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Basic Information

Although torch is the UK name for a flashlight this entry is about its much more primitive ancestor - also known as a brand or firebrand.

This is probably the most primal source of portable fire and lighting available and consists of a piece of wood (or occasionally a bundle of twigs, grasses or similar material) with one end set on fire. This can be achieved simply by leaving a stick in a fire, but more advanced versions often dip one end in flammable liquid to make them easier to light. Or better yet, soak cloth or bundled materials in flammable liquid, then wrap them around the stick. These more advanced versions will often burn brighter, and depending on the materials may burn faster or longer than a more primitive torch.

Speaking of which, a typical torch burns itself out somewhere in the 10 to 30 minute range. As it burns, it may drop little bits of smouldering ash or debris. So it's really a short term lighting option, and best used outdoors. Great for search parties and sentries, but not for curling up with a book in bed. Buildings in the Middle Ages often had sconces to hold torches, but these were mostly intended as a convenient storage for a torch you haven't lit yet, or perhaps a temporary holder if you needed both hands for a moment. Given the short burn time and the tendency for even stone castles to have a lot of wooden support beams or flammable roofing (not to mention rush-covered floors), it wouldn't make a lot of sense to use wall-torches as your main internal light source.

Hollywood and RPGs don't usually get that last bit right. Torches are pretty much commonly presented as the default form of lighting for any setting based on medieval Europe (and frequently many that aren't) and are often the standard lighting in a dungeon (assuming that lighting is installed and isn't something supernatural or otherwise weird). For that matter, Hollywood also tends to depict people holding torches in front of their faces to light the way, when it's usually a better idea to hold it off to the side or over your head because staring directly into the brightest thing around doesn't usually improve your effective vision.

Being fairly primitive, the torch has its limits, but it's certainly better than no light source at all. A torch is vulnerable to adverse weather, but often less so than a candle because it is a fairly sizable fire when compared to most candle wicks. The Romans sometimes dipped their torches in a mixture of sulfur and lime, which would allow the torch to burn in inclement weather or even a brief dunking in water.

A torch generates plenty of smoke and has a nasty tendency to set things on fire if not closely supervised. Against that it's cheap, really easy to make and can be used to set things on fire. There are definitely situations where having a light source that doubles as an improvised weapon can be very useful.

For higher end applications - or Mediterranean settings - candles and oil lamps are more likely. A good fireplace or hearth is usually safer and more practical for indoor applications. If money and technology allows a good lantern is safer and burns longer than a torch.

Another historically accurate alternative to the torch or candle is the rushlight. It's a thin rush (plant) soaked in animal fat, which was very cheap and easy to make.

There are several existing medieval illustrations that show an upgraded and elongated torch variant for which I'm going to coin the term torchstaff. In these depictions the bottom half is like a walking stick, so you can rest some of the weight on the ground and not wear out your arm. The upper half is the burnable part - it's fatter and longer than a normal torch, and presumably burns for good bit longer than the standard handheld torch.



Game and Story Use

  • If you're faced with creatures that fear fire - or can only be damaged by it - then a flame on a stick may be just what you need.
      • The flaming torch is a standard weapon for peasants taking part in an angry mob.
  • Indoor torches are very trope-y, and may be exactly what your players expect. You can play into the trope and the expectation, or choose to be more historically accurate for the boost to verisimilitude it might provide.
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