Make torches burn for one hour

Sunday, April 19th, 2020

Old-school dungeon master Rick Stump explains that if you really want your players to engage with your game world, make torches burn for 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.:

Remembering that AD&D is a resource management game is the key to having players and character motivations intersect with your campaign.

Way back when in the late ’70′s when I started playing I dutifully wrote down my maximum encumbrance, recorded all of the locations and weight of my gear, listed containers, etc. As a DM I have all the PCs do the same for themselves, their mounts, their henchmen, and I track hirelings. It affects movement, naturally.

I also keep careful track of time overland and in the dungeon which means I track food, water, and light source usage.

I use reaction and morale checks. I use the disease and parasite rules. I use the overland movement rules, the rules for getting lost, and random encounter checks. When missile weapons are used the ammo is often lost or broken.

Even in 1977 when I was first playing a few DMs weren’t doing these things. They had everything from rolls to see if you still had arrows after you fired the first 12 to blithe indifference – everyone had infinite food, water, light, and ammo.

I also noticed that in virtually all of those games the PCs had damn near zero interaction with NPCs and henchmen were vanishingly rare. And in a ton of them the DM’s complained that no matter what else they tried the game was only about fighting.

Here’s how the enforcement of the basic rules on resources demands my PCs engage with the campaign in one easy, if long and boring, lesson. The source of great power and great loot (as well as great mystery) is Skull Mountain, a remote area surrounded by the Briars. The only safe-ish way to get there is the Old Road – there is one stream halfway up the Old Road and no food available along it. For an unencumbered man on horse in good weather it is 3 days to the mountain and 3 days back to the nearest town, Esber. So if you want to spend a day in the mountain you must have no less than seven days of food and the capacity for 3 days of water so the bare minimum encumbrance per person is 31 lbs and per horse (horses aren’t bicycles! They eat and drink, remember?) you’ll need a minimum of 100 lbs per horse. So for a party of 5 on horses that’s about 660 lbs just for provisions.

I’ll write a big blog post on logistics someday soon, and it’ll be about 12,000 ‘why yes I was a soldier, why do you ask?’ words.

If you switch to foot travel to avoid horses you go up to 9 days food and 4 days water, minimum, etc.

Then you’re in the dungeon. Low-level parties don’t have Continual Light objects and Light spells use up rare slots and don’t last long. Assuming the party is underground for 8 hours and has two light sources (a lantern and a torch) they’ll need 5 lbs of food and water (bare minimum) each and 31 lbs of light sources total. And this leaves no room for error, at all. Need to be underground for days at a time? Without magic you’ll need about 50 lbs of light sources per day if you all sleep in the dark.


So if you enforce encumbrance, food, time, distance, etc. rules the characters have to be prepared and the players have to plan. This is a perfect excuse to make them interact with the world you’re building and toss in tons of details they will get no other way.

The players will need to find sources for food and equipment, like torches or oil. This makes everyone think – where does the oil or resin come from? Can I get more/a better price if I go to the source? Are there limits? What food is available? In what season? How much? Where? etc.

As the party prepared for the Mapping expedition, a full year in the Briars with a base camp in the Mountain, the party had to source 13 months worth of food, water, light sources, etc. and get it to the mountain. The result?

Most of the light sources in the Mountain ended up being torches, then candles because they bought all the oil in the region and the few torch makers couldn’t keep up with demand. Food prices in Esber skyrocketed because they bought all the smoked ham, salted fish, and cheese to be had for ever-increasing prices. They also stripped the area of oats and sheep tallow, making the local favorite breakfast (unleavened oatcakes fried in sheep tallow) rare and angering many. The price of mules and pony carts went through the roof because they bought every one they could find in the kingdom for the bi-weekly caravans to the mountain. Independent merchants from Adrian started making runs up the Old Road to try to sell to the base camp (even though 3 in 4 vanished, never to be seen again).

In the end the increased demand opened up trade and diplomacy between Seaward and Banath for the first time in a generation, all because the party was feeding 25 people and 20 horses in a remote area for a year as well as stocking up a mountain hidey-hole for future expeditions.

I’d also like to note that the party did fun stuff like replacing or repairing a number of strategic doors and putting locks on them; hiding huge stashes of food, water, torches, lamp oil, candles, rope, spikes, etc. in several places; and conducting regular patrols in the upper levels. they effectively added treasure and random encounters to my dungeon.

The party also hired factors (merchants that buy and sell for you) in 5 towns and cities, bought an inn within Esber as a base and storehouse; met with the local Baron and Bishop to smooth things over with them, and; gave generously to the poor affected by the lack of food.

They also then had to use the mule train to get the loot from the Briars and the Mountain down to Esber, then sell everything off (taking a loss) before feeding the mules wiped out their treasure.

If I simply said,

“Don’t worry about food, water, light, or time. Let’s just play.”

None of that happens. They don’t have ties to NPC factors in five towns and cities (that have already triggered 3 more adventures), no meeting with the baron and bishop, no interaction with farmers, or the beggars, no long argument with the muleskinners about if they should get paid as much as light infantry if they also fought the kobolds, no stash of 3,000 gp worth of gear on Level Three, none of it.

The resource portion of AD&D is there for reasons, and the reason isn’t to annoy you. It is to point out that the characters live in a world that is supposed to make (at least internal) sense and provide a non-combat challenge for players to overcome with wit and skill.

Want the players involved in the campaign? Want them doing domain level stuff?

Then make torches burn 1 hour and weigh 21/2 lbs.

(Hat tip to Benjamin I. Espen.)


  1. Kirk says:

    It’s another example where game fidelity comes into play. You disconnect from reality too much, and it becomes an exercise in Mary-Sue boredom, flitting from place to place in the game space and it will never provide the same satisfaction that a realistic game will provide.

    You see this a lot in staff war games–Hand-wave away too many of the many “contributing factors”, and the exercise becomes a waste of time that simply doesn’t engage the players. Give them a taste of in-game friction and “reality as she is”, and the interest in the game will suddenly go up. It’s all an exercise in keeping people engaged–You see similar things take place in abstract strategy games. I’ve known guys who had zero interest in either chess or go, but who instantly “switched on” for either Squad Leader or Third Reich. Avalon Hill, how you are missed. I don’t know why the hell nobody has put together a phone app to play their games with, because I bet money it would sell.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I just found out about VASSAL, but I haven’t tried it yet:

    Vassal is a game engine for building and playing online adaptations of board games and card games. Play live on the Internet or by email. Vassal runs on all platforms, and is free, open-source software.

    There’s an Advanced Squad Leader module and a Third Reich module, too.

  3. Ken says:

    Excellent post. If I ever get a chance to get back to running RuneQuest, I’ll keep this in mind.

    VASSAL is an excellent platform. I’ve played Classic Squad Leader, MBT/IDF, The Speed of Heat, Front Toward Enemy, and 1985: Under an Iron Sky on it so far. I started working last summer on a module for the semi-legendary jet game MiG Killers. It’ll be a while before I finish.

  4. Longarch says:

    If I could recruit players who had any concept of wargaming or military logistics, I would run D&D that way. In fact, I can recruit players who only know of Tolkien because they saw Peter Jackson’s films, who think “vampires” glitter in sunlight, and who know more about the latest Hollywood superhero movies than they know about Conan, Elric, or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. A beautifully designed campaign can’t run if it can’t get players who have at least minimal competence in its basic challenges.

Leave a Reply