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In my most recent adventure, the party was attacking a wooden goblin fort when the dragonborn PC had the bright idea to use his fiery breath to burn it down. I thought that it was a clever idea and was glad that he thought of it, but I am wary of letting this become the solution to every problem (especially as an adventure in the near future may involve exploring an evil forest). The reason that I am worried about this is because I think that burning down a building from the outside will often be a lot less interesting than exploring it and fighting its denizens.

How can I prevent a player from burning down everything to solve problems?

Note that I am not particularly concerned with whether or not dragonborn breath is capable of setting something on fire. I don't feel like just telling the player "the rules say that you can't do that" would be a fun solution. I want to keep things fun but also prevent the game from getting completely out of control.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Possible duplicate of How does fire work in D&D? \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jul 17 at 1:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM That question is for D&D 5e, this is for 4e. That seems to me grounds not to be a duplicate, but I could be wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – mprogrammer Jul 17 at 4:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DaleM Though on the other hand, most of the answers on both questions are pretty system-agnostic. \$\endgroup\$ – mprogrammer Jul 17 at 4:09
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Have it be wet season: In a wet season things don't burn very well. You could technically open a hole in the wood with a firethrower, but the fire simply wouldn't spread.

Add a stone base: Especially walls tend to have a stone foundation even if they are primarily made of wood. Have the fire reveal a stone foundation that can be climbed more easily, still providing a challenge but making it easier through the clever usage of ability.

Make the usage of fire result in a bad outcome for the group: If a building is made entirely of wood the fire will spread everywhere. "All of the goblins are dead. The entire loot is badly damaged because the treasury also caught fire and the goblins' slaves...you don't want to know."

Make the usage of fire create new problems: If something is made out of wood I can certainly see flames rising extremely high and spreading to the local forest whose resident supernatural creatures are no longer happy. You can change this to an inn or something else.

Have it be a signature move: Everyone knows that one group whose dragonborn's fire is so strong that it can bring down entire forts. As soon as the fire is seen the party is recognized by the villains along with their weaknesses and strengths. To make sure players realize the reason why villains seem to know these try to have one of the villains shout how they recognize the dragonborn's fire tactic.

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It will rarely be appropriate

I suspect this will not be a major problem because it will rarely be appropriate. It is similar to a "nuke it from orbit" approach. It really is the right answer in some rare situations, but for it to work all of the following have to be true:

  1. You are willing to risk destroying everything in the building.

  2. The building in question is actually susceptible to fire (or nuking from orbit).

  3. You can accept all collateral damage, including the fact that the resulting fire may spread to other flammable structures.

  4. Destroying the structure will actually accomplish the goal.

If you are following standard fantasy-type objectives it is rare that all of those will be true.

If the players want to retrieve anything susceptible to fire afterwards, such as most loot or a living person you need to rescue or capture, burning the building is out.

If the building is made from stone or magically protected, fire may not be an option to destroy it.

If the building is in an otherwise friendly town, the collateral damage is likely unacceptable.

If your primary goal is to kill a person capable of fleeing, then destroying the building won't achieve your goal.

In short, while it is a reasonable approach some of the time, it likely will not come up very often. If you need to discourage it further, then deliberately make sure one of the above tenants would be violated.

You can add flammable things that the players desire inside the building and make sure they know about it. You can make the building in question be made out of stone. You can add innocents either in the building or living close enough they could be burned out as well. You can provide goals that cannot be solved by destroying the structure.

The Evil Forest in particular

Notably, starting a forest fire on purpose is harder than it sounds. It takes a lot to light living trees on fire and even lighting living grass or shrubs on fire isn't easy. Major forest fires in the real world mostly happen during unusually dry seasons, especially if small natural fires are suppressed which allow large amounts of dead plant material to build up. Even without anything else, it would be fairly reasonable within the fiction for the players to throw around standard fire based powers without worrying about starting a major fire (unless you wanted that to happen as a complication...)

If you think more is needed, an "Evil Forest" likely has magical protections from fire of some sort, if only in that that type of tree is even more resistant to burning than usual.

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Fire doesn't just hurt the bad guys

My own players did this once. Well, twice actually, but these were implemented very differently. I'll go over both since they both illustrate different ways to handle (that is, limit) the use of fire.

Make fire endanger the party

My party came across a goblin encampment, and they decided that they needed to create a distraction so the rogue could more easily sneak in and scout the place. They couldn't set the encampment on fire, as it was actually underground. Instead, they decided to set the nearby forest on fire and start screaming about how all their valuables were going to be destroyed in the fire (no seriously!).

Between the ranger, who knew what all the most flammable types of wood were, and the sorcerer who took bonfire as a cantrip, they had absolutely no problem getting a blaze going. And oh did they! And with their dwarf shouting about all the gold he allegedly now had to carry, it was hardly any time at all before the goblins sent scouts and soldiers to check out the blaze and collect the goods.

Since they had time to prepare, they actually had a really good ambush set up and were at a solid advantage... except, the fire started spreading.

At the top of every battle round, I rolled a d8 for each separate flame (the party had set up two, and had created more by using Bonfire and throwing fiery chunks of wood). Each number corresponded to a direction, and that was the direction the flame would spread that turn.

Pretty soon, the party had to withdraw, because the spreading fire was actually close to cutting off their own escape. They even took some damage from it!

I didn't do anything real special here, and I don't have the fire spread and block them just because. But fire is dangerous, even to a party who has prepared really well! Using it is dangerous, and the more you use it the more chances you have to really mess up and get yourself hurt or killed. If you make sure your party is also in flammable surroundings, they just might think twice about using it so liberally. Mine certainly did.

Make fire endanger someone they don't want to hurt

Our rogue, meanwhile, was busy setting fire to a warg pen in the goblin camp (he had some really good stealth rolls). That worked wonderfully, but he was very careful to only target burnable structures where prisoners could not be held.

Why? The party was there specifically there to rescue an NPC who had gone missing, and my players did not want to accidently kill this NPC. This taught me real quick that collateral damage is a really good motivator not to use fire... if your PCs are concerned about such things.

This rogue was very careful in selecting his targets. His first question would be is it flammable, his second are there prisoners? He made sure the fire couldn't spread to anywhere that prisoners might be held, and when he couldn't do that, he just didn't use fire.

So, that's the second way to keep your party from freely using fire - put someone friendly in harm's way. I promise that if your party is thinking, and they don't want to hurt that NPC, then they probably won't ignite the building that person's being held in.

This can also work in a crowded city, where setting a villain's hideout on fire actually means setting the city itself on fire. Just be clear with your players that this is what will happen before they try.

Don't make the building flammable

Within city limits, my party didn't use fire very much at all. For one thing, they were actually trying to avoid collateral damage... but also they were in a city whose buildings were mostly made out of stone. Stone doesn't burn very well. And if the building won't burn, then there's no point trying to burn the bad guy's hideout down.

Any or all of these approaches should help. And if they don't, then you get some memorable stories out of it, and your party is probably wanted for arson and man-slaughter!

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