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Which is Best: Fireball vs. Lightning Bolt

A longterm pet peeve of mine from earlier versions of D&D that still finds grievance in 5th edition is that given the choice between learning fireball or lightning bolt you’d have to be crazy to opt for the latter. Whilst both do the same amount of damage (a hefty 8d6 to anyone in the area of effect, dex. save for half), fireball can be flung up to 150 feet and affects all those in a 20 foot radius (surface area = 1256 ft.). Lightning bolt emanates from your hands extending in a line 100 feet long and 5 feet wide (surface area = 500 ft). Basically, unless you plan on attacking a marching band, fireball is going to fry significantly more bad guys every time.

This for me equates to poor game design. If there’s no real choice to be made between two options then what’s the point in having two options instead of one? Even the major drawback of fireball – the fact that it sets alight flammable objects in the area that aren’t being worn or carried, is mimicked by lightning bolt, meaning there’s very few contexts indeed where the latter is more useful (facing creatures who are immune / resistant to fire would be the only really obvious one).

(Image sourced from here).

Evening Up The Score

How do I fix this as a DM and give PCs a real choice to make when choosing to learn / prepare one of the two spells over the other? Well one simple solution would be to reduce the damage of fireball to either 6 or 7d6 damage, a solution I rather like as the spell’s excessive damage is basically a mistake (it should probably be a 5th or 6th level spell!), that unbalances the game. However it’s a mistake that gamers loved so much that it stuck around (DM David has some interesting related reading on this topic).

If you’re a bit nervous about messing around too much with the damage of the game’s most iconic spell, then what you could do instead is pimp lightning bolt a bit by giving enemies in metal armour disadvantage on their saving throw when struck. A small change that makes a lot of sense in terms of realism and in the right circumstances could make lightning bolt even deadlier than fireball – and therefore a viable choice.

You could also rule that fireball alone sets alight flammable objects, giving lightning bolt two pros to balance the twin cons of a much more limited range and much smaller area of effect.

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  1. Alexander J Struck

    Very creative buffs, and i like any DM that adds extra effects to spells/abilities when it makes sense. I honestly don’t feel, however, that lightning bolt needs an official buff. Besides the obvious times when lightning bolt is better (i.e. fire immune/resistant creatures, which there are quite a few of), the real benefit of lightning bolt is that you can fairly easily target at least two enemies in a fray while avoiding your allies. Because of this, I actually find my Eldritch Knight character (whom has both spells) using lightning bolt way more often than he uses fireball.

    • duncan

      Hi Alexander, very good point. I hadn’t considered that, but yes, once combat is under way and your party has engaged the enemy, Lightning Bolt is probably more useful.

      On the other hand, depending what level you are, you might not want to use a precious 3rd level spell slot to get just two enemies, when there are usually opportunities in the course of the adventuring day to get many more. Specifically at the start of combat. So I’m not sure I’d be using LB in combat, except in emergencies.

      Maybe you’re playing a high level PC, and burning through a few 3rd level slots is not an issue?

      When playing a Rogue 5 / Wizard 5 recently… with just two 3rd level spell slots and limited choice of spells…. I found myself choosing Fireball each day and having that as my go-to multiple-enemy solution as the area of effect is 250% that of Lightning Bolt… and then once combat began I switched to trying to get my sneak attack damage in.

      Assuming you’re fighting at least twice a day that general approach seems more optimal (Fireball to begin with, then whatever other skills you have) than waiting to use LB in a tight situation. Or you have a different strategy / approach?


      • Alexander J Struck

        Hi Duncan,
        Eldritch Knights don’t get access to 3rd level spells until level 13, so both lightning bolt and fireball are a bit underwhelming relative to what a sorceror or wizard can do at that level. Consequently, I don’t mind being a bit cavalier every now and then, blowing a lightning bolt mid-combat.

        My character typically opens combat by attacking with weapons first. I do this because my character’s level 10 ability, “Eldritch Strike” imposes disadvantage on spell saves to all hit creatures. I can then either action surge and blast them with a lightning bolt or fireball, or if they are humanoid i’ve been favoring hold person lately.

        Admittedly fireball is objectively better, but there are enough uses for lightning bolt so that both spells are wlecome in my arsenal.

        A 5 Rogue/5 Wizard sounds pretty interesting and fun. Did you choose Evocation wizard? If so, then my previous point about not blasting allies is moot with the “sculpt spells” ability you get.


        • duncan

          Hi Alex

          Ok great… no one has ever played an Eldritch Knight at my table, so good to get some insight! Definitely makes sense to impose the save disadvantage before releasing the big guns!

          Stylistically I actually much prefer Lightning Bolt… that’s part of the reason why I wanted to pimp it a little vs. Fireball… so I can justify wheeling it out more often.

          I chose an illusionist wizard… I wanted to combine Misty Step, (Improved) Minor Illusion, Invisibility etc. with my Rogue skills, to help me get more sneak attacks and be more versatile and creatively sneaky in general, and it worked very well. Was actually my first 5e character… started as an Assassin (the character was given to me by the DM), but I found that Rogue’s are a bit limited so I wanted to branch out. The skills of the two classes can work very well in harmony, although the trade off is by multiclassing my sneak attack damage stayed put at 3d6, instead of skyrocketing. You can play an Arcane Trickster to get around this, but then you don’t get the very fun ‘Assassinate’ feature, and if I remember the spell access is not as good as the wizard’s.

          Right, better get back to the day job…. cheers for the comment!

  2. Hyeonchan Kang

    Or…. You can give back lighting bolt’s 2e effect of bouncing off walls.

    • Ducfir

      This is what I do. To me that was the main benefit of Lightning Bolt in earlier editions; both for good and bad. If the caster didn’t judge it right it came back on him.

  3. Wyvern

    Lightning bolt is potentially more useful in a dungeon corridor or other restricted space, where you wouldn’t be able to use fireball to its fullest effect. The main limitation is that the caster would need to be up front in order to avoid hitting allies — but as long as your enemies haven’t closed to melee range yet, it’s a simple matter to move forward, cast the spell, then move back to a safe position again.

    I’d never thought of igniting flammable objects as being a *drawback*, but I can definitely see how it could be!

    I do think imposing disadvantage on saves if wearing metal armor makes sense, especially since it already has a precedent in the shocking grasp spell. I don’t know that I’d mess with either spell more than that, though.

  4. BigPoppa

    I know I am late to the party, but the main drawback of fireball is that it has a volume effect. Meaning, that in most dungeons, if it is being played properly, fireball is a deathtrap for the party. While it’s true that it takes up 1256 square feet, the spell is fireBALL – it is a ball, meaning that it is a sphere. This translates to 4200 cubic feet of space! That has to go somewhere, in my case, it means blowback. In a hallway? Medium or Small room? A wizard can easily be killed by his own spell. The trade off between the two is going to be that in a dungeon corridor, lightning bolt doesn’t kill you and your party.

  5. BigPoppa

    Made a math mistake – it is actually 33 500 cubic feet of space.

    • duncan

      Hi BP

      That’s true if you take a scientific approach to the rules, but from a purely mechanical standpoint the fireball affects ‘each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere’.

      I’m totally on board with the former approach (which in turn brings some major drawbacks to the spell, as you point out!), but in RAW i don’t think we’re supposed to measure out the volume of the fireball and where it goes when constrained by walls, floors and ceilings. Rather we’re encouraged not to, to keep things simple!

      Ps. in earlier editions of D&D I think Lightning Bolt bounced off walls, so it was arguably even more dangerous to your own party than Fireball… although a wizard who was good at billiards could have a lot of fun with it!

      • Alexander Struck

        I think I noted this years ago, but even without the volume rule, fireball is more dangerous mid-combat since your party is likely mixed in with the enemies. Lightning bolt offers a more surgical strike option. You can almost always hit two enemies with it while avoiding your barbarian ally.

        Also, quick plug for the OP; his short adventure “The Gleaming Cloud Citadel” is one of the most fun adventures I have ever DMed. The whole group had a blast and brought some much needed smiles to everyone during the quarantine. Please do yourself or your DM a favor and buy it.

        • duncan

          Yes, indeed you did! Once combat is underway, LB does undoubtedly become a better option, a utility I had forgotten about when originally posting.

          Thanks for the kinds words about The Gleaming Cloud Citadel! Really glad you enjoyed it 🙂

          I’ve got something of a different tone coming up for publication, which I think you’re going to love – a pulp fiction, setting and adventure in one. Just play testing it now, and my players have never been more engaged! I still have to commission artwork etc. but look out for a new adventure in September time (subscription box on the right hand sidebar!).

          • Alexander Struck

            Yessss! Please message me when it is out. Can’t wait!

        • Joshua Chunick

          Not only is it better in more situations because of its ability to not blow everything up in a ball of fire, but I’ve also personally come across a whole host of situations where I so badly wanted to use fireball but couldn’t because my fellow PCs were in the thick of it with the enemy. 20′ radius is a LOT of area, even when trying to be “strategic” with its placement. In the end, I’ve found far more situations in which I could use LB and it’s thus, for me, a more useful spell, overall.

          As well, I don’t think it can be overstated that when going with and sticking to a theme with a PC, which can be a lot of RP fun, it may be that LB is the better option for that Tempest Domain Cleric or what-have-you. In other words, the raw numbers don’t always translate to the most convincing reason for some of us to pick one spell over the other. But if that’s the OPs style of play then I can see why it’s such an overwhelming consideration; I just don’t feel it, myself.

          • duncan

            Hi Joshua

            Well that’s a pretty compelling defence of LB…. at the end of the day, you’ve got to be in situations where you can use it. A lot will depend on how far apart your DM tends to start combat encounters… if you’re engaging the enemy in round 1 of combat then yeah fireball is going to be difficult to employ at times and LB may be better. Also dungeons where space is limited.

            Don’t think the Cleric of the Tempest can access LB… they get access to Call Lightning (usually just a druid spell) at 5th level.

  6. Merlin

    But lightning bolt works underwater, while fire damage in general is halved. They are quite situational.

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