In 3.5e/PF/other games, there are significant numbers of abilities that reduce damage by a flat value (DR 5/magic etc). In 5E, very few abilities/monsters seem to have flat damage reducers, instead either having Resistance (halving), Immunity (ignoring), or nothing.

I can't find any particular benefit to having one large damage attack over a number of smaller hits that add up to more damage. If anything, since there are a number of abilities that ignore one attack (or make it harder to land one specific attack), the opposite seems true.

Is there any reason that a 5E D&D character would want to prioritize one big hit over a number of smaller hits, instead of preferring the smaller hits?


6 Answers 6


If the character expects to regularly receive buffs that apply to a single attack (eg the advantage from Guiding Bolt or a Grave Cleric's Path to the Grave), having that buff for "all" of their attacks for the round could be more valuable than just getting it for the first of many small attacks. Similarly, a foe might be under a condition that would grant advantage (or more) to attackers that ends (or gets a new save to end) when the target is hit (eg Sleep or Hypnotic Pattern).

There may be situations where the character can only make a single attack (opportunity attacks, the extra action from haste, etc). If they've somehow optimized for one big hit, they might be able to make that big hit more often.


Concentration breaking.

The rules for concentrating on a spell state:

Whenever you take damage while you are concentrating on a spell, you must make a Constitution saving throw to maintain your concentration. The DC equals 10 or half the damage you take, whichever number is higher.

If a caster has a high Constitution modifier, it may be next to impossible to break their concentration without dealing very high damage. For example, the legendary archlich Acererak has +12 to Constitution saving throws, so he automatically succeeds on concentration saves from sources of damage that deal 27 or less damage at once.

On the other end of things, high damage can provide very reliable concentration-breaking against targets with low Constitution modifiers. I can recall numerous times during my time playing through Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden that I wish I had a reliable method of breaking concentration on the frost druids we encountered. My DM just loved to hit us with a sleet storm spell.

This is probably the single most important mechanic that relies on dealing big damage in a single blow – at least, if hostile spellcasters are a regular feature of your game.

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    \$\begingroup\$ On the other hand, if you're not dealing more than 21 damage, more low-damage attacks are better, to force more saves. \$\endgroup\$
    – MJD
    Apr 19, 2022 at 4:08

Punching a Balor (or similar creature)

There's a number of creatures that have automatic retaliation whenever they take a hit. For example, hitting a Balor in melee deals 3d6 fire damage. That'll add up if you make a lot of attacks per round.

Likewise, Armor of Agathys is the bane of low damage multi-attackers, with its automatic 5 points of Cold damage per spell level returned until you break it (which takes a set amount of damage)


Heavy Amor Master

The Heavy Armor Master feat gives the following benefit:

While you are wearing heavy armor, bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage that you take from nonmagical attacks is reduced by 3.

This is essentially the same as Damage Reduction from earlier editions. Since it reduces the damage from each attack by a flat amount, a single high-damage attack would be more effective against a character with this feat.

  • 4
    \$\begingroup\$ Significantly, unlike the many other sources of Damage Reduction in 5e, this does not use a reaction or other once per time period resource, and so can be used against each and every attack. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Apr 19, 2022 at 4:22

When you are attacking an object or vehicle

Many hard objects (DMG 247) and large vehicles (DMG 119) have damage thresholds, and don't take any damage from attacks that do less than this amount.

When the damage type or damage source matters

This isn't a function of the amount of damage per se, so not really a direct answer to the question, but there will often be a tradeoff, especially for casters, between spells that do a single amount of damage and spells that do smaller amounts of damage with multiple hits that total more. In general the total damage is the better option, until one considers the damage type or damage source.

For example, for a first level slot one could cast three magic missiles for a total average damage of 10.5, or one chromatic orb with an average damage of 9 (12.5 with a 75% chance to hit), but you have a choice of one of six damage types, to which the target might be vulnerable. For a second level slot, you could shoot three scorching rays with a total average damage of 14 - but if the target is immune to fire, a single acid arrow for less damage on average would be better.

When the rounding loss from damage resistance approaches the amount of damage that can be done

Suppose you are attacking a barbarian and have the choice of a single weapon that does 1d6 or two weapons that, dual-wielded, both do 1d3. Clearly 2d3 (individual average damage 2, total average damage 4) is more than 1d6 (average damage 3.5).

However, suppose the barbarian then enrages, such that all three weapons will be subject to their damage resistance. If the damage was just halved, the two attacks would still be better, but in 5e we always round down to integers unless otherwise directed, so a rolled 1 for damage will be treated as no damage after rounding down. In this case the average damage of the d6 becomes (0,1,1,2,2,3) = 1.5 while the average damage of 1d3 is (0,1,1) = 2/3. In this case the average damage of the 2d3 subjected to resistance is now less than that of the d6, and you would be better off using the single weapon for a single, large hit rather than the two weapons for two, smaller hits since they no longer total more.

This effect goes away for 'larger' dice since the chance of a rolled one becoming zero is less. Given the choice between a two-handed spear (1d8) and two daggers (2d4), the daggers are better before resistance but both options are equal after resistance (average damage 2). For larger weapons the two attacks would remain better even after resistance.


Instant Death

PHB p. 197:

Instant Death Massive damage can kill you instantly. When damage reduces you to 0 hit points and there is damage remaining, you die if the remaining damage equals or exceeds your hit point maximum.

Many DMs do not bother to roll death saves for monsters, and most monsters at higher CRs will have so much hp that the amount you can reasonably deal with a mighty blow will not suffice, but in games where the DM lets monsters stablilize and heal, killing them outright on a hit can be a benefit.

I think Thomas is right though, for practical purposes breaking concentration is the most valuable thing, and will matter most often.


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