A beam of crackling, blue energy lances out toward a creature within range, forming a sustained arc of lightning between you and the target. Make a ranged spell attack against that creature. On a hit, the target takes 1d12 lightning damage, and on each of your turns for the duration, you can use your action to deal 1d12 lightning damage to the target automatically. The spell ends if you use your action to do anything else. The spell also ends if the target is ever outside the spell’s range or if it has total cover from you.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 2nd level or higher, the initial damage increases by 1d12 for each slot level above 1st.
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 30 feet
Components: V, S, M (a twig from a tree that has been struck by lightning)
Duration: Concentration, up to 1 minute
School: 1st-level evocation
Player’s Handbook, pg. 289
Witch Bolt 5e
Remember when the Emperor toasted up Luke Skywalker real nice with those lightning beams? That’s exactly what Witch Bolt is supposed to be — a badass, continuous charge of lightning damage that cooks your foes where they stand.
Unfortunately, a number of things are off about this spell, and we feel comfortable saying that if Chancellor Palpatine had to sit down at a DnD table, he probably wouldn’t pick up Witch Bolt.
Let’s take a look at why this first-level spell is so underwhelming, and what DMs can do to fix it.
Who Can Cast Witch Bolt in 5e?
The following classes have Witch Bolt on their spell list:
No subclasses get Witch Bolt for free, but Eldritch Knight Fighters can choose to pick it up, as can Arcane Trickster Rogues at 3rd, 8th, 14th, or 20th level.
What Does Witch Bolt Do in 5e?
Witch Bolt starts a regular ranged spell attack that deals 1d12 (6.5 average) lightning damage on hit. If it lands, a sustained arc of lightning forms between you and the target. It remains until the target moves out of the spell’s 30-foot range, has total cover from you, or you perform any action other than continuing the lightning arc.
On each of your turns after, you can use your action to automatically deal another 1d12 damage to the creature. Note that while upcasting this spell does increase the initial damage by 1d12, it does not increase the damage of subsequent actions used to continue the spell’s damage.
Witch Bolt lasts for up to 1 minute (10 rounds of combat) as long as you maintain concentration and only use your actions to maintain its damage.
What Are the Rules for Witch Bolt in 5e?
The rules for Witch Bolt in DnD 5e are as follows:
You can still use your reactions while maintaining Witch Bolt. While you must use your action to maintain do damage with Witch Bolt and maintain the spell, your reactions are still free to use. This means you can still cast Shield or get off an opportunity attack without breaking Witch Bolt, for example.
Sorcerer’s Quickened Spell metamagic works with Witch Bolt. Quickened Spell changes the cast time of a cast from action to bonus action. In the context of Witch Bolt, this means you can cast Witch Bolt as a bonus action and afterward (assuming it lands) use your action to immediately repeat the spell’s damage.
Witch Bolt’s continuous damage is neither Cast a Spell nor Attack. Sage Advice confirmed that the action used to deal continuous damage after the initial spell cast lands is an “ad hoc action.”
You only need to make a spell attack once. If Witch Bolt hits, you do not have to repeat the spell attack on subsequent rounds. As long as the arc is sustained, you can choose to automatically deal Witch Bolt’s 1d12 damage.
Haste allows you to use your first action to maintain Witch Bolt, then follow up with any of the Haste-specific actions. Haste actions are very specific and don’t allow for spells, so you still cannot cast a spell while maintaining Witch Bolt.
Action Surge works with Witch Bolt (to some extent). Like Haste, Action Surge allows for a second action on your turn (PHB 72). As long as you use your first action to maintain Witch Bolt, you can use your second action however you like. However, whether this second action can be used to cast Witch Bolt’s damage a second time on the same round is less clear.
We’d lean toward the ruling, “no, you can’t apply Witch Bolt’s damage twice in one turn” because it seems against the spirit of the spell and the spell’s (very similar) interaction with Haste. However, in the absence of a definite ruling, it’s up to DM discretion.
Extra Attack does not work with Witch Bolt. Extra Attack differs from Action Surge and Haste because it lays out very clear conditions that have to be met before you can activate it. Namely, “you can attack twice…whenever you take the Attack action” (PHB 72, emphasis mine).
Witch Bolt’s continuous damage is not an Attack action, so you cannot use Extra Attack to take an attack after using it.
Only the initial damage of Witch Bolt can critically strike. Since critical strikes occur on natural d20 attack rolls, Witch Bolt’s initial damage is the only opportunity for this to occur.
However, this only works on the initial damage of Witch Bolt; you can’t continuously use Quickened Spell or even apply it again on a later turn of Witch Bolt. That’s because later rounds of Witch Bolt’s damage action is no longer truly a spell cast, and thus no longer qualifies for any metamagic (PHB 102).
How Do I Use Witch Bolt in 5e?
While Witch Bolt is universally disparaged, there are some ways to maximize the spell’s utility:
Use it in tight spaces. One of Witch Bolt’s biggest weaknesses is just how easy it is to run away from and/or get cover from. That weakness goes away if you cast it from the center of an enclosed space with a <30-foot radius. Bonus points if that space also doesn't have any cover that the enemy can't easily duck behind either.
You’re way more likely to get in more than just the initial burst damage if you cast Witch Bolt in favorable, cramped spaces like that.
Pick up the Spell Sniper feature. Spell Sniper doubles the range of your attack roll spells and ignores partial cover on spell targets (PHB 170). This covers Witch Bolt’s second-biggest weakness — a measly 30-foot range.
Unfortunately, this feature doesn’t allow you to ignore the fact that total cover still breaks Witch Bolt.
Sorcerer metamagic. Sorcerers have the most options for making Witch Bolt competitive via metamagic (PHB 102). Three options in particular stand out:
Distant Spell. Distant Spell doubles the range of a spell, bringing Witch Bolt up 60 feet. And yes, this stacks with Spell Sniper, bringing your total up to 120 feet. Now you should be able to both kite and maintain Witch Bolt effectively (cover permitting).
Quickened Spell. Quickened Spell can turn Witch Bolt’s initial cast time into a bonus action, allowing you to immediately follow up with another jolt of Witch Bolt’s damage. This is how you guarantee that Witch Bolt will deal +1d12 damage on your initial cast (assuming the spell attack hits of course).
Twinned Spell. Twinning Witch Bolt allows you to possibly maintain two arcs of lightning simultaneously. This improves your odds that at least one enemy isn’t able to simply walk away/duck behind a wall and break the spell’s effect. Plus, we never saw Palpatine pull a double-target lightning arc trick before, so.
Zone control. Witch Bolt’s niche use is protecting something. Stand on/near the thing/creature you want to protect, and cast Witch Bolt at the most threatening target. Once the arc is established, that enemy has to decide whether it’s worth it to pursue the thing/creature you’re protecting, knowing that it’s guaranteed to take damage every turn it does so.
Is Witch Bolt 5e a Good Spell?
No, Witch Bolt is not a good spell. Outside of melee spells and self-ranged spells with an area of effect, 30 feet is about as bad as it gets for damaging spells in DnD 5e.
Witch Bolt is also extremely easy for most enemies in most situations to deal with — all they have to do is walk a few feet away until you’re out of range, then get back to whatever they were doing. Or they can duck behind a big rock, close the door, etc.
Not to mention that most spellcasters don’t really want to be within 30-feet of any hostile creature. Just as easily as they can break the spell, they can rush up and smack you, possibly breaking your concentration.
Beyond all that, Witch Bolt’s damage is not very competitive. Let’s take a look at how Witch Bolt stacks up to damaging cantrips and 1st-level spells that Sorcerers, Warlocks, and Wizards have as options.
Witch Bolt 5e Compared to Other Low-Level Damaging Spells
Let’s start with raw numbers. Witch Bolt deals an average of 6.5 damage when it lands as a baseline.Sorcerer/Wizard spell options that are almost always superior to Witch Bolt:
Chromatic Orb, a 1st-level spell available to Sorcerers and Wizards, deals an average of 13.5 damage (3d8), a 90-foot range, and the ability to choose your damage type to avoid resistances/take advantage of vulneerabilities.
However, people do often forget that Chromatic Orb requires a diamond worth at least 50 gp, which isn’t something that first- (or even second- and third-) level players run into all that often or can afford.
Catapult from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, also available to Sorcerers and Wizards. It also deals 13.5 damage (bludgeoning) and has a longer range (at least 90 feet) than Witch Bolt.
Fire Bolt. The bread-and-butter spell attack cantrip of Sorcerers and Wizards, Fire Bolt deals an average of 5.5 damge — just one shy of Witch Bolt’s initial damage at 1st-level.
What about Warlocks, then — clearly Witch Bolt was made for them anyway, right? Sure, only Arms of Hadar (7 average damage) and Hellish Rebuke (11 average damage, but a reaction, so not really comparable) deal more damage than Witch Bolt among 1st-level spells and cantrips available to Warlocks.
Arms of Hadar. A self (10-foot radius) spell, Arms of Hadar deals 2d6 damage on a failed Strength save. It puts you in a more dangerous spot than Witch Bolt, but it can deal a whole lot more damage, a whole lot faster as well.
Eldritch Blast. The be-all-and-end-all of damaging cantrips in 5e, Eldritch Blast makes casting Witch Bolt seem silly in most scenarios. Why waste a 1st-level spell slot for +1 average damage on the initial cast with a (likely poor) chance of dealing any further damage? Especially once invocations start scaling Eldritch Blast to the moon.
Finally, the cantrip that’s available to all three of the Witch Bolt spellcasters:
Toll The Dead It may only deal 4.5 base damage, but if the target’s missing any health, Toll The Dead does the same average damage as Witch Bolt’s initial damage (6.5).
Here’s the other thing about all the cantrips (Fire Bolt, Eldritch Blast, and Toll The Dead) — they naturally scale in damage as you level, making them more and more attractive compared to Witch Bolt.
The really big assumption we make in all of these comparisons is that Witch Bolt only deals damage on its initial hit. Each round Witch Bolt lasts, it does another 6.5 damage, so it can quickly overtake some of these spells in total damage in optimal settings.
Witch Bolt is just horribly situational, and even in situations where it is optimal, it barely outshines other options.
Witch Bolt 5e DM Tips
The theme of this article has obviously been “Witch Bolt bad,” but you don’t have to accept that as law. If you think Palpatine got a bad wrap in 5e, go ahead and mix things up.
Here are some quick pitches to make Witch Bolt competitive:
Up the range. This is the simple, straightforward bandaid that Witch Bolt needs. If 60 feet feels like too much, 45 might be a happy medium.
Don’t make range/cover break the spell. Instead, make it so the player just can’t deal damage until they get back in range/sight. This encourages a slightly different playstyle (chasing rather than kiting), but at least it doesn’t auto-end a 1st-level spell slot.
Remove concentration from it. Again, straightforward and semi-helpful. Still, they won’t be able to cast a spell (unless they have Haste or Action Surge) without breaking Witch Bolt themselves, but at least it removes some of the fear of losing concentration because a Goblin smacked them.
Allow players to perform other actions without breaking Witch Bolt. Maybe as long as the player maintains sight/range, they can do whatever the hell they like with their turn and the lightning arc stays in place. This can make players feel less bad about “wasting” the spell by not using it every turn that it’s up.
If you’re looking for more ideas on how to fix Witch Bolt, Brandes Stoddard has some great ideas on his site. Our favorite idea of his is changing the continuous damage to a bonus action rather than an action.
But at the end of the day, you don’t have to do a damn thing to Witch Bolt. In a game with 477 spells, some of them are bound to be underpowered.
Simple Witch Bolt 5e Spell Text
Witch Bolt: (1st-level, 30 feet, concentration, up to 1 minute, V/S/M (a twig from a tree that has been struck by lightning)) Make a ranged spell attack. On hit, deal 1d12 lightning damage and create a sustained arc of lightning between you and the target. As long as the arc is maintained, you may use your action to deal 1d12 lightning action to the target automatically on subsequent turns. The spell ends if the target is ever outside the spell’s range or has total cover from you, or you use your action to do anything else. | +1d12 initial damage for each slot above the first.