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I remember hearing from people who played old D&D about a group of spells that were effective at destroying whatever they were aimed at. I think they were called something like black bolt, green bolt, and blue bolt, and they were pretty much the DMs tool for scaring the players... Or the epic players' tool for scaring the GM. Does anyone know what I'm taking about?

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The most likely origin of these is a mangled account of the Prismatic Spray spell. That creates a long narrow fan of seven shifting beams of colour, red through violet. You roll a d8 to find out which colour has affected a character, on an 8, roll twice and combine. The green beam requires you to save vs. poison or die; the blue to save vs. petrification or be turned to stone.

The spell is quite deadly against low-level characters who can be expected to fail saving throws frequently. It lacks stopping power against characters competitive with the 14th-level Illusionist you need to cast it, who can be expected to make their saving throws most of the time. Arranging to get such a party in several prismatic sprays at once, however, will cause them a lot of trouble.

If that isn't it, they may have been a feature of someone's campaign.

There are no "beam of colour" spells in OD&D, AD&D 1e or 2e, or B/E/M/C/I D&D. There are some attack spells with colours in their name in the first three volumes of the Arduin Grimoire, but they don't form any kind of system of spells. The WFRP supplement Realms of Sorcery is based round different schools of magic that use colours, but it wasn't published until the late 1990s - is that too recent?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I suspect that it's quite likely that prismatic spray is what's being described. Perhaps include a basic description of the deadlier effects? \$\endgroup\$ – Chemus Jun 25 '17 at 11:26
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Nuts! No bolts!

So far as I'm aware the spells black bolt, blue bolt, and green bolt don't exist under those names. I checked the Wizard's Spell Compendium (4 vols.) and the Priest's Spell Compendium (3 vols.), which are the most comprehensive source of pre- spells, covering spells from the game's inception until the mid-1990s.1,2

…But were these players troublesome?

The Dungeon Master's Guide (1977) for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons on Handling Troublesome Players suggests dealing damage to a troublesome player's character via blue bolts:

Strong steps short of [the] expulsion [of the troublesome player] can be an extra random monster die, obviously rolled, the attack of an ethereal mummy (which always strikes by surprise, naturally), points of damage from "blue bolts from the heavens" striking the offender's head, or the permanent loss of a point of charisma (appropriately) from the character belonging to the offender. If these have to be enacted regularly, then they are not effective and stronger measures must be taken. Again, the ultimate answer to such a problem is simply to exclude the disruptive person from further gatherings. (110)

(Obviously, it was a different time.) Were these old school AD&Ders you spoke to troublesome—to use Gygax's phrase—they might've been subject to such blue bolts… and, were they especially troublesome, I can imagine a DM expanding the range of possible bolts to more damaging green bolts or even deadlier black bolts.

An unlikely possibility: Did these players' AD&D PCs have adventures in Gamma World?

The same Dungeon Master's Guide includes conversion notes for TSR's post-apocalypse role-playing game Gamma World, and those notes on Damage explain that a Gamma World weapon deals damage "[a]s shown in AD&D for all weapons except those found only in [Gamma World]. In the latter case, damage is as shown in Gamma World" (114), and the most infamous Gamma World-only weapon is the black ray pistol. The Basic Rules Booklet for Gamma World, 2nd Edition—the earliest edition I own—includes the following description of the weapon:

The ultimate hand-held weapon…. Fortunately, few Black Ray Pistols are available. They instantly kill an organic target not protected by a Force Field but have no effect on inorganic or dead organic matter or on those inside a Force Field. (35)

(Unconventional capitalization preserved from the original.) This reader has always assumed the weapon emits a black ray and that the weapon is not instead, for instance, a ray pistol that's painted black.

Anyway, while absolutely not a spell, the black ray pistol's effect—killing most creatures in one shot, no save—would certainly earn any AD&D adventurer that acquired one a legendary reputation and could be remembered 3 decades later as, instead, a black bolt of a high-level spell.


1 There're no spells in the Priest's Spell Compendium that begin with blue, several that begin with black (69-70), and one—the 3rd-level plant sphere spell greenwood (312)—that begins with green; none, however, are bolts. Similarly, there're no spells in the Wizard's Spell Compendium that begin with blue or green yet several that begin with black (88-91) but—alas—no bolts.
2 I did not, however, go through each of the combined Compediums' nearly 2,000 pages in an attempt to find, for example, Otiluke's blue bolt or Zagyg's most exciting bolt of blackness. Someone more intrepid than I must take on such a herculean task.

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Prismatic Spray seems the most likely, per John Dallman, however, some details make me think that Chromatic Orb might be a better answer. Essentially this was a semi-obscure (it first appeared in Unearthed Arcana), wildly overpowered (IMHO), first-level Magic-User spell that could more-or-less duplicate a single ray from a prismatic spray.

The most interesting thing about it is that it scales up dramatically by caster level, but remains a first level spell. At 12th level, the caster could opt for a black sphere, which caused a save or die effect, and 10th level (amethyst violet) gets you a save or petrified effect, or "merely" paralysis on a successful save.

I definitely used this spell for intimidation effects with players if they ran into an evil wizard, where I wanted to signal that they were outclassed. For one thing, the caster can choose to hold the sphere ready in his hand for quite a while before throwing it, allowing for a "the evil wizard is coming for you holding a sphere of death" dramatic effect.

Aside from the form factor (bolt vs. sphere), which could be adjusted through DM fiat or spellcraft, it sounds like a good match.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Chromatic Orb first appeared in the first edition of Unearthed Arcana, and was one of the things that damaged that book's credibility. \$\endgroup\$ – John Dallman Dec 23 '17 at 6:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ That's right! Totally forgot about that. I had the feeling I had seen it pre-2nd ed. \$\endgroup\$ – ucbpaladin Dec 23 '17 at 17:38
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Had to dig up my very first rpg book to answer this.

By your description I'm inclined to say they weren't colored bolts, but rays and the category of spells is indeed the Prismatic Spells family (Prismatic Spray, Prismatic Wall and Prismatic Sphere).

Prismatic spells were very interesting and most of the time a good way of getting rid of something annoying. In my experience Wall wasn't used much, but Sphere and Spray were always used to devastating effects at tables I played.

References:

  • AD&D 2nd Edition Player's Handbook
    • Prismatic Spray (Pg 235)
    • Prismatic Wall (Pg 243)
    • Prismatic Sphere (Pg 249)
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