Player’s Handbook, pg. 85
Improved Divine Smite
By 11th level, you are so suffused with righteous might that all your melee weapon strikes carry divine power with them. Whenever you hit a creature with a melee weapon, the creature takes an extra 1d8 radiant damage.
Player’s Handbook, pg. 85
Divine Smite 5e
Divine Smite is the signature class feature of the Paladin in Dungeons and Dragons. It’s the big smackdown ability that lays out huge damage and defines the class’s role as the single-target terror of the party.
Let’s go over how Divine Smite works, what the rules are, and how to use it most effectively. Oh, and do some low-key debunking of the claim Divine Smite is overpowered and in need of a nerf.
How Does Divine Smite Work in 5e?
Divine Smite is a 2nd-level Paladin feature that deals an additional 2d8 (9 average) radiant damage to a target that you hit with a melee weapon attack. You must expend a 1st-level spell slot to do so.
This damage scales by 1d8 (4.5 average) per slot level above the 1st, to a max of 5d8 (22.5 average). Divine Smite deals an additional 1d8 damage if the target is undead or a fiend.
How Does Improved Divine Smite Work?
Improved Divine Smite causes an 11th+ level Paladin’s melee weapon attacks to always cause an extra 1d8 (4.5 average) radiant damage. This does not require expending a spell slot, and this damage stacks with regular Divine Smite damage, if you use the 2nd-level feature.
Divine Smite Rules in 5e
Here are answers to some of the most common rules questions about Divine Smite in 5e:
You choose to use Divine Smite after an attack hits. As the feature specifies, you can only use Divine Smite “when you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack.” You do not state your intention to use Divine Smite until seeing that the attack hit, so there is no way to “waste” it.
Critical hits double the amount of Divine Smite dice you roll. When you land a critical hit in DnD 5e, you “roll all of the attack’s damage dice twice and add them together…if your attack involves other damage dice…you roll those dice twice as well” (PHB 196).
So, for example, if you used a 1st-level spell slot to use Divine Smite, it would deal 4d8 radiant damage instead of 2d8.
You can use Divine Smite twice in one turn. Divine Smite has no restriction against being used on multiple attacks in the same turn in combat. This means that you can use it multiple times on your turn if you land multiple melee weapon attacks with something like Extra Attack or two-weapon fighting.
You can also use Divine Smite on other people’s turns, most commonly for an opportunity attack.
You cannot use Divine Smite with unarmed strikes. Because “an unarmed strike isn’t a weapon,” and, even though unarmed strikes are technically melee weapon attacks, Divine Smite specifically refers to the weapon’s damage (and an unarmed strike is not a weapon) (SAC 5).
However, as the Sage Advice Compendium goes on to clarify, “no imbalance is created” if you choose to ignore this rule — it was merely “a thematic choice” on the developers’ part.
You can use any spell slots for Divine Smite. They don’t have to be Paladin spell slots. Sage Advice confirmation 1 and 2.
Improved Divine Smite always adds 1d8 damage, regardless of whether you use a spell slot to empower Divine Smite’s damage. Confirmed on Sage Advice.
The original Player’s Handbook had text that clarified this (“If you also use your Divine Smite with an attack, you add this damage to the extra damage of your Divine Smite,”) but it created more confusion than it resolved, and so was removed from later editions.
Divine Smite is not a spell. It is just “fueled by spell slots,” so you can use Divine Smite while under the effects of Barbarian’s Rage (Sage Advice). You also can’t Counterspell Divine Smite, for the same reason.
You can use a smite spell and Divine Smite on the same attack. “As long as the attack you make after casting the smite spell is a melee weapon attack” (SAC 5).
Paladins have access to many smite spells — these are wholly unrelated to the Divine Smite class feature. While one of these smite spells is applied to your weapon, you can still use Divine Smite with that weapon’s attack.
You cannot reroll Divine Smite damage with the Great Weapon Fighting style. Great Weapon Fighting style allows a Paladin to reroll a 1 or 2 on a damage die with a two-handed melee weapon attack. However, this only applies to the damage of the weapon itself, not a feature like Divine Smite (SAC 4).
How to Use Divine Smite in 5e
Here are a few ways to maximize the effectiveness of Divine Smite:
Save it for a critical hit. This is lesson #1 of the “How to Paladin” starter kit. Divine Smite getting double the damage dice on a critical hit is the premier use of this class feature, and a very impactful and memorable one at that.
A Divine Smite crit is what every Paladin lives for, so enjoy your moment in the sun the 5% of the time (or possibly more) you land one.
Consider the opportunity cost. The reason you shouldn’t just toss around Divine Smite on any ol’ hit is simple: you have access to first-level spells that are more valuable than 9 average radiant damage.
Things like Bless, Shield of Faith, Protection from Evil and Good, and even Command come to mind. When you expend a very limited Paladin resource like spell slots on something like Divine Smite, you always have to consider if that spell slot would be better used on something else.
Use it for big-bad undead and demons. The bonus 1d8 damage on demons and undead is nice, and so is leaning into the class archetype. When you’re up against a boss that’s one of these creature types, make them remember your name with a nice Divine Smite damage boost.
Plus, many of these creatures are vulnerable to radiant damage, so you’ll get double damage regardless of whether it crits — quadruple damage if it does!
Multiclass into Warlock. Warlocks get their spell slots back after a short rest, and since you can use those spell slots for Divine Smite, this is a massive increase in the amount of times you can use this feature each adventuring day.
Identify the most threatening enemy. Paladins are good at single-target damage; not so much at area of effect. To multiply the value of what you’re good at, use your big damage nukes on the most terrifying targets around.
This is usually a spell caster, but any creature with an annoying ability that’s shutting down your party is a great primary target to use Divine Smite on.
Is Divine Smite Overpowered?
No, Divine Smite is not overpowered. Here’s why:
It’s single-target. As any experienced DM will tell you, it’s foolish to fight players with only one enemy. Even the most threatening bad guy in the game suffers from action economy issues (i.e., the players having more turns than they do, cumulatively).
Legendary and Lair actions level this out to varying degrees, but it’s still true that single-target abilities are almost never going to automatically win a fight. If there’s a horde of enemies and no big-bad worth striking down, Divine Smite isn’t really useful at all.
It’s melee. The game’s developers even draw attention to how the “risk to the user” of melee abilities was something they considered when balancing Divine Smite (Sage Advice). Yes, it can deal massive damage when a Paladin lands a critical hit…but a Paladin is also usually also first in line to eat critical hits from enemies.
It’s comparable damage to like-leveled spells. Magic Missile averages 10.5 damage at 1st-level and automatically lands, compared to Divine Smite’s 9 damage. Now, Divine Smite will often be used on a critical hit, dealing 18 average damage, but that’s still nothing crazy.
Spell slots are valuable, and opportunity cost is a big deal when you could use Bless to give 3 party members +1d4 on attack rolls and saving throws for a full minute.
And even if Divine Smite is better than 1st-level spells, well good — it’s a class feature, after all. Sneak Attack and Bardic Inspiration are also better than 1st-level spells.
If you’re a DM, don’t freak out and nerf Divine Smite the first time you see a massive amount of damage in a single round and think, “this can’t be right.” Paladins’ specialty is single-target nuke damage; don’t arbitrarily nerf the thing they’re good at because they’re too good at it.
Instead, introduce counterplay that forces a Paladin player to make meaningful decisions about their spell slots and create situations where other melee party members can shine.
To me, the conversation should really be about buffing all martial classes up to the same power level as spell casters, rather than nerfing the Paladin down to suffer with the other underpowered martial classes.