In this post I will examine the various ways that D&D handles torches (flambeaux & firebrands) from Chainmail up to 5th edition as well as examining historical real-world sources. I am doing this because I have always freely took rules that I like from any game to use in my D&D campaign, regardless of what edition I ran. And as a bonus I am including original content on torch-staves and brazier-staves suitable for any Old School game.
TORCHES by EDITION
“Torches consist of a bundle of loosely twisted threads which has been immersed in a mixture formed of two parts, by weight, of beeswax, eight of resin, and one of tallow. In warm, dry weather, these torches when lighted last for two hours when at rest, and for an hour and a quarter on a march. A good light is obtained by spacing them 20 or 30 yards apart.”
— Scientific American Supplement No. 586, New York, March 26, 1887
It should be aparent that “20 or 30 yards apart” (10 or 15 yard radius) refers to the usage of torches outside at night. The nighttime ambient light can vary significantly from a clear full-moon night to a heavily overcast one. Thus I will presume that torches have a 10 yard (30') radius in a dungeon or cave. A “good light” can presumably be defined as ‘able to differentiate between friend & foe’ but it does not mean that there is total darkness outside of that 30' radius. In a “poor light,” movement can be noticed. This is very important to note because in a dungeon, it can be enough to notice the movement of medium-sized humanoid creatures without having to definitively identify them as orcs.
Torches require a good amount of oxygen to burn properly and they give off quite a bit of noxious smoke. This is why historically, torches were only found indoors in great halls. Mining and cave exploration was done with candles rather than torches because torches burn up the “good air” in tunnels and caverns. There was a case some years back (I cannot find the source) where a group of Russian teenagers took torches into a cave system and died from asphyxiation. Therefore torches are a poor choice for exploring underground. This issue does get addressed in the AD&D Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide (see below).
The only reference in 0D&D (Chainmail through Swords & spells including Strategic Review & The Dragon) is the following:
“Torches, lanterns and magic swords will illuminate the way, but they also allow monsters to “see” the users so that monsters will never be surprised unless coming through a door. Also, torches can be blown out by a strong gust of wind.”
“Sighting Monsters: Players will see monsters at 20–80 feet (roll a pair of foursided dice to determine the distance) unless they are surprised by the monster.”
“Surprise: … Distance is then 10–30 feet.”
— D&D Vol. III, page 9
Note that dungeons have the occassional strong gust of wind. This tells me that torches can function because of the source of “fresh” air.
The fact that PCs can see monsters as far away as 80 feet tells me that Gygax & Arneson interpreted the shadowy limits of torch illumination to be 80 feet. Likewise surprise occuring 10–30' suggests that the “good” illumination of a torch is 30.' These values of 30'/80' are implicit and not explicit but there are many things in 0D&D which are also implicit.
I could not find any duration for torches, however.
Basic D&D (1977–1991)
Holmes tells us:
“A good torch will burn for six turns, while a flask of oil in a lantern will last 24 turns. Either allow the bearer to see 30 feet.”
Note that this is identical to the implicit range of 30' for torches in 0D&D; both of which are identical to the Scientific American article.
Holmes’ duration of six turns (1 hour) is similar to the Scientific American value of 1 ¼ hours on a march.
The Moldvay 1981 B&D agrees with Holmes, as does the Mentzer 1983 rules, and the 1991 Allston Rules Cyclopedia.
In the Players Handbook, torches have a 40' radius of illumination and have burning time of 6 turns (1 hour).
In the Dungeon Masters Guide consider the following:
“A light source reliance limits the encounter distance to twice the normal vision radius of the source (2 × radius of the light source).”
— DMG page 62 (premium edition)
This tells us that PCs can see dim shadowy figures 80' away when using torches.
It also suggests to me that Gygax decided to keep the maximum 80' distance to notice creatures in a dungeon that was in the 1974 rules and rather than cutting it to 60', he set the normal torch radius to 40'. In other words, it was more important to Gygax to retain the 80' maximum distance of a dungeon encounter than it was to retain the 30' maximum surprise distance.
In Unearthed Arcana, the Dim cantrip contains the following description:
“The dim cantrip will cause any of the above light sources to at best shed only half their normal radiance for one full round. Torches will burn only as brightly as candles; candles will but glow dimly; a fire [fireplace or campfire] will become torchlike in illumination, and all light spells dim to half their normal brightness.”
— Unearthed Arcana page 66 (premium edition)
This tells us that normally candles are half as bright as torches and that medium-sized fires (fireplace or campfire) are twice as bright as torches. I have no idea how true that is in the real-world, but from an abstract game perspective it works perfectly.
In the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, consider the following:
“Fire is a more voracious consumer of oxygen than even the most heavily working character, and consequently presents a severe threat to characters in situations of limited air supply. Even a flickering torch can. create problems in a small chamber that has little or no ventilation.”
“A flaming torch consumes all of the oxygen in the same space [10' cubic space] in eight hours. Of course, when all of the oxygen is consumed, the fire goes out.”
— Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide, page 36
As I mentioned above, any underground area which can generate wind gusts strong enough to blow out a torch has enough ventilation to sustain torches. In those areas which have no wind gusts, e.g. mines, then adventurers have to rely on candles or magical means.
The Wilderness Survival Guide details what happens to a torch in the wind:
“The radius of illumination and the burning time of a torch can both be affected by wind velocity. If the wind is blowing at less than 10 mph, the figures given in the Players Handbook apply. If the wind is between 11 and 25 mph, the flame of the torch will struggle and flicker, providing reliable illumination only out to 30 feet instead of 40, and the torch will burn out in 4 turns instead of 6. If the wind is between 26 and 40 mph, radius of illumination is not further reduced but the flame will only last for 2 turns at most, and there is a 25% chance (checked every five rounds) that the torch will be extinguished by the wind and must be reignited. In a wind of more than 40 mph, it is impossible to keep a torch burning for more than 1 round. It takes 1 round to light a torch, plus 1 round for every 10 mph of wind velocity; this time is cut in half for a character with proficiency in fire building. In moonlight or darkness, a lighted torch can be seen from as far away as 200 yards.”
— Wilderness Survival Guide, page 75
The fact that a lit torch can be seen from 200 yards (600') is an important fact to remember especially when it comes to dungeons. At night and underground, the monsters will almost always see the party first!
AD&D 2nd Edition
On page 155 of the AD&D 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook (premium edition), Table 63 states that torches have a 15' radius and burn for 30 minutes.
In contrast to the 1st edition DMG, the 2nd edition does not grant any chance of noticing a creature at double the radius of the torchlight. So not only do 2nd edition torches burn less brightly, they have an immediate drop off in illumination.
D&D 3rd Edition
On page 109 of the 3rd Edition Player’s Handbook, it states the following:
“Torch: A wooden rod capped with twisted flax soaked in tallow or a similar item. A torch clearly illuminates a 20-foot radius and burns for 1 hour.”
Whereas in the 3½ Edition, it adds “…and providing shadowy illumination out to a 40' radius.”
The Pathfinder d20 SRD has this to say about torches:
“Torch: A torch burns for 1 hour, shedding normal light in a 20-foot radius and increasing the light level by one step for an additional 20 feet beyond that area (darkness becomes dim light and dim light becomes normal light). A torch does not increase the light level in normal light or bright light.”
D&D 5th Edition
The 5th Edition Player’s Handbook says the following regarding torches:
“Torch. A torch burns for 1 hour, providing bright light in a 20-foot radius and dim light for an additional 20 feet.”
40' radius/Dim or Shadowy additional 40': AD&D 1st ed.
30' radius/Dim or Shadowy additional 50': 0D&D + possibly Scientific American
30' radius: Scientific American, BD&D, B/X, BECMI, Rules Cyclopedia
Bright 20' radius/Dim additional 20': D&D 5e
Normal 20' radius/Dim additional 20': Pathfinder
Clearly 20' radius/Shadowy additional 20': D&D 3x
15' radius: AD&D 2nd ed.
My recommendation is to go with a 30' radius and an additional 30' or dim or shadowy light because that appears to be how it is in the real world. On the other hand, if you choose to keep the 0D&D definition of 30'/80' I cannot fault in that because I have found no authoritative source on just how much dim light is produced by a torch. However, if you want a truly “grimdark” dungeon, go with the AD&D 2nd edition torches which only have a 15' radius, but even then I would still allow an additional 15' of dim light, just barely enough to make out a rough sizes and shapes.
1 ¼ hours: Scientific American
1 hour: BD&D, AD&D, BX, BECMI, D&D 3e, Pathfinder, D&D 5e
30 minutes: AD&D 2nd ed.
My recommendation is to have torches burn for 1 and ¼ hours if you can keep track of that quarter-hour; otherwise stick to one hour.
6 for 1 GP: 0D&D, Holmes, B/X, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia
3 for 50 CP: B/X, Mentzer, Rules Cyclopedia
3 for 25 CP: 0D&D, Holmes
100 for 1 GP (1 cp ea.): AD&D 2e, D&D3x, D&D 5e
200 for 1 GP (1 cp ea.): AD&D
Note that for AD&D and later editions, torches cost 1 copper piece each, regardless of the value of copper. Whereas for 0D&D through the Rules Cyclopedia, torches always cost 6 for 1 gold piece regardless of the value of copper pieces. Thus AD&D torches are the cheapest ones while the B/X, Mentzer, & Rules Cyclopedia are the most expensive torches.
These are non-magical torches suitable for any game set in the Bronze Age or later:
Torch-Staves are simply long burning torches set on a staff. The require two hands to transport safely or one hand to hold in place. They give off 30'/60' illumination just like normal torches but burn for 12 hours instead of 1. The cost is 1 gp. Why give your torchbearer a flambeau that will burn up in one hour, when he can carry a torch-staff which will last twelve?!?
Brazier-staves consist of an iron basket set upon a pole wherein is burned sea-coal, charcoal, or wood. It illuminates an area of 60'/120' radius (twich as much as a torch), equivalent to a fireplace or a campfire. Like the torch-staff, the brazier-staff requires two hands to carry and only one hand to hold steady in place. However, the brazier-staff is much heavier and top-heavy reducing movement to 9". Additionally it belches forth so much smoke that taking it indoors poisons the area for all. Burning time is equivalent to a campfire or fireplace. Cost is probably around 2 or 3 gold pieces.