lightning bolt 5e guide

Lightning Bolt 5e Guide: When Fireballs Don’t Work

The Lightning bolt spell is the other artillery for the D&D spell caster-world, the first being Fireball. While not as dramatic as a 20 by 20-foot sphere of exploding fire, it can work in many situations when Fireball cannot.

Welcome to a Lightning Bolt 5e Guide.

What is Lightning Bolt?

Lightning Bolt is a 3rd level evocation spell that allows you to zap your enemies with a bolt of lightning. The bolt is a 100-foot line from self to target, in the direction of the caster’s choosing. The bolt is 5 feet across.

Those in the bolt’s path take 8d6 points of damage. Those who make a Dexterity saving throw take half damage. Ignitable materials in the area of effect will catch fire. Taken from Players Handbook (PHB), p 255, here are the stats: 

Lightning Bolt: 3rd level evocation

  • Casting Time: 1 action
  • Range: 100 feet
  • Target: Anything in the direction and area of effect of your bolt
  • Components: V S M (A bit of fur and a rod of amber, crystal, or glass)
  • Duration: Instantaneous
  • Classes: Sorcerer, Wizard
  • Damage: 8d6 plus 1d6 for each spell slot level above 3rd 
  • Area of Effect: line 5 feet wide, 100 feet long

Casting time for one action means that you must use one action to cast the spell within your turn. Meaning, that if you only get one action per turn, you cannot throw a flask of flaming oil and then cast your spell in the same turn. 

Range is a 100-foot line. Unlike up to 100 feet, regardless of whether or not your target is 30 feet away, 60 feet away, or 90 feet away, your bolt will go the full 100 feet. Therefore, if your target is 60 feet away, your target will be in range of the bolt as well as anything behind your target, hostile or friendly, all the way up to 100 feet from you. Unlike Fireball, you cannot shorten the range of your Lightning bolt. 

The moral

If your Wizard is on a SWAT team, you probably can’t use Lightning Bolt in a hostage situation. Just like above, the target is anything and everything within the bolt’s area of effect. That area is basically an electrified ribbon of death 5 feet wide and 100 feet long.

For example:

There is a narrow corridor 5 wide and 100 feet long. A company of Roman legionnaires who don’t like you slowly advance down the corridor where you’ve been hiding, two soldiers per row, several ranks deep.

You’re lucky in that they get within 10 feet of you without you being detected. From 10 feet away, you unleash your Lightning Bolt. Let’s say that, on average, each two-man row is two feet apart. Ninety feet divided by two equals forty-five rows.

Forty-five rows times two soldiers per row equal ninety Roman legionnaires in the area of effect of your spell. That means ninety Roman legionnaires are targets and are subject to damage from your Lightning Bolt. Not bad for a 3rd level spell!

For beginners who do not understand what components are, components are what you need to cast a spell.

V= Verbal S= Somatic M= Material

  • Verbal means you must be able to say some incantation like “Abradacadra!” or “I sentence you to death by electrocution!”
  • Somatic means hand gestures like making shapes in the air with hands and/or fingers.
  • Material means that, almost like a magic brew, your spell has ingredients that you need to have with you in order to cast the spell. In the case of Lightning Bolt, these materials are “a bit of fur and a rod of amber, crystal, or glass,” and they are reusable. 

The duration means it does its damage at the time of impact and then the electrical damage from when the bolt stops. If the targeted creatures are standing in a combustible area when they get hit, like maybe a library, then they might suffer burn damage from combustibles and maybe have the smoke affect their breathing. 

For beginners, damage is how you kill enemies in the game and how enemies can kill you. 8d6 damage means the caster gets to roll a six-sided die eight times to calculate total damage, meaning that the damage is 8-48 points or half that if the victim makes a successful saving throw on a twenty-sided die for Dexterity.

If you are a high-level spell caster and you are capable of casting Lightning Bolt at level higher than 3rd level, you can increase the damage by one six-sided die per additional spell slot. 

How to use Lightning Bolt?

Lightning Attack
Image from Wiki Fandom
  • If your character has access to Lightning Bolt, it means that your character is of the correct class and level.
  • Your character, if a Wizard, has also had time to copy the spell in his or her spellbook and memorize that spell for the day, at the beginning of the day, before continuing with the adventure and winding up in the combat that has resulted from this encounter.
  • Sorcerers do not need to prepare their spells in advance. They either know Lightning Bolt, or they do not. Assuming you have Lightning Bolt in your arsenal and have prepared it for the day, make sure that there are no problems before you waste a turn or action attempting your spell.
  • You need a full action within your turn to dedicate entirely to casting the spell. If you are doing something else, like running or using a weapon, and your character doesn’t have additional actions within his or her turn, you can’t cast your spell at the same time.
  • Lightning Bolt is a ranged attack, so if you want to attack without a disadvantage, you need to have some type of protection to make sure that no able-bodied enemies can get within 5 feet of you.
  • The components of the spell are VSM, so the caster needs to be able to talk, use his or her hands, and have access to the materials needed for the spell, a bit of fur, and a rod of amber, crystal, or glass. More on this later.
  • You need to pick a target within range, in this case, 100 feet.
  • You need to clearly inform the DM (dungeon master) that you intend to cast Lightning Bolt for your action during that turn.

At Higher Levels

If you have spell slots at 4th level or higher, you can increase the damage by spending additional spell slots. Damage increases by 1d6 for each additional spell slot after 3rd level that is spent.

Who can use Lightning Bolt?

Wizard Lightning Attack

  1. Wizards and sorcerers are the classes that can use Lightning Bolt.
  2. Regarding the subclasses that come from archetypes, etc.:
  3. Druids that choose to become members of a Circle of the Land, namely the Mountain Circle, can add Lightning Bolt to their spell lists.
  4. Fighters that choose Eldritch Knight as their martial archetype and Rogues that choose Arcane Trickster as their roguish archetype can also add Lightning Bolt to their spell lists.

* There are other classes and subclasses in D&D accessories other than its core books (Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide) that, under some circumstances, can use the spell, but that is a more complicated discussion for other articles.

Items

As per the Dungeon Master’s Guide, there are four items, not including spellcasting items such as scrolls and spell storing rings, that enable the user to cast Lightning Bolt:

Item Charges Weight (lbs.) Rarity Damage
Javelin of Lightning 1 2 Uncommon 4d6 + 1d6
Wand of Lightning Bolts 7 1 Rare 8d6
Staff of Thunder and Lightning 3 4 Very Rare 9d6
Staff of the Magi 7 4 Legendary 12d6

A Javelin of Lightning is a magical javelin that requires a verbal command to activate its Lightning Bolt feature. The area of effect is slightly bigger, being a 5-foot by 120-foot ribbon of death rather than a 5-foot by 100-foot ribbon of death. It is actually weaker than a regular Lightning Bolt in that it does 4d6 damage rather than 8d6, but you get an additional 1d6 for the damage of the javelin itself, not the bolt. Its Lightning Bolt feature can only be used once per day, but it is still a magical weapon for purposes of what it can hit.

  • Note: Hardcore D&D fans who would like to see an actual depiction of a Javelin of Lightning on film might want to check out Dungeons & Dragons: The Book of Vile Darkness (2012). Just don’t blink! The would-be assassin barely begins to electrify his javelin before being casually dispatched by the paladin protagonist.

A Wand of Lightning Bolts does the damage that a normal 3rd level Lightning Bolt would do, 8-48 points of damage on failed saving throw and half that on a successful save. By using additional charges during the same action, the user can increase the spell slots of the Lightning Bolt for additional damage, 1d6 additional points of damage per additional charge spent on the same Lightning Bolt. 

A Staff of Thunder and Lightning has various features of thunder and lightning, including the ability to cast Lightning Bolt. The range and line of effect, is longer, however, being 120 feet rather than 100 feet. The damage for a failed is 9d6 rather than 8d6.  

Regarding the Staff of the Magi, each lightning bolt is not a 3rd level lightning bolt, but a 7th level lightning bolt! Therefore, instead of doing 8-48 points of damage, you do 12-72 points of damage. In addition to doing more damage than a Staff of Thunder and Lightning, a Staff of the Magi has more charges for the lightning bolt l feature as well.

Is Lightning Bolt Good?

Power of Lightning
Image from Wiki Fandom

If you like killing enemies, yes. Who doesn’t?

Some would argue that Lightning bolt is even better than Fireball. The likelihood of encountering a fire-resistant or fire immune creature is far greater than encountering an electricity resistant or electricity immune creature like a blue dragon or storm giant.

If I were a Wizard, I would, whenever possible, have both memorized and certainly keep both in my spellbook. For sorcerers, it’s more complicated – Choose wisely, Padawan. Unlike the versatile wizards, who can switch around their spells from day to day, sorcerers have fewer spells, and the spells they choose are the spells they are stuck with.

Being a fireballer extraordinaire in a campaign full of fire-resistant monsters has got to bite the big one! A blue Dragonborn sorcerer that can throw Lightning Bolt on a regular basis could, however, present a nice character build…

Component Consequences

As mentioned above, the material components for Lightning Bolt are a bit of fur and a rod of amber, crystal, or glass. Good role-playing means that good wizards and sorcerers are responsible for their components. Let us assume that the fur has been prepared in a way that it will not decompose.

It is still ignitable, and if it gets uncleanable dirty, like getting covered in tar or crude oil, it may need to be replaced. Rods of crystal and glass are more vulnerable to breakage than amber. Unless the player specifies, assume that he or she chooses the glass option, which is the cheapest.

DMs should remember that Lightning Bolt, as a 3rd level spell, is not for 1st level characters. It is only reserved for characters of 7th level or higher and is therefore not for beginners. If an experienced player with a 7th level character can’t take proper care of his or her components, they should be in for (get ready for the pun) a shock.

Frequently Ask Questions

Question: How does Lightning Bolt work at close range?

Answer: Unlike Fireball, there is no backblast. If you can successfully cast the spell with the disadvantage of fighting an enemy close to you and somehow talk, use your hands, and pull out your fur and crystal rod, you can use Lightning Bolt in a wrestling match! If you are wielding a Staff of the Magi, you could stab your enemy with the tip of your staff and zap away!

Question: How does Lightning Bolt work in the water?

Answer: RAW (rules as written), Lightning Bolt has no modifiers, positive or negative, underwater, in the rain, etc. In PHB, p 198, underwater combat is discussed, and there is no mention of Lightning Bolt, Shocking Grasp, or any electricity-based spells. If, however, pun alert, the DM would like to “dive deeply” into Lightning Bolt physics, that is up to him or her. Of course, if you choose to dive into Lightning Bolt physics, be prepared for Lightning Bolt Math as well, as in “What is the effect of Lightning Bolt that has been modified underwater?”

Question: What happens to the equipment carried by people/creatures caught within my Lightning Bolt?

Answer: As per PHB, p 255, “The lightning ignites flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried.” Aren’t means that this magically created fire does not act like modern incendiary ordnance in regarding scrolls, arrows, and other cool treasure. 

Question: Can I fork my Lightning?

Answer: Not anymore. In previous editions you could, but not for 5e (5th edition D&D).

Question: Can lightning bolts go through walls?

Answer: RAW, no. PHB says nothing about structural damage, with the exception of igniting flammable items. Obviously, in nature, a lightning bolt can break rock, but that is a bolt traveling thousands of feet to the earth from the clouds. If the lightning bolt cast by a spell is only capable of traveling 100 feet, one could argue that it is not capable of doing the structural damage done by a Lightning bolt in nature traveling several thousands of feet.

One could retort that humans have survived getting struck by lightning bolts that have traveled several thousand feet to the earth’s surface. I am not a meteorologist, but my rebuttal would be that not all naturally occurring lightning bolts do an equal amount of damage.
There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of variables in nature that determine lightning bolt damage. My guess would be that the type of Lightning bolt capable of destroying the summit of a mountain would certainly destroy any part of a human that it came in contact with. Of course, the DM may choose to allow exceptions. Should a defending character be allowed to simply slam the door on an incoming lightning bolt, or even worse, flip over a table?

As a DM, my choice would be that a Lightning bolt is NOT capable of penetrating the walls of MOST dungeons, which are made of stone or solid earth. Thick wooden walls would also be impenetrable but not thin ones. Glass would shatter, and paper and cloth would ignite, and neither would reduce any of the incoming damage.

Question: Are ricochets a danger?

Answer: No, not from the bolt itself.
If and only if the DM allows for structural damage due to Lightning Bolt, shards of broken rock, wood, etc., from the destruction caused by the bolt could conceivably fly back at the caster. For example, if a wizard flings open a door to discharge a lightning bolt into a small room, the destroyed contents of the room could be sent flying in all directions and could conceivably ricochet at the caster as shrapnel.

Question: Could a bolt from a Lightning Bolt spell be conducted to cause damage?

Answer: RAW, no, for the same reasons mentioned above.

Question: Could a bolt from a Lightning Bolt spell cause a robot or electric device/vehicle to short circuit?

Answer: RAW, no, for the same reasons mentioned above. Otherwise, at DMs discretion. As a DM, I might allow it in some situations for reasons I will mention in my conclusion.

Question: Can I defend against Lightning Bolt with a Lightning rod or iron filings?

Answer: If I’m the DM, probably not. Although there is some RPG-fiction precedent to this in Paul Kidd’s Descent Into the Depths of the Earth, where he has characters spreading iron filings on the floor to defend against Lightning Bolt-wielding Drow wizards. (No disrespect to Kidd; his books were fun) Sorry, folks. We are going to have to do some Lightning Bolt Physics. Lightning in the sky is attracted to the highest point, like a tree, more than it would ever be to some metal on the ground.

Let us say an angry Drow wizard points his hand at you and casts Lightning Bolt. (In Lolth-worshipping Drow culture, the wizards are all male; the priestesses (clerics) are all female.) Let us say the outstretched hand is 4 feet above the ground. Which is going to attract the electricity of a Lightning Bolt more, some iron filings on the ground, or you in a fighting position, standing, or, at the very least, kneeling?

A common myth is that metal bolts attract lightning. They do not prevent houses from being struck. Rather, if struck, they provide a safe path for the electricity to travel to the ground, and that is when dealing with lightning coming from the sky. If, however, you are standing in front of, next to, behind, or inside of a house that happens to have a lightning rod on its roof, you will not be protected from a Lightning bolt spell unless the wizard in question is literally above the house and aiming his or her ribbon of death directly at the rod, and probably not even then.

Certainly, if the angry Drow wizard above sends a Lightning Bolt through your front door, that lightning rod becomes worthless as a defense, regardless of whether it is on the roof, on the ground, or in your hand.
That is Lightning Bolt Physics for you. If, however, the DM wants to assign magical protection properties to lightning rods and iron filings, that is an individual decision.

Conclusion

Wise wizards, and eventually savvy sorcerers, make Lightning Bolt part of their toolkit. Together with Fireball and Cone of Cold, they are the player character-portable artillery of the D&D world. It is always about the right tool for the right monster. While Fireball might be the ideal choice for those troublesome trolls, for that fire-breathing red dragon flying into range, a Lightning Bolt, if not Cone of Cold, is a better option.

As far as Lightning Bolt Physics not covered in RAW, I would suggest that DMs consider allowing it, to a point. Part of what makes D&D impressive, especially the dice and pencil offline version as opposed to video game D&D, is the limitless possibilities for problem solving. Where solutions to video game problems are limited by the algorithms of the coders, players in offline D&D can create solutions never envisioned by the game designers or even the DMs.

Completely eliminating the creative application of Lightning Bolt Physics would also eliminate the creativity and problem-solving capabilities of the players. The other side of the coin, however, is that too much Lightning Bolt Physics leads to having the game bogged down with mathematical calculations, Lightning Bolt Math, and debating over what would and would not work with players that are commonly referred to as rules lawyers.

The solution to this is simply balance and trust. The DM needs to maintain a balance between player creativity and the ability of the game to flow in a timely manner. The players need to trust that the DM has good judgement regarding this balance and that he or she actually will be fair and have their best long-term interests at heart. If they cannot give the DM this trust, they should find a new DM.

Scroll to Top