D&D 5e damage types and hit points explained featured image credit WotC @ Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.
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Combat is a massive part of D&D 5e. As a roleplaying game, the game eventually encourages players to describe what it’s like to suffer or inflict damage. Since we need to describe damage so much, I figured I’d take a crack at diving deeper into what damage is, what the different damage types are, and how we, as DMs and players can become better storytellers by understanding these concepts. Damage types can be so interesting if we afford them adequate consideration.
Damage categories receive little explanation in the rules of D&D 5e. The basic rules contain brief descriptions of damage types, but that’s about it. We can learn more about the damage types by playing the game and exploring the abilities and spells that use them. My goal is to use my 5e experience and knowledge with a bit of research to expound on damage types. I want to inspire your roleplay opportunities and descriptions so you can narrate damage in new and interesting ways.
I’ll go over what hitpoints represent, followed by some basic rules. Then I’ll dive into damage types. Skip ahead to an area of interest by clicking the link below.
What Is a Hit Point in D&D 5e?
Hitpoint loss is rarely indicative of physical injury due to the game’s publications describing hitpoints as a combination of many things. A character’s hitpoints can involve toughness, luck, timing, endurance, or the obvious physical wellbeing. It stands to reason that taking a specific damage type does not always indicate literal physical harm because hitpoints comprise many factors, as I mentioned.
The hitpoint system has been questioned recently as TTRPG enthusiasts reflect on the merits of different systems. I’m not versed in other systems, so I have little to add to the discussion on whether there are better systems that might replace hitpoints. If you’ve used a variant system that completely throws out hitpoints, and you liked that system, please tell me about it in the comments. I’d like to hear more.
I like to imagine a hitpoint system that continues to use hitpoints but creates more nuances to how effective a creature is when it is low on hitpoints. I would be drawn to mechanics that cause creatures to become less powerful when they’ve lost specified percentages of their hitpoints.
Remember, 5e has no mechanical difference between a character who has all its hitpoints or one hitpoint remaining. Hitpoints are a resource!
What Are Temporary Hit Points in D&D 5e?
Mechanically, temporary hitpoints are designed to disallow crazy hitpoint buffing. Creatures are limited by receiving one batch of temporary hitpoints at a time, requiring the discarding of previous temporary hitpoints entirely before receiving new ones. This is a smart game design choice, but it does mean certain parties will find their abilities less effective due to the inability to stack temporary hitpoints.
Methods for gaining temporary hitpoints have become more common as 5e has progressed. New spells and subclasses have created new ways to gain temporary hitpoints. Inversely, the ability to boost maximum hitpoints remains rare with spells like Aid and Heroes’ Feast.
Whether you’re gaining temporary hitpoints, healing, or raising your maximum hitpoints, your paradigm should remain the same. Damage and hitpoints can indicate a plethora of things that may or may not include physical harm. For example, an ally’s inspiring speech will grant temporary hitpoints to allies (per the Inspiring Leader feat in the PHB). This illustrates how hitpoints can represent a character’s resolve, motivation, and hope.
How DMs Can Narrate D&D 5e Damage
Since hitpoints can indicate a variety of factors, taking damage does not necessarily mean a character has suffered bodily harm. Slashing damage won’t always result in wounds. A creature’s endurance is partially depleted when damaged. That creature avoided harm, but its luck is running out. It could also represent a character’s luck running out.
This is all well and good, but some attacks and spells are explicit in their effects. It would be difficult to imagine an octopus has a character grappled without also imagining that the octopus is in contact with the character. Likewise, it would be difficult to imagine the acid damage of ooze corroding weapons and armor if the ooze didn’t actually strike the character. A vampire’s bite will harm a character while simultaneously healing the vampire with the blood it drank, reducing the character’s maximum hitpoints. Not only that, but vampires must grapple enemies to bite them, literally holding them close. Due to examples like these, there’s no full-proof interpretation of D&D 5e’s approximations meant for imagination.
We must also consider what it means to heal a character with a spell, like Healing Word. A character may literally be wounded, making the scope of the spell clear. What about characters who have not been wounded but are missing hitpoints? Healing, in this case, could mean the character’s muscles are relieved to allow greater endurance. It could also mean the character’s mind is put at ease if it was beginning to lose hope. Healing spells don’t merely heal lacerations and broken bones; they can heal the mind, nervous system, muscles, senses, and more.
Despite the flaws in the imagination behind the mechanics, you can narrate damage as if a character becomes injured or narrowly avoids injury.
Resistance, Immunity, and Vulnerability to Damage in D&D 5e
Players love to resist damage, and they hate to find out their damage is resisted by monsters. Immunity is far rarer than resistance, but vulnerability is the rarest damage type modifier in the game. Here is how you calculate damage for each of these damage type modifiers.
Damage Resistance = Half Damage
Calculate the total damage of the resisted damage type. Take that total and cut it in half (rounded down).
Damage Immunity = Zero Damage
Reduce the damage type to zero when the creature suffers the damage type it’s immune to.
Damage Vulnerability = Double Damage
Double the damage of the vulnerable damage type.
Narrating Resistance, Immunity, and Vulnerability
DMs can describe monster resistances in ways that make monsters more intimidating. The most common damage type modifier is resistance. Read each damage type section of this article to find inspiration for how you can describe monsters resisting or otherwise modifying the damage they take.
I recommend delaying when DMs broadcast a monster’s resistances or immunities to their players. Try waiting until the end of the first round. You’ll get more mileage out of monster strengths before the players figure them out. Do not do this without informing your players that you’ll be running the game this way; failing to do so will go against the norm, which can be off-putting to players.
What Is Acid Damage in D&D 5e?
Acid is one of D&D 5e’s elemental damage types. Here are spells that involve acid damage. Disclaimer: I was horrible at chemistry in college and high school. I won’t pretend to be an expert on acids, but I do know a few things about how acids can be narrated in roleplaying games. You may think of acidic reactions as the dissolving and breaking down of cellular and molecular structures. I researched it a bit and found that chemicals like bleach are actually alkaline, not acids, but I’ll use them for narrating acidic reactions because I still find them relevant.
Acid can appear plain as water, colorful as citrus fruits, or grotesque as batteries left in the sun. Water damages vampires as if it were acid. The old “I’m melting” quote comes to mind as vampires begin wasting away. Acid has a cauterizing effect on trolls, too.
Narrating Acid Damage
Ways to describe acid damage can involve tastes and smells that are sour and pungent. Specific olfactory sources you can evoke include bile, vinegar, bleach, seawater, or citrus. Rust might also be evocative. Visual descriptions could involve vapors akin to steam or smoke, and they may involve peculiar colors and color changes of the subject (I imagine battery acid pigments). Auditory descriptions could involve sizzling or bubbling, like a grease fire or Pop Rocks. The reaction can resemble melting in extreme heat or an accelerated equilibrium process as substances blend and come apart like a smoothie (gross).
Acid on its own can appear plain as water, colorful as citrus fruits, or grotesque as batteries left in the sun. It is deceptively beautiful to narrate a rainbow of colors immediately before harming the player characters. I’m reminded of the time Iron Man was fixing the machine in his chest by discovering a new element. He described the change in his body as a taste of coconut and metal.
When a creature is resistant, immune, or vulnerable to acid damage, you might describe it as the acid being unreactive or especially reactive. The acid slips from its form like water. Natural armor wicks the acid with no effect. A thin layer of slime or powder causes the acid to be unreactive to a creature’s skin. Monsters can be more acidic than the acids the players use.
Chemical burns are the common result of acid contact (don’t Google it). Vapors from acidic reactions could be harmful as well to the lungs and internal organs. Lingering injuries can include burns, open sores, and scars. Acid is a horrifying damage type. I guess all damage types are horrific, but acid hits differently for me.
What Is Bludgeoning Damage in D&D 5e?
Bludgeoning damage is one of the three core weapon damage types. It is the use of blunt force to batter, crack, and crush. Hammers, boulders, tentacles, fists, and crashing waves of water are examples of bludgeoning harm. Piercing and slashing attacks focus on edged weapons that pierce armor and flesh; blunt attacks overwhelm and pulverize. If falling damage weren’t technically a type-less source of damage, it’d be bludgeoning damage.
Bludgeoning damage decimates skeletal structures, leaving a sack of meat on the ground that resembles the former living creature. There are many spells that deal bludgeoning damage.
Falling in D&D 5e results in bludgeoning damage after plummeting. I wrote a small section devoted to it in this article, but it’s still just bludgeoning damage. A creature suffers 1d6 bludgeoning damage per ten feet fallen. Maximum fall damage in a single instance is 20d6 bludgeoning damage by raw. Resistance to bludgeoning damage may be the most versatile damage type resistance of the three weapon-based damage types. Characters can gain bludgeoning resistance with certain race and class options that involve earth elementals.
Narrating Bludgeoning Damage
Bludgeoned creatures may find that their injuries are internal and unseen, though certainly felt. Internal bleeding, bone fractures, intense bruising, protruding eyeballs, and malfunctioning body parts are common blunt-force injuries. Massive bludgeoning attacks will reduce a creature to a pancake. Bludgeoning can also result in dismemberment as much as slashing damage. Blunt-force injuries can result in decapitations and clipped legs.
A friend of mine fell from a recreational zip line. He needed his leg amputated as a result. He described his leg after the fall: “It was like hamburger.” Falling is no joke. I added a section to this article for falling damage because I thought it deserved a specific discussion.
There are synonyms from merriam-webster.com that can help you mix up how you describe your attacks from clubs and other bludgeoning weapons: “bashing, battering, clobbering, hammering, lambasting, licking, pounding, pummeling (also pummelling), thrashing, blow, buffet, hit, knock, punch, rap, slap, thump
contact, encounter, meeting, touch, bump, collision, concussion, crash, impact, impingement, jar, jolt, jounce, kick, shock, slam, smash, strike, wallop.”
Use physical experiences in your descriptions. Focus on feelings that many people can relate to. DMs can use these relatable instances to portray character pain to players:
- The wind knocked getting knocked out of you
- Seeing stars
- Dazed confusion
- Deadened feelings in your limbs (guys in middle school used to love giving each other dead arms)
- Twisting an ankle
- Pulling a muscle
- Throwing out your back
- Standing up into a beam or low ceiling
- Slipping on ice onto your butt
- A baseball pitch nailing you unexpectedly
- Walking onto a garden rake
Many creatures are resistant or immune to bludgeoning damage if it comes from a non-magical weapon. Silvered weapons will do, sometimes. Aside from this common resistance, some monsters may resist bludgeoning damage due to unique physiology that doesn’t depend on bone structure. Though oozes are not resistant to bludgeoning damage, they can be splattered. Slashing and piercing damage wouldn’t do enough surface damage to the organ-less oozes, but bludgeoning damage can make a mess of jellies. It’s common for earth-based creatures and player characters to receive resistance to bludgeoning damage. Still, I’m not sure that’s more or less appropriate than slashing or piercing resistance when considering which damage type would best harm earth and stone.
I believe skeletons used to be vulnerable in some way to bludgeoning damage. I remember maces worked very well for crushing the skeletons’ bones in Baldur’s Gate. Slashing and piercing damage did not hurt skeletons much. Skeletons had no blood or essential organs to lose. I don’t know of a D&D 5e monster that continued this vulnerability, and it took me a while to make myself forget it.
What Is Cold Damage in D&D 5e?
Cold is one of D&D 5e’s elemental damage types. The main way that we envision cold damage involves freezing. We’re not talking about the harmless Elsa type of freezing; this kind of freezing will cause body parts to fall off and shatter. In its minor forms, frostbite will cause limbs and members to die and require amputation.
Cold damage messes with creatures’ physiological states, creating biological instability. Conditions like hypothermia and falling into icy water cause a creature to go into shock. Cold damage can overwhelm a creature’s nervous system and cause them to pass out or lose motor functions.
Piercing and bludgeoning damage will occasionally overlap with cold damage, such as with the Ice Knife and Ice Storm spells. This portrays the creation of ice, differing from freezing a creature. Hail and ice storms, blizzards, and avalanches are better resemblances to this type of cold damage.
A creature automatically succeeds saving throws against extreme cold climates if it has resistance or immunity to cold damage.
Narrating Cold Damage
Common symptoms of extreme cold can include numbness, aching (including sharp headaches), shivering, stiffness, and the unfortunate obliviousness to the dire physiological state the subject is in (confusion). Hairy dwarves will experience water in their beards as they breathe. You might describe a cold-harmed creature as extremely reddened as its skin turns bright pink with a combination of pain like hundreds of needles accompanied paradoxically by numbness.
Extremities like fingers, ears, and noses are especially ripe for cold descriptions since many people can relate to the pain that cold causes in them. Noses will run, ears will pinken, and fingers will become stiff. You can feel cold damage in your teeth and throat. Ice cream often hurts my teeth, forcing me to eat it slowly. Taking a deep breath is difficult in a subzero environment with little humidity. You immediately feel compelled to cough up the air. Lungs can’t handle so much cold air at once. Cold air can take your breath away.
My dad used to come in from shoveling snow when I was young. I noticed how bad he smelled when he returned. It was like a combination of sweat, grime, and snow that I have difficulty describing. Now I smell that way when I shovel snow. I want to learn to describe the smell better so I can use it to narrate the smell of cold damage. Cast Message in the comments if you know a good way to describe this smell.
Cold damage is an instantaneous, violent freezing event. It can involve loud snaps and crackles, howling wind, or tinkling of tiny ice shards. Though movies have trained me to think of cold in these audible ways, a descending air current might be nearly imperceptible. You may become a popsicle before you realize what’s happening.
When a creature is resistant or immune to cold damage, it has likely adapted to cold climates (Yeti), doesn’t rely on body temperature regulation (Black Pudding), or its body temperature is incredibly hot (Remorhaz). Creatures adapted to cold climates will completely shrug off cold damage. You can describe the chilly effect blowing over them without even building up a frost. They may even breathe in the cold like a brisk morning jogger.
Vulnerability to cold damage would imply that a creature can only survive in a cold climate and it doesn’t produce its own extreme heat. Sometimes the pantry is the right place for a monster instead of the fridge, ya know? Just like when my wife mocks me for the time I stored magic shell ice cream topping in the fridge. Yea, magic shell ice cream topping would be vulnerable to cold damage.
Powerful undead creatures may resist cold damage due to their lack of body temperature. Lesser undead creatures may freeze and fall apart, but stronger specimens will overcome the ice. Monsters fueled with blazing biological heat will appear to have an aura as cold washes over them. The hissing noise of cold and hot air colliding is unmistakable, making for a perfect description of the interaction. The fiery creature stands in a puddle of water instead of freezing. As steam clears the area around the creatures, you can reveal the monster’s lack of harm and describe its burning physique glowing brighter.
What Is Fall Damage in D&D 5e?
In short, it’s when gravity gets the better. It’s a method for dishing out bludgeoning damage (1d6 per ten feet fallen, max 20d6).
Narrating Fall Damage
Falling bludgeoning damage is something many have experienced in real life, to a degree. It knocks the wind out of you at its best and obliterates you at its worst. You can best narrate it by describing the hits you sustain on the way down or the pain as you wallow in whatever mess you land in. Spitting out teeth as you cough sand out of your lungs from landing in a dune is one example. It would be common to suffer a compound fracture from a fall or to hyperextend an elbow or knee trying to catch yourself.
It’s the feeling of falling that you want to focus on, like the butterflies in your stomach as you lose balance or control and begin to fall into gravity’s power. There is a helplessness in the fall as you try to keep your balance and not spin in the freefall.
What Is Fire Damage in D&D 5e?
Fire is one of D&D 5e’s elemental damage types. Spells and abilities involving fire are among the most common in the game. Many dangerous monsters are abyssal in nature, resisting fire or being entirely immune to it. Suffering fire damage can happen as a result of extreme heat, lava, molten ore, smoke, cinders, overheating, or burning in flames.
The main thing with fire is the description of its consumption of whatever is fueling it. Some flames will be a flash in the pan, so to speak; others will linger while generating smoke and cinders and spreading. Even after fire ceases to damage a creature or area, its effects will persist as smoldering, and heat radiation continues. Objects will continue smoking and glowing in the heat.
A creature automatically succeeds saving throws against extreme heat climates if it has resistance or immunity to fire damage.
Narrating Fire Damage
You can describe fire damage in several ways. One would be the scent of burning hair or flesh. The sound can involve the popping and crackling of whatever fuels the fire, or the roaring of flames. Think about bacon in a frying pan with popping fat and oil. The feeling of fire from nearby can feel like a wave in the air of intense heat, almost soothing bystanders. Those in the flames may go into shock from the pain and sensory overload.
Hair may shrivel up and burn. The flesh may melt and char. Fire also smolders for a while if it has proper fuel, so I recommend describing the lingering heat even after the fire’s threat has lessened. You have an opportunity with fire damage to describe its effects for many rounds after the primary flames have gone out. Fire may fell creatures and leave them smoldering in flames for many rounds of combat, lighting the area in a somber glow.
There may be smoke and cinders in the air that catch on clothes, skin, and eyes to prick with pain and possibly start peripheral fires. Smoke chokes and suffocates, so make sure you describe the burning in the lungs and the coughing and wheezing response.
Molten ore can feel almost claustrophobic due to the inability to tear it off without risking further burns. Catching fire or being covered in molten material can instill great fear in a creature, so describe it. A creature may panic and attempt to roll around and remove it. A creature may also lose its mind as it runs in random directions or to a water source. Anything carrying water may pull it out to attempt dousing the flames. Seeking dust or sand would also make sense.
Some creatures and objects may burn in interesting colors. If you’ve ever thrown garbage into a campfire that you probably should’ve packed out, you’ve seen the deceptively beautiful colors that flames can become. Monsters that may burn in interesting colors might include oozes, trolls, or constructs. Those are a few examples, but you can decide if a creature burns in a different color. Smoke could also be described in varying spectrums to the eye.
Magic items that don’t burn could give off interesting auras of resistance or appear to burn in beautiful colors despite them not being consumed. This can add to their supernatural natures. Glowing is another part of describing fire damage. An object that isn’t destroyed may still glow with intense heat and be hot to the touch.
In the case of an explosion, fire won’t be blasting anyone to pieces; that’s typically thunder damage. Fire is often a byproduct of an explosion, but it doesn’t have force behind it. This is why Fireballs don’t blow anyone back as a Thunderwave does. Fire spells may generate explosive noises, for the same reason. You can see smoke for miles, but fires won’t be audible beyond the immediate area. A fire’s glow at night, however, would be well broadcasted. Fire at night and smoke at noon make for sure signs of a fight or event.
A creature whose physiology is entirely made of water or is suited to extreme cold or heat may resist or be immune to cold damage. Fire Elementals, for example, are composed entirely of fire. They shrug off cold damage as their body heat cancels out the cold. The Remorhaz is a great example, too. Its species has adapted to burrowing in the deep snow of cold climates using its ability to generate intense heat. Fire and cold with both have no effect on a Remorhaz due to it living constantly with both.
Creatures vulnerable to fire damage are likely made of hay! They would burn up so fast that it’d be as if they were never there. It’d be like leaving a pile of kindling in the sun all summer, dousing it with gasoline, then lighting it up.
What Is Force Damage in D&D 5e?
Force damage is the manipulation of physics, space, and time to produce a violent effect. It often manifests as otherworldly blasts of energy (Eldritch Blast) or telekinetic forces. It’s easy to confuse force damage with thunder damage, but they are different in their classifications. A Jedi’s use of the Force to lift, push, and otherwise manipulate objects and creatures is a useful example. Using force damage to directly influence a creature will differ from using telekinesis to toss an object with that power to deal bludgeoning damage (another damage type that could be mistaken for force damage).
You can describe force damage as raw magical energy. Magic Missile is an example of a raw blast of magical energy. Eldritch Blast could also be described in this way if you’re not using it as a gift from an ancient fallen god or another patron.
Force damage is sometimes invisible unless it manifests as a visible projectile or floating weapon. Wall of Force and Forcecage are prime examples of invisible force manifestations that seem to exist outside of the usual laws of physics. Those spells, however, are more like constructs of force energy. Dealing force damage involves constructs of force being used to strike foes, such as with spells that manifest floating weapons (Spiritual Weapon, Bigby’s Hand, or Mordenkainen’s Sword). In some ways, force damage could be considered a godly weapon.
Forces of gravity use force damage (it’s in the name). This is evidenced by the gravity-based spells from Wildemount using force damage. Blackholes would use force damage as a pulling and crushing effect. You could think of force damage as physics manipulation to create attraction and repulsive effects. It can also produce energy, as I mentioned with Eldritch Blast, which resembles Iron Man’s repulsor blasts. Cyclops from the X-Men also uses force energy with his eye blasts, dishing out concussive force instead of heat like a laser.
Dimensional shifts or violations of physics tend to involve force damage in 5e. The Etherealness spell is an example. Force damage afflicts the caster if the spell ends while the caster occupies another object or creature’s space, shunting the person to the nearest unoccupied space.
Narrating Force damage
I don’t believe force damage would have a smell or taste in the air around it. Running into a Wall of Force might feel more like trying to force two powerful magnets with the same negative charge together than a solid surface. Magnets are one of my go-to ways of describing force damage. Sometimes that force can puncture skin and armor to inflict horrible damage to a creature.
Getting blasted with force damage hurts. I imagine force damage feels like getting torn apart by gale-force winds. It would feel similar to the damage or earthly weapons if they didn’t bend or break. Alternatively, blasts of force damage might feel like getting tossed around by Magneto from X-Men. If the force is great enough, you might not feel anything at all as you disintegrate into oblivion.
When a creature is resistant or immune to force damage, it may have its own dimensional warping abilities. I think of the Summers brothers (Cyclops, Havok, Vulcan) from X-Men again. They create forceful, concussive energy blasts that each is immune to from the others. They summon energy from alternate dimensions and realities to create concussive blasts, but they can’t use their powers on one another. Deities may have force-canceling auras that cause force attacks to disappear like ripples in a still pond. They may even walk straight through a Wall of Force without effort.
I don’t know a creature with force vulnerability. I imagine it would be a creature that is sensitive to dimensional travel. It might be a monster that barely exists outside of the astral sea. Force damage can banish a creature’s individual body parts until the creature has been completely unmade or banished to the astral plane.
I believe godly beings and ancient horrors are candidates to resist or ignore force damage. Using force damage on them could act like bouncing light off a mirror. I visualize it also as the Borg adapting to phasers in Star Trek. Speaking of phasers and the Summers brothers, force damage could form into energy blasts. These would differ from lasers that produce heat. Force energy will likely be concussive in nature (again, Eldritch Blast and its Eldritch Invocations are prime examples). Bishop, another X-Men character, might resemble a god being able to absorb force and eldritch energy to redirect and utilize it. This may cause a being to glow brightly and show signs of defying gravity as hair waves and body floats.
What Is Lightning Damage in D&D 5e?
Lightning is one of D&D 5e’s elemental damage types. We can think of lightning damage as electrocution. I remember forming a human chain as a kid at the science fair where kids took turns linking arms and feeling the shock that came from the orb that the first kid was touching. I hated it. Some kids think it’s fun to shock themselves mildly. I hate getting shocked after my kid merely goes down a slide at the park and then touches me with static!
Electrocution involves the locking up of limbs that normally rely on signals from the brain. Paralysis can be a temporary or permanent result of a potent shock.
D&D 5e doesn’t have rules for lightning damage being amplified or spread farther by water. Game groups commonly decide that lightning damage has catastrophic effects when water is involved. This also isn’t Pokémon; creatures composed of water do not have vulnerability to lightning damage by RAW. Again, consider whether your group is going to houserule anything regarding lightning and water.
Lightning can also cause burns. Fire damage isn’t the only damage type that burns. Acid and lightning can cause burns. Even cold damage can create freezer burn! Burns may resemble wood-burning videos where electricity is used on tree wood to create art (those videos have caused many people to electrocute themselves, so please don’t try at hom). Characters could gain gnarly scars from lightning damage.
Narrating Lightning Damage
Environmental effects may include fires and glass sculptures. Sand struck by lightning can create beautiful glass. Hairs will stand on end right before lightning strikes, and it’s the same with lightning damage. Even afterward, lightning effects may prolong a buzz in the air that makes everyone feel static on their skin.
Describe lightning damage as a combination of losing control of your body and feeling extreme heat. Organs start twitching, and heart palpitations begin. Lungs may have difficulty contracting to breathe properly.
Visually, lightning is ephemeral. It flashes and then it’s gone. Some lightning damage effects may be prolonged, like Witch Bolt, but many are flashes and that’s it. Describe what it’s like to quickly see someone’s skeleton as their body lights up, but then everything returns to normal visually.
Describe how a character takes a moment to test and regain motor functions after suffering lightning damage. Here’s one hilarious example of losing control of an arm due to an electrical current. Damage should probably result more often in players taking a moment to make sure they’re ok. A Fighter might swing a sword strangely for one or two swings before feeling normal again. This isn’t a mechanical suggestion to make lightning damage better; it’s only a narration tip.
When a creature is resistant or immune to lightning damage, that creature probably doesn’t have a muscle system that relies on electrical signals from a brain to move. Creatures who don’t conduct electricity will also shrug off lightning. Lightning may literally do nothing to a creature as the lightning forks to something else entirely that will conduct it.
I don’t know any creatures that are vulnerable to lightning damage. I imagine they would have delicate motor functions that could go haywire very easily. They may also have an especially conductive body.
The lightning damage type will actually heal some monsters instead of harming them. These creatures are effectively immune to lightning damage, but they go one step further to have their hitpoints restored by it. It’s a rare ability and a valuable one.
What Is Necrotic Damage in D&D 5e?
Necrotic damage is related to real-life necrosis where cells die and rot. Cells instantly or rapidly deteriorate when dealt necrotic damage. It’s the destruction of intangible life force and soul energy. Necrotic damage can cause destruction or siphon life, as with the Enervation spell. Necrotic damage can also involve the destruction of water in a lifeform as with the Blight spell.
Elements in nature may also be susceptible to necrotic damage. Constructs are not living creatures, usually, but they’re not immune to necrotic damage like they are to poison damage. Metal constructs may rapidly age, rust, or otherwise deteriorate.
Some necromancy preserves corpses, speaks with the dead, or heals the living. Necrotic damage is none of those things, focusing instead on the destructive power over life. I would relate necrotic damage to radiation poisoning, but radiant damage may be more accurate for that.
Narrating Necrotic Damage
Necrosis is not pretty (there’s a reason I’m not including an image). You can describe necrotic harm as a sickly feeling in the stomach and intense pain. I imagine the pain like something between acid and freezing off a wart in modern medical practices. Skin will become black and rotten. There may appear to be holes in the skin with blackened grotesque remains inside, like the borehole of an insect into an apple.
The smell of necrosis should be that of rot. If you’ve ever left garbage bags in the sun, left a wet kitchen rag in the laundry bin too long, stacked the dishes too much for several weeks, you know what I’m talking about. The rot has a pungent punch to it. Sometimes it’s an almost sweet scent but without the pleasing aroma of citrus fruits. Molds also come to mind. Necrotic damage may result in skin flaking away in the wind while creating an area odor akin to moldy spores.
Suffering necrotic damage may cause blood vessels to pop into instant bruises and lesions. Veins will bulge and become discolored. Eyes become bloodshot or sickly yellow. Hair turns gray and falls out. Clothing becomes dingy and stinky like a moth-riddled storage closet. Characters carrying food and water may need to restock as their supply becomes rancid and putrid.
When a creature is resistant or immune to necrotic damage, it may already possess dead cells. Undead creatures commonly resist necrotic damage because they no longer possess vitality in their biology. Timeless celestial creatures like Solars are immune to necrotic damage because their purity is beyond corruption. They are stewards and messengers of the gods themselves. The closer you are to godhood, the closer you are to transcending threats that would corrupt your body, like poisons or necrosis. I don’t know of a creature with vulnerability to necrotic damage. The closest thing I can think of is the Blight spell’s potency against plants, snuffing out all moisture from the victim. The necrotic vulnerability would result in what would appear to be the rapid aging and decomposition of a creature to a greater degree than a normal necrotic attack.
Necrotic immunity can be described as a creature functioning like a powerful white blood cell immediately destroying any attempt at corruption. A necrotic projectile attack may strike the creature but suddenly turn to dust in the wind.
Resistance to necrosis may involve extensive work and study with the necromancy, such as the Necromancer Wizard subclass. The resistance can be described as a pig that is already muddy, becoming no muddier from another roll in the mud. Necromancers resist necrotic damage because their bodies are already ripe with corruption. They have not ascended into a state of being incorruptible. On the other hand, a Gentle Repose spell gives insight into what necrotic resistance may be. Necromancy can prolong life and pause decomposition. The power of necromancy can bring life as well as death. Necromancers have harnessed necromancy’s ability to manipulate life and stave off death.
What Is Piercing Damage in D&D 5e?
Piercing damage is one of the three core weapon damage types. Piercing damage is meant to be a precise attack to penetrate flesh and armor to strike vital points. Bites and caltrops are less about precision, but they still penetrate the skin to draw blood and deal damage.
Narrating Piercing Damage
Piercing damage can involve a projectile that bores through a target or remains after stopping, such as a bullet or arrow embedded in a body. Piercing damage will create holes (duh). You can describe the sudden bursts of blood when a melee piercing weapon sticks and withdraws from a target’s body. Blood might gush to the rhythm of a creature’s heartbeat.
Lodging a piercing weapon or piece of ammunition into a creature’s body can inhibit movement. Boring through a creature can create an anchor to a wall or tree, limiting a creature’s movement. In Naruto, one of the Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist had a weapon that worked like a needle and thread for deadly piercing attacks. You can describe a piercing weapon’s initial penetration followed by the sickly sliding of it continuing through.
When a creature is resistant or immune to piercing damage, it’s probably because the creature resists non-magical weapons. There are exceptions, but that sums up the vast majority of resisters. Creatures may have otherworldly bodies that don’t rely on organs or circulatory systems, rendering them resistant to piercing attacks. Piercing attacks that draw blood are effective, so creatures who don’t have blood may shrug off a piercing strike. Large piercing weapons or teeth may act just as much as grinding attacks to cut or grind a body to pieces.
What Is Piercing Damage in D&D 5e?
Though poison is not considered one of D&D 5e’s elemental damage types, it can sometimes overlap with elemental damage types in feats, abilities, and other options that span the elemental damage types. Some poisons may be more like acids if we’re getting technical. Poisons come in four forms for application, according to the DMG: contact, ingested, inhaled, and injury. Savvy nature buffs will know some poisons will actually be venoms, but D&D 5e makes no distinction between them.
By the way, a botched Medicine check could result in poisoning an unfortunate patient.
Narrating Poison Damage
Contact poisons will soak into the skin and cause a kind of necrosis on the surface. This will likely be a burning feeling. Plants like poison ivy are examples of contact poisons. Nicotine is a potent contact poison, too. Though not technically poisons, there are elements in nature that can be harmful or deadly to the touch.
Inhaled poisons will burn the lungs and snuff the life out of a creature. Symptoms can include headache, dizziness, nausea, and tightness in the chest. Coughing and wheezing are common, and there may be difficulty breathing. Skin becomes pale while breathing is difficult, followed by blueness and deep redness in lips and nails. Nasty real-world inhaled poisons include nerve gases that result in foaming at the mouth, coma, then death. Medical first-aid would involve clearing clothing and positioning the person for ease of breathing. There are inhaled poisons that cause flu-like symptoms and take much longer to kill their victims.
Ingested poisons may take the longest to take effect. Poisons frogs and toads come to mind as they ward off predators by becoming lethal to ingest. There are jokes about licking toads for a psychedelic experience. Vomiting may occur as the body tries to deal with an ingested poison, but it’s likely too late or ineffective. Cardiac arrest, organ failure, or seizures may lead to death as a result of an ingested poison. Symptoms may also progress as excruciating pain, then coma, and finally death.
Injury poisons are typically applied with a piercing mechanism like a crossbow bolt or syringe. Snakes use venom that functions in this way, though nature is full of examples. The poisons I know of that work this way are effective in causing blood to clot and die, like turning milk into cheese. When blood can’t pump, death occurs. These types of poisons can be extremely painful. I’ve watched enough wildlife documentaries and YouTube videos to know that the burning, stinging symptoms of a venomous bite can linger for hours and cause heart irregularities.
When a creature is resistant or immune to poison damage, it’s pretty simple to describe: nothing happens. A vulnerability to poison damage would be an accelerated version of the symptoms described earlier, perhaps with awful swelling and panicked flailing. The poisonous compounds act like allergens to a creature, and many will not be affected. It’s probably the most unreliable damage type for this reason. Constructs are notorious for being immune to poison damage. Many demons, angels, and the undead possess resistances or immunities to poison damage and poison effects. Any creature whose body doesn’t function like a humanoid may have varying reactions to poisons as their physiology is so different.
What Is Psychic Damage in D&D 5e?
Psychic damage manifests in unseen ways. It may not even be felt like other damage types, causing harm instead by breaking down a mind.
Senses can become disabled or unreliable, breaking down quickly as the brain is assailed. A creature’s ability to process information and act quickly can also be deterred by psychic damage. Spells like Synaptic Static and Tasha’s Mind Whip clearly interfere with a creature’s ability to function accurately and quickly. These effects could be the result of overstimulating a mind, which is something I’m familiar with from growing up with my brother who has autism. He often prefers to wear headphones to block out noises that would overstimulate and distress him.
The imagination and dreamscape are places where psychic damage can manifest. Psionic attacks can take place outside of space and time. From Naruto, Itachi’s hypnotic genjutsu can cause a person to experience the pain of torture and death thousands of times in the space of mere seconds. This is akin to the Dream spell that can deal psychic damage by terrorizing someone in their dreams. Read more about how to use dreams in your RPG storytelling here. The imagination is a prime place to attack a creature. Several illusion spells deal psychic damage when a creature becomes terrorized to death. Illusions can be as bad as reality if the brain and body believe them to be real.
Brains can be physically attacked by psychic damage. Mind Flayers know all about this. A psionic blast could assault a brain so relentlessly as to destroy the brain entirely. Milder attacks could result in seizures, confusion, or stroke.
Psychic damage has become far more common in recent years as the game has expanded. Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything added more spells that utilize or defend against psychic assaults.
Narrating Psychic Damage
Several psychic spells can result in gruesome demises, such as the potential exploding heads of the Psychic Scream spell (that’s an intense stroke). Most psychic attacks will result in befuddling a creature’s movements and speech. Others will cause bleeding from the eyes, ears, mouth, and nose. Comas can result from potent psychic attacks, or at least a catatonic, unconscious state. Intense migraines can debilitate a creature during a psychic threat. The pain and confusion in the head may cause a creature to ram its own head against a wall in an attempt to clear its mind. Speech may become slurred and incoherent.
Psychic damage could muddle a creature’s mind, causing the creature to believe it’s tasting horrible poison as it eats (believe it hard enough and it’ll harm you). It may even result in happy senses like a favorite childhood treat as the brain is thrown from memory to memory as it deteriorates. Victims of psychic damage may believe their skin is on fire, bees are swarming around their ears, or smell a tasty apple pie aroma in the air (all false, of course). In its mildest forms, psychic damage will cause a creature’s mind to be less focused in a sort of brain fog.
When a creature is resistant, immune, or vulnerable to psychic damage, it may be owed to the nature of its mind. A mindless creature may have little-to-no thoughts or brain activity. Not all creatures have brains, but they can still function as if they did. Psychic attacks against those creatures may be resisted or take full effect. Creatures with powerful, aberrant minds may resist or ignore psychic damage.
What Is Radiant Damage in D&D 5e?
This is the most difficult of damage types for me to conceptualize. I’ve always thought of it as a divine fire or radiation attack, but I believe it’s deeper than that. When I described necrotic damage earlier, I mentioned how celestials, like Solars, are immune or resistant to necrotic damage, thus immune to corruption and decay. They are timeless creatures in a higher state of being. This inspires me to go biblical to try and understand radiant damage.
I believe radiant damage is the power of divinity and astral power. Nature magic can play into the astral power (Druid Circle of the Stars, the Moonbeam spell) while holy magic can use the divine conduit. I’ll focus on the divine radiance for my further analysis.
Biblical accounts of a theophany or angelic visitation have described divine presence like a holy fire. 5e plays into this concept with spells like Sacred Flame. Being in the presence of higher powers can be unbearable, requiring a creature to be transfigured in order to survive the visitation. Biblical higher powers are incorruptible while mankind is fallen creatures who become corrupt and perverse. It’s like there are two forms of life and one is on a whole other level. Divinity’s presence itself seems to be almost unable to withhold the divine power’s cleansing, purging effect on corrupt creatures.
I believe D&D 5e’s radiant damage can be thought of in this way. It’s almost unknowable to a mortal creature as it can’t comprehend what radiant damage is. Mortals can describe what radiant damage does, appearing to burn, banish, or disintegrate any who take radiant damage. It’s like the gods can just erase somebody! The wicked shall truly burn as stubble.
There’s also the effect of sunlight and radiance on horrific creatures like vampires. Creatures of the night can be burned by the sun, and they can’t regenerate or use several of their abilities if they’re in sunlight or suffering radiant damage. My mind goes to the basic Turn Undead and Destroy Undead abilities of every Cleric’s Channel Divinity. Their ties to divine magic allow them to annihilate abominable creatures like the undead. These Channel Divinity abilities don’t explicitly deal radiant damage, but I like to think they have a similar effect as the presence and judgment of divine beings. Angels are tireless being whose bodies perfectly function without the need for sustenance or rest as the mortals require.
I know D&D 5e doesn’t function as a Christian system with a monotheistic god who judges sins, but it seems obvious to me that the biblical writings influenced some aspects of D&D lore and game mechanics. I’m not a scholar of all religions, but I’d love to hear more about other religions and how they might interpret radiant damage and divine wrath in D&D (let me know in the comments).
Narrating Radiant Damage
Radiant attacks resemble the cinematic opening to the World of Light play mode in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. In this sequence, a creature of light named Galeem rains beams of light on the heroes, instantly consuming them in their radiance. An onslaught of radiant damage like this simply obliterates all in its path. It’s the power to unmake creation.
I could argue that “the snap” that Thanos accomplished in Avengers: Infinity War was a radiant attack, even if it resembled more of a necromantic effect. The characters who were snapped away didn’t technically die; they were unmade, and they ceased to exist. Radiant damage can be described as something like a disintegration effect, though it wouldn’t mechanically do so unless the DM was ok with that. Yes, I know that disintegration is associated with force damage, but let’s assume there is overlap in how it could function. I believe force damage is the second damage type that implies a creature has deity-like power. You might think the runner-up would belong to necrotic damage, but I disagree after giving it much thought!
Energy attacks that burn and obliterate could be considered fire damage, but they could be radiant in nature if they don’t actually cause fires. I picture Homeless Emperor from One-Punch Man. His powers resemble the Crown of Stars spell with its floating orbs and radiant damage. Just like Homeless Emperor, radiant attacks can be seen as a weaponized gift from the favor of gods.
When a creature is resistant or immune to radiant damage, you’re probably dealing with a celestial creature with its own degree of heavenly radiance. Celestial creatures won’t be obliterated by radiant damage like terrestrial creatures, but they can be overwhelmed by it if they’re not immune. Radiant damage may seem like a taste of home to an angel. Enough radiance will consume them because they’re still subject to the deities they serve, and you can bet deities pack radiant wrath. Brightness is inherent to radiant damage; this is why radiant attacks and spells sometimes have blinding effects.
Vulnerability to radiant damage would be a sight to see. Only a creature that is completely repulsive to the gods would be vulnerable in this way, perhaps being annihilated on the spot. Even vampires aren’t vulnerable to radiant damage, though they have weaknesses associated with it. A creature that is vulnerable to radiant damage is likely not meant to exist. I picture the way the Light Arrows are used in Zelda: Ocarina of Time to defeat Ganon.
What Is Slashing Damage in D&D 5e?
Slashing damage is one of the three core weapon damage types. Creatures are cleaved, sliced, and diced by rapid slashing attacks. Like piercing damage, slashing damage can be nearly imperceptible for a moment after it’s dealt. An expert with a blade could cut clean through a creature like its hot butter. Natural claws are also common sources of slashing damage.
Maiming and dismemberment are common results of slashing damage. Evisceration and other brutal methods are used by slashing weapons. Decapitation is a clear use of slashing damage.
Narrating Slashing Damage
When a creature is resistant or immune to slashing damage, it’s probably because the creature resists non-magical weapons. There are exceptions, but that sums up the vast majority of resisters. If a creature were to be vulnerable to slashing damage, it would have a fragile structure that could easily be severed.
What Is Thunder Damage in D&D 5e?
Thunder is one of D&D 5e’s elemental damage types. Thunder is the damage type of bombs and blasts, not fire. Explosions are often associated with fire damage, but a true explosion that knocks people around would use thunder damage. Knocking back enemies is common for thunder damage. Sonic sound attacks would also use thunder damage (evidenced by the Silence spell negating thunder damage).
Thunder is also the damage type for sound-based damage. A creature that has a shriek attack will likely deal thunder damage despite not actually having a thunderous explosion in its voice. In this way, Thunder damage can be a subtle ringing noise that causes creatures to quake and fall to their knees with their hands over their ears. This type of thunder damage can likely be confused with psychic damage.
Elemental thunder is famously created by lightning strikes, but it can also describe the noise of a rock slide or crashing wave. Thunder is an intense sound that can physically jolt you around. Creatures harmed by thunder damage may experience ringing in their ears, discombobulation, dismemberment, broken bones, or temporary hearing loss.
Thunder damage could easily be mistaken for force damage. For more on that distinction, read my section on force damage. I learned a lot about what force damage actually was by writing this article.
Narrating Thunder Damage
Describe the sudden bang and knockback as if someone were caught in a brief hurricane. The noise can also be described as a roar or boom. Dust, debris, and loose items will be blasted around the battlefield.
When a creature is resistant or immune to thunder damage, it may not have the ability to hear. It can still get knocked about by a thunderous blast, but sound-based thunder may fall on literal deaf ears. It’s possible to gain immunity to a spell by being deaf if the spell requires a target to hear, by the way. While characters real from the thunder damage, you might describe the ringing in their ears as the sound of audio feedback when microphones are pointed at their connected speakers.
A monster with vulnerability to thunder damage would probably have giant ears and keen hearing. Those eardrums will get bopped and popped by thunderous attacks. You can also picture a creature as ‘fragile’ when vulnerable to thunder damage. Certain objects and constructs, for example, have disadvantage to save against the thunder damage of a Shatter spell. It’s like a tuning fork that can cause glass to shatter, meaning thunder damage isn’t always loud but can also be thought of as sound and vibrations.
Hit Points and Damage Types Are Approximations
Damage is an integral portion of D&D 5e mechanics. We can treat damage types as opportunities to roleplay and narrate what is happening in our story, even if not all instances of damage are literal. Different damage types can create memorable moments for players as their character receive interesting wounds and scars. Everyone loves a compelling scar story. As an aside, I highly recommend experimenting with lingering injuries in your game.
How do you describe damage in your game? I selfishly ask because I want to recycle your ideas for my own games as I describe damage types in action. Cast Message in the comments section below to get a conversation going.
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Oh, and check out this cheat sheet for describing different damage types!
Thanks, and have a great game.