Spells Through the Ages – Damage Types

On the Four Types of Damage in Original D&D

Sort of a short observation today. What follows are all of the spells in the Original D&D Little Brown Books that can cause direct and specific points of damage:
Fire Ball: A missile which springs from the finger of the Magic-User. It explodes with a burst radius of 2" (slightly larger than specified in CHAINMAIL). In a confined space the Fire Ball will generally conform to the shape of the space (elongate or whatever). The damage caused by the missile will be in proportion to the level of its user. A 6th level Magic-User throws a 6-die missile, a 7th a 7-die missile, and so on. (Note that Fire Balls from Scrolls (see Volume II) and Wand are 6-die missiles and those from Staves are 8-die missiles. Duration: 1 turn. Range: 24"

Lightning Bolt: Utterance of this spell generates a lightning bolt 6" long and up to 3/4" wide. If the space is not long enough to allow its full extension, the missile will double back to attain 6", possibly striking its creator. It is otherwise similar to a Fire Ball, but as stated in CHAINMAIL the head of the missile may never extend beyond the 24" range.

Wall of Fire: The spell will create a wall of fire which lasts until the Magic-User no longer concentrates to maintain it. The fire wall is opaque. It prevents creatures with under four hit dice from entering/passing through. Undead will take two dice of damage (2-12) and other creatures one die (1-6) when break ing through the fire. The shape of the wall can be either a plane of up to 6" width and 2" in height, or it can be cast in a circle of 3" diameter and 2" in height. Range: 6".

Wall of Ice:
A spell to create a wall of ice six inches thick, in dimensions like that of a Wall of Fire. It negates the effects of creatures employing fire and/or fire spells. It may be broken through by creatures with four or more hit dice, with damage equal to one die (1-6) for non-fire employing creatures and double that for fire-users. Range: 12"
That's actually it. Some things that I didn't count here: Spells that kill outright (cloudkill, death spell, disintegrate, finger of death). Spells that summon a monster to fight on your behalf (conjure elemental, invisible stalker, sticks to snakes, animal growth). Spells that come later in Supplement I (magic missile, ice storm, prismatic wall, blade barrier, etc.) Phantasmal forces, because it has no specific amount of damage indicated and is otherwise troublesome ("Damage caused to viewers of a Phantasmal Force will be real if the illusion is believed to be real").

So using OD&D Vol-1, there's actually only four ways that you can deal damage to someone -- fire, cold, lightning, and weapons. And this explains why a lot of the monsters have those 4 things specifically called out, for example (from Vol-2):
OCHRE JELLY: The clean-up crew includes Ochre Jelly and similar weird monsters. Ochre Jelly is a giant amoeba which can be killed by fire or cold, but hits by weaponry or lightening [sic] bolts will merely make them into several smaller Ochre Jellies...

BLACK (or GRAY) PUDDING: Another member of the clean-up crew and nuisance monster, Black Puddings are not affected by cold. It is spread into smaller ones by chops or lightening bolts, but is killed by fire...

GREEN SLIME: A non-mobile hazard, Green Slime can be killed by fire or cold, but it is not affected by lightening bolts or striking by weapons...
While to modern eyes those may look like a rather odd and motley assortment of things to call attention to in each case (fire, cold, lightning, and weapons) -- especially in later works like the AD&D Monster Manual -- in OD&D in makes a lot more sense, as it's simply a comprehensive treatment of every damage type that exists in the game. (Compare also to the table for Dragons with respect to their receiving different damage types.)

A couple more observations that we can make from this -- OD&D is actually fairly low in the "wahoo" scale, most spells being fairly subtle in effect, and quite compatible with classic swords & sorcery literature. The four spells above are the "flashiest" things in the game, elements that I sometimes wish weren't there for flavor sake, and yet even those have clear analogs in Conan stories (e.g., fireball, wall of fire; see here). After that, we might say that it's fairly obvious and even lazy game design to thereafter add more spells that just do alternate methods of damage output. When you later add something like magic missile with its untyped damage, then you wind up either in an ambiguous situation with regard to the monsters above, or else a cheesy short-circuiting of the game mechanics, depending on your perspective.


  1. Magic Missile is weapon damage isn't it? Granted it is magical weapon damage but it's weapon damage (at least in the good old days).

  2. There's also a Wand of Cold which produces an effect similar to the later Cone of Cold spell.

    Also, it's nice to see the Arnesonian term "chops" surviving in the black pudding description. I never noticed it before.

  3. JDJarvis: That's a very reasonable adjudication, but not how Gygax interpreted it later in AD&D. Part of my point is how the AD&D system retains those four shout-outs in the monster descriptions, even when you've got all these new spells that dodge those categories. If not magic missile, then in OD&D Sup-I you can point at prismatic wall's untyped damage, etc.

    Hedgehobbit: You're right about the wand of cold, of course; I was intentionally limiting myself to Vol-1 content for time's sake. Probably there's other stuff we could pick on in Vol-2 as well.

  4. While to modern eyes those may looks like a rather odd and random assortment of things to call attention to in each case (fire, cold, lightning, and weapons) -- especially in later works like the AD&D Monster Manual -- in OD&D in makes a lot more sense, as it's simply a comprehensive treatment of every damage mode that exists in the game.

    This is a great observation.

  5. It really is quite interesting to consider (if you care to) that without Chainmail (where we get fireball and lightning bolt) there really would be ABSOLUTELY NO "direct damage" spells in OD&D (I consider walls to be barriers one shouldn't cross, after all...just used against different types of opponent, i.e. wall of fire versus a frost giant). Without the later supplemental spells, magic-users take on a much more "utilitarian" role, rather than "artillery" (which, granted, was their main role in the Chainmail war game). I think that's pretty neat.

    Which is, of course, why I've cut nearly all "direct damage" spells from my own version of D&D.
    : )

  6. ^ Yes, I agree with that, and think that's a completely legitimate direction to move in. Sometimes I consider that but can't quite bring myself to cross the line. I yearn for the ambiguous status of magic in works like Conan and Fafhrd & Gray Mouser (maybe it's just a trick, or a chemical?), yet probably it wouldn't work as well in an RPG with PC wizards (echoes of why I delete clerics).

  7. The attacking dragons damage matrix on page 12 of M&T does kinda do a runner on this, as it includes water, air, and earth in addition to fire and lightning, but omits cold.

    Generally, I'd be fine with dropping it and and compulsive must-systemitize-all-four-elements behavior generally, but it does then leave a sour taste if you retain classically divided elementals and then have them not line up against dragons (especially since enterprising wizards will exploit dragons elemental weaknesses by summoning appropriate elementals, as that becomes the most general elemental attack spell...)

  8. ^ I totally agree with that, well put. The Dragons section is generally kind of out-in-left-field in a lot ways like that (hit points, subduing, etc.)

    1. Apart from wondering why Gary would waste the space to introduce a elemental modifier matrix that had very minor effects, and seems unnecessarily complex and specialized, I wanted to ask about these subdual rules:

      Is there any downside to subdue a dragon, the way they are written? It seems to me there is none, and plenty of upside - if you are lucky, after the first hit you roll low on percentile die, and collect a dragon companion without much of a fight. Even if you are not lucky, the way these rules are written they can only shorten the fight. By the time you would have killed the dragon, you would have a 100% chance to subdue him. And a shorter fight means less attacks from the dragon and higher survival chances. Plus a dragon that will serve you or that you can sell for a fat amount of loot, which even means more XP if I am not mistaken?

      This seems to make this a badly designed rule. Would you not expect a downside that the characters would have to consider for all these upsides, like less likely to hit as you have to avoid sharp edges? Or am I missing something here?

    2. I basically agree with those criticisms.

      The best counterargument I can form is that the subdual seems to require melee attacks only (somewhat clearer in AD&D), so ranged archery, flash-bang spells, etc., seem taken off the table. Related, there's a note in OD&D Vol-2 that only 8 PCs can try to subdue (wiping out benefit of big entourage).

      It's interesting in the pre-draft ("Dalluhn Manuscript") dragons aren't even in the main monster listing, they're in an appendix like they're an entirely separate sub-system of the rules.

      Personally I've been convinced by friend Paul that it's not a great system, and would prefer to wrap the idea into a general rule for morale and surrender by any monsters.

  9. Nice post, even with the dragons.

    @I yearn for the ambiguous status of magic [...]

    "Fscking Wizards, how do they work?"

    Using all the rules in AD&D for Magic-Users makes them pretty weird. More elaborately designed books to hold high level spells, queer sympathetic material components (a gummed eyelash for Sleep), the amount of rest and preparation time to force them into your mind, the random durations and effects, the arbitrary limits on targets, inability to directly copy another Wizard's book because your Fireball really is different to everyone else's, and copying your own spells is supernaturally difficult, the unpredictable learning of spells, strict limits on knowledge, the difference in how monsters use it all, ....