Chromatic orb is one of the most powerful 1st-level spells in Dungeons and Dragons, with the power to do a whopping 3d8 damage of your choice of acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder damage at a range of 90 feet. If you’re a 1st-level wizard or sorcerer, you should definitely consider learning this mighty damage dealing spell, especially if you plan on joining the School of Evocation or playing a damage-focused character.
Chromatic Orb’s Competition
How does chromatic orb stack up against other 1st-level damaging-dealing spells available to 1st-level wizards and sorcerers? It has a few rivals for damage-dealing potential, but all come with significant drawbacks.
Burning hands deals 3d6 fire damage in a 15-foot cone. As far as game balance is concerned, D&D’s balancing math assumes that this hits two creatures in an average casting. Assuming one creature succeeds on its Dexterity saving throw and one fails, this deals an average of 15 fire damage. That’s pretty good, but its drawbacks hurt it. If you’re close enough to enemies to cast this spell, you’d better make sure this spell kills them. If it doesn’t, now you’re in the line of fire, and most 1st-level wizards don’t have sturdy enough defenses to take very many counterattacks. Also, fire is one of the most commonly resisted damage types in the game. Your garden-variety kobolds and goblins won’t resist this magic, but there are a handful of low-level foes that easily resist fire, like fiends, oozes, and incorporeal undead like shadows and specters.
Magic missile is a spell in almost every 1st-level wizard’s spellbook, and it’s easy to see why. Its missiles always hit, can be spread across multiple targets, can be fired from long range, and deal hard-to-resist force damage. This spell’s biggest drawback is its relatively low damage output; only an average of 10 damage. This is enough to kill some of the weakest monsters with a single casting, but only enough to inconvenience any creature stronger than challenge rating 1/4 or so.
Ice knife is an attractive spell that can be fired from long range and do some area-of-effect damage. If the spell hits its target, the target takes 1d10 cold damage. Then, regardless of if the attack hits or not, the ice knife explodes, forcing the target and all creatures within 5 feet to succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or take 2d6 cold damage. Assuming the spell hits and its area-of-effect affects two creatures and one of those creatures succeeds on its saving throw, this spell deals an average of 12 cold damage.
The spell’s damage type, cold, is resisted by many of the same low-level foes that resist fire damage. Fiends and incorporeal creatures laugh at elemental damage like fire and cold.
The Power of Chromatic Orb
Chromatic orb is a single-target damage-dealing spell best used from long range. For wizards and sorcerers, the power to be far away from enemies is a huge boon. When you cast this spell, you make a ranged spell attack against the target. If this attack hits, the target takes an average of 13 (3d8) damage. The type of damage this spell deals can be chosen from a list of five: acid, cold, fire, lightning, or thunder. This flexibility is chromatic orb’s greatest strength, though its high average damage is impressive, too.
Other high-damage spells like burning hands and ice knife suffer from a restrictive damage type that make them hard to use against certain foes like fiends. Fiends are often resistant or immune to cold, fire, and lightning damage, and with Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus promising some fiend-fighting action, being able to overcome those damage resistances early is a huge boon. In order to get around those resistances, just use acid or thunder damage.
Another treacherously resistant monster type are oozes, and their resistances are hard to predict. Gray oozes are resistant to cold, fire, and lightning, just like fiends—so use acid or thunder! Ochre jellies are weirdly resistant to acid alone, but also immune to lightning—so use fire, cold, or thunder! And black puddings are immune to acid, cold, and lightning, so use fire or thunder!
The reason this flexibility is so important is because the number of spells you can prepare as a 1st-level wizard (or the number of spells you can know as a 1st-level sorcerer) is at a premium. You could learn a different evocation spell dealing a different damage type for every occasion, but chromatic orb allows you to pack all of these different damage types into a single spell, saving your spells prepared list space for more niche spells like detect magic or levitate.
The Cost of Greatness
Chromatic orb isn’t perfect. It comes with one significant drawback: its cost. Unlike most basic evocation spells, chromatic orb has a costly material component. Namely, a diamond worth 50 gp. Fortunately, casting the spell doesn’t consume the diamond—you can use it to cast this spell as many times as you want. Still, 50 gp is a lot to ask a 1st-level character to spend, and you just won’t have this kind of money if you take the equipment and gold offered by your class and background. If you’re a wizard, the Starting Wealth by Class table (in chapter 5 of the Player’s Handbook) starts you off with an average of 100 (4d4 × 10) gp, so this diamond costs half of your starting gold!
This is a bit tricky. If you’re a wizard and roll the average starting gold, you’ll only have enough for your diamond and your spellbook, since both cost 50 gp. You don’t want to go adventuring naked, or without an arcane focus. In order to make this really work for you as a wizard, you’ll need just a little bit extra. 110 gold should do, so a slightly above-average roll will work. If you’re a creating a new wizard and roll at least 110 gp of starting wealth, use this equipment list to outfit your character:
- Small diamond for chromatic orb (50 gp)
- Spellbook, for recording your all-important spells (50 gp)
- No armor (use mage armor instead)
- A staff as an arcane focus (which Jeremy Crawford rules can be used as a quarterstaff in combat!) (5 gp)
- Traveler’s clothes; can’t go adventuring naked! (2 gp)
- Ink pen; no need for ink yet, since you’ll need special arcane ink to scribe spells in your spellbook anyway (2 cp)
That’s just over 107 gp worth of gear. If you roll your starting wealth and get 100 gp or under, or just don’t want to take that chance, consider waiting until you complete an adventure or two. Hopefully you’ll have gained a few extra gold pieces from those adventures, and you can buy a 50 gp diamond in town. If you take the starting gear from your class and background and choose the [background]Noble[/background], you’ll only need to get 25 more gp to afford that diamond.
Things are a bit different if you’re a sorcerer. You only get an average of 70 (3d4 × 10) gp to start, but without that 50 gp spellbook to buy, you can get your 50 gp diamond, a staff as an arcane focus, traveler’s clothes, and an explorer’s kit for all your basic adventuring gear, all for just 67 gp. However, as a sorcerer, you have access to one spell that gives chromatic orb a run for its money—one that wizards will never be able to learn.
The Power of Chaos Bolt
Chaos bolt, a sorcerer-exclusive spell introduced in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, is powerful enough to make chromatic orb look like small potatoes, especially because it doesn’t force you to buy a pricy material component. When you cast this spell, you make a ranged spell attack against the target—and with a range of 120 feet, you have 30 feet more range than chromatic orb. If this attack hits, the target takes an average of 12 (2d8 + 1d6) damage. This attack can deal any type of energy damage, except for radiant or necrotic, based randomly on whichever numbers turn up on the d8s you rolled for damage. You get to choose which number you like best.
However, if the numbers on the d8s turn up doubles, the spell jumps to a new target, potentially doubling your damage. If those d8s from the new bolt turn up doubles, it jumps again, and keeps jumping until it stops showing double d8s. You don’t have control over what damage type this spell deals, which can make it troublesome for dealing with damage-resistant fiends or undead, but the potential for the chaos bolt to leap to a new target is tantalizing.
If you’re a sorcerer and just want to choose starting gear or grab a potion of healing with your starting wealth rather than buying an expensive diamond, chaos bolt may be your best option.
Is Chromatic Orb Right for You?
If you have the money, you can’t go wrong learning chromatic orb. Its single-target damage is practically unrivaled among 1st-level spells, and its flexibility allows you to prepare it as your only damage-dealing spell, giving you room for more interesting utility spells. If money is tight, consider waiting until you’ve completed a few adventures and gained some gold, and then buying its requisite material component.
Have you ever used chromatic orb in D&D? What’s your favorite damage-dealing spell at low levels? Let us know in the comments!
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist and the Critical Role Tal’Dorei Campaign Setting, the DM of Worlds Apart, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and their animal companions Mei and Marzipan. You can find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.