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The PHB makes it clear that radiant damage comes from the Positive Plane and is often associated with the Celestials of the Upper Planes, while necrotic damage comes from the Negative Plane and is often associated with Fiends and the Lower Planes

Damage Types (PHB196)

Necrotic. Necrotic damage, dealt by certain undead and a spell such as chill touch, withers matter and even the soul.

Radiant. Radiant damage, dealt by a cleric’s flame strike spell or an angel’s smiting weapon, sears the flesh like fire and overloads the spirit with power.

Positive and Negative Planes (PHB300)

Like a dome above the other planes, the Positive Plane is the source of radiant energy and the raw life force that suffuses all living beings, from the puny to the sublime. Its dark reflection is the Negative Plane, the source of necrotic energy that destroys the living and animates the undead.

Several cleric spells allow you to choose your damage type between radiant or necrotic, and if spirit guardians is the exemplar, you would make this choice based on alignment.

Spirit Guardians (3rd level conjuration)

You call forth spirits to protect you...If you are good or neutral, their spectral form appears angelic or fey (your choice). If you are evil, they appear fiendish. On a failed save, the creature takes 3d8 radiant damage (if you are good or neutral) or 3d8 necrotic damage (if you are evil).

Destructive Wave (5th level Evocation)

You strike the ground, creating a burst of divine energy that ripples outward from you. Each creature you choose within 30 feet of you...take[s]...5d6 radiant or necrotic damage (your choice)

Forbiddance (6th level Evocation)

You create a ward against magical travel...the creature takes 5d10 radiant or necrotic damage (your choice when you cast this spell).

Other cleric spells do just one or the other type of damage, but there are enough of these that DMs and players making alignment-based choices can find appropriate damage types at most levels:

1st: Guiding Bolt (radiant), Inflict Wounds (necromancy)

4th: Guardian of Faith (radiant)

5th: Flame Strike (radiant), Holy Weapon (radiant)

6th: Sunbeam (radiant), Harm (Necrotic)

7th: Finger of Death (Necrotic), Symbol (Death) (Necrotic)

8th: Sunburst (radiant)

However, at the time of the printing of the PHB and MM, there were no official cleric cantrips that did necrotic damage. This led to NPC's such as the Acolyte (any alignment), Cult Fanatic (any non-good alignment), and Priest (any alignment) being assigned for their principle offensive cantrip sacred flame, which does radiant damage.

Now that Xanathar's Guide to Everything has made official a cantrip that deals necrotic damage (toll the dead), it is possible to replace sacred flame in the stat blocks of evil NPC's with toll the dead.

Are there any balance or other mechanical issues that arise with such a general change?

Are there specific plot issues that might be affected by the use of such NPC's in published modules?

What would the comparative consequences be for keeping sacred flame, but modifying it so that the caster can choose the damage type, as in spirit guardians et al.?

Related: Are positive and negative energy from their respective planes inherently good and evil?

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At lower levels, it might cause balance issues

The Monster Manual, under the general text for the Spellcasting trait (p. 10), says:

You can change the spells that a monster knows or has prepared, replacing any spell on its spell list with a spell of the same level and from the same class list. If you do so, you might cause the monster to be a greater or lesser threat than suggested by its challenge rating.

Taking your example of sacred flame vs toll the dead, the former forces a DEX save, and the latter a WIS save. Both are major saving throws, so this shouldn't be a problem.

However, using the latter vs. the former against an injured foe increases the damage output from d8s to d12s, which when used against lower level parties might increase the difficulty of the creature, as suggested in the quote above.

My gut feeling is that against Tier 1 parties, it might be better just to swap the damage type of sacred flame to necrotic for that "villain" feel, but against higher level parties, swapping it out for toll the dead probably won't make much impact.

As for the fact that you're changing the damage type of sacred flame, this won't really make much difference; if anything, it makes the spell weaker, since, as can be seen on the table of damage types from this answer, necrotic is more often resisted than radiant. If you were proposing making toll the dead deal radiant damage, that might be more cause for concern, but necrotic sacred flame should be fine.

Finally, for completeness, although I haven't seen/played through all of the official modules, I can at least say that I can't think of any characters for whom this change would make a significant difference. I think with this one, it's a case of common sense at the time on a per-NPC basis.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not a particularly strong knock on your answer, but I think when it comes to resisting radiant vs. necrotic damage to assess the strength of the spell, a survey of the Monster Manual is not very interesting if (as it seems to be) this question is about an NPC the players will be fighting; much more important would be a survey of PC class resistances, which is probably much less varied. I don't think it affects your main answer at all, but I thought it was worth pointing out. \$\endgroup\$ – Zhuge Aug 7 at 20:15
  • \$\begingroup\$ While DEX and WIS are both major saving throws, changing from DEX to WIS could shift the difficulty in favor of spellcasters, since they generally have better WIS saves than the martial classes do. \$\endgroup\$ – MikeQ Aug 7 at 21:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Zhuge True, but it still applies to summons and such (such as if the party had a necromancer wizard who had a zombie summon, radiant damage would be more effective against that "summoned" creature); that said, my main argument is about the increase in damage, the damage type is more of a side point \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Aug 7 at 21:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, the damage type is borderline irrelevant. I don't know of any way for low level PC's to get resistance to radiant or necrotic damage outside of being a) an Aasimar, which gets both, or b) a bear totem barbarian, which also gets both. \$\endgroup\$ – RevenantBacon Aug 10 at 18:15
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Changing this spell out should be fine.

Changing what spells are available to a class will generally not impact the strength of the class, only how it feels.

From the DMG (pg. 287)

Modifying a class's spell list usually has little effect on a character's power but can change the flavor of a class significantly.

Considering you're only swapping one spell, and a cantrip at that, for a similar cantrip, the power level of the class should stay mostly the same.

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No

From the monster building rules in the DMG, the offensive challenge of a monster is based on their damage output over the first 3 rounds (on the basis that 3 rounds is about how long combat lasts). Cantrips are unlikely to be the most damaging options a spell caster has. That is, in combat, you would not expect the monster to use either cantrips against the PCs.

If they were, the damage output goes from 13.5 to 19.5 at best, which moves its offensive CR from 1 to 2 and its overall CR up 0.5.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you give more detail on where you got these numbers from? Genuinely curious. Also, was this damage calculation made using the smaller die for the first round of combat (when none is likely to be injured and thus not subject to the larger die?) \$\endgroup\$ – RevenantBacon Aug 10 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RevenantBacon PCs could enter combat already damaged from a previous encounter \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 10 at 21:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are the CRs used here correct? The table (DMG 274) says a CR 1 creature has 9-14 damage per round, not per three (and I'm assuming 13.5 is the avg of 3d8 from three castings of a d8 cantrip). Using damage per round you go from CR 1/4 (4-5 dmg/round) to CR 1/2 (6-8), which I think makes your argument that the increase is minimal even stronger. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Aug 11 at 22:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ Things your answer needs: Where did you get the CR calculations from? Why is it assumed that the PC's start this combat already damaged? How would this affect the challenge of the creature overall? \$\endgroup\$ – RevenantBacon Aug 11 at 22:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RevenantBacon If a poster isn't willing to edit or accept your criticism, just downvote it and move on. Demanding a response isn't constructive. \$\endgroup\$ – Someone_Evil Aug 11 at 22:30

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