RPG Evolution: What Color is Your Damage?

When it comes to portraying spells and monsters in Dungeons & Dragons, there's a visual shorthand that tells a story: color.

coloranddamage.png

A Color-Coded World​

Color-coding damage types, be it spells or monsters, quickly telegraphs something about the source. A red dragon breathes fire, a white cone of cold inflicts cold damage. It's helpful to define just what those colors mean in D&D. For players, it helps them know what to expect from a fantasy universe; for DMs, it gives them the option to play against type and surprise their players.

Fifth Edition codified damage into thirteen types: acid, bludgeoning, cold, fire, force, lightning, necrotic, piercing, poison, psychic, radiant, slashing, and thunder.

Some of the colors associated with this damage are well-known while others are not nearly as common. That said, messing with this color-coding can be frustrating if there's no consistency at all, so changing these color-codes at your own risk. For example, it's possible that all dragons, no matter what color, breathe fire in your world, but that might be common knowledge to most characters, even though players may expect otherwise.

In General Media​

Color-coded damage types have been around for so long that they are now prevalent in video games, who are much more reliant on visual effects. Not surprisingly, these colors are practically hard-coded into players' brains who associate certain types of damage with color. TV Tropes lines colors with damage this way:
  • Darkness (Necrotic): black
  • Fire: red or orange
  • Holy (Radiant): white
  • Ice (Cold): blue or white
  • Lightning: yellow
  • Poison: green in Western works, purple in Eastern works
It's worth noting that elements don't always align with damage, and that it's possible for an element to inflict damage that doesn't align with its color.

D&D Monsters​

The most obvious connection between monsters and their elements in D&D are the chromatic dragons. They line up thusly:
  • Acid: black
  • Cold: white
  • Fire: red
  • Lightning: blue
  • Poison: green
Interestingly enough, this color-coding doesn't carry over intact to spells.

D&D Spells​

Of the many spells in D&D, the prismatic spells clearly delineate colors by damage type. Both prismatic spray and prismatic wall share the same color-coding:
  • Acid: orange
  • Blindness: violet
  • Cold: blue
  • Fire: red
  • Lightning: yellow
  • Petrification: indigo
  • Poison: green
There's another color-coded spells at lower levels, chromatic orb. In the current edition of D&D, chromatic orb simply inflicts damage chosen by the caster. There's nothing in the description that requires the color of the orb to match the damage; in fact, only the title even implies that the orb has a color at all.

That wasn't always the case. When the spell debuted in Dragon Magazine #66, the orb inflicted untyped damage but had an additional effect. The effects were:
  • Blindness: amber/yellow
  • Death: ashen/black
  • Fire: ruby/flame
  • Light: pearly/white
  • Magnetism: turquoise/blue
  • Paralysis: sapphire/blue
  • Petrification: amethyst/purple
  • Poison: emerald/green
Fourth Edition defined colors more explicitly with damage:
...the exact effect of chromatic orb depend upon the colour that resulted as dominant. Yellow light indicated a harsh and brilliant light that dazes the spell's victim. Red, as might be expected, signified fire and similarly green resulted in the poisoning of the target. Turquoise light sent an electrifying charge through the flesh of its victim, causing them to move a number of feet dependent upon the caster's dexterity. Lastly, blue indicates a cold blast that froze the target momentarily solid while violet indicated a psychic attack that rendered the target less able to defend themselves against future attacks.
Which lines up roughly as:
  • Cold: blue
  • Fire: red
  • Light: yellow
  • Lightning: turquoise/blue
  • Poison: green
  • Psychic: violet

The Rainbow Connection​

Adding all this up gives us a rough estimation of which colors represent which damage in the D&D multiverse:
  • Acid: black (dragons) or orange (prismatic spray)
  • Cold: white (dragons) or blue (prismatic spray, chromatic orb, video games)
  • Fire: red (dragons, spells, and video games)
  • Lightning: blue (dragons) or yellow (prismatic spray, video games)
  • Necrotic: black (chromatic orb, video games)
  • Poison: green (dragons, spells, and video games)
  • Psychic: violet (chromatic orb)
  • Radiant: white (chromatic orb, video games)
Of the most common colors, brown and pink don't seem to have a strong alignment with damage. Of the damage types, bludgeoning, force, piercing, slashing, and thunder also have no strong correlation.

Who Cares About Color?​

Colors interacts visually with both players and characters. Out of game, color-coding can clearly identify a damage type, a damage immunity, or a creature type by simply shading a creature. In video games, color can also represent rarity or difficulty (green being the weakest, blue being more powerful or rare, until reaching purple or gold). These are all quick references to indicate how a spell or effect might work, and determining those colors ahead of time creates a common language between the players and DM, particularly on virtual tabletops.

For characters, color may mean very specific effects at glance. The spells prismatic spray and prismatic wall reinforce these colors associations, but they could just as easily apply to other spells created by players. It can also apply to creatures; red-skinned monsters might be immune to fire damage. When determining how your campaign works visually, it's worth considering just how much color matters -- or doesn't! -- when creating your game world.

Your Turn: How do colors line up with damage in your campaign?
 
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Aaron L

Hero
In any campaigns we run, my brother and I will always ask players of new arcane spellcasting PCs what color their Magic Missiles are.

We use this as a base for the color of their magical Force effects (Walls of Force, Bigby's Hands, etc.) and the base color of their magical effects in general, and keep it on record as an important character detail, like a kind of magical signature, that can be used to identify the magical auras of that specific spellcaster. In our campaigns arcane spellcasters have various magical signatures to their spells, with their Magic Missile color chief among them, and we have introduced variations of the Detect Magic spell that can identify the minute residual auras of spells cast up to several days earlier (the colors of the magic of divine spellcasters is based on the deific Power providing the power for the magic.) We've even had NPCs use it as a method of identifying specific individual spellcasters.

We both thought it was pretty damn awesome when Tasha's Cauldron of Everything included the chapter about customizing PC spell effects, since it basically codified ideas we had already been using for decades.

If players don't have any specific preferences we will just use a kind of basic color chart based on the PCs Alignment and a few other factors to assign them a color for their Magic Missile, with shades of blue as a default for Good and shades of red as a default for Evil, and Law and Chaos giving various tints (blue silver-aura for Neutral Good, red with black-aura for Chaotic Evil, etc.) and even the unique spellcasting techniques of some Master/Apprentice magical lineages can have an affect the shades of their spells. Players who pay careful attention to the descriptions of enemy spellcasters can sometimes discern important details about enemy Wizards and Sorcerers just by observing the colors of the spells they cast.

We probably got those specific colors from the colors of Jedi and Sith lightsabers, and from the colors of the lasers in the GI Joe cartoon (The Joes generally shot blue lasers, and the COBRAs generally shot red lasers.)
 

log in or register to remove this ad

Aaron L

Hero
Cool idea, until you run into non-spectrum dice. I think I have some stone/grays, several clear dice, and my dragon die is white.

Oh. Then colored damage might not work for today's D&D players - 13 colors might be hard to distinguish on the fly. Maybe they could try 3e - I doubt I could name 13 damage types from that edition. The Rules Compendium might, however.
On a related note, have you seen the MPMB automated .PDF character sheet yet? If not, I highly, highly recommend it to absolutely everyone. It allows you to customize the color of each individual attack area on the sheet, and I always color code them to the type of damage the attack causes, with grey for silvered weapons. (I've begun using this sheet for all of my new PCs, since it was designed for the .PDF file to be kept open and used as an active character sheet, rather than just as a static character record.)

The sheet allows for automated scripts to be entered into it with all the rules from new sourcebooks; spells, Feats, classes, Archetypes, equipment, magic items, etc... everything. The sheet even auto-calculates weight down to the last coin. While the creator of the sheet can't provide the scripts for copyright reasons, there is an active subReddit that provides all of the scripts to be added to your own personal copy of the sheet, and I can attest that it is indeed very easy to add them. It is damn useful. Making PCs using this sheet is so easy that, since I discovered everything this sheet is actually capable of about two months ago, I have spent literally dozens of hours just making up characters of all types and levels just to see what cool things I can come up with.

It's such a damn good sheet that Wizards of the Coast actually has it to download on the official D&D website.
 


GMMichael

Guide of Modos
Well, 3 of these are piercing, bludgeoning and slashing , those probably don't "need" a color...
I wouldn't color those, no.

For posterity, the Rules Compendium lists 11 types of damage. No, not for that edition. For the rules-bloated edition:

Bludgeoning, piercing, slashing, acid, cold, electricity, fire, sonic, negative, positive, and precision.

Knowing that, running a 3e game isn't as much of a stretch for me as I thought it would be. . .
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
In any campaigns we run, my brother and I will always ask players of new arcane spellcasting PCs what color their Magic Missiles are.

We use this as a base for the color of their magical Force effects (Walls of Force, Bigby's Hands, etc.) and the base color of their magical effects in general, and keep it on record as an important character detail, like a kind of magical signature, that can be used to identify the magical auras of that specific spellcaster.
This is cool...but...I always thought Wall of Force was supposed to be invisible?
 



steeldragons

Steeliest of the dragons
Epic
hmm...let's see...I've never formalized any of this, but off the top of my head/how I tend to envision things...

Fire: Red. (or reddish-violet or violet-to-pale-blue...I've actually envisioned flame effects in all kinds of colors...but for a "standard/auto" response, let's just say red.)
Healing/Positive Energy/Light: pale/light yellow to bright/vibrant (depending on the power level) Yellow-white.
Ice/Cold: pale/light/"icy" blue.
Lightning: bright/"electric" blue edged - white interior
Psychic: light/pale to bright/neon (depending on power level/effect) Purple.
Sonic/"Thunder": white (geddit? "White noise?" heh heh.)
Acid: bright/neon green or bright/neon orange.
Poison: pukey/dull/olive green, muted/dull/murky purple, or black.
Radiant/Holy: shining golden or blinding silvery white.
Necrotic: black infused with streaks or edges of bright violets or neon greens.
Force/"Raw magic": Any (anything, including "invisible"/transparent, the player/caster wants).
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
I wouldn't color those, no.

For posterity, the Rules Compendium lists 11 types of damage. No, not for that edition. For the rules-bloated edition:

Bludgeoning, piercing, slashing, acid, cold, electricity, fire, sonic, negative, positive, and precision.

Knowing that, running a 3e game isn't as much of a stretch for me as I thought it would be. . .
honestly, the number of damages seems like a very minor consideration to me...
 


Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads

AD6_gamerati_skyscraper

Remove ads

Upcoming Releases

Top