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?
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

aco175

Legend
Mostly true for my games, although never had lightning as yellow or petrification as purple but it can work.

We do use the little rings from soda bottles and some have formed to more a standard color rating. Red for bloodied or near death. Black is generally necrotic or evil. White is generally radiant or holy/good. There is a couple odd ones that a player will use for hex or marked and a few other odd ones like yellow that can be more a catch-all for random effect on you. There is generally only one maybe two going on at a time to keep track of.
 


I certainly haven't set a specific color scheme, but I imagine mine would follow off many colors used in FFXIV for the various elements, which generally feature a three-part color scheme, one central color and two highlight colors (listed as Primary, H1/H2).

Radiant(/"Light"): White, gold/azure
Necrotic(/"Darkness"): Black, crimson/purple
Fire: Red, orange/yellow
Air: Lime, emerald/yellow
Lightning: Purple, magenta/blue
Water: Blue, teal/"colorless" (water, more than any other element, has several nearly-completely transparent effects)
Ice: Turquoise, white/blue
Earth: Yellow, brown/orange

Poison in FFXIV is usually green, but is also associated with purple, and (of all things) gold due to a specific dungeon, the oft-reviled Aurum Vale, where there are pools of poisonous bile all over. Acid isn't really it's own element, but is associated with orange (in part because acid is often Earth-aspected) or green (usually acids produced by a creature).

There's also, in the most recent expansion, some effects that are associated with completely greyscale colors, which are degenerative and wasting, which is a bit closer to the expected nature of "necrotic" in the D&D context than "Darkness" proper is. ("Darkness" is a bit more like chaotic damage than death damage, though undead beings are definitely associated with Darkness...just for reasons other than what you might expect.)
 

luchexxx

Explorer
I color code potions and some effects not by "energy type", but by magic school/tradition (abjuration, conjuration, etc.). That'd be eight colors, iirc.
 




Interesting. I guess do to my time playing Magic: the Gathering I wouldn't really use this comparison because I tend to separate M:tG and D&D even though we now have several M:tG settings published for D&D.
 




Laurefindel

Legend
red/orange (fire) and blue (ice/cold/water) sounds intuitive on a chromatic scale, mostly in association with warm-cool colour theories. Green as poison/venom is pretty much ingrained too, both because it's a distinctive color from red/blue and because nature (from which venom and poison are produced/harvested) is usually represented in green (and so is the "yuk!" sensation).

Purple as colour of the mind (psychic) is used in chakras and by extension, in everything remotely esoteric, including (early) RPG magic. the element of "Air" is also often associated with purple for some reason, especially when it needs to be differentiated from water or cold.

I can see yellow as electricity; children often draw lighting bolts in yellow (mostly because the page's background color is white), so that association is comfortable (for lack of better words).

I'd intuitively relate acid to green as part of the corrosive-venomous association. D&D has used orange in that past because... why not, but orange doesn't really scream "ACID" to me. If anything, the yellow colour of "caution!" signs is more relatable.

Black/white as positive/negative (necrotic/radiant) is also pretty intuitive.

As for brown and pink; they have less immediate connotation because they are colours that don't appear on the rainbow, but brown is sometimes used as the colour of "earth", and grey immediately evokes metal or rock. None of these are really relevant as D&D damage association.
 

Laurefindel

Legend
... can I note that I really, really don't like how holy became equal to radiant?

Radiant is the light of the sun focused in a beam, a laser, nuclear radiation. Stylistically, it's... not the same.
true, but white is often associated with "positive" or "light" (while black is "negative" or "void"). Necrotic and Radiant are the closest analogues to positive/negative as far as damage type goes.

[edit] not what you were talking about at all. Nevermind.
 

Obligatory post: As a person with limited color vision, this stuff can be infuriating. When color is used as a "quick reference" or is otherwise important in a game, it can grind things to a halt for me while I try and figure out what the heck is going on. I can think of examples when it's handled very well with other visual cues, but also many cases where it's a literal game stopper for me. No joke, I have quit playing some video and board games just because I can't visually parse their color scheme. TTRPGs are, thankfully, typically less of an issue.

If you're doing any type of game design, colors should always, always be a of lowest importance after text, shape, brightness, etc.
 

GMMichael

Guide of Modos
. . . Fifth Edition codified damage into thirteen types: acid, bludgeoning, cold, fire, force, lightning, necrotic, piercing, poison, psychic, radiant, slashing, and thunder. . .
Thirteen types? You must be thinking of third edition. Fifth edition is the streamlined one.

My damage types are colored by the Roll20 bubbles: physical, mental, and metaphysical.
 


Malikai2000

Explorer
Obligatory post: As a person with limited color vision, this stuff can be infuriating. When color is used as a "quick reference" or is otherwise important in a game, it can grind things to a halt for me while I try and figure out what the heck is going on. I can think of examples when it's handled very well with other visual cues, but also many cases where it's a literal game stopper for me. No joke, I have quit playing some video and board games just because I can't visually parse their color scheme. TTRPGs are, thankfully, typically less of an issue.

If you're doing any type of game design, colors should always, always be a of lowest importance after text, shape, brightness, etc.
I too am color blind. There are a large number of board games I can't play due to color issues. Some I can play but it takes a lot of effort to constantly check and double check. I have never experienced it in RPGs, until now. If color is to be the only way to know the damage type then count me out.

Sometimes even just printing text in a different color will mean that I can't even read it. For example the 'white' text I can't see and have to highlight the screen to get the inverse color.
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Thirteen types? You must be thinking of third edition. Fifth edition is the streamlined one.

My damage types are colored by the Roll20 bubbles: physical, mental, and metaphysical.
... the damage listed are all found in 5e. So no, they were not thinking of 3e
 

Ancalagon

Dusty Dragon
Despite my grumbling, I think this is a valid discussion... but what about healing? It's frequently green-coded in video games, but then again, healing potions are red in Diablo...
 

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