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As I understand the smite spells (searing smite, for example), they are pretty bad (at least at level 1-2).

You have to use your action to cast them (so no attack this turn if you are not a fighter), keep your concentration until your next turn, and wait until you touch an enemy with your attack roll to deal a not really good amount of damage (but ok, sometimes it has another effect). And then you don't have the smite any more.

So for me it's a "true strike but you have more than 1 round to use it, and sometimes it's just slightly better than that" level of power (which is pretty bad).

Am I correctly understanding how the smite spells work? Or did I miss something?

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You missed a few things about Searing Smite.

All Smite spells only cost you a bonus action, not an action and have a duration of up to 1 minute (concentration), so they can be used pre-combat without costing you any action economy.

When you use Searing Smite during combat it has the potential to continuously deal damage or to cost one of the enemies an action.

At the start of each of its turns until the spell ends,[...] On a failed save, it takes 1d6 fire damage. On a successful save, the spells ends. If the target or a creature within 5 feet of it uses an action to put out the flames, or if some other effect douses the flames [...] the spell ends.

It does not automatically end after one turn. Fire damage is also a different damage type which is relevant depending on the creature that you attack.

The other level 1 smites are Thunderous Smite that can deal 2d6 thunder damage as a burst and push your target away and knock it prone if it doesn't make a save, and Wrathful Smite can impose the frightened condition if it doesn't make a save, the level 2 smite Branding Smite deals 2d6 radiant damage and prevents invisibility.

So no, they aren't bad. Quite the opposite: they have serious impact at little resource cost.

True Strike gives you advantage on an attack roll, it doesn't directly deal additonal damage. It also cost you an action, not a bonus action.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The duration and concentration on smite spells also means that if you miss once or twice the spell hasn't been wasted, you still get the smite as soon as you hit. \$\endgroup\$ Mar 2 '20 at 15:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ [...] used pre-combat without costing [...] - I'd take that with a grain of salt. Most combats start sudden enough that nobody can reasonably use a spell before initative is rolled. In case of no-surprise, the mere act of casting a spell in front of hostiles might be enough of a trigger to roll initiative. It is best to assume there's no prep time for any combat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mindwin
    Mar 2 '20 at 17:53
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin it's probably more accurate to say "pre-attack" than "pre-combat", you can use it on the first round before your first attack action. \$\endgroup\$
    – Peteris
    Mar 2 '20 at 19:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mindwin It's common enough in my games to have the party group up by a door and do something like "on the count of three, we burst through the door and kill everyone." - in which case the whole party has time to do a bunch of prep work (buffs, drawn weapons, precasting spells, etc). It's also not uncommon to be able to set up an ambush (and a minute in advance means you should be able to pre-cast out of earshot and out of sight of your target(s). Not to mention things like while the BBEG is doing his little speech or whatnot. Point is, it's common enough not to wave it away as nothing. \$\endgroup\$
    – Doc
    Mar 3 '20 at 6:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doc if the BBEG keeps monologuing while his enemies are casting spells he has no idea what are, he deserves to die. Casting a spell is an obvious action, but thanks to XGE it now costs an action to identify what spell was cast. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mindwin
    Mar 4 '20 at 12:15
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No, you've misunderstood a few things about the smite spells

Casting Time: 1 bonus action

The most significant thing you got wrong was the casting time. All 7 of the smite spells have a casting time of 1 bonus action. This is significant because it means that you can cast the spell and take the Attack action on the same turn - presumably, you'd cast the spell first so that you can gain the immediate benefit right away, with no risk of losing concentration until after the immediate effect (assuming you hit).

Possible additional effect that lasts for the duration

The smite spells all cause the next weapon attack that hits to do additional damage (and all of them except banishing smite and branding smite specify "melee weapon attack") - but they all have an additional effect beyond damage that lasts for the duration of the spell, which is a significant part of why they all have a duration of "Concentration, up to 1 minute".

If they had no additional effect, there'd be literally no reason for a paladin to use the spell instead of expending the same spell slot to use the Divine Smite class feature; the extra damage of each of the smite spells is less than a corresponding use of Divine Smite, and only branding smite and searing smite can even be upcast to do more initial damage. (Though the paladin could always make use of both a smite spell and Divine Smite on the same attack just to do tons of damage at once.)

That said, the particular secondary benefit may vary between each smite spell:

  • Banishing smite (PHB, p. 216) does 5d10 extra force damage to the target, then banishes the target for the duration if it has 50 HP or lower.
  • Blinding smite (PHB, p. 219) does 3d8 extra radiant damage to the target; then, the target has to succeed on a Con save or be blinded for the duration of the spell (it can repeat the save at the end of each of its turns).
  • Branding smite (PHB, p. 219) does 2d6 extra radiant damage; it then makes the target visible if it was invisible and, for the spell's duration, causes the target to shed dim light and prevents it from turning invisible.
  • Searing smite (PHB, p. 274) does 1d6 extra fire damage and causes the target to ignite in flames, forcing it to make a Con save at the start of each turn until the spell ends. On a failed save, it takes 1d6 fire damage; however, the spell ends if the target succeeds on the save, it or a nearby creature takes an action to put out the flames, or some other effect douses the flames.
  • Staggering smite (PHB, p. 278) does 4d6 extra psychic damage, and forces the target to make a Wisdom save; on a failure, then until the end of its next turn, it has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks and it can't take reactions.
  • Thunderous smite (PHB, p. 282) does 2d6 extra thunder damage (and causes a thunderous sound that's audible up to 300 feet away); the target then has to succeed on a Strength save or be pushed 10 feet away and knocked prone.
  • Wrathful smite (PHB, p. 289) does 1d6 extra psychic damage, then forces the target to make a Wisdom save or be frightened of you for the duration (it can make a Wisdom check against your spell save DC as an action to end the spell).

Staggering smite and thunderous smite are the only ones whose possible secondary effect doesn't last for the spell's duration; the former lasts until the end of the target's next turn, and the latter only has an instantaneous effect. (Neither one specifies the spell ends after that secondary effect is resolved, but there's no point concentrating on either of those two spells after that is done.)

A number of these secondary effects are quite significant. Banishing smite has a no-save banishment as long as the target's HP is low enough; taking an enemy totally out of the fight can be a pretty big deal. Blinding smite and wrathful smite impose a pretty significant status effect for the duration, though the save can be repeated each turn.

Staggering smite imposes a significant debuff, but only for one turn; removing the target's ability to take reactions may be the most useful part if strategically employed to prevent an ally's spell from being counterspelled or similar. Searing smite seems useful in doing continuing damage, but the repeated save in addition to the target's ability to remove it themselves or have an ally remove it (albeit at the cost of an action) weakens it somewhat.

Branding smite's secondary benefit is probably the most situationally useful; it's rarely needed, but when it is needed, it really shines (literally). If you know you're going to be fighting something that can go invisible, this spell can basically negate that entirely, and it's only a 2nd-level spell.

Thunderous smite seems the least useful at a glance; all it does is knock the target back and prone if it fails a save. Since it only applies to the next melee weapon attack that hits, this can't even be exploited to knock flying enemies out of the air unless you're somehow flying as well (in which case it's a great niche interaction). It also targets a saving throw that is relatively high among monsters, at least in the Monster Manual. Its saving grace is that it's only a 1st-level spell.

True strike works entirely differently

As Akixkisu's answer mentions, the true strike cantrip is substantially different. It has a casting time of 1 action, and also explicitly says its benefit applies "on your next turn" - preventing you from benefiting from it on the same turn you cast it, even if you have the 2nd-level fighter class feature Action Surge. It also doesn't impose any effect on the target, damage or otherwise; all it does is give you advantage on your first attack roll on your next turn.

Even setting aside its badly worded duration, the usefulness of the true strike cantrip is limited at best. At the very least, the smite spells do extra damage, and many also have a significantly useful secondary effect.

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