Apart from the usual physical damage administered in quite evident and logical ways — a rock falls on your head, or an angry goblin is repeatedly poking you with a sharp stick — there are many other, less mundane, more mystical damage types. Radiant Damage falls into this category.
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What is Radiant Damage in 5e?
Radiant Damage is a force that emanates from creatures or places, often invisible, sometimes even unfelt until the moment that damage is done to those susceptible to it. It is best to think of it as divine magic that circles holy people and places.
It is the opposite of Necrotic Damage, which is its unholy twin, and it usually affects negatively aligned creatures such as demons and the undead.
This divine energy can cause harm to those of a less-than-holy nature either through spiritual or physical damage, perhaps both. The Player’s Handbook describes it as follows:
“Radiant damage, dealt by a cleric’s flame strike spell or an angel’s smiting weapon, sears the flesh like fire and overloads the spirit with power.”
This description is an excellent place to start, but as Radiant Damage is essentially aggressive magic metered out for divine purposes, unlike more obvious damage types, such as Lightening Damage, describing it fully and in each and every aspect and eventuality can be far from simple.
How Radiant Damage Works in 5e
The Player’s Handbook further describes Radiant Damage as a searing pain. Again a good starting point, but due to the numerous and varied gods, spirits, and celestial beings to be found in DnD, the actual nature of the damage, its effects, and how it affects the target are many and varied.
Each higher power able to use it, or any damage inflicted in that deity’s name, will also vary to keep in with the nature of that being. Also, there will often be much more to the damage than the target can see and feel.
Although we have “searing pain” as a starting point, this is just a handy starting point, and you shouldn’t think that this is akin to the effects of Fire Damage. A better way to think of Radiant Damage is like radiation burns or, even more metaphysically, the attributes and physical nature of the target being slowly destroyed through a wave of existential harm.
As this is a game of the imagination where players make decisions and respond to gameplay through the description of what is taking place as narrated by the Dungeon Master, we need to try and capture the essence of how Radiant Damage works for the player’s benefit.
As Radiant Damage is more spiritual in its attack than physical, it is a good idea to describe how the five core senses might be affected by it.
These are a few suggestions as to how it might work. They are a guide to show you the information that might help the players understand what is happening. Feel free to use these or create your traits regarding how Radiant Damage might interact with the players.
What Does Radiant Damage Look Like?
Any character or creature immersed in the Holy light or wave of energy that causes Radiant Damage might appear as if spiraling swirls of burns were crawling across their skin, perhaps in a pattern similar to a sigil from the diety or being who is the source of the power.
The eyes of the target glow in wild colors, or their mouth omits bright light. Luminescent lines trace the outline of the target’s veins or create a colorful aura around them.
What Does Radiant Damage Sound Like?
Maybe a long drone like the tumbling of an avalanche or rock fall, the strike and echo of a large bell, or the shimmering of thousands of wind chimes. Or a low, constant drone like the endless note of a musical instrument.
What Does Radiant Damage Feel Like?
It could take the form of a sharp pain running not through the target’s flesh but their very bones or like an electric shock sparking throughout the body.
Maybe it is just like a constant wave of nausea or makes the target lightheaded and euphoric, not realizing the damage done to them.
What Does Radiant Damage Smell Like?
This could change with the nature of the deity, the energy source. Maybe the smell is of burning or rotting vegetation, a fresh gust of air, or the smell that is ushered in after a rain storm. It may be delicious and appealing, or it may be acrid and bitter.
What Does Radiant Damage Taste Like?
This could leave that metallic, blood-like taste in the target’s mouth, or it could be that of the purest spring water or an acrid or spicy aftertaste.
The Effect of Clerical Domains on Radiant Damage
One way of getting to the heart of the exact nature of the effect on the body and senses is using Cleric Domains. Not all such damage will come from a Cleric, but the Domain pathways they follow describe a specific aspect of the world, and all deities and higher powers will be aligned to one or another of these loose realms of creation.
If you decide in advance the Domain, which is the source of energy wielded, you can describe the Radiant Damage more easily. This will add more color to the turn of events and a certain amount of consistency and logic to your world.
Remember that just because this is a fantasy world doesn’t mean it shouldn’t have a certain internal logic. If events are too illogical or random, it will seem as if you don’t care about the world you have created, and the players will need help to learn about the world around them.
Here are a few examples of the descriptions of Radiant Damage as generated from various Domain sources.
A dull pain builds up in the head, radiating down the next and spine, growing in intensity and feeling as if they are being constricted and their nervous system is being crushed.
On the outside, both the target and anyone nearby will hear a gathering of ancient, disembodied voices chanting old songs and relating epic tales in a cacophonous and chaotic chorus.
A strong and pleasant smell of wildflowers surrounds the target, quickly turning into the smell of rotting wood. Gentle bird song morphs into the abrasive cawing of rooks, and the target is slowly wrapped in a whirlwind of leaf mold and decaying matter.
A shrill and powerful blast from a warhorn cuts through the air, audible to all but causing the target to write with pain, clutching their ears to keep out the noise. The target can feel invisible weapons crashing down on them, and seas of blood obscure their vision.
The smell of newly exhumed cadavers mixes with the scent of ancient earth. The target’s hearing is filled with the onerous thud of a single bell ringing, and their vision is obscured by thick fog—a fog which also sears their flesh with holy retribution.
The target’s vision is obscured as the night seems to fall, and slowly, stars appear to light up that darkness. But the stars grow in intensity, causing pain as the shards of twilight slashes the target’s flesh. The smell of night-blooming plants, jasmine, and honeysuckle adds a sweet contrasting perfume to the air.
These are just a few examples of how you can create a logical description to go along with the Domain that is being tapped as the energy source. Have fun with it; there is no limit to what you can come up with, but keep it logical, as I said above.
Radiant Damage Spells in 5e
There are many spells that can meter out Radiant Damage. Some of these require a Constitution-based saving throw on the part of the target, and some work if the caster merely attacks with a weapon or the spell is cast successfully.
Most of the spells based around the effects of Radiant Damage are only available to Paladins and Clerics. But this makes sense, and Clerics derive their powers directly from the deity they serve, and Paladins are just the martial off-shoot of the Clerical path.
That said, a small number of such spells are available outside the Cleric and Paladin classes (some are excluded from those classes’ spell options.
Though, in this case, these spells are often only available at higher levels, you might have to wait a while to glory in the use of Radiant Damage dealing spells. But it doesn’t mean that there aren’t options.
Monster Interactions with Radiant Damage
There are very few creatures that directly interact with Radiant damage. There is little natural resistance to it, and even fewer have innate immunity.
And few creatures out there are naturally vulnerable to Radiant Damage. The result is that Radiant Damage is a reasonably consistent quantity; in most cases, the damage from it is neither increased because of the target’s natural vulnerability nor drastically reduced through an inbuilt resistance.
Some other things help to understand when dealing with Radiant Damage. Firstly, although Radiant Damage may often look and permeate as if it were a beam or an array of sunlight, it should not be treated as such.
Radiant Damage from such a source is less of a physical force and does nothing other than harm a creature or object. If you are wondering how Radiant Damage fits in with rules such as a Vampire’s sunlight hypersensitivity, the answer is that Radiant Damage has no effect on such a trait.
Secondly, there are rules covering Holy Damage. Does Radiant Damage fall into this category? The answer is a resounding yes. Radiant Damage is divine, and the opposite of necrotic damage and so falls squarely under the category of Holy Damage.
Final Thoughts on Radiant Damage
Like many aspects of DnD, Radiant Damage can be played by the rules and guidelines found on the rulebook pages, or you can make it more colorful, epic, and unique to your world. That is the real fun of RPGs; the rules are there, not to be broken; that old cliche doesn’t apply here, but to be built on.
You could tell an evil assassin that the statue at the end of the room is holy and radiates damage that affects only her.
Or you could tell her that as she nears the ornate carving of an Elven dancer at the end of the room, her sense fills up with the smell of fragrant roses, and the sound of a babbling brook obscures her hearing.
But, before she has time to react, you tell her that the sound turns into a raging torrent that pounds through her head, oppressive and nauseous, and her sense of smell is overpowered by sickly sweet perfume. She feels as if invisible vines are crawling up her body, pulling her down towards the ground, and thorns are piercing her flesh, causing no small amount of damage…
One of those options sounds like following the rules—the other sounds like role-playing. I know which one I would go for.
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. She is also a professional content writer at SlashGear.com