Monday, August 5, 2019

On a Theory of Elements, Energies, and Embellishments for D&D

Dragons in OD&D (and AD&D) each come with a characteristic color and breath weapon (energy) type. In addition, there's a table that gives attack bonuses and penalties in relation to the different elemental types (earth, air, water, and lightning). You'd think there might be some underlying theory for that, but it's very hard to pull out a consistent system for it.

As an exercise, let's pretend that I know nothing about the D&D relations of these things and go back to first principles, assuming an Aristotelian concept of the elements of the universe. We would consider this:

Classical elements per Aristotle

Fire would obviously be related to heat energy and the color red. Water, on the opposite side and following Aristotle, we could relate to coldness, and color it something like blue or green (the color of water and deep ice, and a complementary color to red). Earth we could relate to poison and the color black. Air, in opposition, we could relate to lightning and the color white (note that lightning is naturally white; and Aristotle opined that lightning was "dry exhalation" from cooling clouds, that is, colliding pockets of air).

That seems reasonable and good. However, the color/energy combinations are reversed from what we see in D&D in the two cases of white/cold and blue/lightning. That may be understandable when we think about white-reflective snow layers, and the poetic idea of lightning as a "bolt from the blue".

We may also note that in Chainmail, it seems that fire and lightning are set up as diametrical energy types; wizards must pick one of the two for missiles, and elementals are each affected by exactly one of those two types (air and water by fire; fire and earth by lightning). So with that we might say it is water that gets the blue/lightning relation, and air with white/cold... but at that point we are clashing with (a) the D&D conceit that blue dragons live in the dry desert, and (b) Aristotle's stipulation that air is essentially a hot element, not cold.

Consider also the table of attack modifiers against dragons given in OD&D, below. Note the columns are the four classic element types, oddly with a "lightning" column inserted as an addition. This was retained in AD&D, except that the two lower entries under "Earth" flipped from minuses to pluses. 

OD&D Vol-2 Attacking Dragons Chart (p. 12)

Water and fire seem reasonably like opposing types; they have opposite modifiers in every row except one. Air and fire seem more in agreement, because they never have opposite modifiers, and match in the "Red" row (suggesting hot air?). (This is nicely simpatico with Aristotle). It's harder to draw out consistent patterns with the other elements. The white and blue dragon types both seem friendly to water; while neither is specially attuned to air. Meanwhile, lightning seems opposed to water in the first row, but then synchronous with it in the fourth row.

As an aside, the first-ever depiction of extradimensional planes for D&D, appeared from Gygax in The Dragon #8: it includes a color schematic of all the now-standard planes. The elemental planes exhibit the same ordering as the Aristotelian conceit (above). The colors used are, somewhat unexpectedly: red (fire), green (earth), dark blue (water), and light blue (air).

In conclusion, perhaps the simplest correction on our part (vis-a-vis our first theory from Aristotelian principles) would be to surrender the expectation that complementary colors will be on opposite sides of the diagram above, and correlate air with blue and water (ice) with white. That seems slightly sub-optimal for those of us who are sensitive to color relations, but it might be the best we can do to draw a semi-consistent rule from D&D precedent.

You do not want to know how much time I spent thinking about this.


  1. Delta, the back of a Magic the Gathering card has your answer. Seek it there.

    1. Yeah, I did look at that, although since that's a 5-color system, and not definitively associated with classic elements, I thought I couldn't totally rely on it. Maybe I should reconsider (leave out the green type?).

    2. I don't think it works too well. Black is associated with swamps, which is where black dragons lair but I can't come up with any similarity beyond that. Ditto for green/forests. Blue is islands, water, and tricky magic like illusions and counterspells... Nothing in common with blue dragons. White similarly has nothing for white dragons. Red is really the only one that matches closely.

  2. When it comes to the colors of the elements, it's important to remember that they are part of the natural world. Water and air are both blue because the sea and the sky are both blue, but one is perhaps lighter than the other (and some cultures would have them be both green instead). Earth as green also makes sense in this regard, as it is the color of grass. Fire being red is obvious, although arguments could be made for any number of shades of red and yellow.

    It might also be worth pointing out that OD&D's dragons began in the pages of Thangorodrim (there's a good thread on ODD74 -, although that doesn't really add much to your post beyond just pointing out that they were given specific locations in Middle-Earth.

    1. I agree that things are coherent in that sense, it's that as a graphic design/contrast sensibility it's a bit underwhelming that 3 of the types are so close in tone.

  3. Fire and air are regarded as the active elements, so it makes sense that the flashy wizard attack spells are based on them. Water and earth are considered passive and receptive.

  4. Honestly, I think a lot of it might just come down to the author's personal taste. Exalted, the White Wolf game of demigods and wuxia, has a similarly troubled relationship with the Chinese elements - you can see the inspiration, but some weird shit happened and Air (not originally one of the five elements at all) usurped most of Water's traditional associations, while Water and Earth cannibalized Metal.

  5. A lot of what Gary did was ad hoc - gut level reckoning tempered by play testing.

    In light of this and his ecology philosophy, it makes sense that not everything fits in a mathematical or geometric sense. There’s nothing wrong with the five chromatic dragons per se. They work and their tendencies are easy to remember. They don’t have to be mathematically rigorous to be very playable.

  6. I've always liked blue dragons in the desert, 'cos to me they contrast so nicely the tan/yellow color palette of the landscape. To me they're the color of a stark cloudless sky as they soar over the endless dunes, striking lightning on the hapless denizens of the desert scrambling across the baking wastes far below.

    A real strong azure, cobalt, or turquoise blue is kind of an unearthly color, vs. red, white, green, or black.

    So yeah, aesthetically blue dragons work for me in the desert.