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From what I read, the witch bolt spell (PHB, p. 289) will only hit the target. But will it hit anything else - for example, a creature swimming within 10-15 feet of the strike location?

The reason for this is an attempt to electrocute a chuul that is hiding somewhere underwater.

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Your title asks:

What happens if an ocean is zapped by the witch bolt spell?

The ocean is not a legitimate target. The target must be a creature, per the description of the witch bolt spell (PHB, p. 289; emphasis mine):

A beam of crackling, blue energy lances out toward a creature within range, forming a sustained arc of lightning between you and the target.

In the body of the question, you state:

From what I read, the witch bolt spell (PHB, p. 289) will only hit the target.

No, it could also miss the target. You need to make an attack roll, per the next sentence in the spell description:

Make a ranged spell attack against that creature.

But you might mean that witch bolt "will hit only the target". Yes, it either hits the target or it misses it. It cannot hit anything else in the area.

You also ask:

But, will it hit anything else, for example, a creature swimming within 10-15 feet of the strike location?

No. The "strike location" is a creature (see above). The spell will not hit another creature near the target creature.

You also mention the reason for your question:

The reason for this is an attempt to electrocute a chuul that is hiding somewhere underwater.

The spell says its target is a creature within range. It does not say a creature within range that you can see (note that other spells do have this restriction). So it is perfectly permissible to target with the spell a creature that you can't see. But what do you mean by hiding?

If the chuul was not seen by the caster, and then took the Hide action, and made a Stealth check that beat the caster's passive Perception score (or active Perception check, if the caster spent an action to Search), then it is Hidden from the caster. If the chuul is truly hidden (which means unperceived - not only unseen, but also not perceived by any senses), the caster can still attempt to attack it, but first has to correctly guess where it is, and then attacks with disadvantage.

However, if the chuul is just relying on the water to disguise its location without taking the Hide action, or if it did take the Hide action but the caster still beat its Stealth with their Perception, then the caster is aware of the chuul, even if it is not seen (it might be perceived by a splash, a bubble, a ripple on the surface, for example).

In the case that the chuul is not actually hidden, it falls to the Dungeon Master, as the describer of the environment, to tell the player whether or not the chuul is seen. The DM may be informed by the "Underwater Encounter Distance" Table (DMG, p. 117). The DM may also want to consider whether the water makes the chuul lightly obscured or heavily obscured.

If the DM rules that the chuul is not hidden but is Unseen, then the witch bolt attack would fall under the "Unseen Target" rules; the chuul could be attacked at disadvantage (unless it can't see the caster, either - then it can be attacked normally!)

If the DM decides that the chuul is seen but is lightly obscured by the water, the caster could make the attack roll as normal.

Welcome to the site Random Wizard, and happy chuul-hunting!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Worth noting there's also the case of the NPC being hidden but the PCs are aware of its presence, even if they haven't beaten the stealth roll with perception yet (you can attempt to take the Hide action after other creatures are made aware of you so long as you're not visible, for example); this would also fall under the Unseen Target rules where the hidden creature's exact position can be guessed at. \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Sep 28 at 20:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ "If the DM decides that the chuul is seen but is heavily obscured by the water" - This is not possible. Per "Vision and Light": "A heavily obscured area—such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage—blocks vision entirely. A creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area." If an area is heavily obscured to you (e.g. you can't see through mundane darkness using darkvision), then you can't see into or through the heavily obscured area. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 29 at 5:28
  • \$\begingroup\$ If a creature's not hidden but it is unseen (e.g. it's in or beyond a heavily obscured area), then you usually still know where it is thanks to other indications of where it is (e.g. sound, or bubbles in the water in this case). If it is hidden, then you would have to guess its location. (Generally the DM would still have you make an attack roll at disadvantage in that case; even if the creature wasn't in the spot you targeted, you'd only know that the attack missed, not whether the creature's there.) And of course, if you can see the target, you can attack it as normal. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 29 at 5:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Also important to note that rolling below AC is not necessarily missing. It could mean connection, but not enough to damage. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Sep 29 at 17:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt: That's because there's no difference... Well, a creature can be unseen for reasons other than being in a heavily obscured area (e.g. if it's behind opaque physical cover or something), but the direct effects of being unseen due to being in a heavily obscured area are no different from the direct effects of being unseen due to any other reason. There's no difference in the rules between "unseen" and "not seen". \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 29 at 19:33
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Just as in the 3.5e version of this question, in 5e we have the situation where being in water has no special effect on electricity spells.

Why not?

Because being in water only affects natural electricity because that electricity follows the path of least resistance, which being in water rather than air affects. How it affects the path of least resistance is complicated, and being underwater can actually provide protection from lightning in certain cases (e.g. being more than 15-20 feet down). But none of that is relevant because magic electricity doesn’t follow the path of least resistance in the first place. We know that, because if it did, it would never strike the caster’s target. As I said in my answer to the linked question,

If [magic electricity] did [follow the path of least resistance], and created a large potential at the caster’s fingertips, the lightning would not arc out an enemy, it would quite happily take a path of vastly lower resistance and travel up the caster’s arms, through their chest (probably causing cardiac arrest), down their legs, and into the ground. This, obviously, is not what happens nor what anyone casting the spell wants to happen.

So no, zapping an ocean with witch bolt doesn’t do anything. Zapping someone in the water affects them exactly the same as zapping someone on dry land, provided you can hit them. And all of that is consistent with how magic electricity works.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I am not completely sure that water would provide cover against attacks. It does give disadvantage to certain weapon attacks, which supports that it does not prevent attacks. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Sep 28 at 15:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Szega Fair enough! I’ll revise. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Sep 28 at 15:39
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The chuul takes no damage from this attack.

The chuul, while hidden from you, is your target. Why attack the ocean?

a chuul that is hiding somewhere underwater.

The spell will not hit the chuul if you aim at 'the ocean.' The ocean may take 1d12 damage if the DM rules that you hit what you aim at, but they probably won't: "the ocean" isn't a creature. The description of the witch bolt spell says (PHB, p. 289; emphasis mine):

A beam of crackling, blue energy lances out toward a creature within range, forming a sustained arc of lightning between you and the target.

You so far, in your problem statement, don't appear to have a target for the spell to hit.

  • If you declare to the DM "I am aiming for a place X feet deep and X distance from me, hoping to hit the chuul" then the DM can see if you guess the right spot for an attack on a hidden creature - roll for the attack with disadvantage. But that isn't what you said you tried to do.

The problem you have to resolve is that you can't see the target, and you need to see the target (the chuul in question) to hit it with the spell, unless you can guess at where this hidden target is. If you were underwater with it, and could see it, then nothing would stop you from trying to hit it with the witch bolt spell. (See the undewater combat rules in chapter 9). Your PC would be safe from any "electrical charge" - which isn't an issue anyway.

Nothing in the spell says that it will transmit electric/lightning damage through {X amount of} salt water, so just hitting the ocean does nothing to the chuul.
(See @KRyan's answer for more on how lightning damage is magic, not real-world electricity.)

Your question is similar to the matter of trying to hit an invisible creature with witch bolt, which is covered in @DaleM's answer to another question about witch bolt.

In addition, if the target is also Hidden, you would need to guess its location; if you guess wrong you will automatically miss.

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There are many reasons to say no.

First off, witch bolt targets a creature. The ocean is not a creature (as far as we know), so you can't just wildly fire a witch bolt into the sea in the first place.

Second, a spell does only what it says it does. A witch bolt deals lightning damage to one creature, and that's it. The electricity doesn't spread out and seek new targets based on the conductivity of the surrounding area.

Your DM can choose to be more loose with spells, of course, but by default, spells don't act differently depending on the environment, unless there's a specific rule that says they do. For example, there are no rules about adventuring underwater (DMG p.116) that would stop you from using spells to full effect. An underwater fireball still deals its normal damage in its normal area. Creatures within the fireball that are themselves underwater would take less damage because immersed creatures have resistance to fire -- PHB p.198 -- and any submerged objects in the area that could catch fire would be immediately doused, but the spell itself operates as written; it doesn't fail or deal fewer damage dice or anything like that.

So even if we change your question from the targeted witch bolt to an area spell like lightning bolt, it would still only affect creatures that are actually within the area of the spell. There's no special spread-effect for shooting lighting into water. (I believe there was such a rule in 2nd edition, and possibly even 3rd, but the general movement of the game in recent years has been away from having tons of special rules and corner cases that are easy to overlook or forget about.)

Now all that said, as a DM, I would probably be willing to entertain a clever spell use like this even if it's not strictly allowed by the rules, but if I did allow it, I'd have to do so with a huge asterisk next to it that says if this turns out to be too powerful, I'll reserve the right to reverse my ruling later.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, technically being immersed in water doesn't change the fireball at all, it just gives the targets resistance -- but I can see how the way I phrased that might be misleading. I'll reword my post to be more clear. What I meant was the fireball doesn't deal a different number/size of dice, deal a different damage type, have a different radius, or fail entirely due to being used underwater. \$\endgroup\$ – Darth Pseudonym Sep 29 at 14:22
  • \$\begingroup\$ Haha, yeah, I figured that's what you meant. :) \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Sep 29 at 19:29
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Aside from all the other problems, seawater would be unlikely to let this happen to begin with

While the other answers here capably address the game mechanical reasons that what you propose isn't in line with the mechanics of witch bolt, they don't address the simulationist reason why this wouldn't work anyway: seawater is too conductive. That's right: the fact that ocean water is 50 to 1000 times more conductive than freshwater basically means that the bulk of the current flowing through the saltwater would go around whatever's in it (whether fish, human, or chuul), instead of being "choked" to flow through the critter by the fact the conductivity of the wet critter is more than that of freshwater. (It's why electrofishing doesn't work in saltwater.)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ are you sure that you don't mean that the resistance of the wet critter is more? (path of least resistance and all that) Higher conductivity would tend to attract the charge, right? \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 1 at 2:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast -- basically, think of the saltwater as "shorting out" the critter -- freshwater can't do that, so you get the opposite effect, with most of the current able to run through the critter \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Oct 1 at 4:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, that's another way to see it, thanks. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Oct 1 at 12:06

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