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The party I DM for tries to play D&D 3.5 strictly by the rules as written. The wizard of the party came to me with the fireburst spell, from the D&D 3.5 book "Complete Arcane" (page 107).

Unlike other mainstream invocations, this spell does a d8 of damage rather than d6/level. I understand that the area is minimal (5ft radius), but I'm remembering that the wizard already has the "sudden metamagic" chain of feats (Sudden Maximize, Sudden Empower), which makes this spell really effective against a single opponent, or when the wizard is ganged upon. So is this spell overpowered?

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Fireburst from Complete Arcane is not an overpowered spell. It is not even a good spell.

It is so bad that the 3.5 designers decided to change it when the spell was re-printed in the Spell Compendium. There, they increased its radius from 5' to 10', leaving the rest of the spell identical.

However, the "improved" Spell Compendium version is also not a good spell. Let's go over it:

The Advantages

Damage dice: It deals d8s of damage. This is above par for evocations.

Area effect: It does have the potential to hit multiple enemies.

The Disadvantages

Caster level cap: The spell is available to third level Wizards (fourth level Sorcerers). Two levels later (one level in the case of Sorcerers!), the spell maxes out at 5d8 points of damage. This makes it a bad build choice.

Aiming difficulties: This is the most obvious problem. It requires the caster to be way too close to the target (even with the SpC range improvement). Possibly even worse, it combines that non-existent aiming with friendly fire. So to use it (proactively or as a last-ditch), the character needs to get into the thick of melee and find a place where enemies can be hit without hitting friendlies. This makes the spell an overly situational, and therefore bad tactical selection.

Traditional evocation weaknesses: Reflex half, Spell Resistance yes.

The Competition

Spells aren't bad in a vacuum. The character has damage-spell-boosting feats. Here is a couple of spells of the same level I'd consider better overall, and better metamagic seeds:

  • Scorching Ray. It deals marginally less base damage at caster levels 4 to 6, more damage at all other levels. It doesn't offer a saving throw, replacing it with a touch attack. More importantly, it is a generally useful spell, not limited to the kind of situations where you'd be able to use Fireburst.
  • Combust (Spell Compendium page 50). It deals d8s of damage, like Fireburst. Unlike Fireburst, it caps out at 10d8, doesn't offer a saving throw against the primary damage, and is a single-target touch spell. A Wizard who wants to get into melee would be far better served by this one - it lasts for a longer part of the character's career, and doesn't blow up allies.

Don't worry about Fireburst being too good. It's not good at all.

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If the group only allows spells from Complete books with DM approval, comparing balance based on the spell compendium isn't a great idea. As for scorching Ray being better - the levels when scorching ray does more damage than fireburst and is worth casting are 7 and 8. At level 9+, neither is better because you won't prepare either. By then your level 2 spells should either be minor hours/level buffs or out of combat utility. So fireburst does more single target damage, does AoE damage. It does at least half its damage. Scorching ray is ranged, more likely to do full dmg but can also do 0. – Scott Aug 19 '14 at 23:17
@Scott, I used the SpC version to make the point that it's not a good spell even when improved. – Ernir Aug 20 '14 at 10:29
@Scott And I don't mean to be snide, but I'm not quite sure where you're going with the points on Scorching Ray. =/ – Ernir Aug 20 '14 at 10:34
Point was that by the time scorching ray becomes better than fireburst (L11), you wouldn't be caught dead using either. Fireburst and scorching ray each have their own adv and dis. Nothing you wrote shows scorching ray to be a better spell. – Scott Aug 20 '14 at 12:05
And @ the SC section, my point was that comparing fireburst to combust is pretty pointless. Of course a spell from the complete books is less powerful than something in the SC. It is designed to be. – Scott Aug 20 '14 at 12:07

RAW ≠ Balanced

You appear to be operating under the misconception that 'following the rules' of DnD 3.5e will result in a game where each character is equally powerful. If you have come here with balance concerns about Fireburst, a very inoffensive and thematic blasting spell, your party clearly hasn't discovered the Real Ultimate Power of spells like colour spray, glitterdust, and solid fog, much less the terrifying possibilities of buff-stacking and minionmancy.

So, that is a misconception. Rules-As-Written contains many things more powerful than other things. If you want each character to be able to contribute equally to furthering the plot, you need to do a lot of asymmetric eyeballing - is the Wizard's ability to fireball more powerful than the Fighter's high AC and Charging tactics? Is the rogue's information gathering as useful as the cleric's Divinations? Etc.

Now onto Fireburst. Fireburst is okay for what it does, but not a powerful spell. It is about as powerful as fireball. It does slightly more damage at low levels, but in a smaller area, and requires the Wizard to be in melee range - and if you are designing good encounters, that should be almost suicidal for the Wizard. What is causing you to think it might be overpowered is actually the Sudden Empower and Sudden Maximize feats. In groups with low-powered characters (which yours sounds like) adding metamagic to spells without paying the metamagic cost (as the Sudden line of feats does poorly, and the Divine Metamagic/Incantatrix/Arcane Thesis feats/classes do much more powerfully) will result in a character that seems more powerful than the average run of characters. The reality though, is that the character could do this with a Fireball for similar results. And according to people who know a lot about the mechanics of the game (Optimizers) fireball is the epitomy of the trap spell - a spell that seems great but is actually not very good compared to the alternatives.

If you still think Empowered Maximized Fireburst is too powerful for your game at level 5, and keep in mind the per/day limitations means it definitely might not be, and that is a call the GM has to make, i.e. you. It's not hard once you ignore 'what DnD is supposed to be' memetics and just start comparing numbers and frequency and opportunity, but that can be an initial hurdle, especially if you're running a low-powered group where those memetics seem (note: seem, not are) to be correct.

Although I can't eyeball the balance level of your wizard without more information about both the party and the rest of his build and how hard your encounters are, I can say for a fact that people vastly overrate 'a single large chunk of damage 1/day' compared to 'lots of smaller shots of damage at will'. Sure, a 70-damage fireburst at level 5 may seem OMG POWERFULZ to your group, but as a 1/day 'panic button' it really isn't as overpowered as it might seem, even if your group has fighters with 10 str and rogues who use archery without sneak attack daamge. Hopefully i've talked about the theory enough to give you a bit of an idea about how you go about working out what is overpowered and what is under, and that balance is relative to your party power level and composition, so go forth and go for it.

Also; to see characters at different levels of power, try this character optimization forum, which has a lot of information about power levels in DnD 3.5e.

Best of luck and such.

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Totally with you on the first paragraph, but you lose me when you say fireburst is a good spell. Especially when you then say it's about as good as fireball, implying that is a good spell. For that matter, fireburst isn't even as good as fireball, and fireball is not a good spell. – KRyan Aug 19 '14 at 11:57
@KRyan - I'm writing to audience there, i'll try to make it more general-purpose. – user2754 Aug 19 '14 at 12:10
@KRyan - take a look at it now – user2754 Aug 19 '14 at 12:56

The spell is melee-range. Without Quicken or another effect, the caster will virtually always provoke or have to cast defensively. It seems to me like a decent last-ditch escape spell, casting defensively with the chance to lose the spell in order to clear some space to work. 60 damage max at knife-range costing two limited-use-per-day feats AND a second level spell slot doesn't feel overpowered to me at all. Average of 22.5 without using the feats, assuming a 5+ level caster.

Damage compare to other second level spells: Acid Arrow doesn't hit as hard, but is long range, no save, no SR. Flaming Sphere at 5th level will do 10d6 during its duration, averaging 35 damage, and continues to improve as the caster levels. Scorching Ray is weaker at 5th level, averaging only 24 damage, but also continues to improve with levels until it reaches an average of 72 damage and it also doesn't allow a save.

Maximized Empowered damage comparison:

  • Acid Arrow 12 + 12 per 3 caster levels to a max of 84 at 18th level, 24 at level 5. Acid Arrow's range is still orders of magnitude better, no save, no SR

  • Flaming Sphere does 18 per level, no cap, assuming it hits every round. At level 5 that's 90 damage. Can be doubled with Extend Spell.

  • Scorching Ray hits for 36 + 36 per four levels past 3rd, max of 108 at 11th. Just 36 at level 5. It's ranged and doesn't allow a save.

  • Fireburst is 12 damage per level, max of 60 at level 5. Melee-range, Reflex half, SR applies.

Aside from Flaming Sphere (which does its damage over time and includes an action economy cost and chance to hit assumption), Fireburst hits the hardest at level 5, which is when it is at its VERY BEST. After level 5, Fireburst has already capped out and declines in effectiveness while the other 2nd-level damage spells continue to improve. On a Wizard, it's probably a good pick early game in case enemies swarm into melee, as it can do that damage to everyone in melee range, making it a very effective spell in much closer quarters than the Wizard is likely comfortable. Against a single target, it's still good at 5 but much less so by 7, and still requires you to be in hand to hand range.

Note: I used level 5 specifically because that is when Fireburst is the best. Damage comparisons at other levels higher or lower will not be as favorable.

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Note I didn't use any non-core spells to compare it to, either. As another answerer noted, non-core spells might make Fireburst look even worse in comparison. – gatherer818 Aug 19 '14 at 9:26

Is it overpowered?
This is always going to be a subjective answer, but considering the following:

a) A wizard standing within 5 feet of an enemy, especially at the levels this spell is effective, is already in big trouble.
b) He will probably need to cast it defensively or provoke an attack of opportunity.
c) It will hit his allies
d) It does half damage on a save

The spell is certainly punches above its weight (damage wise) compared with the other damage dealing options at this level, but considering the position you need to be in and the difficulties caused by casting it, it doesn't appear to be a problem.

As you hit level seven onwards, the spell becomes less and less useful due to its damage cap (assuming he has no way to raise it) and the save is easier to make (more powerful creatures have better saves, generally speaking)

Character Focus
You mentioned that he has feasts designed to do more damage. If a character has dedicated resources (spell slots and feats in this case) to doing damage then he should be good at it. That said, if his damage is causing too many issues there are many ways around this. Elemental resistances are common on creatures (fire is the most common), enemies may learn about him and have potions or spells available to defend themselves.

If he appears to be the one doing lots of damage, I would expect some crossbow bolts to be flying at him (remember that you can ready an action to shoot/hit someone trying to cast a spell).

At the end of the day though, as long as he isn't causing the other characters to feel underpowered or weak there probably isn't an issue.

A spell that really causes trouble?

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