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My wizard has both fireball, and animate objects.

Animate objects at first sight is such a cool and flavorful spell. I was excited when I got it because it is considered one of the highest output damage spells against individual targets for its level. With 10 tiny objects, you get 10 attacks +8 to hit, each of which deals 1d4+4 damage, or overall 10d4+40 (65) raw damage per turn.

But in practice, I rarely cast it: the issue is that against a mob of creatures, you have to split up the attacks and you do not get to deal more damage. If I simply upcast fireball to 5th level, I deal 10d6 or on average 35 damage to any target that does not make its save. So, already with 2 targets, fireball damage might be higher than what animate objects can do in the first turn. Most fights only go 3-4 rounds, so if I can hit 6 to 8 targets, it will be more over the entire fight, and all of that in the first round, plus all of it without hugging my bonus action. Against a strong single opponent, the martial damage dealers kill them most of the time with Sharpshooter and Great Weapon Master, or I end up using a save effects like polymorph to take them out. So I rarely use it.

Ignoring resistances (which obviously will make me look for a solution that the opponents are not resistant to), is there a general formula that I can use to decide when it is better to use fireball, and when it is better to use animate object to deal damage, based on how numerous, heavily armored and dextrous the opponents are? Or are there experience-based answers from someone who has used animate objects as a primarily damage-dealing spell succesfully?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Out of curiosity, what does your wizard need a bonus action for usually? \$\endgroup\$
    – J.E
    Nov 29, 2023 at 7:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ @J.E. Most typically, misty step to get out of a sticky situation. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 29, 2023 at 8:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Consider the following: Animating the individual coins in a dragon's hoard to fight against it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Zibbobz
    Nov 29, 2023 at 15:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is another case of the power of a spellcaster comming not from raw damage numbers, but in sheer versatility. Fireball deals damage, and sometimes put fire on things. Animate Objects, on the other hand, is a limitless pit of chaos, as the answers here prove. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Nov 30, 2023 at 11:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @T.Sar Yes, all of the answers have really been fantastic in showing a wide array of uses I had not even been thinking of. Definitely breathed new life into the spell for me. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 30, 2023 at 11:46

6 Answers 6

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Instantaneous vs Duration

The primary benefit of animate objects is that it lasts for more than one round. The result of this is the conservation of spell slots. Instead of having to cast fireball multiple turns in a row, you can get the high DPR of animate objects over multiple turns.

Certainly, damage on the first turn is more impactful than sustained damage since it removes enemies that could potentially attack your party on those later turns, but the drastic reduction in later turn damage when resorting to cantrips after a big fireball makes animate objects better even despite this fact.

To demonstrate, let's evaluate the damage output as you requested in "when it is better to use animate object to deal damage, based on how numerous, heavily armored and dextrous the opponents are" and then contrast the first turn damage with the damage over the course of 4 turns (even accounting for the diminished impact of later damage).

Turn 1 Damage

To start with, if you can hit 3 or more targets with the fireball, it will deal more damage on turn 1 than animate objects almost no matter what (unless AC is especially low and Dexterity is especially high). Along the same vein, fireball against one target is typically worse than animate objects, but not to quite the same degree. Here is the chart of the damage output of fireball (green indicates better damage when the animated objects have advantage, yellow when they don't, and orange when they have disadvantage):

enter image description here

As a rule-of-thumb metric, you can use AC 20 as a break point for when to use fireball against one target (AC 15 when the animated objects will have disadvantage, and AC 25 when they will have advantage). The Dexterity has less of an impact than AC when it comes to damage comparison of these two spells.

If you are hitting 2 targets, it becomes more complicated.

enter image description here

For this situation, disadvantage makes fireball almost always better, but deciding whether to use fireball or animate objects is more complex. For a rule-of-thumb, use animate objects without advantage when their Dexterity save + 8 is less than their AC, and use animate objects with advantage when their Dexterity save + 14 is less than their AC. This doesn't quite work on the extremes, but is a valid approximation.

Later Turns Damage

To account for the persistent duration of animate objects, let's compare the damage over 4 turns, while reducing the impact of the later turn damage by 25% for turn 2, 50% for turn 3, and so on.

For the sake of this comparison, I am assuming the fireball casting is followed up by a 2d8 cantrip that also targets Dexterity (for simplicity).

Here is the new comparison for a 1 target fireball:

enter image description here

When considering the persistent damage of animate objects when compared to cantrips on later turns, fireball is only better against 1 target when the animated objects will have disadvantage and AC is at least 20.

Here is the new comparison for a 2 target fireball:

enter image description here

Here, the new rule-of-thumb is that you should use animate objects even with disadvantage when Dexterity save + 10 is less than their AC, without disadvantage when Dexterity save + 17 is less than their AC, and with advantage almost always.

3 target fireballs and 4 target fireballs are similar skewed towards animate objects. It isn't until 5 target fireballs that we get a more borderline case similar to the 1 round 2 target fireball:

enter image description here

If you really need a rule-of-thumb for this specific case, you can use Dexterity save + 12 for advantage, and Dexterity save + 6 without advantage. However, at this point it is clear that the persistent damage of animate objects more than compensates for the lesser 1st turn damage when compared to fireball unless you can hit 6+ creatures with the fireball.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If Animate Objects doesn't take an enemy off the field in the first turn where Fireball would have, it does at least put out some cannon fodder to soak those hits, as Pyrotechnical's answer points out. So it can pay for itself that way against melee enemies, or get op attacks on enemies that run past them. (Or give disadvantage to ranged attackers if they're making actual attacks.) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 29, 2023 at 8:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'll accept this one, as I think it most directly answers the original question about damage math calculations; but honestly, the responses to this have all been great and have provided a wealth of useful ideas on how to get more out of Animate Objects. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 29, 2023 at 9:04
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Typing.

Fireball deals fire damage.

Animate Objects does not.

That alone put Animate Objects as a far better choice when it comes to damaging creatures that have some sort of resistance/immunity to fire.

Hard to Hit Targets

A basic Fireball has a 20 feet area of effect, and can target something up to 150 feet away. Animated Objects, on the other hand, can be spread out in a 500 feet area, and can attack even invisible targets, as they have blindsight.

No LoS necessary.

You don't need to expose yourself to cast Animate Objects. You can cast it on a bunch of billiard balls, put them on a bag, and drop them inside a chimmey, with the order to "attack everyone inside". You can cast it from cover and make your minions reach for your enemies while you stay safely behind.

They can be dipped in poison.

You can instruct your animated objects to take a bath of your favorite poison before entering combat for expanded mayhem.

They can be anything.

Animate Objects works on any non-magical objects, which include things that can go boom, can be put on fire, can be filled with acid, and so on.

They allow you to multitask.

You don't need to use Animate Objects only to deal damage. It can do a bunch of other stuff, like closing doors, pulling rugs, snuffing fires, and so on. This means you can do up to 10 different things, spread out in 500 feet, per turn, while the spell lasts.

Chucky

enter image description here

Chucky.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In terms of typing, the bard in one party I run has commissioned silver statuettes of fairies just for the rare case in which something is more vulnerable to silvered weapons. \$\endgroup\$
    – Kirt
    Nov 29, 2023 at 19:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Kirt An army of Tinkerbells stabbing you to the death with their little knife arms is an incredibly powerful visual and a horrible way to go. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Nov 30, 2023 at 11:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't believe multitasking is valid; note that with your bonus action command, the spell says "if you control multiple creatures, you can command any or all of them at the same time, issuing the same command to each one". So if you command one of them to e.g. close the door to the pantry, then all the other animated objects with either do that same thing (redundant), or wouldn't do anything as you hadn't issued a command that turn. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 30, 2023 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AndrzejDoyle That's true, but there is two caveats - 1) the command doesn't need to be specific, general commands work, and 2) You indeed have to place the same command to any amount of them, but you don't need to give it to all of them. You can have Chucky to guard the door A on turn one and Tiffany to guard the door B on turn two, and you don't need to be any more specific than it - the animate objects can, and should, use everything at their disposal to prevent enemies from crossing said doors. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Nov 30, 2023 at 17:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ @AndrzejDoyle You can always of course tell them to close the nearest door or guard their _immediate area against enemies. Or, do as my players did, and tag the enemies with ink of different collors before setting their differently colored animated objects to "hunt the enemies marked with your own color". \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Nov 30, 2023 at 17:34
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Breaking casters' concentration.

Disclaimer. This answer will not consider any mathematical1 formulation or probabilistic simulation.

Without considering the pure, numerical expected damage and magical defense (Counterspell, magic resistance, ...), using Animate Objects against casters can be really useful for breaking concentration spells.

Indeed, casting Fireball may deal a larger amount of damage, but it triggers just one concentration saving throw. On the other hand, 10 tiny objects that may deal less damage will likely trigger more than one concentration saving throw. This could be of some use when enemy caster(s) are concentrating on spells that control one or more of your companions, or that grant some tactical advantage (e.g., Black Tentacles).

I never used Animate Objects in such a way, but a player in the party I am DMing for used in this way in a battle against a couple of divine casters: it was very effective, even if the damage dealt was not very high the enemies could not concentrate on any spell.


1!!!

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  • \$\begingroup\$ with the downside here being, of course, that you yourself are now also vulnerable to losing concentration, which Fireball would not require. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2023 at 16:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is a good use case I think. even though you might want to concentrate yourself, just one round can trigger multiple concentration checks. Even high AC casters rarely have much more than 18 AC, so a 50:50 to hit chance roughly if not better, meaning 4 checks (albeit, possibly against a much lower damage baseline). \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2023 at 16:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PixelMaster It depends also on how much is important to break enemy's concentration. You might decide to risk loosing yours in enemy's next turn, but maybe it is crucial to break theirs. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Nov 28, 2023 at 17:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin Yep, t depends if it is crucial to break enemy's concentration. \$\endgroup\$
    – Eddymage
    Nov 28, 2023 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NobodytheHobgoblin: I'm sure you know this, but concentration save DC doesn't increase from the baseline DC10 until a single event does 22 or more damage. A Fireball will exceed that unless they safe for half (average damage at 5th level is 35), but if you're not doing 22 damage with one attack, it doesn't actually matter how much smaller the hits are. If your enemy has a +9 to their Con save, it's literally impossible to lose concentration with the baseline DC10, unless your DM house-rules that nat 1s auto-fail saves. But if their Con save bonus is "only" say +6, those 15% chances add up. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 29, 2023 at 8:23
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While it kind of still falls under the same situational category as resistances, there is also the situation where you're trying to reduce collateral damage. While fireballs do not directly damage objects by the book, they do ignite them. Conversely, if you do want to damage non-flammable objects, Animate Objects might be a better choice. And, of course, fireballs don't distinguish between party members, enemies, and innocent bystanders. Lastly, it may be the more stealthy action, sending a dozen toy soldiers in to cut the throats of the sleeping guards instead of exploding the barracks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I would add that when stealth is important, it is far harder to spot a little swarm of toy soldiers mangling people at night than it is to spot a fireball. \$\endgroup\$
    – T. Sar
    Nov 28, 2023 at 16:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ @T.Sar: Thanks for the suggestion. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 28, 2023 at 16:42
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The other answers have covered a lot of other things, but a few additional options to consider.

Area Control

10 small objects under your control occupy 10 spaces of the battlefield. Creatures you don't want to move through those squares now can't do so without dealing with that obstruction.

What's more, if the enemies try to avoid dealing with your animated objects by running past them, well every single one has a reaction to use for an attack of opportunity.

Damage Soak

Ogre McOgreson and his friends deal a ton of damage when they hit the party's Rogue and a single casting of fireball is not going to stop them. With a single casting of Animate Objects, you can create at least 250 hit points* worth of minions to mitigate a ton of damage.

*I say 'at least', because if an animated object has 3 hit points left and the ogre hits for 15 damage, all that excess damage is overkill that your party doesn't have to deal with.

Selective Damage

A scenario where your allies are all mixed up with a bunch of enemies is sure to just leave everyone irritated if you launch a fireball into the fray. The ability to have Animate Object pick and choose who gets stabbed is much less likely to create a friendly fire issue.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I was surprised I had to scroll so far down to find an answer that mentioned use-cases like blocking a hallway and tanking damage (especially from enemies without AoE capability.) This is the first thing I thought of, having seen it used as cannon fodder in Dimension 20: Neverafter. (Also to animate a small tower some archers were on, to chuck them off!) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 29, 2023 at 7:12
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Creatures benefit from bonuses

If you surround a target that is paralyzed (by your friendly Cleric's Hold Person maybe?), then all your Animated Objects attack with advantage and score automatic criticals on a hit. That's going to add up fast.

Likewise, your party Rogue can benefit from Sneak Attacks with an Animated Object near. It's not direct spell damage, but it's still something Fireball can't do. (The Animated Object might even be able to use the Help action to give the Rogue advantage)

The objects also take up space, which you can use to trap enemies in dangerous terrain, without exposing your allies to risk. And they can make opportunity attacks, which also adds to the damage. Hit an enemy with Dissonant Whispers to force a move and double your attacks for that round.

Likewise any buff spells and auras you might have might be able to affect the creatures to boost their effectiveness (either through damage or defense). They're much rarer in 5th Edition, but then again, spells like this one are probably a good part of the reason.

For example I found the Cleric of Peace, who can bond creatures together and then lets them absorb attacks for one another; sounds like an excellent way to keep yourself going by tossing an animated object in front of a Disintegrate.

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