To begin with, I'm not enormously fond of the attack spells fireball or lightning bolt on their face. First, they may not be at the right level; perhaps they should have been converted from Chainmail (where they had no "complexity" rating) at a level higher than 3rd. Second, I think they're generally too powerful, especially with their large and devastating area-of-effect which is a legacy of the OD&D Vol-3 1"=10 feet scale (which probably should have been 1"=5 feet). Third, I think that their showy, flashy, loud nature is out-of-place with more traditional fantasy depictions of magic-using wizards, and that these indispensably powerful spells are the vanguard in what grates lots of people about the D&D magic not feeling right to them (in fact, they almost accomplish that deed alone). Again, a lot of this is the legacy of their being introduced in Chainmail entirely outside the rest of the system for "spells", and simply being a fantasy replacement for the catapults & cannons that were available in the historical side of that game (and which may themselves have been overpowered in the first place).
Two exceptions I can think of to that last point -- Near the end of the Conan story "The Scarlet Citadel" (the second-ever published Conan story by Robert E. Howard) the warlord barbarian faces off against an enemy sorcerer:
Old Tsotha rose and faced his pursuer, his eyes those of a maddened serpent, his face an inhuman mask. In each hand he held something that shimmered, and Conan knew he held death there... "Keep off" screamed Tsotha like a blood-mad jackal. "I'll blast the flesh from your bones!"... Conan rushed, sword gleaming, eyes slits of wariness. Tsotha's right hand came back and forward, and the king ducked quickly. Something passed by his helmeted head and exploded behind him, searing the very sands with a flash of hellish fire. Before Tsotha could toss the globe in his left hand, Conan's sword sheared through his lean neck. ["The Scarlet Citadel"]So here we see a very fireball-like effect, although the ability is arguably really a mundane chemical one, and the threat is much more limited: only so far as the wielder can physically throw it. There is also a similar scene in the story "The Black Colossus", in which a wizard rides by chariot across the front of an opposing army, spilling a "thin powdery line" from a large golden receptacle that then explodes very much like a wall of fire. (I feel like later Conan stories lost this intriguing ambiguity in regard to the powers of those so-called wizards).
And the other fantasy example I can think of is "Tim the Enchanter", played by John Cleese in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975). In fact, it's rather remarkable what a perfect resemblance Tim's powers have to the D&D fireball spell (including great range and area). But otherwise, the piece is obviously a comical spoof of what a wizard normally looks like.
Okay, so back to the main topic -- Granted that fireballs are so enormously powerful, we might look for ways to reign them in a bit. Like, we might consider strictly enforcing the "call range and height" rule that's actually in the rules everywhere from Chainmail to 3E, so that the positioning of the shot is less predictable. But use-cases for that will be (a) miniatures on an open table, which I think are both rare and really hard to succeed at (esp. with a few scattered figures instead of Chainmail/Swords & Spells expected hundreds of figures en masse), (b) a gridded battlemap, where it's trivial to land the shot (or at least infeasible to prevent pre-measuring), or (c) no miniatures at all, where you're really at the mercy of whether the DM is telling you the exact enemy distance or not. And perhaps more importantly, it's possibly an irritation that this rule is so different from how targeting works for any other spell in the D&D rule system. (Note: I kept the rule for fireball & lightning bolt in my Book of Spells product, for consistency.) I think some other DM's will at times call for to-hit rolls, Intelligence checks, grenade-like bounces (see CM "Fire optional") or the like to accurately place the fireball, but clearly this is off-book usage.
Let's look at another source. Gygax's Swords & Spells rulebook (mass combat for OD&D: basically Chainmail formation & movement wedded to average-damage computations for all combat and magic; thus, a very calculator-heavy game to play) has an extended "Example of Game Play" at the end of the book, which I think is the only example of D&D play anywhere in which fireballs actually get used. In it, an army led by a good Wizard faces off against forces led by an Evil High Priest [EHP]. Picking up the action around turn 4:
... the Necromancer tosses a fire ball into the midst of the elves. No morale checks are necessary, despite a fair number of hits being scored on both units now... At the beginning of the following turn the EHP is surprised to see a fire ball crashing into the ranks of the hobgoblins, for the deceptive fellow [the Wizard] has entirely ignored the cloud kill... The hobgoblins take over 20% casualties, but their morale remains good... At end-turn the necromancer hurls a fire ball at the treants, and when the EHP reconsiders, he throws a hold person at the Wizard. This attack is answered by a fire ball from the Wizard which strikes the EHP's own guard. [S&S, p. 38]Before I analyze this, a few things from earlier in the rulebook. On spell casting:
Spells/magical attacks must be designated as regards range and aiming point, when applicable. [S&S, p. 11]So in principle that same old targeting rule is still on the books here, and apparently generalized to any kind of spell or magical attack. But look back to the "Example of Play". At no point is anyone pictured as declaring a particular range for a shot -- either for fireballs or any other spell utilized. (Well, almost: On the second turn, "Wizard casts continual light spell to maximum range in air straight toward enemy center.") Notice that none of the fireballs or other spells ever miss their targets. But I'm left wondering: If the Wizard could hit the EHP's ogre guards with a fireball, then why didn't he just drop it on the EHP himself (standing just a single figure-width back)? Or, why didn't he throw one on top of the evil Necromancer who's standing alone in the open in this scenario? Seems like either of those plays would have helped to end the battle much more quickly, but for some reason things didn't work that way.
One other thing about magical attacks like these: Swords & Spells has a special rule for area-effect damage which seems intended to limit the overall effect of fireballs in particular (as usual, the example for the section is indeed our trademark fireball). Recall that in Chainmail a fireball would just kill all the figures it touched (with some high-level exceptions given a save); by the book in any form of D&D, it does full damage to everyone in a 40' diameter underground (say 20 points minimum to each of around 22+ figures man-to-man). Actually, it's even worse in S&S, because Gygax hadn't yet invented the area-stays-in-feet-outdoors rule, so the outside area for fireball is still listed at a full 4" diameter (at 1"=10 yards scale; 40 yard diameter; over 11,000 square feet; 22 figs x 10 men/fig = 220 men potentially affected?), and likewise for all the other spells [S&S, p. 12-15] Anyway, here's the special rule for assessing damage:
Spell Damage: The number of points of damage inflicted by attack spells is basically that indicated by the D&D system, i.e., one 6-sided die of damage for each level the spell caster has attained, using wands as six dice and staves as eight dice when damage is thus necessary to determine. Damage dice remain at 6-sided, so the average damage per level is 3.5 points.So, I find that to be an interesting passage (excusing the poorly-written math equation). It seems to be a novel new rule for affecting a mass of creatures, rather arbitrarily added to the whole, and I can't quite see the rationale for it. Gygax calls it a "greater amount of damage", but the truth is, it's a reduced amount of damage from we'd normally expect -- which is to say, the full fireball damage applied to each individual creature separately. In the example above, we would normally expect a total of level × 3.5 × 80 = 2,800 points of damage (if no one made a saving throw). So basically this rule sets a hard maximum on area damage, which then gets divided up amongst all the creatures involved (in the example, about 1/20th what we'd get from directly applying the fireball to each creature individually).
When spell damage is to be determined the number of scale creatures represented by the figure(s) affected by the spell/magic is important. If the figure represents but a single creature (of unusual nature, of course) then the possible maximum damage is simply the number of levels of the spell/magic times 3.5. However, if the figure represents ten scale creatures, the base damage possible is:level × 3.5 × 5Thus, a fire ball cast into the midst of attacking orcs will do the greater amount of damage, modified by the possibility of the orcs making their saving throw or throws if more than one figure of orcs are in the area of the fire ball. Assuming that there is a unit of 10 orc figures representing 100 scale orcs, and that a 10th level magic-user casts a fire ball into their midst which affects 8 of the 10 figures, a maximum damage of 3.5 × 10 = 35 × 5 = 165 possible damage points. Each of the 8 orc figures would then be diced for to see if they received the full blast, and those that save take 1/16th of the total damage, those which fail take 1/8th, i.e., 11 points or 21 points respectively. Note that all remainders are rounded UP to the nearest whole.
If but a single figure of orcs were caught in such a blast they would be killed regardless of saving throw, but in the 10-figure example above, the affected figures would all have points of damage recorded against their unit, and for every 45 points of damage scored upon them a figure would be removed. Remember, a side record of damage taken by each figure or unit must be kept, so that casualties can be extracted when appropriate. [S&S, p. 12]
So, why this rule? Is it simply a flat-out nerfing of the fireball spell which Gygax could see was overly powerful on the battlefield? Why was it never seen again in any later version of D&D? Is it superseded by the later rule in AD&D which limits area of effect to a scale of feet outdoors (i.e., 1/3 the dimension here, so 1/9 the area and number effected?) Or is it an attempt to simulate the shielding and cover effect which might be granted from scores of bodies all packed together? And is that special targeting rule really still in effect here?
(Photo by SJ photography under CC2.)