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Guiding Bolt is a 1st level cleric spell. Per the PHB it deals a whopping 4d6 damage if it hits, and the next attack roll made against the target has advantage.

For a 1st level spell, this thing seems grossly overpowered to me. Even the other players in my group have noticed this. A single hit with this thing typically vaporizes most enemies. The one cleric in my group casts only two spells: Cure Wounds, and Guiding Bolt. (Realistically, why would she cast anything else?)

Is this spell actually really overpowered or am I just interpreting it incorrectly?

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    \$\begingroup\$ How many encounters per adventure day are you running? The book's balance model considers 6-8 encounters per adventure day, and two short rests. (Not all encounters necessarily being combat ..) \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 7 '17 at 13:49
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It's not OP compared to other 1st level spells.

Consider Burning Hands, which deals 3d6 in an area, or Inflict Wounds, which deals 3d10 damage, or Dissonant Whispers, which deals 3d6 while wasting the target's reaction in order to provoke attacks of opportunity, or Chromatic Orb, which deals 3d8 damage.

While Guiding Bolt is a bit stronger than these others, its secondary benefit is also smaller.

This might be an encounter design issue

If your cleric is only ever casting healing spells and guiding bolt, that means the incentives in each fight are only based on direct damage to one enemy without terrain. One could imagine that save-based spells are better in areas with lots of cover, or AOE spells are better against a larger number of enemies.

Additionally, remember that a cleric only gets a certain number of 1st level spells per day. A ranger with 16 DEX and a heavy crossbow can deal 1d10+3 damage per hit, which averages 8.5 damage, and he can shoot essentially unlimited times per day. With multiattack, the ranger can deal double this damage. On the other hand, a cleric only ever gets 4 first-level spell slots. If you're fighting multiple encounters per day, as you should, those 4 spells will run out quickly, especially if the cleric has to do anything else. However, if you're only having one or two encounters a day, this built-in balance is broken.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Your comment regarding encounter design rings of truth to me. These are relatively new players, and I've tried to keep things simple for them, and in the process I've likely shot myself in the foot (and made things unfair for the other caster in the group). I'll go back and revisit my campaign notes to make sure that the enemies can take advantage of cover. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Hofer Feb 6 '17 at 17:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ Not just terrain. An encounter with 2 baddies or one with 10 of them will be very different for the caster. Even if the encounters are the same threat level. \$\endgroup\$ – Shane Feb 7 '17 at 22:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @MikeHofer I think the last paragraph also has additional strong truth to it. How are they resting? Is the cleric recovering all of his spell slots per rest? Should they be? If they are resetting all of their available spells after every encounter, then the balance described in the last paragraph is gone. \$\endgroup\$ – krillgar Feb 8 '17 at 14:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ The cleric doesn't reset all spell slots after every encounter, only after each full rest. Partial rests don't count. Both the cleric and I (the DM) track spell slots spent. (She's my mom. She loses track.) \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Hofer Feb 8 '17 at 17:38
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(this answer is based on the assumption that you consider the spell overpowered compared to other level 1 direct damage spells)

It's reasonably potent, but...

Comparing to other level 1 direct damage spells, the damage of 4d6 is reasonably strong, and the attack advantage gives it further edge. However, you forget to account for several weaknesses the Guiding Bolt has in comparison to many other level 1 spells:

  • It is a ranged attack roll. This means the caster attacks with a disadvantage when using the spell in melee.
  • As a ranged attack roll, it is subject to cover rules, too.
  • As a ranged attack roll, it hits AC, which often yields worse probabilities for success than saving throws.
  • There is no "consolation prize" effect - many level 1 spells are guaranteed to have at least a reduced effect in event of a successful save.
  • The damage it deals is single-target, making it inefficient at taking out large mobs of low-HP monsters, particularly ones with relatively high AC (eg. goblins).

While the spell may seem powerful purely based on that 4d6, it also has several caveats to balance it out.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I was actually comparing it to the sorcerer's direct damage spells (Ray of Frost, Shocking Grasp, Magic Missile). The sheer damage output seemed so out of balance as to be broken. I hadn't considered all the things you've pointed out. \$\endgroup\$ – Mike Hofer Feb 6 '17 at 17:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MikeHofer It's a good thing you asked, then :) The first two of those are cantrips, so they don't use slots but can be expected to be way below "actual" spells in power. Magic missile is a proper spell and true, it deals less damage - but it always hits, which can be a huge boon to the caster. \$\endgroup\$ – kviiri Feb 6 '17 at 17:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ It also deals force damage, which is a very reliable damage type (no monsters in the MM resist it, exactly one is immune iirc). Radiant is also fairly reliable, but not to nearly the same degree - although it does have some perks vs undead and demons. \$\endgroup\$ – Andrew Feb 6 '17 at 20:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Andrew Radiant is just as reliable. Only 4 creatures in the Monster Manual resist it, all of which are Lawful Good Celestials (3 are angels). Shadows are vulnerable and they really suck (resist acid/fire/cold/lightning/thunder and nonmagical weapons, can reduce strength on hit). Plus as you mention there are other benefits against other creatures (e.g. prevents vampire regeneration for one turn.) Also the one radiant damage cantrip uses a Dex save that ignores cover (even total cover). \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Feb 7 '17 at 3:21
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It is a good spell, but it is not necessarily overpowered.

Let's assume a party of 1st-level characters. Also, whenever the word "damage" is used in this answer, it means "average damage."

The following are just a few examples to contrast guiding bolt with other common 1st-level combat options.

  1. The damage for a cleric's guiding bolt is 14 (4d6), but it requires a hit on a spell attack roll. The damage for a wizard's magic missile is 10.5 (3d4+3), but it never misses. So guiding bolt would have to hit 75% of the time to deal exactly as much damage as magic missile. Since the cleric has a +5 spell attack bonus to hit (assuming a +3 ability modifier), guiding bolt would hit 75% of the time against a target with AC 12. This means guiding bolt is worse than magic missile against a typical CR 1 creature of AC 13 (as recommended by the DMG).

  2. The damage for a melee attack with a maul is 10 (2d6+3). A cleric can deal guiding bolt damage at most 2 times in an encounter using their 2 spell slots. Since both guiding bolt and the maul require rolls to hit and have the same attack bonus, we can just assume they both hit. Then within 3 turns the maul can deal 30 damage whereas guiding bolt can only deal 28. The maul can continue to deal more damage on subsequent turns essentially indefinitely, whereas the cleric's spell slots all have been expended for the encounter.

  3. The damage per-target for a wizard's burning hands is 10.5 (3d6) if the target does not succeed on its saving throw to halve the damage. Assuming half of the spell's targets succeed on their saves to halve the damage (which is a pessimistic assumption), the damage is reduced by one quarter (half of one half) to 7.9 damage per-target. Then burning hands would only need to hit approximately 2 targets in order to deal as much damage cumulatively to all the targets as guiding bolt could deliver to a single target. Note that on a square grid burning hands could hit up to 6 targets, and every single target takes at least some damage.

There are many more examples that could be examined, but in just these few contrasting cases we can see that guiding bolt is outperformed by several other 1st-level combat options in realistic scenarios. So there is no reason to nerf guiding bolt if your encounters are nontrivial.

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To see if something is overpowered we have to compare it to other spells.

  • Ice Knife is also a level 1 spell. It does 1d10 (average 5.5) on successful attack, and then it explodes dealing 2d6 to any creatures inside 5 that fail a dex save. That has a maximum effect (against 1 target) of 22 points of damage and an average damage roll of 12 (negelecting chances to hit and save). And has the benifit that the explosion is basically an area effect that can get multiple enemies.

  • Chromatic Orb does 3d8 (which has an average of 13.5 and max of 24). And the damage is of any type of damage (getting around immunities and resistances), which depending on circumstance could be more powerful that a Guiding Bolt.

  • A casting of Earth Tremor does 1d6 to each target that fails their dex save and knocks them prone. The effect has the potential to do a greater total damage than Guiding Bolt and becoming prone is effectively halving the movement speed of the affected characters which I'd argue is better than someone else having advantage.

  • We also have Green Flame Blade which is a level lower (being a cantrip) which does one attack's worth of damage with sword, and a creature within 5ft of it takes damage equal to your spell modifier. As you progress the effect gets stronger maxing at an additional 3d8 damage done to both, and without using a spell slot.

  • Eldritch Blast. EB is a cantrip. IT does 1d10, 2d10, 3d10 or 4d10 depending on the level of the caster. At its max (without Warlock invocations to buff it) it does a max of 40 damage, and an average of 22 without costing a spell slot. Adding in the invocation it does a maximum of 4d10+CHA Mod, pushing 10 feet with a range of 120 feet --- all without a spell slot spent. Granted, the 4d10 does assume each blast lands, as each is an attack roll, but that actually introduces another advantage which is 4 opportunities to crit...

Guiding Bolt's 4d6 has a max of 24 damage and an average damage of 14. Which is only slightly better than the Ice Knife, and potentially way less than GFB and EB. The advantage on the next attack is arguably as good as the Ice Knife potential to catch other enemies in it explosion. It hits a single target, and grants advantage to the next person who attacks the target, which is nice but not out of line with some of the other effects (Earth Tremor) we've seen at that level. Guiding Bolt is powerful, I can see why it gets noticed by the other players, but it is still dependent on spending spell slots which are a limited resource. Cantrips and weapon attacks are free, and become more powerful as levels are gained.

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    \$\begingroup\$ EB is multiple attacks, not scaling damage like other cantrips. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Feb 6 '17 at 16:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ That is true, but I don't think it changes the argument much, as I've taken attack and saves out the average damage calcs and just did raw damage rolls. If I did, EB gets complicated because not only is it 4 rolls against AC, it is also 4 chances to crit..... Perhaps it is worth mentioning that though. \$\endgroup\$ – J. A. Streich Feb 6 '17 at 17:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ I mentioned it for accuracy purposes. Each bolt does 1d10, as you level you get more bolts so your statement may've been misleading without the clarification. It should be noted that the knockback and Cha bonus invocations stack to each bolt as well, so at high levels a pissed off warlock can make you extraordinarily sad. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Feb 6 '17 at 17:30
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    \$\begingroup\$ And I must point out that the average of 1d10 is 5.5, not 5. Likewise the average of 4d10 is not 20, but 22. \$\endgroup\$ – MGlacier Feb 6 '17 at 18:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Chromatic orb has a spell component requirement of a diamond worth 50gp (which it does not consume). I'd say that makes it slightly less good; probably not as good as guiding bolt, despite having the same max damage and slightly higher avg damage. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Feb 6 '17 at 21:12
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Not at all. Compare it to other offensive 1st level spells like Inflict Wounds (3d10 damage), Chromatic Orb (3d8), and Burning Hands (3d6 with area of effect). And consider that a low level cleric only has a few spells they can cast. Guiding Bolt is a good spell, especially if used in conjunction with a follow-up attack. But it is hardly a game changer compared to any other offensive magic spells, especially if it drains your cleric of healing/buff magic the rest of the party is relying on!

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