Thursday, September 18, 2014

On Burning Oil, Part 3

If you've been reading the blog for a while, you know of one of my pet peeves in D&D; burning lamp oil as a weapon. To recap, my stance is that it's both unrealistic and poor game design:
  1. Vegetable oil as used in medieval lamps simply cannot burn in the open because the flashpoint is far too high (link).
  2. Use of it as a grenade overshadows existing low-level player powers (attacks and spells).
  3. It's unfair to have the power "hidden" in the DM's book where new players won't know about it, and 
  4. It contradicts Gygax's thesis in the DMG that chemicals are less volatile in the fantasy world than real life (p. 32, 113). 

Generally any combination of realism plus game design running in the same direction locks in a decision for my games (see golden rule: link), but here I've got a quadrafecta, so you might say that the proper ruling is massively overdetermined. You can see prior blogs for more of my gaming history and analysis of the subject (link), and also documentation of me actually running the experiment in trying, and failing, to get a pool of vegetable oil to burn (link). (Side note: This is not to say that some "Greek Fire" element in the campaign is totally out of place, but it must be intentionally designed and priced appropriately, not the same as mundane lamp oil, and not the result of a rules glitch or oversight.)

But one other possible consideration remains. Previously, poster DHBoggs was tremendously helpful in pointing out the following quote by Gygax in the ENWorld Q&A thread from 2007 (emphasis mine; currently archived here):
In OD&D the 1st level PCs did do several things to help extend their chances--hire men-at-arms, use missile weapons (including flaming lamp oil, that is kerosene), and run away when things appeared to be too dangerous to stay and fight.

While "kerosene" wasn't trademarked as such until 1854, and thus the name would be an anachronism in the middle-ages milieu, similar processes were described as far back as the 9th century (link). Thus, one might hold out hope that the basic D&D campaign has access to somewhat more advanced lamp oil technology, i.e., kerosene, which may be more successful in burning as a weapon in the open. So we should run that experiment and check -- although if you read the link above on "flashpoints", then you already know what the answer will be...


Today I've procured a quantity of kerosene and poured it in the bottom of this container.



Applying a lit match  to the surface of the pool of kerosene does nothing (even on a fairly hot day); the flashpoint is too high for it too ignite (specifically, somewhere between 100 and 160 degrees Fahrenheit).



Even dropping the lit match directly in the pool of kerosene does nothing except burn the match itself.



Now, if we set up some element as a wick (which could be a bit of string or the match itself) and allow it to become saturated with the fluid, then it certainly does draw up the kerosene to maintain the flame, thus serving as a very nice source of light.



Actually, the wick burns like the dickens when I do this. I'd better put it out before I stink up my whole room. But usable as a weapon, grenade, or burning pool of oil? No, that's impossible.




In conclusion: There's definitely no substance that's both commonly used as lamp oil and has the capacity of igniting in an open pool (at normal temperatures). The very idea is just kind of ludicrous, akin to saying that one's pack-mule can naturally fly, or that one could live by eating nothing but belladonna (deadly nightshade). Maybe with some magical or exotic treatment it's an interesting element, but not out-of-the-box as a mundane, everyday item. Even if we posit some anachronistically more advanced substance like kerosene, as shown here, it still fails the test.


33 comments:

  1. Thanks for posting this! Like +1000. I was always under the impression that in 1st edition, the tactic was to saturate your opponent with the oil and then use a torch to set them on fire (using them, to paraphrase your example, as a living wick). After reading your post, however, I may just ban the burning oil tactic altogether. What do you think? Would the living wick thing work or would it take too long to set ablaze in combat?

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    1. Thanks for the kind words! You know, I also get the impression that the Gygax crowd heavily depended on this oil tactic. I had acquaintances at my first job saying they played by pouring tons of oil into a dungeon and setting the whole thing on fire, which sounded like the dumbest thing ever.

      I've banned burning oil from my games and no one's ever complained. Partly if you have new players they're not going to know they're missing anything. Experienced players may lift an eyebrow but generally understand the DM makes the world-rules. To date I've always said it up front if someone goes to buy lots of oil, but if I was in a sinister mood I might let them carry it in and do the reveal when they first use it. (Probably I'm never that sinister.)

      I really don't think that a little flaming wick could do any damage in D&D terms. If one did that you'd have to say that whacking someone with a torch would do at least as much damage.

      Ruling out the burning oil as a weapon has definitely benefited my games, making it more equitable and focused on the PHB skills, spells, and equipment as resources.

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  2. Ugh. What a revelation...I somehow missed your earlier posts on the subject.

    5AK (my fantasy game based on OD&D/Chainmail) has a rule regarding burning oil (duh), but as its setting is the Middle East of the early 9th century (the Islamic Golden Age), wouldn't their lamp oil use petroleum? Or had petroleum and its applications been discovered at this point? I suppose it wouldn't matter, depending on the flashpoint of "oil," huh?

    Thanks for this.

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    1. My understanding is that no one used petroleum for lighting until the last one or two hundred years. Part of the problem is the word "oil" being used for two distinct categories: organic oil (vegetable or animal fat, used in lamps until the modern period) versus mineral oil (petroleum, much of the basis for the modern world and economy). See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil#Types

      It's really fascinating history to try and nail this down, there's probably a PhD thesis that could be made out of it. Here's a site (excerpting 1909 book) claiming that petroleum oil was used in Roman temples in Sicily, then died out (no mentions of usage) throughout the Middle Ages, and was only mentioned again about 300-400 years ago: http://gluedideas.com/content-collection/story-of-oil/The-Ancient-History-of_P2.html

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    2. Y'know, regarding organic oils as lighting, and naturally as any New Englander knows, whale oil was the lamp oil of choice for a stretch of the 18th. century.

      Makes me wonder what uses dragon fat could be put to... Maybe that could be akin to the 3rd. Edition's "Alchemists Fire". I'd at least have it light a greater range (maybe 40-50') and maybe its light would give a +1 on spotting secret doors.

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    3. I think as dragons are a species that flys then they wouldn't have much fat on them. However if we imagine that a dragon has to put fat on to sleep a long period of time (like bears hibernating) then a sleeping dragon might work.

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    4. Now that's something cool and very game-able. Neat idea!

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  3. I set my games up to use distilled spirits in this role. Flammable distilled spirits are available in the 12th and 13th centuries. I price them as holy water and make them difficult to produce. One campaign world I have they are holy water due to the ability to disinfect wounds and the fact it burns blue.

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    1. Cool, sounds like a good "solution".

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  4. Yeah, this is a pet peeve of mine too - especially the "lantern as grenade." You know, use it for light, and then toss it into a room and FWOOOOM.

    I have flaming oil in my games, but it's not lamp oil. It's more expensive, more volatile, and more dangerous. My game system makes it potentially more deadly than regular weapons, but mostly just iffy - it's better against area targets or to deny spots on the battlefield. It doesn't hold a candle to whacking someone with a sword or plugging them with a crossbow quarrel, in general. If you're down to lamp oil as a weapon, or even to roast up a fallen troll, you better have a lot of oil and a lot of luck.

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  5. I heartily agree with your fourfold negation of lamp oil as portable napalm, and have found your prior articles on the subject to be immensely useful when it became necessary in my recent campaign to curtail my players line of thinking when they started to say stuff like "Lets just burn the dungeon down and root thru the ashes for any treasure left behind."

    There's a different approach, however, more in spirit with a more gonzo/chaotic awesome style of play. Following Jeff Rient's principle of "Give them the sun and make them fight like hell for the moon." or my own
    "If you want that, I WILL make you PAY for it." I say this:

    Sure, you can have explosive lamp oil but:
    A: You are now carrying high explosives in flimsy, breakable containers. Have fun at the next deadfall or slippery staircase.
    B: If you can get this stuff, the monsters can get it too, and they live here so they can store it properly rather than carrying it around in a belt or backpack.
    C: Gold and silver have very low melting points, and lets not even talk about scrolls and spell books.
    D: How's the oxygen level down here in the deep dungeon? Feeling drowsy? Did the canary just keel over? Wanna feel the effects of a volumetric fireball without having to bother with sulfur and bat guano?

    Just sayin'...

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    1. I guess I look at this as a teaching opportunity: lamp oil ain't Greek Fire. I could make both available, but putting the latter in your lamp is just auto-kaboom-time.

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    2. Also hilarious! Especially if some semi-literate kobold gets the labels mixed up.

      Of course that leads to another avenue of game decay. Random explosions can be boffo laffs, but then you got the poor schnooks checking everything on the hardware store for traps whenever they go there.

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    3. Hollywood has certainly done its reality/perception warping work. Real life or dungeon, people think the puddle of petrochemicals is more explosive than the room full of floating dust, but the latter is much more likely to go up in a huge fireball, as grain silos have been known to do...

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    4. Excellent point! Gotta use that...

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  6. Sounds good -
    Any flame weapon needs to be prepared ahead of time and be purpose-built, improvising with lamp oil won't work, unless its perhaps used as an accelerant to set other flammables on fire, such as burning someone's library. -

    After all, the molotav cocktail uses a low flash-point petroleum - gasoline or similar, with a soaked wick (maybe lamp oil/kerosene/ethanol). Add something to make the fuel stick/smoke - petroleum jelly, tar, etc.

    Then go for a jaunt through the dungeon with a pack full of fragile, flammable containers as you merrily swing your torch and lanterns.

    Whee!

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    1. Absolutely. Now this is both educational and a good game. And tastes great with barbecue sauce.

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    2. Are the PCs required to bring their own bbq sauce, or will it be provided by the dungeon hosts?

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    3. Both are allowed to use it. I'm an equitable DM like that. :-P

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  7. Ok. Characters just have to carry jars of Greek Fire instead of Oil.

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    1. Sure -- and price it right. For example, in Unearthed Arcana Gygax priced the analogous substance, oil of fiery burning, at 4,000 g.p. per dose.

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  8. Yep, Greek Fire...or Dwarf Fire, or Wild Fire...

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    1. Nice naming ideas! As you can see above, Gygax included basically that in Unearthed Arcana, and called it oil of fiery burning.

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    2. As opposed to fire of oily burning, which just fills the corridors with nasty black smoke. :)

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  9. When it comes to lamp oil in a fantasy game like D&D, I see much like shooing gas tanks in an action film. As noted in Myth Busters, cars don't blow-up when you shoot them or when they hit something hard, but folks like to see explosions in their movies, and fantasy lamp oil is seen in the same light.

    Otherwise, great point about "lamp oil ≠ to Molotov cocktail", and its really good to note if one is to play D&D in a serious way.

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    1. With you on the "exploding car" analogy. There must be a happy medium between "real" and "ACTION!!".

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    2. And I feel like game-balance wise it's so useful that it needs to be more expensive. The oil in Unearthed Arcana that does that is 4,000 gp per dose.

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  10. I'm inclined to go with Brian Vencill's comment above -- if you can drench an enemy's clothes in oil, and then hold a lit torch to their clothes, then their clothes will act like a wick and burn quite nicely. Say d6 damage the first round, d3 the second round, and they lose their attack in the second round as they put the fire out. Double damage for fire-vulnerable monsters.

    But the enemy's first order of business once you've poured kerosene on them is to get it off, so you'll need to make two consecutive successful attacks in the same round in order to set their clothes on fire. And obviously it will only work if their outer covering is cloth -- monster hide, any kind of armor, or fur won't work.

    As for the OD&D strategy of lighting a pool of oil on the floor of the dungeon to discourage pursuit, *if* there's straw, rags, cloth, fallen leaves, dried dung, etc, then you can pour oil on that and set it on fire for the same by-the-book effect. If all that's there is stone or dirt, then no.

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    1. The last is a good observation. I have a hard time seeing how you'd ever get enough oil on a hostile enemy combatant to set their clothes on fire. Either way, it would take a bunch of time to set up properly -- like at least 3 or 4 rounds I would think, during live hostilities it would be pretty infeasible.

      But this does give a nice reason for it to be usable as a prepared trap by monsters (e.g., kobolds) without it being usable by adventurers on the assault vector.

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  11. This is similar to Gygax's first rules for Oil in combat, in Holmes Basic, which require two sets of hit rolls: one for the oil itself, and a second for the fire source. The hit rolls ignore armor class so are an early form of 'touch AC'. Damage lasts for two rounds, 1d8 and then 2d8. But the rules also allow for oil to be poured into a pool on the floor and lit.

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    1. Yeah, in my analysis that's way too cheap, way too much damage, and way too unrealistic in action.

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