Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve

The original Dungeons & Dragons game featured some activities that most players didn’t enjoy and eventually came to skip. I already wrote about mapping. Unless your group plays D&D in a deliberately old style, you don’t draft a player as a mapper who struggles to translate room dimensions to graph paper.

Spells with punishing side-effects qualify as another nuisance that D&D players learned to skip.

With some spells, players could simply avoid the side effects. The risk of instant death tends to limit teleportation to safe, familiar locations. And when Polymorph Other threatened system shock or a loss of individuality, party members never volunteered to fight in the form of a dragon.

Sometimes, avoiding side effects meant avoiding the spells. I’ve never seen anyone cast Contact Higher Plane. Apparently, few players like risking their character to a random chance of insanity.

Wish brought a mini-game where the dungeon master to tried grant the letter of the wish while perverting its spirit. Players countered by attempting to phrase their wishes to avoid any punishing interpretations. By third edition, players could skip the mini-game by selecting a wish from a menu of approved options.

A few irresistible spells included punishing side effects that DMs often ignored.

Haste aged its target a year, which forced a severe downside on humans, but an insignificant one on elves—and on humans in casual games without either bookkeeping or a reckoning of calendar years.

Lighting bolts could hit a wall and double back on the caster. When players started treating bolts as billiard balls and demanded to hit every foe using a trick shot, I suspect many DMs gave up on the bounce-back rule.

Fireball proved most popular and suffered the worst side effects. The original version risked blow back. “Fire Ball will generally conform to the shape of the space (elongate or whatever).” This meant a Fireball confined to small dungeon places could easily blow back and damage player characters. This drawback not only threatened PCs, but it also weighed the game with complicated volume calculations. D&D blogger and college mathematics lecturer Delta dutifully did the math. “After years of applying this, let me offer a heartfelt mathematician’s ‘Aaaarrgghh!!!’”

Worse than damage, Fireball destroyed treasure. “Besides causing damage to creatures, the Fireball ignites all combustible materials in the burst radius, and the heart of the Fireball will melt soft metals such as gold, copper, silver, etc. Items exposed to the spell’s effects must be rolled for to determine if they are affected.” Hitting PCs with collateral damage hurt enough, but players hated seeing treasure within their grasp destroyed.

Gary Gygax saw the the gotchas as a test of player skill and relished enforcing the punishments. His son Ernie recalled casting Fireball and how his father “would always let you know whatever cool thing you had destroyed. Normally it was difficult to figure out what anything was, but once it was destroyed, my dad would share. ‘Oh, it’s a real shame.’”

Few others saw the fun. Ernie Gygax found the lost treasure so bothersome that his wizard Tenser developed the spell Cone of Cold specifically to avoid the drawbacks of Fireball.

Faced with Fireball’s volume calculations, with item saving throws interrupting the game, and with the protests of players, many DMs just ignored Fireball’s side effects.

But without the gotchas, Haste, Lightning Bolt, and especially Fireball offered much more power. By Gary Gygax’s calculation, Cone of Cold—a replacement for Fireball without the punishing side effects—rated as a 5th-level spell.

The 5th-edition rules rewrite Haste, Lightning Bolt, and Fireball without the downsides. Haste now requires concentration and just targets one creature, so it loses some of its old power. Wizards seldom prepare Lighting Bolt because Fireball overshadows it. But Fireball keeps all the punch of a 5th-level spell with none of the downsides of its 3rd-level origin. When wizards gain the ability to cast Fireball, they leap in power.

Rather than dropping the power of the best spell available to 5th-level wizards, the designers of 5th edition gave every class some new ability that matches the Wizard’s leap in power. Fighters gain a second attack, Monks gain Stunning Strike, Rogues gain Uncanny Dodge, and so on. For more, see The obvious innovation in fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons that no designer saw before. I suspect the designers boosted Hypnotic Pattern from a average 2nd-level spell to an powerful (and annoying) 3rd-level spell so Bards could match that leap in power.

By the way, Cone of Cold isn’t the only spell made to avoid a part of D&D that players preferred to skip. Originally, some of D&D’s strategy came from the job of hauling coins out of the dungeon. Players hired bearers and bought mules to help. Still, no one found encumbrance fun or baggage trains heroic, and Gary must have noticed. He created Tenser’s Floating Disk on behalf of Ernie and every other player who wanted a painless way to recover every last copper from the dungeon.

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11 Responses to Spell Blow Back—How Part of D&D that Everyone Avoided Shaped the 5th-Edition Power Curve

  1. David Wintheiser says:

    Should be noted that Haste retains a drawback in 5th edition — when the spell ends, the recipient loses their next action. If a caster can ensure that this won’t happen before the end of the fight, it’s not such a drawback, but since Haste is also a concentration spell, if the DM can get the caster to fail a concentration check, the formerly Hasted PC will feel it.

    Because of this, I seldom see Haste used in 5e games; certainly nowhere near the frequency of my 3rd edition games.

  2. Currently playing a 1st edition game.. and I can tell you blow back and bouncing lightning do one thing… control how powerful spell casters can be.

    heck in 5e the fireball does more damage then any other spell its level.. its a no brainier…no restriction of where it can be used.. (unless the room is too small) as the spell confines itself to set area.

    In 1e we have used Polymorph Other and Haste.. all in dire circumstances

  3. Clive says:

    I think the removal of the negative or side affects is a mistake. Magic should have its negatives and spell casters need to learn when a spell is apt or to dangerous to use. Otherwise a group of kolbolts who can be deadly in close quarters and numbers become nothing when faced by a fireball. Haste aging you is apt. An elf may careless but an elf also values his life and it’s experiences so they would feel the loss of a year emotionally . Humans may hold off because they should.. some of our best moments are when magic goes wrong.

  4. Arnaud Gomes says:

    I always thought (and I’m quite sure the rules as written agree with me) that, at least in 2e, the ageing effect of Haste triggered a system shock roll that could kill a character. Who said elves were safe? 🙂

  5. Dave says:

    I am that ok and remember calculating fireball volumes in sphere and converting it to the dungeon space and watching quarter miles blown out ….

  6. I guess that some of the drawbacks need to be constrained because of the way enemies can use them. Haste aging you by a year is pretty awful for a PC because you want that PC to have a look g and fruitful adventuring career. Cast by an enemy wizard who’s allies lifespan is likely to be pretty short? Well why not? That brute is probably going to die anyway so there’s much less holding it back.

  7. sightlessraiton says:

    I have to admit, these days I mostly play Pathfinder, and a lot of these drawbacks were things my parties had always seen as annoying bookkeeping. But the argument about Fireball – how the drawbacks are calculated into the spell’s power-level – actually makes me appreciate those drawbacks a lot more. I think after reading this I’m going to bring up with my group actually going through and using some of these drawbacks in our next game.

    Not for Haste though. In Pathfinder it’s benefits are already way less crazy-powerful than in 3rd, so ageing the person a year is a needless penalty that would now unbalance the spell.

  8. Sean Hillman says:

    Even though D&D magic was heavily influenced by Dying Earth, in many ways it retains the idea that magic is bad and inherently chaotic / otherworldly. There are no good users of magic, just those who ally with civilization and those who do not. So these drawbacks do add a level of “price of power” to the game. What 5e has done (very well) is balance the character classes, but left the flavor of the game to the individual DM. Even the Warlock, which has a lot of potential flavor, is rather bland compared to classes of 1e and 2e. The game has become unexceptional in flavor and generic in tone to appeal to a broad audience, which is not meant as a criticism. I totally get why they did it.

    What you might consider is having a table for lost concentration with some “feedback” in the event of failing the roll. If you do this in a more traditional Sword n Sorcery setting, there is no need to balance this in other classes. In a more high fantasy or 5e friendly setting, you would need pitfalls for the fighting classes to keep it balanced.

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  10. Khiset says:

    It all leaves room for role-play yet keeps balanced mechanics for those bad role-players to keep the game moving without all the hour long calculus classes. I love games that push for more role-play with rewards but keep it smooth so without it the sessions don’t end in rage fits/quits

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