Monday, July 25, 2011

Spells Through the Ages -- Fireball

It got scorching-hot around here this weekend, so I figured it was the best possible time to investigate that iconic D&D spell, fireball. We laid the groundwork for this a week ago, since the true roots of the spell are in the Chainmail mechanics for catapult fire. Remember that? Good, then off we go...


Chainmail Fantasy
Missiles: A Wizard can throw either of two types of missile (select which before play begins). A fire ball, equal in hit area to the large catapult hit area, or a lightning bolt, 3/4" wide by 6" long, with an attack value equal to a heavy field gun, are the two missile types employed. These missiles will destroy any men or creatures which are struck by them, with certain exceptions noted below. Both types of missiles can be thrown up to 24", direct or indirect fire, with range being called before the hit pattern is placed. The center of the fire ball is placed down at the number of inches called. The head of the lightning bolt is placed at the number of inches called, so that its body extends 6" behind it in a straight line from the Wizard who threw it. [CM, p. 31]


Note that these attack spells (fireball and lightning bolt) are in a separate "Missiles" class, distinct from those powers called "Spells" (16 of which are listed in a following section). The "missiles" are apparently usable at will; they have no complexity rating; they are not subject to the "number of spells" limitation; and they have their own unique range and targeting mechanism.

The range-calling mechanic, which we saw previously for the catapult rules (and I would argue is at least partly troublesome), is again explicit here: "range being called before the hit pattern is placed". Based on context and what comes afterward, I think that this is not the two-axis (x,y) range method for catapults, but rather the point-at-the-target-and-call-a-range rule, the same as for cannons. In any event, the fireball eliminates almost everything in the game within its 3½" diameter blast area, excepting only the powerful types with saves shown above (again, much like the referenced heavy catapult). Also, Wizards themselves save on a 7 or better, modified by difference in rank between the magic-users (higher up on CM p. 31).

A final observation is that the fireball rule has almost precisely the same effect as the base heavy catapult rule; whereas the lightning bolt mechanic is somewhat more loosely inspired by the heavy field gun (lacking the multiple-bouncing-cannonball death zones). Are the "Fire Optional" rules for variation of the shot ranges applicable here? I don't know. I suppose it could be used by some DMs if they wanted. (I've tried to do so in the past, especially for ship-to-ship combat.)


Original D&D
Fire Ball: A missile which springs from the finger of the Magic-User. It explodes with a burst radius of 2" (slightly larger than specified in CHAINMAIL). 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 [sic] are 6-die missiles and those from Staves are 8-die missiles. Duration: 1 turn. Range: 24" [OD&D Vol-1, p. 25]
So in OD&D we see a fireball much like we're familiar with in any version of D&D. The missile attack has now been absorbed into the larger overall spell system, and given 3rd-level status (just like lightning bolt; all the other spells in Chainmail had their "complexity" convert directly to "level"). The text explicitly refers back to the Chainmail rule, so I think we must assume that targeting of the spell is still officially done by range-declaration of the shot (and see later editions, too). If so, then fireball and lightning bolt both share a unique targeting mechanic unlike any other spell in the rules (a legacy of their being in a different non-"Spell" class in Chainmail). See also: "Special Ability functions are generally as indicated in CHAINMAIL where not contradictory to the information stated hereinafter" [Vol-2, p. 5].

We also see the first appearance of the "conform to the shape of the space" language for fireball. There is additional information on this point in the DM's booklet:
While some referees allow Fire Balls and Lightning Bolts to be hurled in confined spaces, blasting sections of stone equal to the remainder of their normal shape, it is suggested that the confined space cause these missiles to rebound toward the sender, i.e., a Lightning bolt thrown down a corridor 40 feet long will rebound so as to reach its stated length of 6" (60 feet underground), and this will mean the sender is struck by his own missile. It may also be compromised, allowing say two feet of stone wall to be destroyed (allowing one foot of stone destroyed for every ten feet the space is short of full distance) and rebounding the missile one-half the distance short. [OD&D Vol-3, p. 9]
Okay, so if some early DM's were treating fireballs as demolition dynamite, and incinerating stone 20 feet deep with every shot, then that's pretty silly and needs to be cracked down on. But this may possibly be one of Gygax's "cure as bad as the disease" moments, as the response has already caused a whole bunch of math extrapolations to pop up during play that may not even be consistent ("one foot of stone destroyed for every ten feet the space is short of full distance... rebounding the missile one-half" yadda yadda). I mean, an alternative -- maybe the lightning bolt in the example just grounds to the earth when it hits a solid wall? Maybe?


Holmes D&D

Holmes spells stop at 2nd level; a list of 3rd level spell names is given, but without any descriptions or effects ("They are listed above to give some idea of the range of magical possibilities", Holmes p. 16). So no fireball, right? Ah, but check the magic item section:
Wand of Fire Balls -- On activation, the wand produces a fire ball which will travel any distance, up to 240 feet, desired by the user and then explode with a burst radius of 20 feet, doing 6 dice of damage to anyone within range who fails their saving throw (half damage if saving throw is made). Fire ball blasts in confined spaces generally conform to the shape of the space (so watch out!) [Holmes, p. 38]
So that's basically the same as the OD&D item (although the text there is simply, "A Wand which projects a Fire Ball exactly like the spell of that name."; Vol-2, p. 34). The blast-conforming language is again highlighted. The same targeting mechanic is obliquely described: "any distance... desired by the user".


Advanced D&D (1st Edition)
Fireball (Evocation)

Level: 3
Range: 10" + 1"/level
Duration: Instantaneous
Area of Effect: 2" radius sphere
Components: V, S
Casting Time: 3 segments
Saving Throw: ½

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]
Again, mostly the same spell -- area, damage, saving throw, etc. are all unchanged. As usual for AD&D, you now have components, casting times, variable range based on caster level, and generally a lot more verbiage (note that a gunpowder-like material component is at the end of the text, but no "M" in the header). The spelling has changed; for the first time now it's "Fireball" as a single word (no space, and as I've written it myself throughout this post).

The "space conforming" rule that appeared in OD&D (in response to those who thought it should blow up stone barriers) has grown in size and complexity; a specific volume is given, implying that you should be calculating the volume of areas in your dungeon and applying this space-filling effect to them. (After years of applying this, let me offer a heartfelt mathematician's "Aaaarrgghh!!!"). Also you get an extended comment on the fireball's actual temperature and effect on metallic treasure types (melting them).

Note #1: Although material items have saving throw rules in both OD&D and the AD&D DMG, there's a special exception given in the middle here: "Items with a creature which makes its saving throw are considered as unaffected." Now, while this is the only place that such a rule appears in 1E, it's a continuation of a more general rule from OD&D ("For the sake of simplicity it is generally easier to assume they [magical items] survive unharmed if their wearer/user is not killed (exception, Helms)"; OD&D Vol-2, p. 38), and it was re-established in general for 3E (such as on 3E PHB p. 150).

Note #2: The specific targeting mechanic is still included, although it is now described from the perspective of the in-game character. "The magic-user points his or her finger and speaks the range (distance and height) at which the fireball is to burst." So with this we see a continuation of the special targeting rule that has run in common through Chainmail catapults, Fantasy fireballs, Holmes wands, and also Advanced D&D.


Advanced D&D (2nd Edition)
Fireball (Evocation)

Range: 10 yds. + 10 yds./level
Duration: Instantaneous
Area of Effect: 20-ft. radius
Components: V, S, M
Casting Time: 3
Saving Throw: ½

A fireball is an explosive burst of flame, which detonates with a low roar and delivers damage proportional to the level of the wizard who cast it--1d6 points of damage for each level of experience of the spellcaster (up to a maximum of 10d6). The burst of the fireball creates little pressure and generally conforms to the shape of the area in which it occurs. The fireball fills an area equal to its normal spherical volume (roughly 33,000 cubic feet--thirty-three 10-foot × 10-foot × 10-foot cubes). Besides causing damage to creatures, the fireball ignites all combustible materials within its burst radius, and the heat of the fireball melts soft metals such as gold, copper, silver, etc. Exposed items require saving throws vs. magical fire to determine if they are affected, but items in the possession of a creature that rolls a successful saving throw are unaffected by the fireball.

The wizard points his 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 or solid barrier prior to attaining the prescribed range, blossoms into the fireball (an early impact results in an early detonation). Creatures failing their saving throws each suffer full damage from the blast. Those who roll successful saving throws manage to dodge, fall flat, or roll aside, each receiving half damage (the DM rolls the damage and each affected creature suffers either full damage or half damage [round fractions down], depending on whether the creature saved or not).

The material component of this spell is a tiny ball of bat guano and sulphur. [2E PHB, Appendix 3]

In general, that's pretty much an exact copy-and-paste from 1E. The range/area units have been converted from scale "inches" to yards and feet. The "M" has been correctly added to the components header. And the special targeting rule is still there (the wizard speaks "distance and height" for the shot). One big change from a short piece of text: Damage is now capped at 10d6 maximum.

And there are two contextual factors in 2E which have also possibly changed the spell: First, in 1E the range in "inches" represented a sliding scale (tens of feet in the underground, tens of yards outdoors); but in 2E there seems to be no such context-switch to range, so yards apply even in the dungeon, effectively tripling the underground range (while movement in 2E switches between yards/feet, I can't find any rule to switch bow-fire or spell ranges; although perhaps I'm missing something). Edit: Or at least, that's how it would be if the spell's range formula was converted to 100+10/level yards; but what we see here is instead 10+10/level yards (a very odd conversion that I initially overlooked), which is greatly reduced outdoors at least. Indoors, it's still an increase of some degree: e.g., at 5th level 1E 150' vs. 2E 60 yds=180' (a small increase), or at 15th level 1E 250' vs. 2E 160 yds=480 ft (approximately doubling). Thanks to commentator faoladh for drawing my attention to this point.

And second, while the targeting language in the spell has been maintained, a specific example in the "Casting Spells" section of the same book seems to directly contradict it: "If the spell is targeted on a person, place, or thing, the caster must be able to see the target. It is not enough to cast a fireball 150 feet ahead into the darkness; the caster must be able to see the point of explosion and the intervening distance" [2E PHB, Ch. 7] I suspect that while the range-declaring language has been maintained throughout every edition to this point, it has now become somewhat "submerged" by the in-character point-of-view, and this external passage probably reflects the more common usage at the time (and thereby homogenized with other spells).


Rules Cyclopedia
Fireball
Range: 240'
Duration: Instantaneous
Effect: Explosion in a sphere 40' diameter

This spell creates a missile of fire that bursts into a ball of fire with a 40' diameter (20' radius) where it strikes a target. The fireball will cause 1d6 points of damage per level of the caster to every creature in the area of effect.

Each victim may make a saving throw vs. spells; if successful, the spell will only do half damage. For example, a fireball cast by a 6th level spellcaster will burst for 6d6 (6-36) points of damage; characters who make their saving throw vs. spell will take only half of the damage rolled on the dice. [RC, p. 48]
Figured I'd check in here on the 1990 Allston Rules Cyclopedia product, representing the culmination of the whole Moldvay (B/X)/Mentzer (BXCMI) product line. Basically, we have the same effect, although the detailed complications have been edited down quite a bit. The spelling is as in AD&D (one word). The space-conforming rule, the melting-metals rule, and also the special range-declaration targeting rule have now all disappeared. Range is still the fixed 240 feet in the dungeon you'd get from OD&D or Holmes. Attack-spell damage is more generally capped at 20 dice in these rules [RC, p. 32]


d20 System D&D (3rd Edition)
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]

This is still pretty much the same thing you'd see throughout the AD&D line, and most of the same language has been maintained. From 2E, it retains the 10d6 maximum cap. The metal-melting rule is still there. And so is that special targeting language (along with a "bead" physically flying through the air before the magic takes effect) -- a legacy carried all the way forward from Chainmail catapults!

One thing we've discarded is the weird 2E range scaling, looking back to 1E's 100'+10'/level underground, and then multiplying that by a factor of 4. So that's now a massive increase in the useful range of the spell, although it's in line with most other spells that matriculated through 2E and got boosted by with the fixed-to-yards scale there.

What else is not there is the space-expanding rule, and this is what is being highlighted with the language, "The explosion creates almost no pressure"; so the dungeon-volume-calculations have been streamlined out of the picture. But, to balance the scales of yin-yang, what's been added back is the contextual notion of a "spread" area-of-effect as seen here:

Spread: Some effects spread out from a point of origin to a distance described in the spell. The effect can extend around corners and into areas that the character can't see. Figure distance by actual distance traveled, taking into account turns the spell effect takes. The character must designate the point of origin for such an effect but need not have line of effect to all portions of the effect. [3E SRD]



See the image to the right for more detail on this rule (fireball example from 3E PHB, p. 204). Note how the area in the top-left corner gets "stunted" because the distance has to be measured around the corner of the open doorway there. I never saw this rule actually get assessed in practice this way, nor would I want to do so.

Finally, something else that was added to the spell description (at the end of the second paragraph above) is a mechanic to try and restrict shooting fireballs through arrow slits. However, I found that in practice that this was not very much of an effective restriction in 3E (motionless target ACs are very low, and fireball-casting wizard attack levels with Dexterity bonus quite high, which along with a lack of any ranged penalties for the spell, made for an almost trivially easy to-hit requirement).

Related Posts:

(Photo at top by jamesjyu under CC2.)

11 comments:

  1. Great series of posts.

    2e did not have the sliding scale for figuring missile ranges at all, so all ranges, whether above- or below-ground, were calculated in terms of yards. Made the game simpler, but I prefer the 1e rules for a variety of reasons.

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  2. Fire Ball: A missile which springs from the finger of the Magic-User. It explodes with a burst radius of 2" (slightly larger than specified in CHAINMAIL)

    Looks like we found our proof that individual scale in CM was 1"=1 yard. Fireball in CM was 3 1/2"

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  4. Assuming that you've copied it down correctly (I do not have any 2E books to check), the range is 10 yds + 10 yds/lvl, compared to 10" (100 yds outdoors, 33⅓ yds indoors) + 1"/lvl of 1E. That's a big difference in range.

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  5. UWS guy said: "Looks like we found our proof that individual scale in CM was 1"=1 yard. Fireball in CM was 3 1/2""

    Unfortunately, no -- The CM 3.5" is a diameter; that is, just 1.75" radius. So the OD&D radius 2" is indeed "slightly larger" at the same scale.

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  6. faoladh said: "Assuming that you've copied it down correctly (I do not have any 2E books to check), the range is 10 yds + 10 yds/lvl, compared to 10" (100 yds outdoors, 33⅓ yds indoors) + 1"/lvl of 1E. That's a big difference in range."

    Wow, I completely overlooked that! Thanks for pointing it out. Initially I thought it might be typo... but it's confirmed in my digital 2E PHB, and in both the later Tome of Magic and Wizard's Spell Compendium products. So yeah, that was radically reigned in for 2E, and then expanded back out in 3E.

    Editing some of my analysis in the post, thanks for the assist!

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  7. Further note with 2E range switch: It's a good decrease outdoors. But it actually still works out to an increase underground, as compared to 1E (see post above now for examples).

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  8. I wonder if the OD&D section on blowing away walls results form the spells use in Chainmail sieges?

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  9. BlUsKrEEm -- Interesting idea, although if one reverted back to the siege weapons vs. structures rules, one would see that a large catapult (3 attack pts) takes a long time to break down something like a curtain wall (25-40 pts). [CM, p. 22]

    So you could be right, but I read that section as more representing outright DM laziness (or else a subscription to more "wahoo" gaming).

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  10. At first looking at the "almost no pressure" notes, its hard to see how a fire ball is suppossed to be of _any_ use in a siege (as the fire ball should explode and conform to leave the wall untouched), though in thinking about it I've decided that combined with notes on objects intervening with the declared target all a Magic-User would have to do is declare a point _inside_ or just behind the wall as his target, causing the fire ball to expand (and explode) so close to the target as to deal appreciable damage to the structure rather than conform around it and just cause some sort of back-blast leaving the wall untouched per conforming to space rules.

    As for how much damage, well referring back to Chainmail's siege weapons seems appropriate or I suppose the siege system in AD&D could do if the DM was that way inclined.

    A side note on the random targeting, which as far as I've seen is _never_ used in D&D and gives Magic-Users perfect accuracy. Over much shorter ranges (indoor distances) its reasonable to be more accurate, though if some randomisation is sought I'd use a 1d10 roll for a grid (1d8 on hexes) with 1-8 indicating an adjacent square (1-6 hex) and 9-10 on target (7-8 hex). Unlikely to radically change the effects, but may give at least a little risk lobbing fire balls into a melee.

    Ok, this became a lot longer and slightly more rambling than intended...

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  11. Dusk said: "A side note on the random targeting, which as far as I've seen is _never_ used in D&D and gives Magic-Users perfect accuracy. Over much shorter ranges (indoor distances) its reasonable to be more accurate..."

    I agree with that, and more randomization further out would be the reasonable simulation. I'm not sure how many people would stand for that complexity, and it's funny there's this one spell that sort of needs that to balance out its power...

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