Torches, Lanterns, and Resource Consumption

I've been suggesting for a while that one could read torches in OD&D, sold in bundles of six for 1 g.p., as being used at a rate of one per turn rather than one per six turns (i.e., one per hour). My rationale is that if rations are sold in bundles to last 1 week, that would make torches analogous to rations—one being the main resource of underworld exploration, and the other being the main resource of overworld exploration. Even weirder is that the text does not specify the rate of ration consumption: although they are sold in bundles, it is not necessarily clear if one ration is consumed per day-turn or if the entire week's rations are eaten at the end of a week. If torches are analogous to rations, then the same question holds for them too. That's all just a matter of accounting, though. Whether the resource-bundle is consumed as one unit or as multiple smaller units, this all implies that six torches are (or should be) consumed per six turns.

But now I have stumbled upon another reason, on a total tangent: if one torch lasts six turns, then one would be a sucker to buy a lantern. I was trying to figure out at what point a lantern is no longer a sunk investment. This involved some quick algebra, trying to figure out how many hours it takes for a lantern to be eventually cheaper than continuing to buy torches. Using the equations below, C is the total cost of the light resource and H is the "variable" component of that cost (the time, in hours, for which the resource is consumed). H is multiplied by the cost of the resource, and divided by how many hours the resource lasts. Then I used the two equations to solve for H where the value of C is the same: this is the cost at which lanterns start to become worthwhile, or where it becomes more expensive to buy more torches than to have just bought a lantern however many hours prior.

Torch (OD&D): C = H

Torch (BD&D):  C = 3 + H

Lantern: C = 10 + 2 * H / 4

In the above, I differentiate between the OD&D torch and the BD&D torch, the latter of which requires a tinderbox (3 g.p.) to be lit. Then I determined that the lantern is initially more expensive than the torch for 20 or 14 hours, in OD&D or BD&D respectively; past that point, however, it becomes more expensive to purchase more torches.

But did you catch my mistake? For the lantern, I accurately modeled the constant cost of the lantern itself and the variable cost of oil over time, where each unit of oil costs 2 g.p. and lasts 4 hours. However, I treated the torch as if it worked according to my crackpot theory above: that each unit costs 1 g.p. and lasts 1 hour, rather than lasting 6 hours (due to each torch in the bundle being treated as 1 hour). This means that according to the classic understanding, the torch formulas should be:

Torch (OD&D): C = H / 6

Torch (BD&D):  C = 3 + H / 6

Yet this results in a problem. There is no point at which lanterns are more economically efficient than torches. Lanterns could have other benefits, such as having a greater radius of illumination or taking up less overall less slots than torches, but practically speaking they are less bang for your buck.

This might not have been how the text was intended at any point, but it's the only reasonable reading I can come up with: a bundle of six torches should last six turns or one hour. This makes them a cheap solution for light in the short-term, but the party will sink money if they do not eventually invest in a lantern.


  1. Not that D&D torches are particularly focused on being realistic, but for what it's worth, this guy claims that a hand-held medieval torch would burn for "10-30 minutes", which seems to fit your interpretation nicely:

    1. thank you! i remember reading something similar :) it's funny that torches last like astronomically longer, and lanterns astronomically shorter, than in real life.

  2. I thought the other main attraction of a lantern in D&D is that the flame is protected and won't easily blow out in combat, wind spells, giant wings beating etc etc

  3. Yes. The possibility of torches being extinguished is pretty clear in the paragraph on light in Book 3 at the section entitled The Move/Turn in the Underworld. While this might seem an unusual case to us, and therefore not an important advantage, it might have seemed like a major advantage to Gygax. He elsewhere makes a point of mentioning mysterious gusts that extinguish torches as the an example of a dungeon trick, and the example of play in Book 3 includes the DM menacing the players with exactly that possibility. If I remember rightly, his sample dungeon included in the AD&D core books included a corridor with a gust of wind that extinguished torches. A similar trick appears early in Caverns of Thracia.

    It might also be worth thinking that a major use of 'oil' in many OD&D-style games is as a weapon. So its utility is shared between two competing uses. In the 'flaming oil' context, it's typical to consider a flaming torch as the ignition method for pooled oil.

    B/X also allows a flaming torch to be used as a weapon in its own right, which is not a defined usage for a lantern. In general, a torch has the advantage that it can be readily used to set things alight, and can readily be lit by sticking the head in a flame.

    On the side of the lantern, I have often experienced DMs ruling that a lantern can be set down on a level surface without risk of being extinguished, while torches are more likely to go out. Also, the large, exposed flame of the torch can be a distinct liability in close personal quarters, or inflammable structures e.g. with thatch ceilings.

    Regarding encumbrance, OD&D and B/X make no explicit distinction between torches and lanterns, since both are part of the fixed miscellaneous equipment allowance. Common sense rulings rely on a clear understanding of what is meant by a 'torch' and a 'flask of oil', neither of which is well defined.

    1. hi kenco, those are all really good points! :) i feel like the dynamic approach to torches or light in general is really interesting, and it's a use-case not often considered by the more formalized approaches like B/X. i bet that torches needing to be held would play into the "worker placement" dimension of the dungeon-crawl?

  4. I love a bit of algebra.

    Three thoughts occur to me.

    First, I think if you have two similar items they should provide interesting choices about things like capital outlay vs on-going cost, cross-overs in different type of use (light source vs weapon). It sounds like from your analysis that torches vs lanterns perhaps don't present lots of very interesting choices as an item to purchase. But perhaps you just have to have torches and lantern for verismilitude.

    Second, an advantage of lanterns, which might present interesting choices or a useful reward for playing well or change the balance of the equation, is that you can find lanterns through play and get the capital outlay for free.

    Third, I'm not convinced that the original designers of D&D got all of their design choices or details right.


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