Fireball Feedback Friday

Adventurer in front of fireball

So for two weeks now I've been posting everything I could find on of the issue of fireballs in D&D. It was the very first wizard's ability to be detailed in the Chainmail Fantasy rules; it's one of the most powerful and distinctive spells in the D&D game; and it's one of the most consistent magics across all editions of D&D (maintaining the same basic effect throughout each, and keeping certain language all the way from Chainmail catapults through to to 3rd Edition D&D). 

I'll come out and clearly say why: As I near the very end of my work on the Book of War mass-combat system for D&D, I finally got to test the high-end magic for wizards, near the end of the book. Assume that all such wizards are level 10+ (e.g., the Swords & Spells example in the last post). Then further assume that every such wizard has either a wand of fireballs or a wand of lightning bolts. This seems reasonable because: (a) if you're a wizard on the battlefield, it seems like you'd want to have such a device (e.g., they're common even in Holmes Basic D&D for levels 1-3), (b) it simplifies the number of spells we'll likely see in use, (c) it simulates the Chainmail expectation that these abilities are effectively at-will throughout a standard battle, and (d) the assumption is explicitly baked into certain editions of D&D (e.g., see 3E stock NPC rosters for wizards). 

So fireballs are common, important, and very powerful. At inception, they had a limiting factor of a special targeting rule (declare target and range of shot, as befit their special "missile" class and catapult origin), but that's highly dependent on player skill (much more so than estimating a basic cavalry-charge or missile-fire range), something that really only works in the context of miniatures on an open, un-gridded playing surface. And even then, perhaps only if our targets are masses of possibly hundreds of figures per unit. And so perhaps that's why they were given such large areas-of-effect, to possibly compensate for this targeting challenge. (?) 

The targeting language was explicitly copied forward throughout every edition of D&D, but the assumptions no longer really worked. Play without miniatures? Then the mechanic is nonsensical. Play on a grid? Then the mechanic is trivial. Play D&D with just a few miniatures per side? Then targeting is extremely difficult (even with minis on an open table). Use the space-expanding rule as a counter-balancing measure? Then it's extremely complicated and almost too dangerous to use the spell underground. 

My guess is that almost nobody actually enforced that targeting rule in the AD&D era and beyond. It's so unlike how any other spells are targeted that you'd easily forget about it. And the rulebook language got "submerged" by rewriting it in the in-game character's perspective ("The magic-user points his or her finger and speaks the range (distance and height) at which the fireball is to burst." [AD&D PHB]), so it's no longer clear if the player actually needs to do the same. 

What I found in my game is that if the wizard can just drop fireballs anywhere they want with pinpoint accuracy, then they can continually target enemy heroes with every shot and quickly eliminate them from the game (notice how that never happened in Gygax's example of play in Swords & Spells, even though other spells like hold person targeted enemy heroes without difficulty). On the other hand, if we enforce then age-old "declare range" rule, then it's almost overwhelmingly difficult to hit anything (as usual, for mobile targets in the open field) unless you've got hundreds of figures per unit, or are somehow cheating by pre-measuring. (And I confess that the last time I played, in desperation, I resorted to comparing to known grain marks on the table surface -- although I still lost.) And in that case, the canonical fireball becomes basically useless. 

So, what's the best thing to expect from the game now? How are most people using fireballs; are they balanced and a reasonable thing to use; and how do they fit in with the traditions of classic D&D? I ask this both for Book of War and also a potential Book of Spells update. Here's a brainstorm of every mechanic I could think of over the past few weeks:

  1. Pinpoint any target in range as desired (as other spells).
  2. Declare target & range of shot (legacy catapult-like rule)
  3. Declare target & apply some variation (like a grenade or cannons).
  4. Declare target & check "to-hit" or similar, else apply variation.
  5. Target a mass unit freely, but roll for specific figure hit (disallowing solo heroes as targets).
  6. Target at will, but set a damage cap for massed figures (as in Swords & Spells)
  7. Declare target & range & also cap damage for massed figures.
  8. Something else entirely.

Which seems best? Which is closest to what you use in D&D? See poll results here.

Image courtesy of Craiyon. 


  1. I'd say against mass targets or solo heroes on a battlefield pick a spot and roll for variation (option 3) probably with the lower of 2d6 mechanic; in a dungeon pick an individual target and roll to-hit, with the more you miss by the farther from the target it lands.

  2. I voted "Target at will, but set a damage cap for massed figures" as that's effectively what I'd do; I'd let fireball be an area burst that does some (large) quantity of damage, but split between each enemy in the area. Extrapolating a bit from the system I'm tinkering with, a 10th level wizard might do 10d6 damage, but split evenly over the 20' radius circle.

    This makes it particularly potent against a lone target, as well as against low level hordes, but to my eyes, if you're up against a single something at the level you can have fireball at, you're going to need everything you can muster anyway.

  3. I dunno Daniel, but FWIW I can at least let you know what Dave Arnesons solution was, from his unpublished revision of the D&D rules "“… the accuracy will vary with the distance of the intended target. Targets within 50 feet can be hit with 99% accuracy, at 55 feet 95%, accuracy, and the accuracy decreases a t 5% per every 10 feet.” (Glossary of Terms, p. 20)

    I assume, that feet would change to yards in the outdoors. BTW DA targetted Lightning the same way.

  4. Ok, long time AD&D player - we always went with the "declare range/target point" version, and we play/ed on a grid. This didn't seem to unbalance the spell at all. At a certain point we transitioned to colored transparent overlays and then we went to "drop you spell where you want it" and didn't let people fiddle with it. Maybe you missed a couple of people, maybe you got the wrong person, whatever... It's a *fireball spell* not a Magic Missile.

    We didn't let people count squares or hexes (though smart people probably did it somewhat as they decided to cast the spell) and where people invariable messed themselves up was inside areas where the fireball invariably filled up the entire area, conforming to the space - and there would be much gashing of teeth on the parts of the other players...

    But it was so useful that it was considered a viable "last resort" for clearing out rabble (kind of like calling in an artillery strike on your own position).


  5. I vote choose your target (an actual thing you can see) and fireball flies to target.

    The fireball explodes if it hits an intervening target or at the end of its range.

    If you go for an "air-burst" or indirect fire you need to state the range and height. The fireball will explode if it hits an interveninb object.

  6. I always preferred to do D&D without miniatures and without battle maps. Fireball, IMHO, cannot be analyzed very deeply without leading the game off a cliff.

    D&D is not a logically consistent simulation of anything. D&D is playable only so long as one does not examine its assumptions too closely.

    My take on fireballs is that the DM has to hand-wave a lot of physics in any event. It is possible to make a tabletop game with logically consistent fireballs, but it won't be D&D any more.

  7. Personally, I thought the "expand to fill corridors" rule was supposed to make Fireball too dangerous to use frequently underground when I first read about it. If you look at the spell as being just as detrimental to the player's health as the enemy's precision doesn't really come into it. But it's clear players would rather use it this way and the designers meant it as a standby spell, both like you've described, so I never enforced it hard enough. Anyway, I'm veering off the current topic.

  8. That's "enemy's" followed by a comma, as the precision I was referring to was the player's. Thanks for the editing features, Google.

  9. Good feedback, everyone. Really interesting what an enormously wide range of usages there seem to be.