In the pantheon of D&D spells, there’s nothing, it seems, more iconically important to the identity of the game than ‘fireball,’ a spell that apparently nobody ever anywhere would come up with without D&D bringing it to their attention. Hm. Bit sarky there, I should come back at that again. Anyway, Fireball! What a great spell! A classic, a powerhouse, a spell that always comes quickly to the fingertips and that players love to hear when the wizard is about to start some shit with a fireball.

Anyway, you’d never bother casting it in 3rd edition D&D.

I started playing D&D in 3rd edition, then we gracefully picked up 3.5. The spell fireball was a third level spell, and even then people did talk about it as ‘fireball’ being a big deal. But the thing is, it was an evocation, a type of standard spell template that followed a set of rules. Evocations very reliably did a number of dice of damage based on your caster level, up to a maximum, usually in an area, and the subjects had to roll a reflex saving throw to take half damage. In the simplest way this mechanic represented a character throwing a lot of energy into a space and then leaving it up to the people affected by it to get out of the way.

Reflex saving throws and hit points for monsters in 3rd edition D&D were biased towards the enemy and not the player. Monsters would usually succeed on their reflex saving throws, and a number of them would take no damage on a successful save. The way to see an Invoker (fireball specialist, basically) was to envision your character as always doing half damage and needing a backup plan for the things that could evade that. Evokers were simply always going to be going uphill. What’s more, fireball was almost always outclassed at every task.

See, let’s say a bad guy showed up out of nowhere to mess your party up. If there’s one of them, you don’t throw a fireball at them – that fireball is built to deal its damage out equally through a whole group. If it’s one opponent, you want to throw something at them that locks them down (like Hold Person), or much worse at fighting (Ray of Exhaustion), or you could just buff your entire team so you can pile on them (with Haste). The third level of spells is busy.

If you had a big pile of goblins, you can throw a fireball at them, and at level 5, that’s going to translate to 5d6 damage thrown at them; they’re probably going to save, meaning that you do about 8 damage each. By comparison, a typical fighter (a fighter, the insult) is going to easily do that much damage to a goblin on every attack, and they didn’t just use their top level spell to do it.

Fireball is a bad spell that back in 3rd edition it was never really worth throwing around.

Until you did something completely ridiculous with it.

There’s this feat, Energy Substituion. It’s a feat that lets you pick an energy type from a list (fire, cold, lightning, acid, sonic*), and then whenever you prepare or cast a spell, instead of it doing its normal type of damage, it’ll do the other. You can cast Coldballs instead of FIreballs, or Lightningballs. That’s cool, that’s a great feat. This feat, incidentally, is metamagic, which meant that any sorcerer that takes it is going to have to make full-round actions to cast literally any of their spells, great job stupid.

The problem is there’s rules baggage around one of those damage types. But to tell you about that, I’m going to have to tell you about hardness — the stat that determines how hard objects are to break. If you shoot a fireball at a wall, it’s going to do barely no damage – walls have something like 50 points of hardness, meaning that you’re barely ever going to do enough damage to damage the walls of a room. It’s just blunt reduction – the first 50 points of damage you do are ignored, and then the amount of damage you do to the wall afterwards determines how far you get through the wall. So if you do break 50 damage, you might be burning through a solid foot of it. Walls have lots of hardness, but not many hit points.

And sonic damage ignores hardness entirely.

I don’t know why. I don’t know what mindset says ‘vibration is more damage to objects than acid is.’ Obviously types of damage are different – I’d argue that it should be a judgment call by object, but the rules of D&D, made so actions like these are something clean and consistent you can do during tactical combat, instead wants to make it so walls and books and tables and swords all follow the same simple rule set. Sonic ignores hardness, that’s just how it be.

This means that if you open the door of a 15 foot wide room and throw a fireball into the middle of it, you have not only made the room two and a half feet wider on each side, you’ve also vaporised the door, and any unattended items in the room. Tables, books, chairs, everything that isn’t magical and held by something. Those items get to make a saving throw, but the default is you just filled that room with sawdust.

Why, though, would you bother doing that now you have what amounts to a mining laser? You can turn Lightning Bolt into a straight 120 foot line cut right through the rock of the dungeon, through a castle wall, through fortifications. And then from a distance, you can lob a fireball into the space you just opened, and suddenly, wherever you’re going now is standing over a 10 foot pit

Oh, you didn’t remember that fireball is spherical? Uh.

This is obviously very silly. It’s one of many ways that the rules, as written, create a play pattern that the wizard — and only the wizard, sorcerers do not interact — can just bend the conventional structure of the game around their rules. I never saw anyone do it; I saw someone explain that they could do it, talk to the DM, and then the next session, they had a different feat and Sonic didn’t ignore hardness any more.

* There is some ambiguity that I can’t quite track down any more. In the 3rd edition version of the feat, it explicitly lists Sonic as an option. There are sources that claim to be OGL sources, where the sonic damage type is available to fireball, but in the printed book of Complete Arcane doesn’t have the sonic type any more. But at the same time, the OGL Evoker, a specialised wizard, can substitute like that, though, which asks more questions.

There is another trick you could do with these sonic fireballs – and sonic damage in general – and how the sonic damage type in 3rd edition got really overdone. It got so bad that whole sets of rules were implemented to reduce the damage of sonic effects based on density and distance. The result was, I kid you not, an inflationary spiral in character optimisation with these sorts of preposterous diagrams for handling these degradations over space in tactical combat — I’m not going to bother with it here, because it’s boring but if you want to check it out, just google image search for ‘sonic spells inflation.’

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