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Author Topic: Wizards and Fireballs  (Read 669 times)

Sensei

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Wizards and Fireballs
« on: July 11, 2018, 12:40:23 pm »

Sit down, Bay 12, around the fire, if you will. I need to have a little talk.

We all know wizards cast fireballs. Right? Whoosh, boom. Fireball. It's bread and butter. It's in very nearly every video which includes both wizards, and violent conflict. It's a hallmark of pen-and-paper roleplaying. By the time of Dungeons and Dragons 3 if not earlier, wizards and other magic users have a long, long list of spells which produce huge, over-the-top displays. Lightning, chain lighting, magic missiles, burning hands, acid arrows, orbs of various harmful stuff, wall of swords that are chopping constantly (what?), giant cyclinder of gnawing ghost fish (what?), all the way up to things like Prismatic Spray, which spews colorful light with a laundry list of different harmful effects, and Meteor Storm, which is basically a localized apocalypse. This has influenced games and fantasy writing all over and it's a hallmark of fantasy fiction now that wizards can do lots of ridiculously over-the-top flashy magic.

But if you read older fantasy fiction, or really anything pre-Dungeons and Dragons, something doesn't add up. In The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Gandalf never shoots a fireball at anybody. He uses his staff to light up a room, I think. He sets some pinecones on fire. He might control the weather sometimes? He certainly has some kind of connection to an invisible spirit world and can read minds or whatever, but nothing so big and flashy as our DnD wizards. He even fights with a sword. He sure could have used a lightning bolt against the hordes of goblins in Moria, or countless other occasions! In Conan, one dude causes an explosion one time, but he threw a glass globe with stuff in it so he was probably just an alchemist. It seems that there used to be an idea that magic was much more subtle, a way of getting in touch with some hidden part of the world, and if you wanted to kill forty dudes at once you'd have to resort to more conventional means.

So what the hell happened? This transition seems to have happened in the blink of an eye, compared to the history of the supernatural as depicted in literature. Is it all down to Dungeons and Dragons, or is it something else? I do know that Dungeons and Dragons was based on a war game called Chainmail- that game had cannons and mortars (line and area attacks) and the fantasy supplement for Chainmail had wizards casting lightning bolts and fireballs, which behaved exactly like cannons and mortars respectively. Do we owe our modern idea of the fireball-slinging wizard entirely to that? It seems like such an odd thing.

Perhaps one of you has some insight, or a deeper knowledge of the lore than I. Discuss.
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MrRoboto75

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #1 on: July 11, 2018, 12:49:18 pm »

Fireballs were the payoff for wizards being utterly shit at level one.  Before you had a spell per day and a fistful of darts (of all things), now you have many spells and a fistful of d6s for that nasty fireball.
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Trekkin

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #2 on: July 11, 2018, 12:53:12 pm »

Do we owe our modern idea of the fireball-slinging wizard entirely to that? It seems like such an odd thing.

I think we do, yes; the immediate precursor to Chainmail was written by Leonard Patt, and while Patt himself doesn't recall much of 1970 he apparently liked Napoleonic wargames, so wizards may have just been the fantasy equivalent of field guns to make the rules work like the games he usually played.
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Doomblade187

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #3 on: July 11, 2018, 01:12:00 pm »

Also, think of the typical description of a fireball: a small glowing pea of fire that flies out and detonates upon reaching it's destination. Basically an artillery shell.

Above description from D&D
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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #4 on: July 12, 2018, 01:32:42 am »

To be fair, in The Hobbit Gandalf did use lightning bolt to kill two goblins durring their first encounter with them. But yes, that's about the flashiest thing he ever does and, if I remember correctly,  it's also the only direct magic attack ever used in the Middle Earth setting.

I believe this wasn't so much of a deliberate choice to create a subtle magic system but a necessity in order to avoid overpowered characters. Having Gandalf blasting his way through the orc/men armies would remove any sense of peril from the story and reduce all other character's actions to nothing. While this makes for better storytelling, it isn't that good for a game where growing stronger is a core mechanic. People would just feel they are being punished for choosing to play those kind of characters.
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Trekkin

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #5 on: July 12, 2018, 01:43:39 am »

There's also the difficulty in making the assumption that characters will voluntarily restrain themselves from using the fullest extent of their abilities when those characters are functionally unknown to the people writing the abilities, and blunt magic is easier to limit mechanically in mathematically straightforward ways.
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Egan_BW

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #6 on: July 12, 2018, 01:57:52 am »

he was using pinecones as the material component to a flaming-pinecone attack spell

More seriously, I'd say that the idea of powerful folks throwing elemental attacks around is pretty fucking old. You know, like Zeus smiting fools with lightning bolts. But the idea that "wizard" is the right term for such a person was probably popularized by D&D.
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Sensei

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #7 on: July 12, 2018, 02:43:55 am »

Eh, I don't know if that's the case. You're right that there are overt displays of supernatural power in older works, but there's more than just the name "wizard" separating them. The biggest examples are from greek and norse mythology, and all of the characters who have the ability to throw the elements around at their command are, appropriately, gods, demigods, or some other nature of divine being. The stands in stark opposition to the idea of a wizard, who I think generally has always been "a person who studies magic", at least that's how it is in DnD and that's how it is with, say, Merlon or other originators of the "wizard" type. Notably Gandalf straddles the line by technically being an immortal being, but I'm reasonably sure Tolkien didn't start off writing him with that in mind and bent the rules around a little bit to have him that way (which is another discussion entirely).
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Akura

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #8 on: July 12, 2018, 04:33:26 am »

Didn't the Wicked Witch of the West(1939 film, not original books) throw a fireball at the Scarecrow? Then again, in the books she's similar to Tolkien's wizards in that the only really overt magic she uses herself is summoning an invisible iron bar to trip Dorothy with.
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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #9 on: July 12, 2018, 04:58:21 am »

Ooh, a GD thread that isn't one of the juggernauts and actually belongs here. PTW.
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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #10 on: July 12, 2018, 05:52:37 am »

This is why I like Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrel. Magic in it can do fantastic, ridiculous things, but it's not depicted in the way of DnD's fireball flicking nonsense but a more romantic (which I guess is suitable given it's set during the Napoleonic wars) and/or animistic way. For example, at one point in it, a ship has run aground a shoal and they need to save it. How do they do it? They talk to the shoal itself.

Another depiction of magic that I quite like is from the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. The magic of the Farseer dynasty is so toned down it is almost pointless to use - the heir apparent is basically killing himself from the strain of using it just from attempting to keep track of the vast not-viking fleet ravaging the coast of their not-England homeland, and perhaps attempt yo demoralised the crew if he finds a ship, or cause them to loose their orientation in a fog for a little while.

There's more dnd-ish uses of magic in that setting, though, so I'm referring particularly to the Farseer use of it. And speaking of which I just made the connection that they're called Farseer because their magic allows them to see far. That's so obvious in hindsight I'm a bit embarrassed I didn't catch that until now.
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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #11 on: July 12, 2018, 09:49:27 am »

Even today with all the flashy spellcasting wizards are supposed to do there is still the odd bit of subtle magic. Usually in scenarios where Meteor Storm (and others) would be far too destructive and not get what you want (unless you wanted a war).

Anyway I'm watching this and might throw a few things into the fire now and then.
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Sensei

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #12 on: July 13, 2018, 03:37:50 am »

Anyway I'm watching this and might throw a few things into the fire now and then.
I see what you've done there mister!

Anyway, it seems like what I suspected is true, so far as anyone who has found this thread yet knows: Large fireball spells, which we might consider to be bread and butter to a "standard" wizard today, were invented entirely because Gary Gygax wanted something analogous to artillery in his fantasy wargame. Something about knowing that this thing we consider so standard today was made on such an odd whim rather than some deeper cultural roots seems deeply unsatisfying to me, which is partly why I made this thread, but alas.

I don't know how much life is left in this topic but I'm happy to keep it open (partly in the hopes that someone will come along with some better explanation to the original question still). Besides being somewhat dissatisfied with the origin of fireballs, there's an issue I have with the rest of the "overt" magic, specifically in game context, which led me to make this thread. For DnD in particular, people often say that wizards are the most powerful class, outright. If they choose the right magic, they can do what any class does, and better. There's spells that can make them better defended than a fighter or other martial character, more damaging than a rogue (often to multiple enemies at once), sneakier (turn invisible and fly) etc. It always bothered me that a wizard could essentially fight better than a fighter. I mean, fighting's what he does, it's in the name! A wizard should stick to wizzing. (May need to work on the terminology.) MMO-type games balance this out with the "holy trinity" where at least wizards are squishy so they can't survive without someone else to absorb enemy attacks for them, but it still feels wrong to me, a sword should be good at killing things dammit! This usually leads to games where bladed weapons, which are deadly in real life, feel like they're made of cardboard.

So, what established the general "power level" of what magic should be capable of in Dungeons and Dragons and the hundreds of other games and stories it influenced was the bread-and-butter fireball. It was originally just that and lightning, but once we have that, we move into more esoteric but similarly powerful spells: Your ice blasts, meteor showers, summoning zombies, whatever, if you've played a game that has wizards, you know what the common ones are and they are everywhere. Big, overt magic with an immediate effect that's useful for killing people. So my next question for you all is, how did this diversification of fireball-powerful spells happen? Did this continue mainly in Dungeons and Dragons, from edition to edition, or did it develop and mature in other stories (back in the 70's/80's) and video games, subsequently bringing that influence back to DnD?

In other words, is there anybody else we can blame for wizards being so damn powerful?
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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #13 on: July 13, 2018, 04:49:04 am »

While it may or may not be true that “wizards can do anything another class can do but better”, I feel that the key to modern d&d-style wizards is their limited sustainability. A fighter will be a fighter all day and can dish  out his 1-5 sword hits indefinitely, whereas every time a wizard uses a spell to “do what another class does but better”, he’s reducing the already-limited number of useful things he can do in a fight per day.

I’m not sure when the concept of a wizard became “short bursts of immense power”, but I suspect vancian magic has something to do with it.
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Trekkin

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Re: Wizards and Fireballs
« Reply #14 on: July 13, 2018, 05:23:06 am »

Something about knowing that this thing we consider so standard today was made on such an odd whim rather than some deeper cultural roots seems deeply unsatisfying to me, which is partly why I made this thread, but alas.
[...]
(partly in the hopes that someone will come along with some better explanation to the original question still)

"More satisfying" and "better" are not the same thing, you know. Furthermore, there is only such a thing as a "standard wizard" within a very narrow reference pool, most of it influenced by D&D. Perhaps a broader understanding of different cultures' tropes about magic would make you feel better?
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