A ghostly, skeletal hand reaches out and claws a young warrior. They shriek in pain as tendrils of dark energy coarse through their skin where the bony fingertips scraped.
The lich laughs menacingly, toying with his victims before converting them into his undead army.
Today we’ll be discussing necrotic damage, the favored damage type for all your undead and unholy needs.
We’ll be covering what exactly it is, which creatures and spells you can expect to deal it, and a few other effects that might come along with it, amongst other things.
For a list of all damage types, check out our article on Damage Types in 5e.
What is Necrotic Damage?
Necrotic damage is a type of damage focused on decay and death. It is very much the equivalent of dark energy within the realms of 5e, and is often viewed as the antithesis to radiant damage, or light energy.
While most damage types are pretty straightforward in the way that being lit on fire or hit with a hammer just hurts someone, necrotic damage is often something that manipulates a creature’s life force.
This is well represented in the spell Vampiric Touch, which siphons life energy from your target. The 3rd-Level necromancy spell covers your hand in shadowy energy and has you make a melee spell attack by reaching your hand out and touching a target.
On a hit, you deal 3d6 necrotic damage and heal half of the damage dealt. The spell also lets you keep making the attack as an action on your turn while you maintain concentration, which is really awesome for a spell, but not as important for the description.
Most instances of necrotic damage have a very similar theme, utilizing dark energy to drain a foe of their life force.
Can I Heal Necrotic Damage?
As a general rule, yes, you can heal any damage dealt to you. No damage types have special properties that always come into play (i.e. fire damage doesn’t always set you on fire). However, there are some instances of necrotic damage that reduce a target’s hit point maximum.
Let’s look at another example.
Creature Feature: Vampire
Medium undead (shapechanger), lawful evil
AC 16 ; HP 144; CR 13
Vampires have a slew of abilities, including the ability to change shape into a tiny bat or a medium cloud of mist, the ability to regenerate if not in sunlight or running water, and the ability to walk on ceilings or walls without making any ability checks. Today, we’re really only focused on one of their attacks, which reads as follows.
Bite (Bat or Vampire Form only). Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one willing creature, or a creature that is grappled by the vampire, incapacitated, or restrained.
Hit: 7 (1d6 + 4) piercing damage plus 10 (3d6) necrotic damage. The target’s hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the necrotic damage taken, and the vampire regains hit points equal to that amount.
The reduction lasts until the target finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0. A humanoid slain in this way and then buried in the ground rises the following night as a vampire spawn under the vampire’s control.
As you can see, we’re specifically dealing with a reduction to our hit point maximum. Mechanically, this is different from damage that can’t be healed, even if it feels just as devastating.
Note that this specific bite attack actually deals more than just necrotic damage. We deal with the piercing damage as normal, and then reduce our HP maximum by the necrotic damage.
In the game, it looks something like this:
- Bilrin starts combat with full hit points, his hit point maximum is 91.
- Bilrin is bitten by a vampire for 7 piercing damage and 10 necrotic damage, his current hit points are reduced to 74, while his hit point maximum is reduced to 81.
- After a few rounds of combat, Bilrin’s current hit points are at 23, while his hit point maximum has been reduced to 51.
- Bilrin’s paladin teammate goes to heal him with Lay on Hands for 65 points, but is informed by the DM that he can only be restored by 28 hit points.
Bilrin might need some help if he’s going to make it out of this combat alive, and he’s going to need even more help to make sure he doesn’t get converted into a vampire spawn himself. Luckily, there is a way to get around this.
One spell that can revert a hit point maximum reduction is Greater Restoration, a 5th-level abjuration spell. The spell very clearly states that you can end one effect reducing a creature’s hit point maximum. In the case that multiple vampires had bit Bilrin, that is still considered to be the same effect, a vampire’s bite.
However, if there had also been a clay golem invited to the combat, and it’s slam attack had reduced Bilrin’s hit point maximum as well, that would be another effect needed to be cured.
The clay golem is a good example of this effect being present in more than just necrotic damage, but hopefully, you never have to face two such abilities at the same time.
What kind of a cruel DM would do that *looks around the room suspiciously*.
Which Creatures Deal Necrotic Damage?
Typically, undead creatures and evil spellcasters are going to be the main sources of necrotic damage. The necrotic damage dealt by these creatures is typically either the result of a spell, or an added effect of an otherwise mundane attack like a bite.
The vampire above is a prime example, but below are some more examples of creatures that deal necrotic damage, along with their attacks which deal said damage.
Medium undead; CR 1
AC – 12
HP – 22 (5d8)
Speed – 0 ft., fly 50 ft. (hover)
STR 1; DEX 14; CON 11; INT 10; WIS 10; CHA 11
Life Drain- Melee Spell Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft., one creature. Hit: 10 (3d6) necrotic damage. The target must succeed on a DC 10 Constitution saving throw or its hit point maximum is reduced by an amount equal to the damage taken. This reduction lasts until the creature finishes a long rest. The target dies if this effect reduces its hit point maximum to 0.
The life drain ability is a pretty common one, shared by many different ghost, ghast, and wights. Basically life drain is the standard necrotic damage / hit point reduction ability, although many variations of the same named ability exist. Also, higher CR creatures tend to deal more damage with their attack.
Medium undead; CR 15
AC – 17
HP – 97 (13d8+39)
Speed – 20 ft.
STR 18; DEX 10; CON 17; INT 11; WIS 18; CHA 16
Rotting Fist. – Melee Weapon Attack: +9 to hit, reach 5 ft., one target. Hit: 14 (3d6 + 4) bludgeoning damage plus 21 (6d6) necrotic damage. If the target is a creature, it must succeed on a DC 16 CON save or be cursed with mummy rot.
The cursed target can’t regain hit points, and its hit point maximum decreases by 10 (3d6) for every 24 hours that elapse. If the curse reduces the target’s hit point maximum to 0, the target dies, and its body turns to dust. The curse lasts until removed by the remove curse spell or other magic.
Being cursed with mummy rot means not only that your hit point maximum is reduced, but also that you can’t regain health, no matter what the source of damage is. The fearsome mummy lord has a pretty vicious curse, but that’s not the only way it’ll get you. It also has a list of legendary actions at its disposal, one of which also prevents the regaining of hit points.
In addition, this creature is a pretty skilled spellcaster, with the ability to cast a series of spells, some of which do necrotic damage. Maybe just… don’t mess with mummies?
Medium undead; CR 21
AC – 17
HP – 135 (18d8+54)
Speed – 30 ft.
STR 11; DEX 16; CON 16; INT 20; WIS 14; CHA 16
Necrotic Legendary Action:
Disrupt Life – (Costs 3 Actions). Each non-undead creature within 20 feet of the lich must make a DC 18 Constitution saving throw against this magic, taking 21 (6d6) necrotic damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
Liches are extremely powerful spellcasters, with a wide list of spells at their disposal. A list that is really at the discretion of the DM, no matter what the stat block says. Still, while you’re dodging lair actions and spells, you still have to worry about their legendary actions.
The Disrupt Life action is a pretty nasty AOE ability, even if it doesn’t have any additional effects stacked on top of it. If it does this every round, you’re going to be feeling the effects, and quite frankly, wishing you were up against a measly Mummy Lord.
What Spells Deal Necrotic Damage?
You’ve been awesome, reading through the article and my jokes. You get a full list.
- Chill Touch; Necromancy Cantrip
- Sapping Sting; Necromancy Cantrip
- Toll the Dead; Necromancy Cantrip
- Arms of Hadar; 1st-Level Conjuration
- Hex; 1st-Level Enchantment
- Inflict Wounds; 1st-Level Necromancy
- Life Transference; 3th-Level Necromancy
- Spirit Guardians; 3th-Level Conjuration
- Spirit Shroud; 3th-Level Necromancy
- Vampiric Touch ; 3th-Level Necromancy
- Blight; 4th-Level Necromancy
- Shadow of Moil; 4th-Level Necromancy
- Destructive Wave; 5th-Level Evocation
- Enervation; 5th-Level Necromancy
- Negative Energy Flood; 5th-Level Necromancy
- Circle of Death; 6th-Level Necromancy
- Forbiddance; 6th-Level Abjuration
- Harm; 6th-Level Necromancy
- Finger of Death; 7th-Level Necromancy
- Symbol; 7th-Level Abjuration
- Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting; 8th-Level Necromancy
- Illusory Dragon; 8th-Level Illusion
- Time Ravage; 9th-Level Necromancy
Naturally, not all of these are just raw damage-dealing spells. Most have something else going for them, and there’s a lot of variety to be seen here.
Abi-Dalzim’s Horrid Wilting sucks all of the moisture from living creatures in its vicinity, dealing a bunch of damage and just killing plants.
Symbol is a spell that requires you to set a glyph which can be triggered at a later time. Only one of the possible trigger effects actually deals necrotic damage, but the specific effect deals 10d10 necrotic damage to each creature within a 60-foot radius, that’s potentially hundreds of victims.
Chill Touch deals 1d8 necrotic damage and stops your target from regaining health.
There are 103 creatures with resistance , 76 creatures with immunity, and only 2 who are vulnerable to necrotic damage. This is a damage more frequently associated with evil, so your party probably won’t be dealing as much.
Of those resistances, 69 of them are in the undead family, a little more than half. The immunities are spread out a bit more evenly, but the biggest portion still goes to the undead creatures.
As for you, the player, getting resistance to necrotic damage is pretty simple. You’ll either want to pick it up from a class feature that grants a myriad of resistances, such as the Path of the Totem Warrior’s bear totem feature at 3rd level, or pick it up through your race. Items and spells also work, but those should be geared more towards limited interaction with necrotic damage.
If your DM has made it clear that this will be an undead-heavy campaign, consider choosing the Topaz ancestry as a Gem Dragonborn, one of the dragonborn variants introduced in Fizban’s treasury of dragons. Of course, you can always just go with an Aasimar, if being a holy avenger is more your style. The half-celestials also gain resistance to necrotic damage as a racial feat.