Today we’re looking at the cantrip chill touch, which is on the Sorcerer, Warlock, and Wizard spell lists. This is a usually overlooked damage cantrip in favor of staples like firebolt, but it is still decent and is in some cases excellent.
The rules for chill touch, found on page 221 of the Player’s Handbook, are as follows:
Chill Touch 5e
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 120 feet
Components: V, S
Duration: 1 round
You create a ghostly, skeletal hand in the space of a creature within range. Make a ranged spell attack against the creature to assail it with the chill of the grave. On a hit, the target takes 1d8 necrotic damage, and it can’t regain hit points until the start of your next turn. Until then, the hand clings to your target.
If you hit an undead target, it also has disadvantage on attack rolls against you until the end of your next turn.
This spell’s damage increases by 1d8 when you reach 5th level (2d8), 11th level (3d8), and 17th level (4d8).
Looking at the rules for chill touch, it follows the general convention for damaging cantrips. It requires a spell attack roll, and it deals damage that scales with the normal cantrip progression, gaining extra damage dice at 5th, 11th, and 17th level.
Is Chill Touch Good?
On the very surface level, chill touch can quite comfortably be considered a good cantrip, and at worst, decent. If we compare it to firebolt purely for damage, the two are very similar with only some minor differences.
Firebolt is a ranged spell attack (the same as chill touch), and it deals 1d10 fire damage (whereas chill touch deals 1d8 necrotic damage) out to a range of 120 feet (also the same as chill touch). Firebolt can also set things on fire, whereas chill touch has the secondary effect of blocking healing and providing an additional debuff to undead.
If we are looking at raw damage, the difference between a d8 and a d10 is only an average of around 1 point of damage. Sure, this adds up to 4 points at 17th level and ignores very good rolling, but on average (I.E most of the time), it is a minor loss.
Something more important to consider is the damage type. Fire damage is one of the most resisted damage types in the game, and many creatures are even immune to it, rendering firebolt less effective or even entirely useless against these foes.
However, Chill touch deals necrotic damage, a type that is resisted far less and has fewer creatures that are outright immune to it. This means that chill touch is likely going to be able to deal full damage to whatever enemy you are facing.
This is determined by the number of creatures that are resistant or immune to these damage types, with magical weapons having the least and non-magical weapons having the most.
Optimizing Chill Touch
Trying to get the most value from this cantrip comes not from what class casts it or what feats can boost it but rather comes from when it is best to use it. As discussed above, it is only slightly worse than firebolt if it is simply used for damage and is better against a wider variety of creatures.
Where chill touch really starts to shine is when you are able to take advantage of its secondary effects. The first of these is denying your target the ability to regain hit points. This is especially good against those creatures that have the Regeneration trait and denies them the ability to quickly heal during combat, such as trolls or hydras.
It is also very good when used against opposing spellcasters that might heal their allies. If one of your allies has knocked down an opponent, it might be worth using chill touch on them to make sure that their cleric buddy can’t bring them right back up.
The secondary effect, of imposing disadvantage on attack rolls if the target is undead, is quite good. Disadvantage means they are less likely to hit you or anyone else that they might target, and getting hit less is always good.
Also, because this effect lasts on undead targets until the end of next turn, this means that you might be able to assist an ally stuck in combat with an undead creature that they want to escape from, but they don’t want to waste their action Disengaging from it. By imposing disadvantage, your ally can more safely escape, and you still deal decent damage while assisting them.
A final and most likely overlooked feature of this cantrip requires a bit more of in-depth knowledge about the monsters in the game. If you remember from earlier, there are a few creatures in the game that are immune to necrotic damage. Some of these creatures include Shadows, Ghosts, and Banshees, among others.
What you may be able to tell from this is that these creatures tend to be the type of creatures best described as incorporeal undead. The same undead that suffer disadvantage on their attack rolls when we hit them with chill touch.
So even if you are unlucky enough to find yourself up against something immune to necrotic damage, chill touch is still quite useful. If it is immune, it is most likely also undead and therefore allows you to impose disadvantage on its attacks.
It’s safe to say that chill touch is quite a good cantrip and especially shines in those specific situations when it’s secondary features can be capitalized on.
One thing that might have led to chill touch being passed over is just how inaccurately the spell is named – it is a ranged spell attack, not a melee one (as touch suggests), and it deals necrotic damage, not cold damage (as chill suggests)!. If it did deal cold damage and was a melee spell attack, then it would be considerably worse, so it’s understandable that perhaps it might have been misunderstood on most players’ first look.