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Basic Information

A candle is a solid block of hydrocarbon material with an embedded wick which can be burnt - usually for light.

Most modern candles are made from paraffin wax but historically the best candles were made either from beeswax or from spermaceti. Other common historical materials (some of them still in use by craft manufacturers) include tallow (rendered from animal fats), plant based waxes, gels made from resin and mineral oil and, in a few cases, blocks of bitumen. The early modern period also featured a variety of patent candles made of tallow mixed with things to make them look, smell and burn better1. The wick is typically made of some kind of plant fibre and its size and quality will have a bearing on the size and quality of the candle flame. In some cases a culture's lighting may hover between primitive oil-lamp and candle, depending on the ambient temperature.

Tallow candles are still quite common in survival kits as they are made from food grade fats and can serve as an emergency food source as well as heat and light or as a portfire.

Candles containing human fat are a common consumable in less savoury forms of magical ritual (and, in many cases, an important component of a Hand of Glory). More generally candles are widely used in magical and religious rituals as sources of illumination, focal points or to represent the element of fire. Ward magic is particularly fond of candles, as are some forms of divination (especially pyromancy).

When used for illumination a candle is generally mounted on a candlestick - which may make a useful improvised weapon and/or treasure dependant on the materials of construction, the design and how heavy it is. Where more than one candle is required a multi-branched holder called a candelabra can be used or they can be mounted on a chandelier and suspended from the ceiling. Used as a portable light, the candle is extremely vulnerable to drafts and is best protected from them with a lantern. This also reduces its tendency to set the local environment on fire if mishandled.

The main benefits to using a candle over a torch are that the candle burns longer, and is less likely to burn out of control and start a fire. (The benefits to a torch, by contrast, would be that it's a larger and usually brighter fire.)

If they can be made to burn at a steady, known rate candles can be calibrated as a primitive form of time keeping device known as an hour candle - the hours are marked on the side of the candle and tracked as it burns down.

In eras where candles are the main light source, it is quite common for part of the salary or benefits from a job to include an allowance for candles, especially for those jobs that include written work (such as scribe).

Candles may also be formulated to emit scented smoke or incense as they burn - purely for ascetic reasons, for purposes of aromatherapy or, in the case of things like citronella, as a repellant.

The American West Coast was also home to the candlefish - a high fat fish which, when dried, could be strung on a wick and burned as a kind of candle. Unlikely as it sounds this seems to have been a significant part of the pre-Columbian economy.

Another low-tech candle alternative is the rushlight. A rushlight looks like an extremely thin candle, and is made by soaking a reed or rush (plant) in animal fat. They were cheap and easy to make in the home, so even poor peasants were likely to have a good supply of them.

Another form of 'candle' is the smoke candle - more of a firework, this device is formulated to produce copious amounts of smoke when burnt rather than a light. A Roman Candle, by contrast, is all firework and not much in the way of candle at all.

A maker of or dealer in candles was traditionally called a chandler, although the maker might also be called a wick-dipper or something similar.



Game and Story Use

  • Can be treasure in their own right.
    • Also, as noted above, food. Might make the difference between life and death or - less dramatically - between being able to fry your food and not.
    • And generally useful - either as adventuring stores or in more interesting applications (tallow used to grease stubborn hinges or bearings?) … perhaps citronella also wards off giant insects…
    • Treasure status will be dependent on the game in question - in "certain RPGs" you will struggle to make candles worth stealing unless they are magical, in others most characters should know the value of candles … especially of the huge, altar furnishing variety. (Medieval prices cite ~6 1/2 pence a pound for wax candles where a weaver is making 5 pence a day and a wax candle about 3"x6" weighs about a pound, good for about four and a half days of burning).
    • You no take candle! In the World of Warcraft setting, candles are an important part of Kobold culture. Possibly because they spend a lot of time deep underground where the darkness gets … hungry…
  • A good choice for a consumable magic item - especially one dedicated to warding or something similar.
    • Or healing, especially if esoteric medicine like aromatherapy works in your campaign.
  • You can also hide things by casting them into a candle.
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