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I have a level 3 light domain cleric. I have both the 1st level spell Guiding Bolt and the 2nd level spell Scorching Ray.

When I use a 2nd level spell slot with Guiding Bolt the damage is 5d6 and attacks against the target have advantage for a round, while Scorching Ray with a 2nd level spel slot is 6d6 damage, but you have to roll three times for each ray (which is 2d6) and it's rare for all three attacks to succeed.

What are the pros & cons of Scorching Ray? Why would I want to use it instead of Guiding Bolt?

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The pros of Scorching Ray are:

  • Assuming no attacks miss, it does more damage than Guiding Bolt.
  • You have the option to attack multiple targets when using Scorching Ray.
  • Eventually, when you have higher level spell slots, it will scale much better than Guiding Bolt.
  • Scorching Ray works with the Elemental Adept feat - which allows you to ignore fire resistance and raises the floor on your minimum damage. (Credit - yinzanat)
  • Against enemy spellcasters, Scorching Ray provides more opportunities to break their concentration. (Credit - gburton)

The cons of Scorching Ray are:

  • It deals fire damage instead of radiant damage. While this is situational, there are more monsters in the Monster Manual that resist fire than resist radiant.
  • It does not grant advantage to the next attack roll against your target.

The thing that could be either, depending on how superstitious you are about your dice (and what the AC of your target is):

  • Scorching Ray makes three separate attack rolls.

You would want to use Scorching Ray if:

  • There are multiple targets that you are confident in your ability to hit.
  • You are fighting something that is vulnerable to fire damage.
  • You need to deal more damage right now.

You would want to use Guiding Bolt if:

  • You need to set an ally up for an upcoming attack against the same target.
  • Your allies are having a hard time landing attacks against the target.
  • Your next ally to attack is a rogue who will get sneak attack damage from the advantage. (Credit - DaleM)
  • There is only one target. (You may wish also just not upcasting Guiding Bolt in this scenario and relying on your party to use the advantage.)
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    \$\begingroup\$ Scorching ray also works with the Elemental Adept feat. \$\endgroup\$ – yinzanat Mar 7 '17 at 16:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ Another very important pro - 3 individual damage rolls means that something that is concentrating makes 3 individual constitution saves. \$\endgroup\$ – gburton Mar 7 '17 at 19:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ Optimally you use your attack spells only if you have advantage. When you have advantage on ranged attacks however, then (99% of the time) everyone else has advantage, so the additional benefit of Guiding Bolt is wasted. \$\endgroup\$ – András Mar 8 '17 at 11:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ Making three separate attack rolls shouldn't be relegated to how you feel about dice. More attack rolls means more consistent damage, so you can rely more upon achieving around the average damage. \$\endgroup\$ – Cuthbert Cooper May 17 '18 at 23:06
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Damage-wise (as that seems to be your main concern), despite being rare that all attacks hit, since you have the exact same attack roll modifier for both Scorching Ray and Guiding Bolt, you will, on average, do more damage with Scorching Ray.

Imagine that you have a chance of missing a target of 1 in 3. If you attack that target 3 times with Guiding Bolt, you do

  • 5d6 + 5d6 + MISS = 10d6.

If you attack the target 3 times with Scorching Ray, you do

  • (2d6+2d6+MISS)+(2d6+2d6+MISS)+(2d6+2d6+MISS) = 12d6
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    \$\begingroup\$ And even if your miss chance is 2/3, you still end up with (on average) 5d6 versus 6d6. \$\endgroup\$ – JAB Mar 6 '17 at 21:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Federico Because math? \$\endgroup\$ – BlueMoon93 Mar 7 '17 at 11:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @BlueMoon93 yeah, because I brainfarted, sorry. \$\endgroup\$ – Federico Mar 7 '17 at 11:44
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First, you can ignore the bit about very rare to get 3 hits. It's also rare to get 3 misses in a row. Guiding bolt is either a hit or a miss. Either you get all the damage, or none of it. Scorching ray, however, spreads the damage out. If you miss with one roll, you might hit with the other two. So you might get no damage, some damage, a lot of damage, or all the damage.

If we bump guiding bolt up to 6d6, then both spells will deal the same damage over the long run, even when you account for criticals. Scorching ray gets crits 3x as often, but guiding bolt gets them 3x larger.

So objectively, scorching ray will deal more damage than a 2nd level guiding bolt (since GB only deals 5d6 damage). As a bonus, you can spread the damage if you know one monster is about dead.

Is 1d6 damage worth giving someone advantage? Probably. But that's the trade off. This becomes less important when comparing both of them with 3rd level slots, since scorching ray scales better.

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Scorching ray has the following advantages over guiding bolt:

-It can hit up to three targets, so it's better for multiple weaker foes

-You have three chances to hit, so odds are you'll get at least 2d6 damage, while guiding bolt only gives you one shot

-If you hit with all three, you'll be doing 1d6 more damage than guiding bolt

-It does fire damage instead radiant, which could be better if the target is vulnerable to fire

So if you've got multiple targets, one you definitely want to hit for at least a little damage, or if you've got advantage for a round and want to eke out just a bit more, scorching ray is better

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Here's a simple math breakdown from AnyDice. I'm assuming an attack bonus of +5 and an AC of 15.

chart for Guiding Bolt vs Scorching Ray

The "bump" in the chart for Guiding Bolt is "that thing" that makes it seem like Guiding Bolt is a win. When it hits you get that big burst of damage, but a good chunk of the time it simply does nothing.

If you look at the medians, the Scorching Ray is higher as you would expect. The Standard Deviation is also much lower. In general, Scorching Ray is going to be more damage each round and it's going to do at least some damage, most of the time.

So Scorching Ray is the default choice.

Some things that could change the math:

  • Resistance to damage type. (radiant vs fire)
  • Lots of small targets. (scorching ray is better vs. Kobolds)
  • Situational advantage. If your target had just been hit by a Guiding Bolt you would get advantage on your first attack roll, which boosts the effective damage from Guiding Bolt. Bardic Inspiration could have a similar effect.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain the 45% rate of guiding bolt doing nothing? Breaking down your method is really important for this type of answer. We could take your word for it, but really you should show your work (and I don't count the anydice script in that regard; while we could work it out, it'd be better if you explained your methodology here). \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Mar 7 '17 at 6:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm assuming an attack bonus of +5 and an AC of 15. So rolls of 1-9 don't hit. \$\endgroup\$ – Gates VP Mar 7 '17 at 8:16
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's fine for a single use case. Can you include your methodology for the rest of the calculations in your answer? I don't think this answer is complete until you describe how you came up with your data. The Anydice script may be fine for some (myself included) but for the benefit and inclusion of all users I think an answer should include the methodology in simpler terms. \$\endgroup\$ – LegendaryDude Mar 7 '17 at 14:30
  • \$\begingroup\$ The OP is assuming that Scorching Ray will be used as a level 2 spell, dealing 6d6, not 5d6 as assumed. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Mar 8 '17 at 0:23
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is what the OP has in mind anydice.com/program/af36 \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Mar 8 '17 at 0:29

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