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Is there a difference between the blindness caused by the sunbeam spell and the sunburst spell?

Both spells are worded basically the same:

Sunbeam

For the duration of this spell, you can use a standard action to evoke a dazzling beam of intense light each round. The spell ends when its duration runs out or your allotment of beams is exhausted. Each creature in the beam is blinded and takes 4d6 points of damage. Any creatures to which sunlight is harmful or unnatural take double damage. A successful Reflex save negates the blindness and reduces the damage by half.

Sunburst

Sunburst causes a globe of searing radiance to explode silently from a point you select. All creatures in the globe are blinded and take 6d6 points of damage. A creature to which sunlight is harmful or unnatural takes double damage. A successful Reflex save negates the blindness and reduces the damage by half.

Sunbeam has a Duration (1 round/level or until all beams are exhausted), whereas sunburst is Instantaneous.

A spell’s Duration entry tells you how long the magical energy of the spell lasts. (PHB pg. 176)

Timed Durations: Many durations are measured in rounds, minutes, hours, or some other increment. When the time is up, the magic goes away and the spell ends. If a spell’s duration is variable (power word stun, for example) the DM rolls it secretly.

Instantaneous: The spell energy comes and goes the instant the spell is cast, though the consequences might be long-lasting. For example, a cure light wounds spell lasts only an instant, but the healing it bestows never runs out or goes away.

Sunburst has a duration of instantaneous, so the blindness is permanent if you follow the rules above. The magic comes and goes but the consequence persists. Is that right?

For sunbeam targets in the beam are blinded, but is it: a) a casting of blindness like the level two spell, which is a permanent duration; b) a blindness condition that ends when the spell's duration ends as per the rule for spells with a timed duration; c) a blindness condition that is permanent?

What's the best way to handle the blindness caused by both spells?

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    \$\begingroup\$ We like to keep question posts to one focused question per post, and so I think your very last section about the difference between a beam and ray is a separate question from your question about blindness, and should be posted as a separate post. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 26, 2023 at 18:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ If nothing else, the add-on question is very easily answered, but the primary question will take some digging. If you asked the add-on question separately, you’d already have an answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Feb 26, 2023 at 18:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the tip, I thought it might be relevant because it also deals with duration. I'll amend it \$\endgroup\$
    – youknowwho
    Feb 26, 2023 at 19:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ You are welcome to ask the other question—just do it in a separate Question. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Feb 26, 2023 at 19:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I've found the answer to the other question. It's no. The terms themseves both make use of rays but in game terms rays are typically touch attacks and require dice rolls. Sunbeam is like lightning bolt in the regard that it effects every target in it's path. \$\endgroup\$
    – youknowwho
    Feb 27, 2023 at 4:32

2 Answers 2

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Sunburst is very clear—the blindness lasts until cured

Sunburst has instantaneous duration, so everything it does just happens and is now a fact of reality. It cannot be dispelled, because there is no “spell” left to get rid of—the fact that the person is blind is just part of reality now. To undo it, you have to specifically cure their blindness. It will never expire, and it will continue even in an antimagic field.

Sunbeam is quite unclear, and could go either way

I don’t believe there is anything that answers the question for sunbeam’s blindness—it could be an instantaneous effect like sunburst, or it could be a timed effect that ends when sunbeam does. The problem is that sunbeam gives you, for a time, the ability to shoot these beams—and it’s not clear how much of the sunbeam spell’s stats apply to that ability. In a lot of cases, we’d just default to including them, so the beams’ blinding effects is as limited as the spell is—and strict rules-as-written, that would probably be the answer—but there is reason to question that here.

First, the damage that the beams do is definitely instantaneous. Damage pretty much has to be instantaneous; it doesn’t make sense to have duration-limited damage. (Obviously, effects with duration can deal damage, but that means they are doing separate instances of periodic instantaneous damage on a set schedule. The damage itself doesn’t have a duration.) See the difference between ability damage and ability penalties, for instance. Ability penalties have a duration, and the ability score returns to normal after it’s up. Ability damage just damages the score, and has to be healed. Damage is always like that: it doesn’t time out, it has to be healed.

So the beams definitely have at least one instantaneous effect, the damage. Is the blindness also? Maybe the comparison to sunburst is illuminating (har.), and suggests yes. Or else you could argue that sunburst is higher-level, so it would make sense that the lower-level sunbeam would have a lesser effect and not cause instantaneous blindness. There just isn’t enough to go on.

Ultimately, this is a deficiency in the rules. Sunbeam should be explicitly telling us that the damage done by the beams is instantaneous, and that the blindness is too, or else is not and instead explain how long it lasts. I mean, if nothing else, if the blindness inherits the spell’s duration, one has to wonder if that means that running out of beams early causes those blinded with those beams to recover early—unclear!

Anyway, while the rules are unclear, and ruling is required, the ruling is pretty straightforward: sunbeam is a 6th-level spell. It is (barring cheese) only available at 11th level and above. It deals 4d6 damage, with a Reflex save for half, and it blinds. That’s piddly at this level—not worth a 6th-level spell slot. Against undead, it’s somewhat stronger, but it’s still just lightning bolt with half the range—and that’s a 3rd-level spell. (Yes, I realize lightning bolt is just one-and-done while sunbeam lets you fire repeatedly, but you also have to spend a turn turning sunbeam on before you can use it, so in a lot of cases you aren’t likely to get to fire it more than 2 or 3 times. Also, we’re talking twice the spell level, that’s massive.)

So instantaneous blindness is certainly appropriate here, and how I would rule. Ultimately, though, it may not really matter—the blinded character will almost certainly be killed or healed before the duration runs out either way.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @youknowwho I didn’t even consider the possibility that the beam itself might linger—but while the rules don’t indicate it, I think the beam itself has to be understood to be instantaneous. It deals damage, not damage per round (or per any other period). Standard action, beam deals damage and blinds, beam done. To deal damage again, to blind some more, use another standard action and shoot another beam. The damage of the beam is definitely instantaneous. Whether the blindness is or not is unclear, per my answer. If the beam lingered, that would be even less clear. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't say that it's underpowered at all considering the damage persists each round to a max of 6 rounds (24d6 total damage, 6 rounds of blindness in the beam) All damage is instantaneous, or it's accompanied by a "per round" affix, that's clear, what's really unclear is if the blindness is a spell effect or an instantaneous effect being touched by the beam. Is it that those in the beam are blinded and when the spell ceases (or the target exits the beam) they stop taking damage and the blindness is removed, or that those touched by the beam are both blinded and damaged instantaneously? \$\endgroup\$
    – youknowwho
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry for the late edit, but your comment is still relevant. What you're saying is, that once the beam touches something, it does one instance of damage, and although the sunbeam persists it no longer damages the target? A creature could sit in the beam for 6 rounds and it only takes one application of damage? What's causing the damage then if not contact with the beam? Does it no longer burn unless the beam and target are separated and then the beam touches then again? I'll pose this as another question as I think we've stumbled upon an important distinction that needs clarification \$\endgroup\$
    – youknowwho
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @youknowwho No. I am saying the beam itself is instantaneous. You shoot it, it damages and/or blinds things, and then it is gone, all as part of the same standard action. The sunbeam spell continues, however, letting you do the same thing, shooting a new beam and dealing more damage and blinding more things, all over again. But each beam is instantaneous. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ And yes, 24d6 damage spread out across 6 turns is very, very poor at 18th level. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Feb 27, 2023 at 5:57
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In discussing this with KRyan, who has made some astute observations, I believe that I have discovered the answer to this question. I'm prone to error so I'm open to clarification and corrections.

The thinking error comes from assuming that the spell is a continuous effect, which would be subject to the rules of a spell with a duration, but the wording of the spell reflects otherwise:

For the duration of this spell, you can use a standard action to evoke a dazzling beam of intense light each round.

Each round the spell is applying a new beam and uses a charge. Once the duration runs out or the spell runs out of charges, it can no longer produce a new beam.

You can call forth one beam per three caster levels (maximum six beams at 18th level). The spell ends when its duration runs out or your allotment of beams is exhausted.

Once the spell is activated, each round the caster may use a standard action to evoke the beam or not, but must do so within the duration of the spell. The duration is the time limit that the caster has to use the charges available to him/her. The effect of the blind in sunbeam is instantaneous, the same as sunburst, and is not subject to the rules for spells with a duration.

Blindness status effects do not stack, although a target cured of its blindness would be susceptible to a new blindness application if contact is made with the beam and the target fails its saving throw.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this is the most reasonable interpretation of the rules, and also the best ruling for gameplay/balance purposes, but it should be noted that the rules are ambiguous and could be interpreted to mean other things. Many of those other options tend to wind up in weird, undefined situations, though. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Feb 27, 2023 at 15:27

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