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.


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?
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

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