, there are tons of Homebrew "fixes", but I haven't found one that feels like an official subclass. Minimal, simplistic changes are the way to go. I understand why you made the changes you did, but I feel like they are too big.

  4. Misguided. I personally love taking a niche tool (spell, feature, etc.) and making a strong build around it. Witch Bolt seems like a perfect candidate at first glance, so I understand your sentiment - I have tried to fix it myself in the past. But it's a first level damage spell. It's not supposed to be good. It's supposed to be better than a cantrip - as long as you're below 5th level.

  5. It's not a PC spell. Some spells, such as Guards and Wards make little sense from a player perspective; How often does it happen, that a PC has a full year of downtime? Which DM would actually take its (very detailed) effects serious when having monsters infiltrate a player stronghold if the PCs are not confronting them? To me, Guards and Wards sounds like a fun spell to have the BBEG put on his Lair. Likewise, to me, Witch Bolt sounds like a spell that is best placed in the DM's hands. Consider:

    • 4 CR ¼ monsters are an appropriate challenge for a level 5 Fighter
    • A Fighter 5 has about 44 HP
    • Have 4 "Apprentice Wizards" (CR ¼) cast Witch Bolt (original) on the fighter (~17 damage assuming a hit chance of 65%)
    • Watch the Fighter decide between:
      1. Trying to take down some of the casters, at the risk of taking another ~26 damage, or
      2. Running behind cover, thus severing the beam but giving the evil cultist boss another round's worth of time to summon The Eldritch Horror
    • And all that with style!

The good part

The damage scaling seems to be fine. Let's compare a few numbers:

  1. Guiding Bolt cast at 4th level deals 24.5 damage on average (7d6).
    Add in a Firebolt (2d10) and we get 35.5 damage.
  2. Blight deals 36 damage on average (8d8). Add in the same Firebolt and we get 47 damage.
  3. Witch Bolt (improved) cast at 4th level deals 26 damage on average (4d12). The second round we choose to deal 13 damage automatically (2d12) and we get 39 damage.

Witch Bolt can keep up with Guiding Bolt, doing better even, and both lag behind a true 4th level spell, Blight, as is right and proper. I chose Blight because it also has a 30 ft range and stays pretty close to the DMG-prescribed 6d10 (33 average) for a 4th level spell.

At 5th level Bigby's Hand becomes a solid choice for a spell capable of dealing sustained damage over several rounds:

  1. Bigby's Hand deals 4d8 as a bonus action, leaving us free to cast a Firebolt for 2d10 damage, or 29 damage on average. Doing the same thing in our second round we get 58 damage.
  2. Witch Bolt (improved) cast at 5th level deals 32.5 damage on average (5d12). The second round we choose to deal 19.5 damage automatically (3d12) and we get 52 damage.

As we can see, Witch Bolt still respectfully keeps it's distance - but not too far behind.


I am aware that this site's format isn't well suited to discussion, but if you are looking for suggestions, here's mine:

Damage: 2d12 on a hit, 2d12 automatically
At higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the damage increases for each of its effects by 1d12 for every two slot levels above 1st.

Leave everything else as is. It becomes useful but not overpowered at 1st level, dealing 26 damage over the course of two rounds, therefore reaching the goal I proposed at (2). You'll still do 6d12 or 8d12 damage over the course of two turns when cast at 4th level and 5th level respectively, but far less reliable than your version: if you miss, the slot is wasted. If the target moves out of range or behind total cover, the spell is over.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the simple suggestion at the end. Simply increasing the range to 60 feet will make the spell vastly better because it'll prevent enemies from easily walking out of range, which is one of the main concerns with the spell. It's a fairly elegant fix. The scaling issue isn't really even that important because who realistically is upcasting first level spells instead of simply casting higher level ones? Most upcasted level 1 spells are simply inferior, this is not a witch bolt issue. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Jan 10 at 11:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ (1) You don't even need to switch targets to deal full damage. You "may" forgo the attack roll, not "must". I'll concede that it's a little strange, but the wording was intentional. (2) You're right about upcasting usually being weaker, but immolation is a very weak spell as well. Treantmonk's famous wizard guide rates it brown (the worst rating). Also note that Bigby's hand deals that 4d8 as a bonus action on subsequent turns, making its damage more like 4d8 + 2d10. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jan 10 at 17:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ (3) This is a fair point. I tried to use an existing spell's targeting (eyebite) to mitigate the problem, but there are still weird differences. (4) While it certainly doesn't need to be good at all levels, I can't imaging casting witch bolt at any level. I'd rather just cast a cantrip. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jan 10 at 17:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ Overall, a solid answer, even if I don't agree with every point. I feel like this answer still needs a more detailed damage comparison (of my version and your suggested version) to clearly demonstrate balance. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jan 10 at 17:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RedOrca (1) I see, but in that case that's a big departure from the original spirit in my opinion - even though I'm aware the "original spirit" is pretty bad. (2) Treantmonk's guide is biased against Blasting spells in favour of Control spells, so I wouldn't put too much weight on his opinion in this case. (4) What can I say, I think you're right. \$\endgroup\$ – ammut Jan 11 at 15:59
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The answer to your question is no, your proposed changes do not meet your goals.

  1. The changes you have made do certainly make it unique. But it brings it closer to a completely new spell with its own challenges while piggy backing off of Witch Bolt instead of making Witch Bolt more balanced.

  2. Its damage may look a little rough to you, but it is not, I believe. Combat can be fast paced and creatures can die before you even get to take an additional action against them. But when it does happen that you get a second turn against a creature, you get a second 1d12 of damage virtually for free (Unless the enemy somehow breaks the spell) without expending a second 1st spell slot. I believe not losing that second 1st level spell slot is the key.

  3. I do not feel this spell has any noob-ness. Slow the creature somehow, or stop it completely. That's a 1d12 of damage every turn they choose to keep it up without any additional rolls, and without expanding any additional slots. The damage can add up fast. And the longer the creature lives, the more potential you have to deal 1d12 per turn without expending slots.

If you'll take my suggestion, I feel like the biggest issue you see is the creature's ability to easily break the spell while only taking 1d12 damage (while other spells can deal upwards of 2+ dice of damage). Perhaps a lingering effect that deals extra damage if the spell breaks early (that way you could guarantee 2d12 worth of damage) or something similar. Maybe if they try to hide behind one of their allies, you could have it so the witch bolt starts shocking the other target. And on that note, you could do something like a reaction that allows the caster to end the spell in case of the enemy hiding behind one of the caster's allies.

Safe travels, friend! I hope you come up with a solution to balance witch bolt more to your liking. It may take some trial and error. You could always tweak it and run some trial encounters to see how your tweaks affect it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ It's valid to say that its damage isn't that rough, but that claim will need to be backed up by comparing it to other spells. In particular, it would be good to address why this answer is incorrect in its negative assessment of witch bolt. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jan 9 at 23:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ A lingering effect is an interesting idea. This idea would be improved by choosing concrete wording and damage for the lingering effect, and comparing its effectiveness to other spells and to my updated witch bolt. \$\endgroup\$ – Red Orca Jan 9 at 23:26
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