Fireball, originally written Fire Ball, is a spell which creates a sphere of flame. It is one of the most iconic wizard spells, having appeared since the original D&D game in 1974.
Fireball creates a bright flash which shoots forth from the caster's outstretched finger. It travels a distance, then explodes at the desired point, creating ann instantaneous explosion of flame with a radius of twenty feet. The flame can spread around corners and ignite flammable objects.
The fireball spell was invented over 3,000 years ago by the Netherese archmage Noanar of Faerûn. It was originally known as Noanar's fireball, though over the years the spell became widely use and its original creator's name was forgotten by many. Noanar created his fireball spell in the Netherese year 1556, equivalent to -2303 DR in the common Faerûnian calendar.
Rules for Middle Earth (1970)
Leonard Patt's Tolkien-inspired wargame Rules for Middle Earth, which would inspire Gygax's fantasy rules, features wizard characters capable of throwing a "fire ball" at enemy units:
- "Wizards in possession of magic powers can cast a fire ball once every other turn. The distance is 24" and the hit is determined using a 6" grid with a 2½" burst circle. Any figures under the burst are killed except HEROES and ANTI-HEROES, who are saved by a throw of a 5 or 6. A dragon hit by a fire ball is driven away and will not attack the wizard's side for one turn."
The spell "fire ball" appeared in the 1971 Chainmail miniature wargame which would go on to inspire Dungeons & Dragons.
As in Patt, a fire ball has 24" range and automatically kills ordinary troops within its area. Its area of effect is 3½" in diameter. In Playing at the World, Jon Peterson suggests that "fire ball" already appeared in Chainmail as of its first edition, pre-dating Dungeons & Dragons.
In an ENWorld Q&A thread, Gary Gygax noted:
- "It is noteworthy, though, that the radius of a fireball and the stroke of a lightning bolt corresponded to a heacy catapult’s area of attack effect and that of a cannon in the 1:20 Chainmail rules."
The "Fire Ball" appears in the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set in Men & Magic (1974), p.25, where it is a 3rd level magic-user spell.
"Fire Ball" retains its 24" range from Chainmail, but now has a slightly larger radius of 2" (i.e. 4" diameter). All ranges in OD&D were measured in inches as a hold-over from miniature wargaming rules.
Fire Ball deals 1d6 damage per character level of the caster. This decision may have been influenced by OD&D's decision to use only six-sided dice for all damage. This use of six sided dice for fireball became iconic, appearing in later editions including third and fifth edition.
The spell can backflow in confined spaces, so that casting it in an area smaller than its full radius can cause the remaining fire to strike the caster or other unintended targets. This rule was alluded to in later editions, but less explicitly stated.
Anecdotally, D&D creator Gary Gygax would rule in his own personal campaigns that Fire Ball could destroy magic items held by enemies it killed, particularly things like scrolls or gold. Cone of cold is said to have had a higher spell level purely because it did not destroy treasure.
Greyhawk (Supplement 1) (1975) introduced Delayed Blast Fire Ball, a 7th level spell. The 9th level Meteor Swarm, also introduced in this book, was considered to create four or eight Fire Balls. Greyhawk also contained a single use of the the spelling fireball, and both spellings would be used in later works
Fire Ball is listed in the Basic Set (Holmes) (1977) as a third level spell, but as characters are limited to level 3, no player character magic-user is able to cast it. It appears in Basic Set (Moldvay) (1981), p.B18 and Expert Set (Moldvay) (1981), p.X14, and in the Basic Rules (BECMI), Dungeon Master's Rulebook (1983), p.18.
The Rules Cyclopedia (1991) updates the spelling to fireball.
AD&D 1st edition
Characters now receive a saving throw for half damage. The spell's ability to melt or burn items is now a standard rule.
AD&D 2nd edition
Its radius is now 20 feet, and it has a maximum of 10d6 damage.
D&D 3rd edition
As in AD&D, it has a 20 foot radius spread, deals 1d6 damage per caster level to a maximum of 10d6, allows a saving throw for half damage, and can melt metals or burn combustibles.
A particular detail of fireball is that the caster points their finger at the center point of the desired area of explosion, and shoots a glowing bead from their finger toward the target. The bead can explode prematurely if it strikes an obstacle.
Fireball is an iconic D&D spell, and is mentioned no fewer than 50 times in the Player's Handbook (3.0) (2000).
D&D 4th edition
Fireball is a 5th level daily wizard attack power dealing 3d6 + Intelligence modifier damage over an area of burst 3 within 20 squares. It attacks the Reflex defense and deals half damage on a miss.
While this is the only edition of the D&D rules where fireball is not a third-level spell, this change is due to 4th edition's re-numbering of spells to the level at which the character receives them, meaning that wizards still receive fireball at the same level as in earlier editions.
A more notable difference is the reduced damage, down from 5d6 at level 5 to 3d6+Int modifier. This reflects in part the wizard's position in D&D 5e as a controller, a class role intended to attack and debuff multiple enemies.
D&D 5th edition
Fireball is a third-level spell appearing on both the sorcerer and wizard spell lists.
It has a 20 foot radius area and deals 8d6 damage, with a save for half. It can be cast in a higher level spell slot to increase the damage by 1d6 per spell slot above third level.
The continued use of six-sided dice for the damage of fireball is a long-standing D&D tradition at this point, dating back to Original D&D when all attacks used six-sided dice for damage. Likewise, its position as a third-level spell has been consistent throughout editions of the rules.
In development, fireball originally dealt 6d6 damage, but this was felt to be underpowered.
- Player's Handbook (5e) (2014), p.241-242.
- Netheril: Empire of Magic, The Campaign (1996), p.24.
- Netheril: Empire of Magic, The Campaign (1996), p.26.
- A Precursor to the Chainmail Fantasy Supplement, Jon Peterson, Playing at the World, 2016.
- Chainmail, 2nd edition (1972).
- Greyhawk (Supplement 1) (1975), p.48.
- Mike Mearls, Twitter, Dec 2015