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I've been playing 5e for a while now, and mercifully this hasn't come up yet, but it's definitely on it's way.

When a caster casts burning hands, how is that properly mapped onto a standard 1" battle mat? The easy response is a 3x3 square, and that's the method I've told myself I'm going to use. But is there a better template?

The 3x3 grid works great if the caster casts on a corner, it matches the description of a cone perfectly (each square is 5', 10, 15' away for the purposes of grid math). However, when a caster casts the spell in a cardinal direction (N/S/W/E), that math breaks down. now a second or even third square is adjacent with a 3x3 square and the spell description has fall apart.

What are the appropriate grid shapes for a 15' cone?

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The nerd joke in my campaign is that pi equals 4, which would be the case for your 3x3 square "cone". Square cones and fireballs are certainly the easiest option, but not the most realistic one. –  Tobold Aug 22 at 13:05

2 Answers 2

Right now there isn't an official rule. According to Mike Mearls and the Wizards Team that will be an option spelled out in the Dungeon Master's Guide.

However this has been an issue for 3.5, Pathfinder, and 4e. You can use this diagram from the Pathfinder SRD to make a ruling on applying a spell's area of effect to a grid until the DMG is released.

Spell Effect diagram

The diagram addresses firing from a corner of a square and from a side of the square.

D&D 4e has an alternative set of shapes for Area of Effect. I don't have an open content diagram to display but those with access to the D&D 4e rules may wish to use them in lieu of 3.5/Pathfinder. Certainly 4e interpretation is easier to adjudicate than the odd shapes of 3.5/Pathfinder.

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Folks, post your own answers please. –  Brian Ballsun-Stanton Aug 22 at 12:34

The way my group does this is by superimposing lines over the squares to approximate who gets hit. If the line goes over an icon at all, they get hit. Granted this is mostly for online play, but it works on tabletop as well, if you are willing to delay the game to get the exact cone shape overlayed.

As long as you use consistent rulings, it won't make much of a difference. D&D 3.5 had rules for fitting grid spaces, which created non anti-aliased triangles rather than cones, so you'll always have to compromise somewhat when using a grid and curved geometries.

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