The Modern History of the Fantasy Fireball
  • RPG Crowdfunding News 053: Western, High Plains...

    Welcome back to our weekly look at tabletop roleplaying game, and accessories, crowdfunding roundup! Each week we’ll be looking at a few campaigns currently running that have caught our eye as well as occasionally speaking to some of the creators about their campaigns, or looking at some of the ‘behind the scenes’ business aspects of putting together, launching, operating and then delivering a...

    Read More

    Turn Order: Warped #25: The Plants Are Trying To...

    Turn Order: Warped, the official stream of the WOIN roleplaying game system, is back with a new episode! "The crew heads down to Apep III to collect some of the Cha'Etta plants to try to make some money." Join GM of Doom "wacksteven" and the crew of the Black Fang in their intrepid...

    Read More

    Netflix Chooses Its Own Adventure

    The concept of a solo adventure -- in which the player chooses their own path throughout a narrative -- has been around since the 1960s, expressed in print and later audio form. It's now getting an update for modern audiences, thanks to Netflix's new series for kids. A Brief History of GamebooksThe history of...

    Read More
  • The Modern History of the Fantasy Fireball


    The fireball is a staple of Dungeons & Dragons-style magic that clearly distinguishes its modern wargaming roots from the fantasy dress it adopted. As such, the history of the fireball spell is a history of D&D itself.


    The Fireball Fantasy

    Where did the concept of a fireball come from? The fireball has little grounding in fantasy literature, particularly J.R.R. Tolkien's or Jack Vance's works, which were all influential on D&D's evolution. There are some fireball-esque descriptions however. Delta attributes two sources for fireballs in "More Fireballs." The first is R.E. Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel" published in 1933:

    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.

    Jon Peterson identifies a possible movie source from 1939 in Playing at the World:

    Hurling fireballs is less common— in Vance, for example, wizards summon a ball of fire to cast light rather than for assault— but one must not ignore a vivid example from cinema, when the Wicked Witch of the West throws a flaming sphere at the flammable Scarecrow while cackling, “Play ball!”

    Delta also posits another movie reference, that of Tim the Enchanter in Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

    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.

    That said, the movie debuted in 1975, too late to be the origin of the D&D fireball but certainly going a long way to normalize trigger-happy wizards in fantasy.

    Fireball in Miniature

    Fireball is commonly acknowledged to originate with the miniature combat rules for Chainmail, D&D's predecessor, as Peterson explains in Playing at the World:

    The primary weapons at the disposal of a seasoned Magic-user are the famous spells “Fire Ball” and “Lightning Bolt.” ...Gygax wrote in the description of these spells in Chainmail that “fire ball” is “equal in hit area to the large catapult hit area.” Dungeons & Dragons elaborates that a fireball “explodes with a burst radius.”

    In that regard fireball is something of a modern invention. Massive destructive power in a burst is similar to grenades, something that wouldn't be typical of medieval warfare. Peterson points this out as well:

    While one might imagine a catapult firing crude stones with no propensity to explode whatsoever, catapults may also shoot flaming pitch; in the Elric story “Black Sword’s Brothers,” naval catapults do launch such “fireballs” at one another.

    But the origins of fireball go much further back than that, as Peterson recently discovered in "A Precursor to the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement":

    Chainmail itself drew on a two-page set of rules developed for a late 1970 game run by the New England Wargamers Association (NEWA), which were designed by one Leonard Patt. Patt’s system shows us the first fantasy game with heroes, dragons, orcs, ents, and wizards who cast fireballs at enemies, though his contribution today goes entirely unacknowledged.

    Fireball-slinging wizards in Chainmail actually have their antecedent in Patt's game:

    Fireball, which is indeed given as “fire ball” in first edition Chainmail, is one of the signature mechanisms of fantasy gaming, and to find it articulated prior to Chainmail is a stunning revelation. As in Chainmail, the “fire ball” of Patt is a burst effect which a Wizard casts at up to a distance of 24” in game; the burst area of effect is however an inch larger in Chainmail than in Patt. And as they later would in Chainmail, Heroes and Anti-heroes get a saving throw against a fireball in Patt: they “are saved by a throw of 5 or 6.” While saving throws were not an uncommon element in games of the time, the notion that making a saving throw against spells originated prior to Chainmail is also a significant revision to our historical understanding. Chainmail would dramatically expand the capabilities of Wizards, in its first edition adding a “lightning bolt” as a damage spell and eight utility spells, but “fire ball” is not altered in any significant particular from how it appears in Patt.

    Fireball in the Dungeon

    Having inherited "fire ball" from Chainmail, Original Dungeons & Dragons made an additional tweak that has managed to murder entire adventuring parties for decades:

    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.

    First Edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons took things one step further, explaining both volume and temperature:

    [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.

    Delta goes into exhaustive detail on the evolution of fireball in the various iteration of D&D on his blog.

    Fireball's Legacy

    Peterson continues the thread of fireballs in video games at Gamaustra in "A brief history of fireball in fantasy games":

    Most of these early computer games did not incorporate Fireball, perhaps because it was harder to program an area-of-effect spell than a single-target spell like Magic Missile. One 1970s computer game that did include Fireball was the amateur “dnd” game written by Dan Lawrence, which years later would get a commercial release under the name Telengard (1982). But the earliest commercial role-playing games for personal computers, classics like the Temple of Apshai or Akalabeth (the precursor to Ultima), didn’t let players cast Fireball. Strategic Simulation Inc. (SSI) included Fireballs in their early computer role-playing games such as Wizard’s Crown, and once they licensed Dungeons & Dragons as a media property, it would appear as well in their famous Gold Box games like Pool of Radiance (1988).

    And from there the concept spread to modern fantasy gaming incarnations:

    Take Blizzard’s Warcraft and Diablo universes. The Orc Warlock of the original game, Warcraft: Orcs vs. Humans, could learn the Fireball spell. In the second installment in that real-time strategy series, Fireball became a Mage spell available to humans as well. From there, Sorcerers (and later Sorceresses) in Diablo learned to cast Fireball, which helped them to deal with crowd, as it dealt area-of-effect splash damage. When Fireball became a staple spell of the Mage class in the World of Warcraft MMORPG, it brought with it a famous damage-over-time effect. Blizzard makes for a nice case study, but we could just as easily have told the story of Fireball in the Elder Scrolls series, or in Dragon Age, or any number of other franchises.

    While D&D has largely co-opted a wide variety of fantasy conventions, fireball is one of the ways it shows its modern wargaming roots.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    SaveSave
    Comments 18 Comments
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      I would posit computing the volume of 1e fireballs game me a step up on my fellow 12 year olds in math class! More than one wizard had their whiskers burned by the back blast.
    1. Zander's Avatar
      Zander -
      Although not an exact match with D&D's fireball, Gandalf casts something like it against the goblins in The Hobbit.

      Also, the spell described by Howard in The Scarlet Citadel is more like D&D's Melf's minute meteors or the fire version of chromatic orb than fireball.
    1. tmanbeaubien's Avatar
      tmanbeaubien -
      Mr Tresca, you refer to 'Delta' as an author/person three times in this article, but never tell us who that is or the source of the quotes/information. Who or what is Delta?
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      Quote Originally Posted by tmanbeaubien View Post
      Mr Tresca, you refer to 'Delta' as an author/person three times in this article, but never tell us who that is or the source of the quotes/information. Who or what is Delta?
      There is a link to Delta's blog in the article. Apparently he is someone who blogs about 'old school D&D' but there isn't much about his qualifications/expertise.
    1. talien's Avatar
      talien -
      My apologies, there was a typo in the link so it wasn't working. It's fixed now: http://deltasdnd.blogspot.com/2011/0...fireballs.html

      Here's Delta's profile if you're interested: https://www.blogger.com/profile/00705402326320853684

      Hope that's helpful!
    1. The_Gneech's Avatar
      The_Gneech -
      Is nobody going to mention the fireball the Wicked Witch of the West clearly fires at the group in the Wizard of Oz?

      -The Gneech
    1. murquhart72's Avatar
      murquhart72 -
      Quote Originally Posted by The_Gneech View Post
      Is nobody going to mention the fireball the Wicked Witch of the West clearly fires at the group in the Wizard of Oz?

      -The Gneech
      End of the second red paragraph.
    1. Morrus's Avatar
      Morrus -
      Quote Originally Posted by The_Gneech View Post
      Is nobody going to mention the fireball the Wicked Witch of the West clearly fires at the group in the Wizard of Oz?
      Somebody did.

      SaveSave
    1. Lord_Blacksteel's Avatar
      Lord_Blacksteel -
      The rebound effect of lightning bolt might have mudered a few parties early on but by the time people were playing AD&D a wizard with any amount of practical experience knew it for what it was: an easy way to double the damage from that spell, particularly in the universal 10' wide dungeon corridor and smallish dungeon rooms. "BAM!" - there's 20 points - "RE-BAM!" and there's another 20 points. It worked in the gold box games too.

      Computing the true volume of a fireball spell - that was what tended to far exceed the party's eyeball estimates. It could get really ridiculous, for both the math needed to figure it in an irregular space often with unstated ceiling heights, and then with the re-calculated effective area of the spell. If your DM was a stickler for it, it became a much less commonly used spell in my experience. In the outdoors though, it was still great.
    1. Olgar Shiverstone's Avatar
      Olgar Shiverstone -
      The whole 6" inside is feet and outside is yards things back in OD&D and 1E used to really throw me for a loop. So, like, what if you're outside and throw a fireball into a confined space, or you throw a fireball from inside a building into an outside area. How does the fireball know if it's inside or outside?

      "It's magic, man."

      We used to just ignore that fireball volume nonsense.
    1. The_Gneech's Avatar
      The_Gneech -
      Quote Originally Posted by murquhart72 View Post
      End of the second red paragraph.
      Ah! My bad, I completely missed that block.

      -TG
    1. Tony Vargas -
      Quote Originally Posted by Zander View Post
      Although not an exact match with D&D's fireball, Gandalf casts something like it against the goblins in The Hobbit.
      Amusingly, it was even more like Druid spells, like Fire Seeds or Produce Flame.

      Quote Originally Posted by talien View Post
      Monty Python & the Holy Grail (1975).
      The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) mentions a "great ball of fire" as an attack spell that engulfed a room and scared a character's face. It was backstory, but still.

      I also have to wonder how long Hollywood action heroes have been "outrunning explosions" because that kinda screams D&D fireball, save for 1/2 damage.

      Quote Originally Posted by Olgar Shiverstone View Post
      The whole 6" inside is feet and outside is yards things back in OD&D and 1E used to really throw me for a loop. So, like, what if you're outside and throw a fireball into a confined space, or you throw a fireball from inside a building into an outside area.
      Range & movement used the feet/yards scale shift, AE stayed feet out of doors - at least, that's how I remember it from 1e, but that was a long time ago, and I could be remembering a sensible variant...
    1. ccs's Avatar
      ccs -
      Quote Originally Posted by Olgar Shiverstone View Post
      The whole 6" inside is feet and outside is yards things back in OD&D and 1E used to really throw me for a loop. So, like, what if you're outside and throw a fireball into a confined space, or you throw a fireball from inside a building into an outside area. How does the fireball know if it's inside or outside?

      "It's magic, man."

      We used to just ignore that fireball volume nonsense.
      Hmm. We did the reverse & just set everything to feet.
      1" = 10', doesn't matter wether you were inside or outside.

      But ignoring the volume of Fireball, the re-brand range of Lightning bolt, etc etc etc? Oh Hell no. It was (and still is) great fun watching the casters accidently cook themselves & thier allies with misplaced spells.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      AD&D fireball was roughly 33.5 10'x10' spaces. Fairly easy to eyeball the overblast it if you are playing on a grid. More often than not, it would fill an entire room, unless it had a high ceiling.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
      Quote Originally Posted by Zander View Post
      Although not an exact match with D&D's fireball, Gandalf casts something like it against the goblins in The Hobbit.
      There are also the incendiary pinecones he uses against the wolves while they're treed, and of course Saruman's explosive concoction used against the wall of Helm's Deep.

      And whilst they are not used offensively, Gandalf's affinity for fireworks certainly draws a link between wizards and explosions.
    1. Aaron L's Avatar
      Aaron L -
      Quote Originally Posted by Olgar Shiverstone View Post
      The whole 6" inside is feet and outside is yards things back in OD&D and 1E used to really throw me for a loop. So, like, what if you're outside and throw a fireball into a confined space, or you throw a fireball from inside a building into an outside area. How does the fireball know if it's inside or outside?

      "It's magic, man."

      We used to just ignore that fireball volume nonsense.
      I'm pretty certain that yards/feet vis a vis outdoors/indoors for ranged attacks only affected range, not area of effect. (That's how we've always interpreted it.) The DMG explains it as being from superior ceiling height and visibility conditions (therefore you could arc a missile rather than having to make a flat trajectory shot, etc.)
    1. Jhaelen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Aaron L View Post
      I'm pretty certain that yards/feet vis a vis outdoors/indoors for ranged attacks only affected range, not area of effect.
      Correct; that's how I recall it, at least.

      I also quite clearly remember doing a lot of calculations in one of our adventures to find that a fireball would not just fill the entire room it was cast in, but about half of the dungeon...
      ... part of the reason being that I felt the standard room/corridor sizes given in the DMG to be way too large. I mean: just consider the effort to excavate all of this! Imho, it made a lot more sense to have cramped spaces and pathways similar to those in a mine.
    1. Ilbranteloth's Avatar
      Ilbranteloth -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      Correct; that's how I recall it, at least.

      I also quite clearly remember doing a lot of calculations in one of our adventures to find that a fireball would not just fill the entire room it was cast in, but about half of the dungeon...
      ... part of the reason being that I felt the standard room/corridor sizes given in the DMG to be way too large. I mean: just consider the effort to excavate all of this! Imho, it made a lot more sense to have cramped spaces and pathways similar to those in a mine.
      Exactly correct. PHB pg 39 (uppercase in original text): "IT IS IMPERATIVE THAT OUTDOOR SCALE BE USED FOR RANGE ONLY, NEVER FOR SPELL AREA OF EFFECT..."

      It continues with some information regarding the scale of minis, or a difference in scale of minis and model buildings and castles.
    Comments Leave Comment