I must create a system, or be enslaved by another man's. I will not reason and compare: my business is to create.

- William Blake

Thursday, November 30, 2023

My fireball problem

My fireball problem (in B/X) is the fact that, in wilderness adventuring, the magic-user (MU) can destroy most encounters with a single fireball.

Facing another MU is deadly: he can cause a TPK with a single fireball. 

The fighter will probably survive, but so wounded that the magic-user now has a decent chance of finishing him with a dagger (if the fighter can close in right after the fireball; otherwise, a magic missile could finish the job). 

MUs are also very susceptible to fireballs, so if two MUs are fighting, it boils down to "whoever wins initiative wins the duel".

In addition, fireballs are recovered every day - while the HP lost takes days or weeks. 

So the magic-user is likely to have his fireball prepared at any time (if you roll for encounters once a day - more than that feels strange to me), but the fighter may be wounded from previous encounters.

I do not think I'm the only one to have this problem - the Rules Cyclopedia limits fireball damage at high levels, and AD&D has complex mechanics to allow for spell interrupting, and monsters with magic resistance.

There are no easy solutions here.

I think old school spells are just not balanced. And the MU is a glass cannon - does lots of damage but is incredibly fragile.

I suggested a system in Alternate Magic which limits fireball damage to 2d6 per spell level. The fireball is just as deadly, but a 10d6 fireball requires the same resources as a fifth level spell (e.g., you must spend your 5th level spell slot).

Come to think of it, maybe spell recovery should take a bit longer (if you're using 1d3 HP recovered per day). 

Maybe recover half level per day in spell slots?

So, a 6th-level could always recover at least one fireball per day, but not two, and definitely not all spells at once.

I don't know. Maybe I should just accept that I need to stick to an entire new magic system instead of trying to adapt old school Vancian spells.

P.S.: I have a similar problem with old school dragons and their breath weapons. 1d4 dragons causing 40 damage each... if the PCs lose initiative, they are (literally) toast before they can run. Dragon battles end in the first round unless one of the dragons save successfully. I might change dragon breath to 1d6 per HD to give their victims a better chance.


  1. I've gone off the whole combat magic-user trope in general, myself. Gathering information, beguiling the mind, transfiguring and transmuting matter, sure, but blowing stuff up in big flashy explosions isn't in the wizard's wheelhouse for me. That said, one thing that might work to tame those big damage-scaled-by-level spells is to make them charge up by casting time, maybe 2d6 per round. So, the M-U could ambush someone with a 2d6 fireball, but anything more he's going to have to spend an extra round per 2d6 building up magical energy to fling (to a max of his level limit, of course). I dunno; just throwin' stuff at the wall and seeing what might stick.

    1. Yes, this is a good idea, especially for giving the game a S&S feel.

  2. Let's say the MU is 6th level, so his fireball does 21 points on average. I don't know B/X very well, but in AD&D, the fighter will have 33 HP on average (more if he has a CON bonus) and will survive the fireball if he fails the save, and be only singed (down 10 out of 33) if he saves. Higher HD monsters are the same. The MU will have 15 HP (again assuming no CON bonus) and will thus survive if he saves. Finally, clerics can keep the party's HP total up. Relying on natural healing is not the way to go.

    Your problem stems from
    1) only 1 encounter check per day, so that the MU can nova every encounter
    2) using monsters with low HD in groups small enough so that all or most can be fireballed. Have large numbers, spread 'em out so that not many can be caught in a single fireball
    3) use higher HD monsters; the wilderness is full of 'em

    1. Yes, good points!

      I'm considering B/X RAW here, so the fighter has about 27 HP; I did mention he probably survives.

      Having a cleric definitely helps!


      1) that is the standard for B/X, although it is optional you can make more checks. However, having more than one encounter per day (which requires multiple positive checks) is pushing credulity, IMO.

      2) Yes, definitely a good idea, although the fireball gets a morale check at the very least.

      3) Yes, there are some; again, I'm not choosing encounters, I'm rolling them by-the-book.

    2. 1) that is the standard for B/X, although it is optional you can make more checks. However, having more than one encounter per day (which requires multiple positive checks) is pushing credulity, IMO.

      What's the source for your standard? X1 Isle of Dread is explicitly checking twice per day (pg 5, "Using the Wilderness Wandering Monster Tables"), but omits some of the details. I'm guessing 2/6 chance during the daytime, 1/6 at night, so it's once every three weeks that you get two encounters on the same day.

      Also there's explicitly a separate procedure on the central (dangerous) plateau, which is 2/6 every 3 miles traveled.

    3. The source of my comment is X57 (expert): "Encounters are usually checked for once per day, but the DM may include planned encounters, or may make additional checks if appropriate. No more than 3 or 4 encounter checks should be made per day."

      I dislike multiple checks per day, but have been working on fixing that.

  3. From my perspective, I don't see this as a problem so much as it is a characteristic of the game.

    If players want to avoid being surprised and fireballed or surprised and ambushed by monsters, there are ways to deal with that. A thief scouting ahead of the party; a party adventuring in an area where that powerful of a MU might be encountered probably have a few magic items that could help them, their own spells to avoid detection or prevent a scout from being detected (invisibility, fly) would be examples.

    I don't have problem with players using their powerful spells to deal with random encounters or any encounter. There are benefits to leveling up and making smart choices. If I want an encounter to be difficult then it's on me to create an encounter where a single spell can't defeat the problem. As powerful as fireball is, it can only catch a limited number of targets outdoors.

    The other issue I can see is if you are rolling encounter distance, and reaction rolls, then this scenario should be somewhat rare. Just because the monster/ or NPC magic user surprises the party doesn't mean they must attack. They can maneuver or try to parley too. If you haven't decided the monster/NPC attacks immediately and make a reaction roll, the only result on a the reaction dice where they immediately attack is "2" on 2d6. That rarity is its own limiting factor.

    1. Yes, fair enough - it is a rare occasion indeed, and the PCs found few hostile MUs so far.

  4. Interesting. I believe that magic duels could be a fun solution. With such a mechanic, MUs would have a chance to affect each other's spells, maybe even cancel them, redirect them, etc., mitigating the problem of having fireballs always going off.

    1. I like the idea of mage duels; some should be able to "counterspell" at the very least.

  5. Fight on #1 has some nice looking mechanics for counterspelling and mage duels that I think you'd like

    1. Nice! I might take a look. Or a might remake the whole spell system again... Thanks!