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According to the Witch Bolt spell description:

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 description says nothing about what happens when you miss. The intuitive answer would be that the spell fails. However, seeing as how the spell is a concentration spell, and the specific ways to end the spell are:

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.

What happens when Witch Bolt misses?

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On a miss, nothing happens

The witch bolt spell states (emphasis mine):

[...] 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. [...]

From this, we can conclude that if you do not hit then you do not deal 1d12 lightning damage and you cannot use your action to deal 1d12 damage automatically later on. Further evidence of this can be found by comparison to the ice knife spell which explicitly calls out the effects on a miss:

[...] Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes 1d10 piercing damage. Hit or miss, the shard then explodes. The target and each creature within 5 feet of it must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or take 2d6 cold damage. [...]

Nothing happens if you miss with the spell, but...


You can continue to concentrate on the spell anyway

Even if you miss, the spell does not actually end because the spell does not say that it ends. Related to this is the following question:

The answer there states that you can continue to concentrate on a spell even if all of its targets succeed on their saving throws. Similarly, I see nothing stating you cannot continue to concentrate on witch bolt even if you miss with the attack roll. So even on a miss, you can continue to concentrate on the spell.

That said, there is seldom a reason (though not never a reason) to ever continue concentrating on a spell that does nothing on its own, but this is especially the case with witch bolt as the spell automatically ends if you use your action to do anything.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I guess you can not continue to concentrate on the spell for longer than one round, since "the spell ends if you use your action to do anything else [from dealing damage with it]", and you don't deal damage on miss \$\endgroup\$
    – enkryptor
    Oct 3 '21 at 21:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ You offer Ice Knife as 'further evidence', but I don't think you've evidenced your reading prior to that example: Two readings of the spell description are technically possible. Why favour one over the other? \$\endgroup\$
    – Lovell
    Oct 3 '21 at 21:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Lovell I don't know what the other reading would be? If you're suggesting that "and..." doesn't rely on "on a hit", I'd say that isn't how people use English, especially with those comma placements, and the books are written in natural language and the only way to naturally parse that is where "and..." depends upon "on a hit". The reading where you can miss and still deal that 1d12 damage every turn is also clearly not intended. \$\endgroup\$ Oct 3 '21 at 22:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor The spell says it ends "if you use your action to do anything else." It does not say that it ends "if you do not use your action to continue to do damage automatically." Thus you can concentrate on the spell for longer than a round, as long as you do not use your action to do anything else. There are lots of things you can do without using your action - mostly involving movement, speaking, reactions, and free actions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Oct 3 '21 at 23:14
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Nothing happens when you miss

Briefly, we know this because:

  • 5e has a precedent for explicit hit or miss effects.
  • The alternative interpretation requires counterintuitive targeting mechanics.
  • Grammatical ambiguity is common and is clarified by sentence content & context.
  • The narrative effects of the alternative interpretation are unlikely.

To unpack each of these in more detail, we must first consider both readings of the spell's description.

Possible parsings of the spell description

Let's look at the two options:

A. Witch Bolt fails on a miss

In this reading, the conditional clause 'on a hit' applies to both the subsequent clauses. That is:

  • On a hit the target takes 1d12 lightning damage
  • and on a hit you can also use subsequent actions to deal automatic lightning damage to the target.

B. Hit or miss, you can inflict additional damage automatically

Under this parsing, the conditional clause only affects the first of the two subsequent clauses, i.e.:

  • On a hit the target takes 1d12 lightning damage
  • and you can use subsequent actions to deal automatic lightning damage to the target.

This option is grammatically valid, but A is the correct reading. I will detail the reasons for this below.

Reasons to accept A

1. There is a precedent in the rules for explicit 'hit or miss' effects

Ice Knife is a ranged attack spell which has an additional effect that occurs regardless of whether the spell hits or misses:

Make a ranged spell attack against the target. On a hit, the target takes 1d10 piercing damage. Hit or miss, the shard then explodes. The target and each creature within 5 feet of it must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or take 2d6 cold damage.

The explicit mention of a 'hit or miss' effect sets a precedent which we would expect to be followed in the description of this spell were that the intent.

2. Option B requires counterintuitive rulings on targeting

Related to the above: The target of Witch Bolt is the target of a ranged spell attack. If that ranged spell attack misses, in what sense can they continue to be the spell's target? The targeting effect has ended.

3. Common parlance and context

The grammatical ambiguity in the spell description occurs often in everyday speech, and is usually only allowed when context makes the 'right' reading obvious. Consider the following sentences:

  • If there's milk in the fridge you can make yourself some cereal and you're also welcome to drink any of the juice.
  • When the engine overheats the car catches fire and it could explode

Each of those sentences calls for a different grammatical parsing: Permission to drink the juice does not depend on the presence of milk in the fridge, but the possibility of the car exploding is a direct consequence of its catching fire. The content of each sentence informs our judgement of how the conditional clause modifies the subsequent, connected clauses. We can therefore assume that:

  • Any similarly ambiguous sentence will contain enough information for us to make a judgement of intent
  • The sentence is given to us with the expectation that such a judgement can and should be made.

The sentence is not neutral - it does not present both readings as equally likely. This leads naturally to my final point:

4. Option A makes more narrative sense

When you cast Witch Bolt, a 'beam of crackling, blue energy lances out' towards the target. Under option B, a target who dodges the beam is still subject to subsequent lightning damage. If the caster can inflict automatic lighting damage without shooting their energy beam on target, then what's the purpose of the beam? The spell's flavour become counterintuitive.

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The spell's remaining effects do not occur

The key phrase here is "On a hit..."—the effects in that sentence, including "on each of your turns for the duration...", only happen if the spell hits.

This also makes sense logically1: it would be strange if you gained the ability to deal 1d12 lightning damage every turn from a spell that failed its check to hit.


1: Though this isn't dispositive, as the rules sometimes do produce illogical results.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd appreciate any explanation of issues with this answer so that I can improve it or delete it altogether if it's entirely wrong. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ryan M
    Oct 3 '21 at 21:02

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