Magical Mondays: FIRE!   Leave a comment

Chandra Nalaar

(Warning: contains a mild Wheel Of Time spoiler.  Really mild.  But still… spoiler warning.)

So.  Fire.

That old standby of fantasy stories, and possibly the winner of the medal for humanity’s most troublesome ancient tool (we don’t have problems from Inclined Planes anymore, after all), it pops up a lot where tales of magic are involved.  Possibly aided by the fact that it flows about, tends to emit bright light, can be multiple colors, and basically eats whatever it’s touching as a way of making more of itself, it’s hard to not see the appeal (and often not wise to ignore).  Why then does fire bore me when it comes to fantasy gaming?

It really shouldn’t.  I mean, it’s Fire.  Fire!  It’s a standard, right? And yet somehow it never quite seems to catch on.  Friends, if you want to bring the heat for fire in your gaming worlds, it’s important to understand that you’re not alone.  I’m going to say a few things that I hope will kindle some inspiration for you, and I’m going to get into it quickly before I try to force any more lame fire puns.  Mr. Worf?  Fire.

Mister Worf Fire

The first thing you need to understand about fire in a fantasy setting is that it’s not just fire.  I don’t care whether your fantasy is a standard D&D style fantasy romp, a space opera where ancient tech galleons duel over limited resources, or a casual modern-day game.  When you bring fire to a role playing game, you’re effectively introducing something that either needs to act as a “mindless character” or as a force of nature.  You wouldn’t be mentioning fire as a detail if it wasn’t important to the game, and so it’s important to remember that it’s not just fire.

This means that you should know in advance what it is you’re trying to pull off.  Is the fire a hazard to be avoided? A resource to be used?  A tool?  A storm of energy that’s going to destroy everything and there’s no way to stop it?  (What kind of game are you playing?)  Whatever your fire, plan ahead.  Then begin extrapolating to figure out where its other story niches are.

One of the benefits in my fantasy gaming setting, Cantadel, is that I come into this with the idea that different sorts of magic can lead to the same basic spell.  Six wizards casting Burning Hands might all do very different things to get their result.  As such, it’s easier for me to work with the assumption that there are different sorts of magical fire at work.  I recommend thinking along these lines while you generate your own firestorm, as the magical nature of fire is what’ll set it apart from the more mundane fires that the players are likely to avoid, ignore, or worse, pass by without noticing.

TF2 Pyro

When discussing magical fires, there are two basic distinctions that you can make: origin and effect.  Origin is the easy one, but I’ll start with effect.  We all know that fire burns.  That’s a given.  The obvious fantasy counterpoint is fire that freezes, something that’s more rare than it should be in my opinion.  Other fires are described as being so damaging that their burn exceeds the usually understood definitions of burning.  Wheel Of Time readers will be familiar with Balefire, a fire so horrendous and dangerous that it can actually WIPE ITS TARGET FROM EXISTENCE GOING BACK IN TIME.  Let that sink in for a moment; the fire is essentially burning backward through time, wiping out the effects that the individual has had.  If your fire target killed someone recently, and the burn goes back far enough, then suddenly that person’s not killed anymore because the Balefire target wasn’t around to do the killing.  THE FIRE BURNS SO HOT THAT IT NOT ONLY DESTROYS YOUR ENEMIES BUT CAN RESURRECT THE ENEMIES OF YOUR ENEMIES THROUGH SHEER CHRONOLOGICAL SPITE.  This is the kind of effect that’s amazing to think about, and that can cause serious damage in most fantasy settings if left unchecked (though for the curious, there IS a Wheel of Time d20 game that contains rules for Balefire.)

A more tame version of this sort of thing can be seen in games that halve fire damage for one reason or another.  D&D will sometimes declare that half of a spell’s damage isn’t actually “fire” damage at all, but holy damage (or something else) so that creatures normally immune or resistant to fire will still take some damage from a secondary effect.  This secondary effect might not be in the damage, though, it might also be from a literal secondary thing that happens.  What would the result be if fire poisoned you?  Would a goblinoid chemical cause a fire that not only burns, but potentially sickens the person being burned?  (In fact, I just had a spell idea…)  Going a bit creepier than goblins, what would a fire-themed fairy be able to develop?  Can fire burn away elements of your personality or memories?  (“The fire hits you.  Take… 12 fire damage, 3 Charisma damage and 1 Wisdom drain.”)  If you want fire to freak out your players, then please (Carefully) consider incorporating magical fires with secondary effects.

Doctor Phosphorus

Now that you’ve got different effects in mind… where does the fire come from?  This might be less important mechanically, but it’s the kind of flavor that matters.  Dragon fire is not the same as phoenix fire, and that’s certainly not what the Ancient Greeks used in naval combat.  Different fires can have different effects tied to their origin.  For instance: An elder dragon’s fire might be strong enough to melt a metal object that others had thought to be indestructible.  A phoenix’s flame might have restorative properties, easily soothing minor wounds and damage.  A wizard might have developed a certain fire to always lash out and attack anyone who attacks him, using a rare sort of Flame Viper that he discovered.  Primordial fire of the elementals might be more destructive than any of those.  Empyrean fire from the creation of the universe might be malleable and static enough to be turned into buildings.  Think of where the fire comes from, and that can give you a hint as to its other abilities.

Now, the nasty part comes when you start messing with the rules, so don’t do this without your players who use fire magic being aware of the changes.  Case in point: I have a pyromancer prestige class in my campaign setting, and one of the prerequisites is that the caster must have at least two different versions of the same fire spell (so, Burning Hands using both dwarven forge fire and the flame drawn from a distant star’s light, why not?)  The class lets a pyromancer be aware of the different sorts of fire at work in the world.  They also know weird tricks:  if you cast a spell to make yourself immune to fire damage, can that fire immunity be overcome by finding the sort of fire the least similar to that used in casting the spell? The class feature says that it can, but it’d also infuriate some players if their fire damage immunity was seemingly ignored due to behind-the-scenes rule shifting.

Ultimately, fire magic is tricky.  You’re literally playing with it when you go beyond what your game of choice will offer you in the rule books.  Play safe, and try not to get burned.  See you next time!

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