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<   No. 1004   2005-10-26   >

Comic #1004

1 Lambert: We're in a prison cell?
1 Kyros: I'll blast our way out!
2 Mordekai: You realise a fireball is 40 feet in diameter? This room is less than one eighth that volume. It'll compress and blast us for eight times the damage.
3 Draak: Not to say all breathe gas in air gone too.
4 Lambert: Draak, we're trying to be scientific here...

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Way back in the first edition of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Player's Handbook, the description of the 3rd level magic-user spell Fireball stated:

The burst of the fireball does not expend a considerable amount of pressure, and the burst will generally conform to the shape of the area in which it occurs, thus covering an area equal to its normal spherical volume. [The area which is covered by the fireball is a total volume of roughly 33,000 cubic feet (or yards).]
Gary Gygax's crystal clear prose aside, what this means in practice is that a fireball is normally a sphere of radius 20 feet (in a dungeon; for some reason, above ground that changes to a 20 yard radius... ah, those first edition rules...)**. But if you don't have enough space to fit in a sphere that big, the fireball spreads out further until it fills the same volume as a 20 foot radius sphere. Which means that if you're in a standard 10 foot wide and high dungeon corridor (as they all seemed to be for some unfathomable reason*), the fireball will spread along the corridor for a total of 330 feet!

Yeah, sadistic Dungeon Masters used to enjoy using that fact to screw up plans of the adventuring party.

Another consequence used by even more sadistic Dungeon Masters is that if the fireball went off in a confined space where it couldn't expand to its regular size, the compression would increase the damage by a factor equal to the 20 foot radius volume divided by the actual available volume...***

If you knew this and ever either perpetrated it on players or fell victim to it as a player, consider yourself a true Dungeons & Dragons nerd.

* Okay, it's not unfathomable. Dungeon corridors are that size so gelatinous cubes can fit perfectly in them.

Notes added later:

** Boy oh boy, is this bit confusing. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (first edition), there was a rule that the ranges of spells were listed in "inches", and meant to be interpreted as scale inches (i.e. inches on a map that you used to lay out combats). Now, underground, a scale inch was equal to 10 feet, but above ground a scale inch was equal to 10 yards, or three times as big. With me so far?

Ther area of effect of spells was also listed in "inches". However, in this case, the scale to use was always one inch representing 10 feet, no matter where you were. So the range of a spell would triple above ground compared to in a dungeon, whereas the area of effect would not. Still with me?

However, the actual text for the fireball spell that I quoted above is directly from page 73 of the Player's Handbook and, as you can see, clearly states that the area of effect of the fireball is expressed in "cubic feet (or yards)". This is an outright rules error in the Player's Handbook, and led to my own confusion when writing the original annotation for this strip.

*** No, this fireball compression leading to damage multiplication was not an official rule. But a lot of Dungeon Masters used it as a house rule. It was even recommended in Dragon Magazine once as a way to catch players unaware...

2015-01-13 Rerun commentary: The brand new 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons rules (which I have open right in front of me as I type) state:
A bright streak of light flashes from your pointing finger to a point you choose within range and then blossoms with a low roar into an explosion of flame. Each creature in a 20-foot radius sphere centred on that point must make a Dexterity saving throw [and takes damage depending on the result.] The fire spreads around corners.
It looks like this has been very carefully worded to avoid the issues described above. It doesn't say anything about the volume of fire generated - it simply says that creatures within 20 feet of the target point are liable to take damage. This implies that the sphere of flame does not expand further in a constricted space to fill the volume of a 20-foot radius sphere. If you're not within 20 feet of the target point, you are safe.

I think this is an improvement in the rules. At least if you like simplicity and predictability, rather than mathematical complication and sadistic unpredictability.

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