5E When a Lightning Bolt spell met the floor ...

Nickolaidas

Explorer
Okay, so I've been DMing 5E with my brother, my sister-in-law and my kid nephew.

I ambushed their group with some Dragonborn cultists of Blue Dragon heritage. At some point, my brother's paladin was surrounded by a Maw Demon on his back, one Dragonborn cultist to his front, and one Dragonborn cultist to his left.

Important note: we play with minis (the entire map and the miniatures are on my photoshop shown in the TV and I move the miniatures with my Bluetooth mouse as they wish - kinda like a video game, actually). The three enemies are literally next to the paladin from three sides (melee distance).

In the map grid, it was like this:

. M
CPE
. C

P=Paladin
M=Maw Demon
C= Cultist
E=Empty Block

When the cultists' turn came, I announced that they both fired their lightning breath weapon (which is a 5x40 ft line, if I recall), aiming diagonally at my big bro's paladin (basically, they aimed at his legs, so that the lightning bolts would hit only the 5ft square where the paladin stood - so that the cultist in the front wouldn't hit the Maw demon with his breath - since the Maw Demon was positioned behind the paladin).

My brother got annoyed and told me that the lightning bolt of the front cultist couldn't hit him and NOT hit the Maw Demon as well because the bolt is a straight line. I told him that they aimed their lightning breath line diagonally to the floor where his paladin stood (I guess at a 45' degree angle). He said that the lightning bolt should still 'bounce' when it hit the floor and hit the Maw Demon anyway (by rising at a 45' degree like the ball in Pong does when it hits a wall). He claimed that my logic makes the lightning bolt a cheap spell where it can be used in close quarters (literally next to an opponent) to hit a single foe without endangering any ally even though they're standing next to the assailant and / or the victim.

I did some searching on the net and I couldn't find anyone conveniently explaining what happens to a lightning bolt (either breath or spell) when it hits a wall, a ceiling or the floor. Does it disperse harmlessly? Does it bounce? If it bounces, does the caster control where the line goes next? And if hit someone next to a wall, and then the lightning bolt bounces off the wall and hits the same victim again, does the caster roll again for damage even though the target got hit 2 seconds ago?

Please share your thoughts on this, and tell me if my 'aim at his legs' logic was wrong.
 

alienux

Explorer
There are no "called shots" in D&D 5E, so aiming at specific areas of the body lower down isn't really a thing, unless used just for flavor. Lightning Breath reads:

A stroke of lightning forming a line 20 feet long and 5
feet wide. Each creature in the line must make a Dexterity saving
throw.

The spell Lightning Bolt, in the PHB, is almost exactly the same, except it is 100 feet long instead of 20. In either case, it clearly hits any creature in that line. So each creature directly behind the target up to the appropriate distance needs to make a saving throw and take damage as necessary.
 
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S'mon

Legend
I think in 5e lightning bolts don't bounce. They did in 1e.

However lightning bolt is an area effect spell with a 5' wide line. if I as GM allowed or used "I aim at his legs" then at the very least I would give advantage on the DEX save - and probably no damage on a save; the half damage assumes an area too wide to easily avoid.

However #2 - in 5e there is no reason why the cultists couldn't first move 5' sideways before lightning bolting so as to get a clear shot. So this issue should not have arisen.
 

ad_hoc

Hero
I wouldn't feel great about that either. Worse for a DM, but I would also not enjoy it if another player tried to pull that.

It's technically in the rules but I feel that when we are getting into degrees that is fiddly and gamey. It doesn't capture the mood I want out of my D&D.
 

UngeheuerLich

Adventurer
Ähm. If you can shopt diagonally on the x-y axis you can also do so on the z-axis. Of course you can shopt downwards. But I would also either give the first target advantage or allow the maw demon to save with advantage. It is quite difficult to aim that good. I might have you make a spell attack vs DC 20 to exactly hit only the person in front of you.
 

LordEntrails

Adventurer
Any tactic you allow the NPCs to use you better plan on allowing the PCs to use. And in my experience, tactics such as these are MUCH more powerful in the hands of the PCs then they ever will in in NPCs.

So, leaving the ruling in place that you made, if I have learned anything in 40 years of playing, you will regret it.

"Playing" around the edges of the rules is dangerous.
 

TallIan

Explorer
My argument against targeting the pall'y legs would be that you target a square with an AoE. So in this case, you're aiming at the square (cube really) below the pall'y

A square grid system doesn't cope will with diagonals, so you really should give the target some kind of advantage (not the game mechanic) for being in a square only partially covered by the AoE effect (bonus to save, no damage on a save, half damage, Advantage (the game mechanic) are all possibilities) since you are essentially increasing the AoE.

These are the possibilities that I see (L is for Line; X are unaffected squares)

LPXX
XLXX
XXLX
XXXL

LLLL
XXX

LXXX
LXXX
LXXX
LXXX

Sp hitting the Pall'y in the case of a diagonal seems like you're extending the AoE
 
In AD&D, lighting bolts would bounce off the walls (back at the caster in 1E, using geometry in 2E) unless the wall was a conductor. Like most spells in 5E, everything has been simplified, so this is entirely a DM call. I would suggest if you do have the lightning bounce, that you only deal regular damage to each creature in the area, even if a creature would be struck more than once (perhaps granting disadvantage instead).

If you are playing on a grid, and using the grid rules, then you couldn't aim the lightning down to miss the maw demon unless you were 5' up in the air (so that the line could follow the z axis). Arguably, you could drop prone, and cast it upwards.

If you are doing theater of the mind, I could see the argument made, but would grant half damage on a failed save, and no damage on a success for the paladin (and possibly advantage as well).

As someone else has pointed out, in this example the cultist could have simply moved to a diagonal space, avoiding the argument entirely.
 

Nickolaidas

Explorer
There are no "called shots" in D&D 5E, so aiming at specific areas of the body lower down isn't really a thing, unless used just for flavor. Lightning Breath reads:
A stroke of lightning forming a line 20 feet long and 5
feet wide. Each creature in the line must make a Dexterity saving
throw.

The spell Lightning Bolt, in the PHB, is almost exactly the same, except it is 100 feet long instead of 20. In either case, it clearly hits any creature in that line. So each creature directly behind the target up to the appropriate distance needs to make a saving throw and take damage as necessary.


So the only way a diagonal line of lightning could've hit the paladin and only the paladin would be for the attacker to be at least 5ft above the ground? Like, for example, a Young Blue Dragon firing his breath at a party of 4 adventurers (with them having formed a square formation) while flying 5ft above the ground and be next to the paladin?

PFD
CT

P=Paladin
F=Fighter
C=Cleric
T=Thief
D=Young Blue Dragon (who is also 5ft in the air)



In AD&D, lighting bolts would bounce off the walls (back at the caster in 1E, using geometry in 2E) unless the wall was a conductor. Like most spells in 5E, everything has been simplified, so this is entirely a DM call. I would suggest if you do have the lightning bounce, that you only deal regular damage to each creature in the area, even if a creature would be struck more than once (perhaps granting disadvantage instead).

If you are playing on a grid, and using the grid rules, then you couldn't aim the lightning down to miss the maw demon unless you were 5' up in the air (so that the line could follow the z axis). Arguably, you could drop prone, and cast it upwards.

If you are doing theater of the mind, I could see the argument made, but would grant half damage on a failed save, and no damage on a success for the paladin (and possibly advantage as well).

As someone else has pointed out, in this example the cultist could have simply moved to a diagonal space, avoiding the argument entirely.

I did that in the end, but I gave the paladin an Attack of Opportunity (which I wanted to avoid).
 

Hawk Diesel

Adventurer
Next time, just change the way its described. DM created enemies and monsters don't have to follow the "rules." Balance is for the players so none of them can monopolize the spotlight. Anyways, you could have described it as the cultist using their demonic powers to charge the lighting within their throat until it visibly moved down their chest, through their arm, into their fist, which they then attempt to discharge into the paladin. You could then treat it like an enhanced shocking grasp, turning it into a spell attack rather than a dex save. Or, if you wanna maintain the dex save mechanic, you could state that through magic from their demonic pact, they have learned to transform their breath weapon into an ability similar to flamestrike.

It's ok to change enemy abilities on the fly to keep up the challenge and make sure the players stay on their toes. But you also need to balance that with player fun. If this player's paladin was surrounded like this, it probably didn't feel fun for him to be surrounded like he was and singled out. Of course, this depends on if it was his choices that got him into the mess and where the otger players were.

Also, it can be fun if the enemies are not always infallible. I think it would be totally in line for the cultists to release simultaneous breath weapon attacks, potentially sacrificing themselves, for their demon patron to get an opening.
 

TallIan

Explorer
Next time, just change the way its described. DM created enemies and monsters don't have to follow the "rules." Balance is for the players so none of them can monopolize the spotlight. Anyways, you could have described it as the cultist using their demonic powers to charge the lighting within their throat until it visibly moved down their chest, through their arm, into their fist, which they then attempt to discharge into the paladin. You could then treat it like an enhanced shocking grasp, turning it into a spell attack rather than a dex save. Or, if you wanna maintain the dex save mechanic, you could state that through magic from their demonic pact, they have learned to transform their breath weapon into an ability similar to flamestrike.

It's ok to change enemy abilities on the fly to keep up the challenge and make sure the players stay on their toes. But you also need to balance that with player fun. If this player's paladin was surrounded like this, it probably didn't feel fun for him to be surrounded like he was and singled out. Of course, this depends on if it was his choices that got him into the mess and where the otger players were.

Also, it can be fun if the enemies are not always infallible. I think it would be totally in line for the cultists to release simultaneous breath weapon attacks, potentially sacrificing themselves, for their demon patron to get an opening.
While I think the DM can - and should - make monsters have cool and unique abilities, doing this mid combat to suit the turn's tactical situation isn't the way to go. Shaping an AoE to fit the current formation of the PC's without hitting any monsters is just plain cheating, and will lead to bad feelings from the players.

I think your suggestions about how to change the attack are pretty cool, but should be decided before the session, or at the very latest the start of the combat - before anyone has a turn.
 

Hawk Diesel

Adventurer
While I think the DM can - and should - make monsters have cool and unique abilities, doing this mid combat to suit the turn's tactical situation isn't the way to go. Shaping an AoE to fit the current formation of the PC's without hitting any monsters is just plain cheating, and will lead to bad feelings from the players.

I think your suggestions about how to change the attack are pretty cool, but should be decided before the session, or at the very latest the start of the combat - before anyone has a turn.
Sorry, but I disagree. One of the tools of being a DM is being able to read a table and adjust the game to make the challenge more fitting or fun. This doesn't mean a DM should change abilities on the fly just to grief the players. But if it makes narrative sense, or enhances the fun at the table, there is absolutely no reason a DM shouldn't do so.

For example, I sometimes only have HP, AC, attack bonus, and general damage outlined for potential enemies my players might encounter. This frees me up to creatively and organically describe the enemies in the moment based on the situation. This gives me a relative idea of the strength of the enemies, and I set it to within the capacities of the players, and adjust the challenge based on the encounter, but don't have to be beholden to a stat block. This also ensures that even if the players face an enemy they recognize from the MM, they can still be surprised by tricks the individuals they're facing may have that the general species (as outlined by the MM) may not have.
 

TallIan

Explorer
Sorry, but I disagree. One of the tools of being a DM is being able to read a table and adjust the game to make the challenge more fitting or fun. This doesn't mean a DM should change abilities on the fly just to grief the players. But if it makes narrative sense, or enhances the fun at the table, there is absolutely no reason a DM shouldn't do so.

For example, I sometimes only have HP, AC, attack bonus, and general damage outlined for potential enemies my players might encounter. This frees me up to creatively and organically describe the enemies in the moment based on the situation. This gives me a relative idea of the strength of the enemies, and I set it to within the capacities of the players, and adjust the challenge based on the encounter, but don't have to be beholden to a stat block. This also ensures that even if the players face an enemy they recognize from the MM, they can still be surprised by tricks the individuals they're facing may have that the general species (as outlined by the MM) may not have.

Maybe I'm looking at too narrow a scenario. I think that if a DM has decided his bad guys have lightning breath then changing that mid fight, because the current formation makes using it RAW difficult, will leave the players thinking, "Hey how come you AoE's always have a funny shape that hits ALL the PC's and NONE of the monsters, no mater how we stand."
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It's ok to change enemy abilities on the fly to keep up the challenge and make sure the players stay on their toes. But you also need to balance that with player fun. If this player's paladin was surrounded like this, it probably didn't feel fun for him to be surrounded like he was and singled out. Of course, this depends on if it was his choices that got him into the mess and where the otger players were.
Ah, but changing them on the fly because the GM's choices made them inconvenient isn't exactly fair. The bad guys chose to set themselves up so they'd hit each other in crosssfire, after all. Why do the PCs have to pay the price for choices, but the GM's forces don't?

GMs have immense power to bend the rules. It should be used sparingly. Was this one case really worth burning goodwill over? Did it really make the story better? Probably not in either case.
 

Gadget

Adventurer
While I am a tremendous fan of Monsters not following PC rules (I think this was 4e's greatest contribution to D&D), and a DM should be free to make adjustments on the fly for fun/game enhancement purposes, I don't think the Monster abilities should just all of a sudden change to suit the exact tactical situation, especially if the PC's are already surrounded and such.

Now, it could be that this fight was a cake walk for the PCs and they were just steamrollering through it without a care in the world; and if so, that makes it a bit more palatable to have more of a fun challenge. Yet, sometimes it is better to let the PCs have their fun and and end the encounter with a Dr. Claw-like "I'll get you next time Gadget!"
 

Hawk Diesel

Adventurer
[MENTION=6853819]TallIan[/MENTION] and [MENTION=177]Umbran[/MENTION] I totally agree with you guys. Like any tool in the DM's toolbox it shouldn't be overused or used flippantly. There needs to be some intention that will add to the story and the fun of the table. Like I said, in that specific scenario I'd probably just have the cultists blast the player and themselves, because it would be a fitting sacrifice they might make for their demon patron. And I think that doing things that can unfairly target a player's character or changing how powers work without a good reason/explanation is poor form. A DM has only as much power as the players allow, since that position comes with the trust that you are going to run the game fairly with fun in mind.
 

alienux

Explorer
So the only way a diagonal line of lightning could've hit the paladin and only the paladin would be for the attacker to be at least 5ft above the ground?
Aiming down diagonally when flying isn't covered in the rules that I'm aware of, so you have to do what you think is best. But it still kind of skirts the effects of lightning breath in a line. But as has been said, just moving the attacker to a diagonal where there is no other monster behind the PC is the easiest solution.
 

Nickolaidas

Explorer
I just think that dragons being deprived of a breath weapon attack towards enemies in the ground when the dragons themselves are in the air (like they do in Skyrim for example) is a major handicap, as is also a spellcaster being unable to fire a lightning bolt to a flying enemy (while the spellcaster himself is on the ground).

I agree however, that I was wrong in thinking that a caster who is on the ground could fire a lightning bolt at a diagonal angle which aims for the ground of an enemy 5ft in front of him.
 
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jgsugden

Adventurer
D&D is a role playing game. Characters play a role in a story. Make it a good story.

If the PCs come up with a questionable way to use a spell, item or ability, ask 2 questions:

1.) Will it ruin the game?
2.) Is it fun?

If the answers are no and yes, allow it. DO NOT suddenly have enemies start using the tactic against them randomly... the PCs are the heroes of the tale. Let them stand out.

Obviosuly, there needs to be some tweaks here to account for the abilities of the PCs - a dumb PC should not be coming up with ingenious uses for spells... and a villain that sees a PC do something clever with a spell should be free to follow suit if they have the spell. But as a general rule, the above approach results in fun heroics.
 

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