D&D 5E Spell Damage Types

James Gasik

We don't talk about Pun-Pun
Something I've long been curious about is why spells deal the kinds of damage that they do. Sure, we can point to some damage types being better than others, and some make more sense for the type of spell they are (like say, necrotic for Necromancy magic), but a lot of times, it's hard to really say why, say, fire spells tend to be better than cold spells.

It's easy to say, for example, that a fireball changed to acid or electricity is generally a better spell. And that a magic missile that deals psychic damage would likely be worse.

And any spell that deals poison damage is strictly trash tier. But why is this so? And should it be this way?

And in the cases where the damage type is irrelevant, why isn't there a choice? The Fire Shield spell lets you select whether it deals fire or cold, so why isn't there a "burning or freezing hands" option? If you're a spellcaster, and you want to make sure you have access to multiple damage types, you have to put up with some terrible spells sometimes to do so.

If you want to make your caster have a "theme", some are simply easier to accomplish or superior to others for what feels like to me to be an arbitrary reason.

The playtest Wizard kind of addresses this, with the ability to alter and customize spells, but why aren't (and why shouldn't) some of these things already options?

Sure, the DM can always allow you to alter the damage types of spells; in most cases, even if you now have a shock sphere instead of a fireball, this isn't particularly game breaking- it depends largely on the kinds of foes that you will encounter in your game. A game where you have to deal with a troll uprising gets a tad worse if you don't have many fire spells, and a game where you deal with a lot of fire resistant foes gets a bit better if you have few fire spells.

But there are some options that are right out; back in a 3.5 game, I had a player who took a feat to make their spells deal sonic damage, and boy, was that a wild ride. Similarly, in Pathfinder 1e, a friend of mine played an Earth Sorcerer who turned everything into acid, which was very effective.

Obviously, we don't want people throwing around thunderballs or force damage willy nilly, because these are strong options (and yet, paradoxically, magic missile deals force damage and every wizard can have this spell).

There's not really a question here, per se, I'm mostly curious what other people think, if they have thoughts, about this topic, because I can't recall ever seeing a detailed discussion about damage types and how they are applied in the game; this extends to why are some resistances so common, and why some damage types are generally so good.

And as a side debate, why energy types are almost exclusively the province of magical characters (unless you want to swing a torch at someone). In a recent game I was playing in, we were dealing with ettercaps and giant spiders, and I asked the DM if our Ranger could make and use fire arrows. It took several minutes for me to explain I wasn't talking about magic arrows, but simply arrows that you actually light on fire before shooting! And even then, the answer I got was "I'll look into it" (answer still pending).

Shouldn't this just be, like, a standard option? In a world where you encounter strange beasts that need special weaponry to fight, why don't we have glass sling bullets filled with acid/holy water or what have you? Why can't you buy specially blessed ammunition on the open market to deal with fiends and undead? The game allows for Alchemist Tool proficiency, why isn't there a more robust supply of alchemical solutions for problems?
 

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Tales and Chronicles

Jewel of the North, formerly know as vincegetorix
Sometimes I think that damage spells should be called differently then have a list of various dice-by-damage type listed for their damage roll.

Like Fireball could be called Cruel Conflagration, and the damage would be 8d6 + ignite objects (fire), 8d4 + ongoing for 1 round (acid), 6d8 + difficult terrain (cold), 6d6 + no reaction (lighting).

When you gain the spell, you choose which one you learn.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
i think the idea of magic missile is a 'boring but practical/reliable' spell, force damage is good for hitting a bunch of stuff without getting resisted especially alongside the auto-hit nature of the spell but MM isn't insanely powerful damage-wise and that's why wizards can have it at level 1, i mean sure it starts off at 3 d4+1 for a potential max damage of 15 but it only scales for another d4+1 each level, it's for having certain damage not huge damage
 

Stormonu

Legend
I think the issue with the Ranger fire arrows you mentioned was simply bad DMing, but a lot of D&D is hooked on the premise "if you don't have it on your character sheet, you don't have it" - and similarily, if it isn't on the PHB equipment list, it can't be bought. There's a whole school of thought on "be prepared" in D&D that expects players to have thought of or researched everything before going on an expedition - this includes not only equipment, but spell choices as well. Changing damage types on the fly is seen as a form of cheating for those in this school of thought/play. It sounds like in your DM's case it an unwillingness to allow creativity, possibly from fear of abuse (even though mundane fire arrows are pretty much a staple of movies and real life, since forever).

As for the scarcity of damage type, that is somewhat reflected in the rarity of resistance to the damage type, and carrier effects. Poison tends to do the highest amount of damage because it has the greatest occurrence of resistance and/or mitigation. Force spells tend to be rare because there's almost no resistances to it. Radiant tends to be restricted to Divine casters but is designed to have no resistances against it; damage tends to be low-capped.

There's a couple sorcerous options to change spell damage types and a handful of subclasses that do substitutions, but overall its relatively restricted to prevent monster resistances/immunities from being invalidated by the PCs switching from A to B easily, as needed.
 

Stalker0

Legend
I also think this is partly a hold over from how energy resistances worked in previous editions.

So in the old days you generally had 3 types of resistances

  • Resist X amount per instance (Resist 5 fire meant I took 5 damage off each fireball I got hit with)
  • Absorb X amount (Protection from energy spells worked this way. I could soak up 100 hp of fire, but then lost the protection)
  • Immune (just took no damage from fire).
Now 5e went with the half damage system. And its a lot easier to work with, so its understandable why. But its also means resistances are VERY penalizing.

When you had Resist 5 fire, sure fireball wasn't going to be ideal, but it still did a good amount of damage, and so players could work with it. Or if you had the Absorb X fire, sure my fireball does nothing, but I can "overcome" his resistance with raw power and then bring the pain.

With 5e's style, its just very unoptimal to use an energy type that a creature is resistant too, and so resistances really dictate the strength of each type.
 

EzekielRaiden

Follower of the Way
There's not really a question here, per se, I'm mostly curious what other people think, if they have thoughts, about this topic, because I can't recall ever seeing a detailed discussion about damage types and how they are applied in the game; this extends to why are some resistances so common, and why some damage types are generally so good.
It's the result of the haphazard, lopsided, not-actually-designed design of "traditional" D&D creatures.

Creatures are given their strengths and weaknesses, not based on what would induce players to make interesting choices, but based on vague notions of what they "should" have. As a result, tons of things are immune or at least resistant to poison, because it makes sense that any of the following "should" ignore or at least shrug off poison: outsiders due to being powerful semi-spiritual beings (fiends, elementals, celestials, etc.), undead due to poison being conceived as only damaging living tissue, many aberrations due to their bizarre anatomy, constructs because they aren't organic, some abominations/monstrosities due to their preternatural existence, and perhaps a few others besides. Poison damage sucks because poison damage is conceived as being very narrow, compared to the panoply of entities a D&D character might face. Even though, IRL, poison is actually an extremely dangerous thing and in fact often much more damaging than fire (and certainly more damaging than cold in most cases!)

More or less, it seems your problem is that faux-naturalism--naturalistic reasoning applied to fictional things--often produces results that are (in some sense) "ecologically" satisfying, but rather boring to actually interact with.

And as a side debate, why energy types are almost exclusively the province of magical characters (unless you want to swing a torch at someone). In a recent game I was playing in, we were dealing with ettercaps and giant spiders, and I asked the DM if our Ranger could make and use fire arrows. It took several minutes for me to explain I wasn't talking about magic arrows, but simply arrows that you actually light on fire before shooting! And even then, the answer I got was "I'll look into it" (answer still pending).
Because pigeonholing non-spellcasters has been a thing since at least the days of 2e, and probably a lot earlier (I just don't know earlier games well enough to speak authoritatively.) Letting the ranger have fire arrows means there's much less special about being able to shoot fire balls. Letting the Barbarian throw holy water flasks makes it not so special anymore to have Turn Undead. Giving the Rogue a grapnel-crossbow makes misty step no longer a slam-dunk "simply the best" choice. Etc. Preserving the superiority of magic-wielding characters over those who primarily do not wield magic is deeply woven into the design culture of D&D, and as a result, deeply woven into the player culture as well, at least for the old hands. I dare to hope that the massive influx of new players will weaken this hegemony enough that the designers for 6e will consider doing literally anything else, but it's a pretty faint hope.

Shouldn't this just be, like, a standard option? In a world where you encounter strange beasts that need special weaponry to fight, why don't we have glass sling bullets filled with acid/holy water or what have you? Why can't you buy specially blessed ammunition on the open market to deal with fiends and undead? The game allows for Alchemist Tool proficiency, why isn't there a more robust supply of alchemical solutions for problems?
It should. But it's one of the sacred cows of D&D. Magic > mundane. Making mundane tools that even partially supplant magic? Anathema.
 

Quickleaf

Legend
At least part of the answer has to do with how frequently certain resistances/immunities appear in the game as a whole.

An enterprising fan reviewed VGM, MM, MToF, GGtR, and ERftLW and came up with this analysis:
From this, we see that the % of monsters with resistance or immunity to Fire is almost the same as Cold (17%), and not too far from Lightning (14%). BUT it lags behind B/P/S and Poison (which are the highest around 25%). AND it's significantly higher than Acid, Necrotic, Psychic, or Thunder damage (btwn 3% and 8%). Of course, Force and Radiant are the rarest - there's no comparison there.
 

In almost every game I've played, you'd be able to learn a variation of a spell that's the same thing but a different damage type, but it's considered an entirely different spell for purposes of spells known/prepared. So my wizard knows lightning ball, and she prepares it most days, but she does not know and therefore cannot prepare fireball. That's a different spell.

It's worth noting that I've never seen this used except for thematic reasons: said wizard is a blue dragonborn with a blue dragon patron. Of course she learns lightning spells instead.

The metamagic, therefore, is for switching on the fly - a sorcerer could learn iceball but just switch it for this casting because this enemy is resistant to cold or vulnerable to fire.

FWIW, outside of poison it's not a big deal. Yeah, more monsters are resistant to fire but you probably won't actually face a lot of such enemies and if you do - there's a feat for that. It's not hard to make a pyromancer work. Poison, though, doesn't work on any undead, which are one of the most common enemy types. This is also a problem for rogues, because "poisoner rogue" (or alchemist) is a pretty obvious character type. I usually address this by adding special, target-specific poisons that work on specified enemies who are normally immune.
 

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