Many types of damage can be inflicted on adventurers in the DnD universe, above and beyond the usual weapons-inflicted hazards that are part and parcel of an adventurer’s everyday life.
This world has high magic and eldritch powers, strange beasts, and otherworldly opponents, many of whom have abilities and attack modes that transcend the usual cut and thrust of melee.
Necrotic damage is one of those types.
What Is Necrotic Damage in D&D 5e?
Necrotic damage is a type of damage that inflicts harm by decaying its target. The target in question may be organic or inorganic; both are equally susceptible to this strange attack.
It is associated with dark and negative energies and is particularly aligned with the undead and those skilled in Necromancy. It is the opposite of Radiant damage, a positive and light-based energy often used by heavenly and celestial creatures.
Necrotic damage causes harm through the decomposition and decay of the physical bonds that hold a creature or inorganic target together. This can be seen as a swift process of aging that ends with the withering away and possibly complete destruction of the target area or object.
The Player’s Handbook describes necrotic damage thus:
“Necrotic damage, dealt by certain undead and a spell such as chill touch, withers matter, and even the soul.”
Regarding the game’s mechanics, the damage is administered by the loss of HP, as with similar non-physical attacks. Still, the Dungeon Master can have a lot of fun describing other effects of such an attack.
How to Describe Necrotic Damage
Like most aspects of RPGs, while the mechanics behind the infliction of Necrotic damage is pretty straightforward, describing the process in the real-time moment can be fun.
D&D is all about the imaginative narrative and strange turns of events which you can lay over the more mundane and statistical mechanics that control the game’s structure. This is one of those times when you can really go for it.
If the effect on the character sheet is merely the loss of HP, the actual description of the impact of a Necrotic attack can be more fun, if a bit unsettling.
Living plants will quickly wither and begin to rot away. Inorganic materials may weather swiftly and wear down or crumble away. The flesh may turn from a bruised appearance to a deep black or purple and decay. Solid stone features will break down into smaller rocks and pebbles, and eventually, grit, dust, and metal objects splinter into shards.
The important thing with Necrotic damage, as with all mystical damage types, is to get the context right. Necrotic damage is the antithesis of positive energy, so it sucks the life force out of living things and breaks down the bonds that hold inorganic matter together.
What Color is Necrotic Energy?
The answer to that is simple. It’s up to you. But it is something that you should think about. And if you haven’t already done so, think about the idea of color across the whole magic system of your game.
Every DM and the players themselves can decide what color a spell is. Still, as Necrotic energy is a sinister, unearthly, and thoroughly hostile force, colors such as black, grey, bright purple, or sickly green or yellow might be most appropriate.
People associate various colors with different aspects of life but most associate pale greens, vibrant yellows, and more pastel shades with calmness and happiness, so many negative energies wouldn’t be expected to fall into such a color palette.
You could devise a list of colors associated with a general type of spell or even assign specific colors to individual spells. Or you could allow the spellcaster to choose the color. But it makes sense to work with existing associations, and Necrotic damage will be closely aligned with the color that puts you on edge or is even physically repulsive.
How to Gain Necrotic Resistance
A creature or character can gain resistance to Necrotic damage in several different ways. These are:
- Racial Traits
- Class Features
- Spell Effects
- Magic Items
That said, options are limited regarding resistance to Necrotic damage. Few races have a natural resistance, class options are pretty limiting, and spells that afford such protection are also relatively rare.
Character Races Resistant to Necrotic Damage
Only two playable character races have a natural immunity to Necrotic Damage; even then, these are only available depending on what non-canon rules and reference points you have built into your game. These are — Aasimar from Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Gem Dragonborn (Topaz, specifically) from Fizban’s Treasury of Dragons.
Aasimar have it through their heavenly ancestry, and Topaz Gem Dragonborn have natural ties to the source of negative energy. They aren’t necessarily evil but see destruction, death, and decay as part of the world’s natural cycle. It is only through the destruction of the old that the new has room to grow.
Several character classes offer resistance to Necrotic damage through natural abilities and available training; most are found in the spell-casting ranks. Though not all.
- Barbarian: Path of the Totem Warrior (Player’s Handbook) – Totem Spirit (Bear option only)
- Monk (PHB) – Empty Body
- Paladin: Oath of the Ancients (PHB) – Aura of Warding (From spells)
- Sorcerer: Wild Magic Sorcerous Origin (PHB) – Wild Magic Surge (On a roll of 71-72 only)
- Warlock: Fiend Otherworldly Patron (PHB) – Fiendish Resilience (Choose following a rest)
- Wizard: Abjuration Arcane Tradition (PHB) – Spell Resistance (From spells)
- Wizard: Necromancy Arcane Tradition (PHB) – Inured to Undeath
Outside of the Player’s Handbook, the following paths also give access to resistance to Necrotic damage.
- Paladin: Oath of Conquest (Xanathar’s Guide to Everything) – Invincible Conqueror
- Paladin: Oath of Redemption (XGtE) – Emissary of Redemption
- Ranger: Horizon Walker Archetype (XGtE) – Spectral Defense
- Sorcerer: Shadow Sorcerous Origin (XGtE) – Umbral Form
- Artificer (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything) – Infuse Item (Resistance Armor)
- Ranger: Swarmkeeper Archetype (TCoE) – Swarming Dispersal
Spells to Gain Necrotic Resistance / Immunity
Again, things are sparse regarding gaining access to resistance or immunity to Necrotic damage through spells. Only one is available to lower-level characters, and two are known to only the Paladin and Cleric classes.
- Warding Bond: 2nd-Level (PHB) – Cleric, Paladin
- Aura of Life: 4th-Level (PHB) – Cleric, Paladin
- Invulnerability: 9th-Level (XGtE) – Wizard (Immunity, not Resistance)
Magic Items with Necrotic Resistance
Several magical items also confer Necrotic resistance on the owner/wearer. These are items that have to be sought out or found by chance.
Either you trust to luck and wait for one of these items to turn up on an adventure, say in a dragon horde or sacred relic guarded by all crazy cultists. Or you could discuss with your DM about crafting magic items for the purpose of a quest.
They, in turn, might be able to build a whole series of adventures around the characters’ attempts to track it down.
- Armor of Resistance (Dungeon Master’s Guide)
- Potion of Resistance (DMG)
- Ring of Resistance (DMG)
- Absorbing Tattoo (TCoE)
Spells That Deal Necrotic Damage
If the number of spells that give protection from Necrotic damage is limited, the same isn’t true of those which deal such damage. They are many and varied; some are even found at 1st level.
List of Necrotic Damage Spells
|Cantrip||Chill Touch, Sapping Sting, Toll the Dead|
|1||Arms of Hadar, Hex, Inflict Wounds|
|2||Wither and Bloom|
|3||Life Transference, Spirit Guardians, Spirit Shroud, Vampiric Touch|
|4||Blight, Shadow of Moil|
|5||Destructive Wave, Enervation, Negative Energy Flood|
|6||Circle of Death, Forbiddance, Harm|
|7||Finger of Death, Symbol|
|8||Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting, Illusory Dragon|
Creatures & Necrotic Damage
Most characters will encounter at the hands of monsters that they come across whilst adventuring. As Necrotic damage is an evil form of energy, it is also fair to assume that the monster in question will be some sinister entity or malevolent villain. In the D&D universe, there is certainly no shortage of those.
Creatures That Deal Necrotic Damage
Of course, any creature capable of spell use and armed with the right spell can be considered a creature that deals out Necrotic damage. But aside from that, plenty of creatures wandering the D&D universe naturally have such power.
From the perfectly named Wretched right up to Demon Lords, Necrotic damage can come from the lowliest beast to the most awe-inspiring incarnations of evil. There are plenty to be found in the Monster Manual, but if you are looking for pointers on injecting a bit of a horror theme into your campaign, check out Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft.
A few also have an innate natural resistance, ranging from the more common, lower-level adversary, such as the Ghast, to the, thankfully, much less common, mighty, and malevolent Lich.
Some even have natural immunity, from the humble shadow to the Mummy Lord and Solar.
Necrotic Damage Resistance & the Undead
Although the way that Necrotic damage is used to inflict damage is relatively straightforward, there are other thoughts and considerations that it is worth discussing that stem from the nature of the damage and the type of creature wielding it.
First of all, some have pointed out that if Necrotic damage is a negative force used to harm the living, then indeed, it should also heal the undead—the same as two minuses making a plus in math.
Necrotic damage usually hurts undead too. The Dungeon Master should check the creature statistics and take each one on its merit, but there is no blanket rule to support the idea that it acts as a healing force for those walking the limbo realms between life and death.
However, as is their nature, many undead creatures have resistance or complete immunity to Necrotic damage, such as Ghosts, Vampires, and Mummies.
Take each creature on its own merits rather than assume that because some creatures are closely aligned to the nature of the Necrotic damage source.
And lastly, we need to consider the ongoing effects of Necrotic damage. Again this is something that you and your DM can develop as best suits your campaign.
If we take the rules as they are on the page, the damage is ministered as a loss of Hit Points and happens instantaneously. Everything else, the description, the color, the decay, and the deterioration, is assumed to have no further or ongoing effect. Presumably, it gradually heals and leaves a mark or scar.
However, as a DM, you could impose rules that the healing takes time, a very long time if delivered by, say, a Lich or a Demon, and a Fighter with a withered arm might still have ongoing penalties for many months. You might even pick up a cool nickname along the way. Orlanthi, “the Death-Marked”, or Yelma, “Ghost hand”.
You could also have a system whereby each time you take Necrotic damage, you are pulled further and further into the undead world, turning more evil and perhaps beginning to gain some of the benefits or curses akin to the creatures that live there. It’s your world, have fun with it.
Final Thoughts on Necrotic Damage
As with all aspects of D&D, Necrotic damage adds flavor to the game through the imagination that you have with it. You could fight a Lich, strike it down and note the loss in Hit Points where it hit your character, and quickly head for the pile of loot it had in its lair.
It follows the rules, but it is essentially bookkeeping. And you may even be playing such a game as a few hours’ escape from the day job at the accountancy firm.
Better than the DM offers vivid descriptions of the Lich’s attacks and your heroic defense, of how your swords get past its ancient magics and how it burns away your armor and rots your skin every time it happens to glance your way.
Your withered arm will heal but not for a while unless you can speed things up with some powerful healing magic. Talking of magic, what is in that potion bottle that you can see on the altar that this creature was guarding…
Kendra has always been a hardcore fantasy nerd. Growing up in the worlds of Tolkien, Sanderson, Jordan, and Abercrombie, DnD & board games just came naturally. She and her husband, Bryan, started GameCows.com in 2018 as a fun passion project that just took over their lives. An avid board gamer since childhood and chronic DnD chronicler for more than two decades, she loves to play, write, travel, and learn dead languages.