Torches: We are doing them wrong

Forgotten Arts & Crafts, Wilderness Survival Guides, American Indian crafts and Depression Methods are among my favorite Non-Fiction Book Subjects. Simple living comes in handy regardless of income.

My father raised us to remember these things and see their value. My grandfather believed that electricity was a fad, and preferred the old ways more often than not. He had a tractor, but for tedious jobs such as picking corn, he took the horse and cart out to the fields, his logic being that the horse just kept following him, he didn't have to stop working to go move the machine. 

I do the same thing for my children, I raise them to be self-reliant and to know where they came from. It has been hard to adjust to city life, but I am doing my best. For vacation we tend to go camping, there are many important skills that one can learn from primitive camping, the most important being self-reliance.

In regards to light, we have modern battery-powered lanterns, but we leave them at home. Those things are terrible! They do nothing but draw bugs and batteries are very expensive compared to other forms of fuel. Instead, we use railroad lanterns. Not only is the fuel cheaper (and a hell of a lot cleaner!), but the light doesn't draw insects and doesn't kill your night vision., these are easy to make, and we've done it! They suck. The fire itself blinds you, in fiction, they always have the person in the lead carrying the torch, but it should be the person in the back, though it does get passed around a lot. The torch-bearer really can't see very far, you can't even see the ground which is a problem, and it is harder than you think to hold a torch above your head and out of your eyes. Even a lantern will do the same thing unless it is fixed with a shield, you don't want the light to be too bright, just bright enough.

Cab drivers who drove at night had to keep the flame itself out of their eyes, seeing the ground was imperative because of potholes. Nobody wanted to drive at night, even with a light source, because moving around is dangerous. People did it, but people also got lost on their own properties and drowned in rivers.

In regards to cave exploration, torches aren't the best idea. The best option is a candle, low levels of light to highlight your surroundings. They told you more than just your surroundings, the flame is sensitive to changes in air quality, professional miners preferred candles to lanterns, it wasn't just budget concerns. Even today you'll see a lot of miners smoking, they watch the smoke to see the air flow. Once battery operated light came about, that is when people started carrying canaries. would be shocked at how deep the old-timers got inside of caves, and these weren't professional spelunkers, these were just everyday locals who took some time off and wanted to see things that nobody else had seen. They used candles, and they'd climb deep inside of these things until they either got scared, ran out of time, or could progress no more because of the muck. They'd mark their spot with their name and usually the date, and these writings are still in there.

What does this have to do with D&D games? Nothing. We're dealing with fantasy, it is just easier to have tunnels that you can stand upright in, the rule-of-cool dictates a lot of stuff! I do give them raw caves to explore when I want to. Passages that aren't 5'x5'. I'll also get picky about supplies if that is the game, but we rarely play that game.
Typically, I'll do the math and how many torches you bring in dictates how far in one can go and get back out again. I'm also a creep, demihumans don't need as much light to see in the dark as men do, and once a demihuman gets beyond the range of men, the underground world becomes more habitable for them, fungus and stones radiate light that they can see, but humans and normal elves cannot.

Elves can see normally at night above ground, starlight is enough, but it is reversed, the Dwarvish folk needs to carry a light source.

Candles are preferred, lanterns break, but the oil can be used to make a torch. To light a torch you only need one stick, but you've got to bring enough cloth and fuel with you. The problem with light is that it gives your position away. Enemy sentries typically sit in the dark, living spaces are lit, but that is it. Golin will sometimes light passages to help sentries see intruders sneaking around in the dark (if they are paying attention), so light itself is part of their survival plan.

The players tried to utilize the Permanent Light Spell, which works great in unoccupied caves and dungeons, but since you've got to put it out to sneak around, and recast it, it can be terribly expensive.

That is the game that we prefer to play. One of stealth. I have also found that it is difficult to put a torch out, the fastest way is with water, a slower way is to smother it with dirt, the slowest way is to tap and roll it around on stone, which is also noisy. I don't think that I've ever used these experiments in a game before. Maybe stripping it off with a sword real quick and stamping it out would work? That might be a fun game!


Oakes Spalding said...

This is a fascinating and (apologies) illuminating post. But it's also depressing. Is no item sacred? Next we'll hear that ten-foot poles don't really detect traps. :)

RipperX said...

Of course 10' poles detect traps, Oakes! I never leave the house without mine. Well I think they do. So far so good, but you know what happens the second you put your guard down. BAM! 50' pit!

JDsivraj said...

It is amazing how little light you need to navigate if going slowly and how darned little you actually see by candles ot lanterns.
Even flashlights are deceptive. Decades ago my family spent a day at fort Warren in Boston Harbor, it's a big old civil war to WW-I fort that is a labrynth of tunnels and shafts. At the time there were fenced off areas you werenkt supposed to go into so of course my entire family did. We crept across sagging wooden floors a couple people at a time so we didnkt plummet, crept through narrow passage around old ammo magazines and down long tdark tunnels that opened out on the side of cliffs. We all had a flashlight and we all missed an open shaft in the middle of the floor we all had failled to notice when we first walked down a passage becasue darn it the dark is dark.

RipperX said...

Nice comment! Thanks for sharing. Most of my life I've kept odd work hours, living in the dark is different. It can take up to an hour for your eyes to adjust to see at night. Blue or red colored light is easier on the eye for spot checks, normal yellow or white light is horrible, just a short painful glance of it, & you've got to start the whole process over again.

Unknown said...

I've had few shorts walks under stary nights in the country-side when walking the dog for a last piss before turning in for the night. We use a flashlight for when it's clouded, because then it's pitch black (like in a cave) but when it's clear it does more harm than good. The stars are enough. The flashlight blinds.

I understand this logic - I don't think it's something I can apply to my games as such, but if the vision and light and types of lighting played a bigger role in a scenario, it would definitely be something I could come back it. Thanks for sharing. It's not something I'd personally experience with torches myself.

RipperX said...

I'm not one to let the truth get in the way of a good story. There is something romantic about torches in fiction! But, the more we know about the science of light, the more dynamic we can make our scenes.

Fires highlight those that use them. Others use light to their advantage, and attempt to give them an edge over their opponent.

We all make errors, and this is a very common one. Over describing the visuals. Allowing the players to see too much.

Elves can prefer to go for quick surrenders, a blinding flash of light and suddenly the party is surrounded by spears.

Anyone can sneak up on a bunch of drunk orcs partying around a bonfire.

Walk into a dark bar on a hot summer day, everybody inside gets to take a quick glance at you before your eyes can adjust.

We use light, and while I don't hope to get consistent with it, I do try to use it the best I can.

Post a Comment


Contact me at

Search This Blog

Blog Archive