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A brief history of the fireball in fantasy games

A brief history of the fireball in fantasy games
May 2, 2016 | By Jon Peterson

May 2, 2016 | By Jon Peterson
More: Console/PC, History

Anyone who plays fantasy games--digital or tabletop--has crossed paths with a spell called Fireball. It is the quintessential way that a wizard immolates swaths of enemies—and sometimes, inadvertently, nearby allies as well.

It turns out that the Fireball spell is as old as fantasy gaming itself: it is one of the small set of constants that runs through Dungeons & Dragons, Magic: the Gathering, and the many computer games today that build on their analog gaming heritage. Its ultimate origins may lie in high fantasy literature, but as soon as game developers began incorporating it, they have made Fireball their own, adapting it to be a satisfying gameplay mechanic.

As Fireball blasts its way into a fifth decade, it’s high time to take a look at the origin and evolution of the Fireball spell: its knockdowns, saving throws, damage over time, and its unquenchable appeal. At a high level, the history of Fireball is the history of fantasy gaming itself.

1) The First Fireball

Old “grognard” wargamers know that Fireball predated D&D, as it appeared in the earlier fantasy wargame Chainmail. But it only recently came to light that Chainmail in turn borrowed its Fireball from an even earlier wargaming source. Way back in 1970, a Boston area tabletop wargamer named Leonard Patt jotted down a brief set of rules for gaming in Middle-earth. Beyond fixtures like ents, orcs, and dragons, this naturally meant introducing a wargaming figure type called a Wizard. The only magical attack in this Wizard’s arsenal was a spell that Patt called “fire ball.” The “fire ball” spell caused a burst of fire damage at a long range that would incinerate most normal units—though a powerful figure, like a Hero, would get a saving throw.

Wizards in Middle-earth rarely cast flashy spells: Gandalf and Saruman don’t lob many fireballs that explode at a distance. The closest we probably see is the scene in The Hobbit where Gandalf pelts wargs with flaming pinecones. This isn’t to say that literature and film outside of Tolkien didn’t have plenty of fireballs by 1970—but Patt first depicted them as a game element for the Middle-earth setting.

Probably Fireballs owe their presence more to the behavior of field guns in modern era wargames that Patt and his friends also played than they do to any literary source.

Although Tolkien was all the rage then, no one was really doing fantasy wargaming at the time, and Patt’s rules won the “Best in Show” award at a 1970 wargaming convention in Philadelphia. Patt left for graduate school soon thereafter and found more practical things to do with his life. But before he forgot about wargaming altogether, he published his two-page sketch of Middle-earth rules in a local fanzine, which made its way through the tiny gaming community of the day all the way to Wisconsin.

2) Fireball Goes Commercial

In Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, Gary Gygax had already been working with his friend Jeff Perren on a medieval wargaming system when Patt’s rules started circulating. Miniature wargamers of the day constantly borrowed from each other, tweaking and hacking rules in a collaborative and non-commercial environment. But Gygax had a pretty audacious ambition for his work: he was going to sell his wargaming rules. He combined his existing systems for jousts, castle sieges and so on with fantasy rules that borrowed heavily from Patt, and published them all in a skinny pamphlet called Chainmail (1971).

Chainmail was the first commercially-available fantasy wargaming ruleset. It turned the Wizard into a much more versatile spellcaster: in addition to the “fire ball” spell, Wizards could cast a “lightning bolt” that shot through enemies in a straight line, as well as a number of utility spells to create magical light or darkness and to summon of elementals that fought on a Wizard’s behalf. Chainmail drew on fantasy literature outside of Tolkien to add more monsters you could incinerate with a Fireball, such as regenerating trolls.

For a miniature wargame of the era, Chainmail was very successful: it sold a few thousand copies, along the way requiring a second printing in 1972. By that second printing, the game had already begun to divide Wizards into casters with various levels of ability, and the rules referred to the bunch of them as “Magic-users.” One of the people who picked up the Chainmail rules early on was Twin Cities gamer Dave Arneson, who started hacking them into a local variant which became focused on small parties of adventurers raiding dungeons to fight monsters and win treasure. Once Arneson realized he had something special on his hands, he showed it to Gary Gygax, and their collaboration began on a new game.

3) Fireball Conquers the 1970s...via D&D

Gygax founded a company called Tactical Studies Rules, or TSR, to publish the Dungeons & Dragons (1974) system he then developed with Arneson. In D&D, spells were no longer something that a Wizard unit under your control would cast—you played the Wizard and cast the spells yourself. This role-playing dimension opened up new possibilities that would completely transform the gaming hobby before the end of the 1970s.

D&D depicted Fireball as “a missile which springs from the finger of the Magic-user” that will “explode with a burst radius” of around twenty feet. The original rules warn that “in a confined space the Fireball will generally conform to the shape of the space (elongate or whatever)” and early play reports are full of hilarious blunders resulting from Magic-users casting the spell in narrow dungeon corridors only to torch half of their own party. Since D&D pioneered the whole concept of experience levels, we shouldn’t be surprised that D&D introduced the idea that Fireballs grew more damaging with the level of the spellcaster.

Fireball spread to the many imitations and revisions of D&D that followed in the marketplace. A “Fire Ball” spell shows up in Chivalry & Sorcery (1977), for example. With Advanced Dungeons & Dragons came a requirement for material components: for Fireball, “a tiny ball composed of bat guano and sulphur.” The Advanced rules also introduced the “Delayed Blast Fireball” that a Magic-user could postpone for a few rounds to get safely out of the blast radius. All kinds of magic items generated fireballs: wands, staves, the gems on helms, necklaces, mysterious cubes, scrolls, not to mention artifacts.

Fireballs were everywhere.


4) Fireball Attacks Mainframes and Home Computers

The year after the release of Dungeons & Dragons, primitive digital adaptations began emerging. These early days are a bit of a historical mess: since the games were mostly written on university computer systems by students who never tried to market them, they sometimes went uncredited, and usually just called themselves “dungeon” or “dnd” unless paranoid students hid them from sysadmins under code names like “pedit5.”

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).

One place we can find an early graphical depiction of Fireball in TSR’s own computer game Dungeon (1982), which reproduced their 1975 Dungeon board game (a cousin of D&D and another game based on Chainmail). It visualized the classic trope of Wizards casting Fireball and Lightning Bolt at their foes, including overgrown rats.

5) Fireball Goes Live Action at "3D D&D" Events

Even the kids trying to bring Dungeons & Dragons to life in the computer labs of their universities had go outside eventually.

One of the earliest documented groups to adapt Dungeons & Dragons for outdoor play was the UCLA Computer Club, who gathered in a park in Malibu for a game they called “Wilderness Tourney” (1978). No one yet called these events live-action role-playing games, or LARPs; instead they called it by names like “3D D&D.”

Of course, people had been dressing up in medieval costume and beating each other with padded weapons in the woods long before Dungeons & Dragons came out—the Society for Creative Anachronism had been doing it since 1966. Many early adopters of Dungeons & Dragons started out in the SCA, so it was probably inevitable that people would try to act out Dungeons & Dragons with similar techniques.

While the SCA had plenty of experience with medieval combat, spellcasting required some innovation. Wilderness Tourney stipulated that “fireballs are streamer-covered tennis balls.” The idea was that if a Wizard hit a target with the tennis ball, the streamers could fan out and potentially touch other targets nearby, simulating the area of effect of the Fireball spell.

“Wilderness Tourney” assumed that a watchful referee would tell the people dressed up as monsters when they had been hit, since the big masks they wore undoubtedly prevented them from judging for themselves. Events like “Wilderness Tourney” ended up inspiring a whole tradition of LARPs that simulated ranged spells with harmless projectiles. (However, there's no denying that LARP Fireballs have been completely upstaged by  Lightning Bolt LARPing in the popular imagination.)

6) The Collectible Trading Card Genre Catches Fire

When Wizards of the Coast released Magic: The Gathering in 1993, they returned Fireball to the tabletop, this time incarnated as a collectible trading card. Magic borrowed whole swaths of its monsters and spells from tabletop fantasy role-playing games, especially D&D. It introduced Fireball to a new generation of gamers.

Magic preserved the notion that the damage from a Fireball scales up with the power of its caster, and that it could strike more than one target. Since there were no experience levels in Magic, power came from how much mana a player could tap from lands, artifacts, and so on. In Magic, the Fireball spell costs one red mana for starters and then allows its caster to power up the damage yield of the spell with any further disposable mana. This damage can be split evenly across any number of targets, something like an area-of-effect spell, though another point of mana must be spent for each additional target. 

Naturally, once Fireball appeared in the flagship collectible card game, it inevitably spread to Magic’s many imitators. When D&D’s producer TSR released their competing game Spellfire, it had its own version of the Fireball spell which wiped out all low-level opposing creatures. But, by this point, TSR had fallen on hard times, and not long thereafter the company, and with it the D&D product, went up for sale—Wizards of the Coast bought them in 1997. Wizards has since released three more major versions of D&D, and many Magic sets, in which Fireball remains a core system element.


7) Fireball in Warcraft and Beyond

By the 1990s, Fireballs had appeared in so many tabletop and computer fantasy games that its roots in wargames like Chainmail were easily overlooked. As computer games grew in sophistication, designers continued to take the spell in new directions, bolstering it with dramatic graphics and complex systems for simulating its effects.

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. Today, gamers expect the explosion of a Fireball to knock multiple opponents off their feet, set them ablaze for periodic damage, scatter loose objects in the environment, and generally to trigger a satisfying inferno of fiery mayhem on screen.

If you want to experience an old-school version of Fireball without resorting to a physical tabletop, you can cast Fireball as a direct damage spell in Blizzard’s Hearthstone. But the great thing about analog tabletop games is that you can always play their original form: no one can erase their past with a software update. You can experience Leonard Patt’s original Middle-earth rules just the way he envisioned them in 1970, with a little work.

Whichever medium you prefer, the Fireball’s eternal flame still lights up gaming.

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