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I was looking at some 5e spell effects and noticed that the 6th level spell Sunbeam does 6d8 radiant damage (average 27 damage).

The 3rd level Lightning Bolt spell does 8d6 lightning damage (average 28 damage).

Why does a 6th-level spell deal the same amount of damage as a 3rd-level spell?

To make it worse, if Lightning Bolt is cast as a 6th-level spell, it's doing an average of 38.5 damage.

What am I missing here?

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2 Answers 2

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You are missing the duration and rider.

Lightning Bolt is a one-shot spell. It does a pile of damage and goes away.

Sunbeam sticks around for "concentration, up to 1 minute". It does damage each round, and you can reposition it. If you are only looking at its overlap with Lightning Bolt, think of it as ten castings for one slot.

Sunbeam also comes with a save-or-blind rider. Blind is a reasonably nasty condition; getting it in addition to damage is pretty nice.

Is Sunbeam worth a 6th-level slot? Hard to say, but Lightning Bolt is not the right comparison.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ OMG. You are absolutely correct. I completely missed the duration (and the blindness). \$\endgroup\$
    – nedlud
    Feb 14, 2023 at 7:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sunbeam is also sunlight, and that has nasty debuffs for a whole lot of undeads and underground dwellers. No one seems to be immuen for Sunbeam's damage as it is radiant. \$\endgroup\$
    – user72703
    Feb 14, 2023 at 11:52
  • \$\begingroup\$ What @vonPryz said. It's a good spell. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 14, 2023 at 17:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ OP misses the elemental trait too. Some entities might have weakness or resistance to energy damage in general or to lightning in specific. So it might blast some constructs and DM might allow it to cause extra damage if target is wet/hulled in iron armor. Sunbeam is radiant damage so I guess it's not so effective against celestials but melts undead pretty fast. The key here is to use the right tool in the right situation \$\endgroup\$
    – clockw0rk
    Feb 15, 2023 at 14:04
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Sunbeam has a 10-round duration (concentration) + blinding

For all practical purposes, 10 rounds is ridiculously longer than any reasonable combat, so this is going to last until the enemy dies from it. Or you lose concentration.

Lightning Bolt is special

Lighting Bolt and Fireball, like Magic Missile, are too damn good for their level. That’s a deliberate design choice because these spells are iconic - they’re what wizards do! These spells are too good, so that they can tempt players to play iconic spellcasters.

D&D's designers have actually revealed to us the reason for fireball's ridiculous damage, and it has everything to do with the culture and narrative of D&D, not its mathematical balance. Fireball is one of D&D’s most iconic spells. The sheer power of fireball is central in many fun D&D stories, as reported by playtest information from the playtests that gave form to fifth edition D&D. The designers saw fireball (and to a lesser extent lightning bolt) as integral to the experience of playing a wizard in D&D, and chose to improve its destructive power to encourage players to learn that spell over other less iconic ones.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This unbalanced feature is one of the reasons I've always played specialist wizards who don't cast Evocation spells, going back to 2E :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan
    Feb 14, 2023 at 15:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ Lightning bolt and fireball target a dex save, this makes them pretty weak imho. the "best" spells target charisma and the nastiest ones target wisdom, but in general I always preferred spells with an attack roll so the oponent rouge does not simply dodge a fireball for some strange reason, or dodges through a poison gas cloud EDIT: this naturally only applies to high-level enemies and bosses, a group of gobbos will always be grilled by fireball \$\endgroup\$
    – clockw0rk
    Feb 15, 2023 at 14:08
  • \$\begingroup\$ @clockw0rk against same-level targets, that's for sure. But those spells truly shine when you use them to explode a bunch of weaker mooks in one swoop. There is also the added destruction that a gian ball of fire "evokes" (har, har). Those spells are often used as narrative devices, too, if you have a fun-inclined DM. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Feb 16, 2023 at 17:44

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