Monday, September 19, 2011

Aiming that Fireball

The Talmudic analysis of D&D's myriad rules continues out in the blogosphere… in this case, the "lifelong reading of the text" belongs to Delta over at Delta's D&D Hotspot, where he's done an analysis of the fireball spell through the ages.

Here are the problems:  when does the fireball explode?  Can a caster aim it at a spot in the air, causing an airburst, precisely measuring the beginning of the blast radius to maximize hitting the enemies and avoid the friendly's?  If it requires aim, why isn't there a to-hit roll?  I don't recall seeing any language in any versions of fireball like the magic missile rule.  Should grenade fire rules apply, allowing the fireball to miss its spot?

The discussion is very topical for me, because a) we sometimes use minis and a vinyl grid with erase markers, and b) the players have a wand of fireballs with a ton of charges.  Whenever they can see the grid, they're always micro-managing the location of their figures in a room to line up the best possible fireball placements (or Silence 15' radius placement, or Prayer and Bless radius, etc).  Using the grid, it's hard to argue against lining up a fireball that burns the monsters in melee with the party's front rank, while stopping just short of the front line fighters.

The Cook/Marsh Expert set and Rules Cyclopedia both require the fireball to strike a target.  To me, this precludes the airburst technique and makes fireballs much riskier to target when the front line is engaged in melee - it only blows up when it hits somebody or something.  Labyrinth Lord and the Advanced Edition Companion go with AD&D 1E style "point your finger, pick a range and distance and that's where it blows up" - supporting the idea of an omniscient Magic User with perfect awareness of spatial relationships and distances who can always calculate exact ranges and trajectories while gesturing and tossing out material components.  Bah.

Adventurer Conqueror King maintains the AD&D approach (point finger, enjoy your perfect air burst) whereas Raggi-style LOTFP bans the fireball entirely - you munchkins with your flashy magic - although prior to his divorce from flashy magic, he supported targeting a location, too.

My players would flip out if I started using a grenade-style rule for adjudicating whether the fireball goes short, long, or off to the side, even though that does mirror the risks in real-world artillery - and that's basically how fireballs are used - "Incoming!".  So I'll probably need to reconcile myself to allowing perfect placement of fireballs, all the time.  :sigh:

How about you guys?  It's one thing when you're using exact "measurements" by counting squares on the grid, do any of you adjudicate fireball differently when combat is purely abstract?  When the player says, "I place the fireball 20' behind the front line of monsters, in the air, so the burst catches the monsters battling our party's front line, but doesn't burn any of our guys" - is the Magic User always infallible?

Otherwise you run the risk of douchery - "I said the front line *seemed* to be 15' away from you, but appearances are deceiving in the misty air of the dungeon, and your fighters were actually 20' away and got caught in the blast - fighters, start making saving throws…"

This discussion seems really similar to the "firing a ranged weapon into a melee" discussion.  I need to check out Delta's place and see if he did the text comparison on that one; I know that Moldvay BX and Labyrinth Lord allow unfettered firing into a melee, whereas AD&D has the random chance of shooting your friend in the back (as does LOTFP).  One way of adjudicating the "precision fireball burst" might be a straight percentage chance that melee combatants on the edge of the burst get caught in the flames - even if the Magic User lined up the perfect placement, the little forward and backward steps, circling and dodging of melee means that the fighters could step into the blast radius while swinging.

I don't know that any grenade House Rules are forthcoming - it goes against 30 years of accumulated experience with infallible placement of fireballs.  It's a situation exploited when using minis and the grid; it's probably easier in abstract combat to disallow the ability to place the fireballs so neatly that it harms some combatants and misses others.


  1. I like the grenade idea. It's a ball of fire, you have to throw it, so Strength could be a range factor; when it hits BOOM!
    Of course you should allow archers to try a called shot to attempt hit it in flight, to detonate it early.

  2. I've successfully used grenade-like rules for quite sometime. My players live and die (sometimes literally) by the molotov cocktail. Therefore they are very used to the idea of fireballs not going where you want them. If anyone complains, I explain that a fireball is nothing more than a magical version of the molotov cocktail, so they use the same rules.

    A suggestion for converting your players...throw a couple of precise fireballs at them. When they complain, simply state what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If they want imprecision when being fired at, they'll have to accept imprecision when firing...

  3. We used the "had to have a target" rule way back when, so no airbursts. I recall the biggest problem we had was calculating the blast area whenever some nitwit set one off in a dungeon. (They never learn)

    I'm more and more liking the idea of making wizards roll "to hit" and using some sort of grenade rules for the inevitable misses.

  4. Mentioned this a few times, here and there: Arneson actually delt with these questions in his unpublished revision of the D&D rules waay back in '74. "Fireball is thrown by the Magic-User, and 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 at 5% per every 10 feet."

    No doubt this, amoung a myraid of other reasons, was why he was so ticked at Gygax for publishing without waiting for his revisions.

  5. That's pretty interesting, are those Arneson revisions available anyplace or discussed on a blog - I wonder how many other D&D problems for which he had an interesting alternate rule.

  6. I know of only one physical copy, and it was an old photocopy, once in the possesion of MAR Barker. The present owner asked me to have a go at identifying and analyzing the text early last winter. At present, I think there is no legal way to release a .pdf in its entirety. I've been preparing a study of it and am hopeful the present owner will not object to makeing that public at least. Needless to say it is a key source for Champions of ZED.

  7. Hackmaster uses a to hit roll for fireball, as well as declaring your target without measuring. in addition there is a skill called 'complex geometric estimation' a successful roll of which allows you to measure and find out the effect of the fireball before declaring your target.

  8. I support the targeting method, especially since I play without a grid (sketching maps freehand on unlined scratch paper when necessary).

    One rule I do have that might be topical for you, though, is that characters who want to judge a distance make a Sight check (in systems without that exact skill, something like Spot or Perception, etc. could substitute). Different check results give different degrees of accuracy, so in essence I have a mechanic that says "the front line *seemed* to be 15' away from you, but appearances are deceiving..." for me. ;)