Deep Dive - Fireball Spell

Deep Dive - Fireball Spell

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You know what’s a blast? That first time you get to launch that orb of angry fire at a horde of kobolds and laugh maniacally at the face your GM makes when he informs you that they are all dead.

The Fireball, one of the greatest spells ever crafted to ensure that people were going to have a bad day on the Material Plane. But just how did it get its start? And how has it changed through the many editions of DnD? In AD&D, the Fireball is a 3rd level spell that can pack a huge punch at later levels. . . not so much when you first get it though, plus you never wanted to cast it when there was treasure to be found.

The history of the fireball in tabletop gaming reaches back to 1970, where the first incarnation can be found in a war game created by Leonard Patt (a good, albeit quick, background on Patt’s fireball can be found here). We aren’t going to get into the debate about how Gygax stole the fireball, and many many other things, from Patt’s game. My opinion is that tabletop gaming was, and still is, like Linux.  People were provided with a base operating system, use what they need, create what they want and it just keeps growing and getting better.

With the advent of D&D and its complex set of rules, the fireball was “born” within the context of gameplay. Magic Users were typically very weak early level characters in OD&D (A d4 hit points per level will do that to you). Mostly seen as a support class, magic users stood in the back, had some basic buff spells and spells more tailored towards role playing outside of combat. The only attack spell of any consequence was the magic missile (1d6+1). In OD&D, at 5th level, the magic user starts his/her transition into an offensive character, and it begins with the fireball. 

D&D (First Edition) Fireball

Spell Level 3
Duration 1 turn
Range 24"
Explanation/Description: A missile which springs from the finger of the Magic-User. It explodes with a burst radius of 2". 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" [OD&D Vol-1, p. 25]

At first glance the range of the fireball looks ridiculous. 24” would have you casting a fireball that could travel a maximum of 2 feet. Suicide by fireball seems like a pretty painful way to go. Distance is clarified in the PHB as 1” equaling 10 feet indoors and 10 yards outdoors. AOE is always calculated using indoor distance. So we go from what looks like a real small distance to an incredibly large distance. Being able to cast a fireball the length of two football fields when you are outdoors is quite extreme. I don’t see many opportunities to cast a fireball 240 ft indoors, but the wizard has the ability to do so if needed. A 20 ft radius has not changed since this original version.

AD&D Fireball

Range: 100 feet+1 foot per level
Duration: Instantaneous
AOE: 20 foot radius sphere
Components: V,S (Sulphur & Guano)
Casting time: 3 segments
Saving Throw : 1/2
Explanation/Description: A fireball is an explosive burst of flame, which detonates with a low roar, and delivers damage proportionate to the level of the magic-user who cast it, i.e. 1 six-sided die (d6) for each level of experience of the spell caster. Exception: Magic fireball wands deliver 6 die fireballs (6d6), magic staves with this capability deliver 8 die fireballs, and scroll spells of this type deliver a fireball of from 5 to 10 dice (d6 + 4) of damage. The burst of the fireball does not expend a considerable amount of pressure, and the burst will generally conform to the shape of the area in which it occurs, thus covering an area equal to its normal spherical volume. [The area which is covered by the fireball is a total volume of roughly 33,000 cubic feet (or yards)]. Besides causing damage to creatures, the fireball ignites all combustible materials within its burst radius, and the heat of the fireball will melt soft metals such as gold, copper, silver, etc. Items exposed to the spell's effects must be rolled for to determine if they are affected. Items with a creature which makes its saving throw are considered as unaffected. The magic-user points his or her finger and speaks the range (distance and height) at which the fireball is to burst. A streak flashes from the pointing digit and, unless it impacts upon a material body prior to attaining the prescribed range, flowers into the fireball. If creatures fail their saving throws, they all take full hit point damage from the blast. Those who make saving throws manage to dodge, fall flat or roll aside, taking ½ the full hit point damage - each and every one within the blast area. The material component of this spell is a tiny ball composed of bat guano and sulphur. [1E PHB, p. 73]
For clarification purposes, distance is calculated based on indoor ranges.

Now things get exciting. In AD&D, the fireball is the first “big” damage spell the magic user gets. Prior to the fireball, the only spells that cause any decent damage are the magic missile (d4+1 per level, at 5th level the magic user gets 2 missiles, for a possible max damage of 12 hp) and shocking grasp (1d8+1 per level, at 5th level max possible damage of 13 hp). Fireball at 5th level has a maximum of 20 damage. Not the biggest jump in damage output at 3rd level, but with one additional d6 damage per level, it grows in strength pretty quickly.

AD&D fireball came with some serious drawbacks. We get a big “Fuck You” as now all coins and a wide variety of magic items have to make a save or else be destroyed in some fashion, which is a major headache for not just the players, but also the GM. Do you roll one save for all the items? Or is it one save for each type of items that was in the room, ie. a save for all coins, a save for potions, a save for scrolls, etc? And that’s not to mention that I can’t think of anything that a player hates more than seeing their treasure destroyed. To make matters even worse, the fireball now will “generally conform to the shape of the area in which it occurs, thus covering an area equal to its normal spherical volume”. Casting a fireball now became very hazardous to everyone’s health when cast in a dungeon. A fireball cast in a small corridor will cause blowback and would probably hit the front line PC’s if they are engaged in battle. If I’m the front line fighter, at 5th level I would have a maximum of 50 hp. So if one of my own party members hit me for almost 1/2 of my hp, I’d be pretty pissed. Not only do you have the chance of causing some pretty good damage to your party members, but you’ll melt all the coin and burn up all those scrolls you’ve been looking for. To top it all off, there is a lot of math when it comes to cubic feet and room dimensions, and everyone knows that D&D is better when you add in huge amounts of math.

3e Fireball

Evocation [Fire]
Level: Sor/Wiz 3
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 1 action
Range: Long (400 ft. + 40 ft./level)
Area: 20-ft.-radius spread
Duration: Instantaneous
Saving Throw: Reflex half
Spell Resistance: Yes
A fireball spell is a burst of flame that detonates with a low roar and deals 1d6 points of fire damage per caster level (maximum 10d6) to all creatures within the area. Unattended objects also take this damage. The explosion creates almost no pressure. 
The character determines the range (distance and height) at which the fireball is to burst. A glowing, pea-sized bead streaks from the character and, unless it impacts upon a material body or solid barrier prior to attaining the prescribed range, blossoms into the fireball at that point (an early impact results in an early detonation). If the character attempts to send the bead through a narrow passage, such as through an arrow slit, the character must "hit" the opening with a ranged touch attack, or else the bead strikes the barrier and detonates prematurely.
The fireball sets fire to combustibles and damages objects in the area. It can melt metals with a low melting point, such as lead, gold, copper, silver, or bronze. If the damage caused to an interposing barrier shatters or breaks through it, the fireball may continue beyond the barrier if the area permits; otherwise it stops at the barrier just as any other spell effect does. [3E SRD]

3rd Edition fireball finds itself as a great way of dishing out some damage, with the same “Fuck You” trap that it had in the earlier edition with low melting point metals melting away. At this point, I’m pretty sure that Gygax and Co. just don’t like fun. Especially when you realize that this casting of the spell caps out at 10d6 where as the older versions didn’t have a cap on power.

Range scaling stays the same -  100'+10'/level underground, and then multiplying that by a factor of 4. While we assumed this would get nerfed, the fireball kept its massive range of the spell. There is also clarification on what happens if there’s a chance the fireball would hit something on the way to its intended target. A ranged touch attack must now be made. Definitions from the 3e PHB are as follows.

Ranged touch attack: A touch attack made at range, as opposed to a melee touch attack. See touch attack.
Touch attack: An attack in which the attacker must connect with an opponent, but does not need to penetrate armor. Touch attacks may be either melee or ranged. The target’s armor bonus, shield bonus, and natural armor bonus (including any enhancement bonuses to those values) do not apply to AC against a touch attack.

How one would determine the AC of an arrow slit, I’m not quite sure.  The spell specifically states that the player must “hit the opening”, not the intended target behind the arrow slit. So, the GM will need to figure out what the AC is of the arrow slit (have fun with that Stephen) and on a successful attack roll, the player’s fireball would pass through the slit and hit that poor kobold.

Now let’s say that kobold is standing in a small 10X10 room.  Does that mean the effects of the fireball will shoot out of the arrow slit?  It sure will, curling out the arrow slit along the wall and into the room for an additional 10 feet in all direction.  So once again, we hope no one is standing to close to the arrow slit. 

4e Fireball

Wizard Attack 5
A globe of orange flame coalesces in your hand. You hurl it at your enemies, and it explodes on impact. Daily ✦ Arcane, Fire, Implement
Standard Action
burst 3 within 20 squares
Target: Each creature in burst
Attack: Intelligence vs. Reflex
Hit: 3d6 + Intelligence modifier fire damage.
Miss: Half damage.

Whew… That’s a lot of new words and not much to go off of. We are going to start right below the brief description with Daily. In this edition of DnD, there are spells you can cast once per day, Fireball being one of those. That’s pretty easy, now let’s jump into something a little more complex, like Burst!

But first: 4e is a different style of DnD that many people talk down on, I am not one of those people. 4e has a unique style that really lets players feel like super bad-ass heroes, and one of the ways it does that is by describing everything as if you are on a battle mat with a 1” square grid.

Burst is a new mechanic in DnD, but it’s actually not. All Burst means is that when the spell goes off, the point of origin square plus the surrounding squares on all sides of the origin square will be affected, this is up to a certain number(like 3). Following Burst is “within 20 squares” which just tells you how far away you can cast the spell away from you. So when a spell says: Burst 3 within 20; the spell’s area of effect is 7 squares(35’) by 7 squares, and you can cast it up to 100’ away from you.

The rest of the fireball descriptor is pretty self explanatory and there isn’t much left to talk about except for that damage. And boy, that 3d6 + Int Mod is pretty lacking when it comes to damage, especially for a daily spell. At least they didn’t rub salt in the wound and make all that gold melt away.

5e Fireball

Casting Time: 1 action
Range: 150 feet
Components: V S M (A tiny ball of bat guano and sulfur)
Duration: Instantaneous
Classes: Sorcerer, Wizard
A bright streak flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range and then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame. Each creature in a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on that point must make a Dexterity saving throw. A target takes 8d6 fire damage on a failed save, or half as much damage on a successful one.
The fire spreads around corners. It ignites flammable objects in the area that aren't being worn or carried.
At Higher Levels. When you cast this spell using a spell slot of 4th level or higher, the damage increases by 1d6 for each slot level above 3rd.

There’s lots of talk about the fireball in 5e out there on the web. One of the best articles in my option on the fireball can be found at D&D beyond. Yes, the fireball is overpowered, but it is done so on purpose. It is the most iconic spell in D&D and has always been overpowered in some fashion, either in damage or distance. But that’s what makes the fireball.

I am not going to begrudge the wizard the fireball and its massive damage. The poor wizard has been hiding in the background until this point, buffing the other heroes and casting their magic missile. Now at 5th level, they have this spell that can immediately turn the tide the a battle.

It should also be noted that it specifically stated that all flammable objects laying around will burn. So let’s hope those spell scrolls aren’t in plain sight, or the wizard just screwed himself over.

So the fireball has been around forever and has always been and shall always be an incredibly powerful spell. That’s how it should be. Enjoy it, embrace it and tweak it as you see fit. Finally, make sure the wizard has somewhere safe to put all that bat shit they have to carry around.

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