Light-tracking woes

One of the things that attracted me to the OSR was the idea that dungeons would be dark, scary places where running out of light would be a real risk. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how to make that work in a way that doesn’t break my suspension of disbelief.

  1. There ought to be plenty of time. I’m sorry — there’s just no explanation of the whole “ten minute turns” thing that’s ever going to make sense to me. It just doesn’t take that long to look around a room and walk a few feet to the next one.
  2. The players ought to have plenty of torches. A torch is, like, a stick. You’re telling me that fills a whole inventory slot, the same amount as a sword? You’re telling me they don’t have enough money to stock up enough of those that they never have to worry about it?
  3. They wouldn’t use torches, anyway. An indoor torch would fill the room with smoke. They would use candles, which would also last a lot longer than torches. (Fine, maybe your fantasy world has torches that don’t produce smoke, but wouldn’t they still carry candles as a backup so they never run out of light?)

The funny thing is that OD&D and B/X don’t seem to care much about light tracking. I’ve been told that OD&D doesn’t list how long light sources last, and you have to go two optional rules deep before the OSE SRD cares how many touches you can carry.

I want to be 100% clear, I’m not trying to rain on anyone’s parade or poke at anyone’s fun — I want to be having fun with you! I just don’t understand how I’m supposed to ignore or rationalize this stuff.

And, even if I did — even if I accepted convention and decided it all makes perfect sense — won’t the players always be able to buy enough torches so that they never have any real risk of running out of light? What’s even the point of tracking it if running out isn’t a real risk?


The thing about candles is an excellent point that I don’t see brought up enough. Oil-filled lanterns were extremely common in the ancient world too, but honestly the only place I see them in media seems to be Alladin’s lamp.


They last about an hour in my games, and being stuck in the unusually dangerous darkness of the Mythic Underworld is definitely a fail state sometimes. It’s the Rest once every six turns that helps make them work for me in terms of duration.

I’ll admit that many things in these games do sometimes do seem a ungrounded in reality sometimes, but most ludic conceits break down under this kind of scrutiny: When I was very young, one of my player’s father’s owned a Hardware Store. We filled a backpack with coin-sized washers to test the verisimilitude of the 400 cn capacity. We fit far more than 400 in there, but then the strap broke when we attempted to put it on :slight_smile:

I’ve never treated Turns as precisely 10 Minutes, mainly because no one is tipping a tiny hourglass, or has access to a sundial or other means of precision timekeeping down there :slight_smile: Some Turns are longer, others are shorter, and Time can sometimes be very weird down there anyway (these aren’t always very logical places, these Dungeons). Turns have a powerful place in pacing however, they are what escalates tension and create difficult choices for my players. In addition to Resource Consumption, the also trigger procedural checks like Wandering Monsters down there, and the more Turns you spend furtling around, the more likely it is that something might happen. I assume the players are being careful (there are terrible traps and such about after all), trying to maintain a modicum of stealth to not reveal their presence (there are monsters about after all), so something that might seem pretty quick and simple to do under good light, in a safe place, suddenly might take a bit more time to pull off in Dungeons.

Players should prepare and provision accordingly, and most of the time they do. It’s not just Consumption that ticks down the Resource though. Some of the more scary and tense moments in my games have been due to things like Torches getting Wet after the person schlepping them (a player Role like Mapper/Caller in my games called the Lucifer) falling into a pit of brackish water. Suddenly faced with only one last flickering dry Torch, there was fearful debate on whether or not they should turn back and flee, as it that final, fatal Torch dwindled more and more…desperation began to take hold and they were throwing caution to the wind in order to make it back to a room with some old wooden furnishings they felt might be flammable without having to resort to burning their Map to buy just a little more time before the Darkness closed in. The situations this kind of Resource tracking creates lead to very exciting and engaging stories like this all the time. I still place plenty of things in Dungeons that attack Resources in addition to Time, and sometimes player approaches that center around using Gear as problem solving tools does this for me as well (Can we toss a Torch in the pit to see how deep it is before we jump over?)

Real life Torches might be pretty vile in terms of how they work, but it’s easy enough to assume that in a world with access to Magic, perhaps they receive the teeniest bit of alchemical treatment or what not. They are smoky, eye-stinging things, in my games… but a necessary evil during those very early tiers. Candles get blown out in draftier places and while the light they provide might be a bit steadier sometimes under ideal conditions, they are after all, very fragile things to occupy a free hand with. Sometimes the Lamps/Lanterns get employed instead (usually funded by a Magic-User with plenty of starting cash…they don’t get Armor after all)…but the temptation to use Oil offensively sometimes is too great, and this puts the players in a spot as well :slight_smile:

After plundering those terrifying depths enough, the characters advance. They graduate to possess means to obviate certain Resources (getting Continual Light is a rite of passage almost, and I always see players use that one in interesting and creative ways). It’s a welcome reward most of the time, but it’s the times we spent before having access to it that make them so grateful to have it and are so full of those stories and situations that they’re always eager to convey to newer players, experiencing these games for the first time, and looking in askance at the Equipment list.


In a parallel discussion on the Discord, folks have brought to my attention that light tracking doesn’t just have to be about “your light could run out” — it can also be about who’s holding the torch and what the benefits / drawbacks of that are.

Someone else brought up the Veins of the Earth lumes system, where light is currency, which gives you a different reason to track light.

@ktrey that last paragraph especially is interesting to me — is it your experience that the light-tracking side of the game is only relevant in the first level or two of old D&D editions?


The older games are kind of divided into “Tiers of Play” I’ve found. Over the decades, they tend to proceed in relatively predictable ways:

  • Dungeon Tier (usually levels 1-4ish)
  • Wilderness Tier (4ish-9ish)
  • Domain Tier (9+)
  • Optional Immortal Tier (34ish+ in BECMI)

Dungeons are incredible teaching tools in these games. The constrained nature of navigation/choices makes them very handy for easing people into the idea of tactical infinity really. They also provide a way to teach the basic rules/game play loop/mechanics and common risks as well as the importance of things like Player Skill. You’ll learn which dice to roll and when, how dangerous combat can be, and what it’s like when you’re not properly prepared for a challenge. You’ll learn that not all the answers are in the numbers on your sheet and how to interrogate the environment. The seeds for more expansive Sandbox play get sown during these sessions, goals are generally more clearly defined here.

Gradually however, the players find themselves in need of goods/services that might outgrow whatever smaller starting town they began play in, or other factors cause them to begin wanting or needing to interact with the wider world. That’s when Overland Exploration becomes a bigger part of play (adventures in the Wilderness/Hex-Crawling, etc.). Once you conquer all the nearby Dungeons, you have to go further afield after all. This is my favorite tier of play, so I’m always happy when this starts happening :slight_smile: . The nature of Wilderness Adventuring is pretty different than Dungeons (Encounters are very dangerous sometimes with those number appearing, treasure isn’t always in conveniently located twinkling piles, different resources start becoming more vital, procedures shift, travel is no longer constrained by corridors/rooms, etc.) but it’s during this Tier that seeds are sown for the next: exploring the wider world exposes the players to key factions/people, brewing fronts, resources, and places that will become vital during Domain Play.

Domain starts up around Name Level (9) for most Classes. Earlier with Fighters (who get one of the secret best abilities in the game that’s sadly often overlooked) :slight_smile: This is where Strongholds and exercising control over the surrounding lands occurs. Hex-Clearing, Construction, Big Military-type Battles, Espionage/Sabotage, and all sorts of other challenges arise at this scale. Modern play culture generally lacks the amount of consistent/sustained play to reach these echelons, so most games don’t really get the chance to explore some Tiers like Domain-play these days, which is a bit of a shame. I think that’s probably why there’s a ton of support for things like Dungeon Crawling, less for Wilderness Exploration (though I’m trying to fix that!), and it’s even sparser for the Domain part of these games.

This is not to say that player characters will never set foot in a Dungeon again after a certain point (they still come up, and can rear their heads again later in different ways/forms: Sending your Followers out to clear Hexes might result in them biting off more they can chew, and Players swooping in to make handy work of a Chimera or Dragon is something they really enjoy from time to time as it showcases how far they’ve come. Planar Travel is a bit like Dungeon Crawling sometimes, with a whole slew/set of new and interesting challenges/resources).

Other types of Setting Conceits (Tentpole Megadungeons, Sylvan Campaigns, etc.) intentionally interfere with the Tiers in a way. It’s just that under normal circumstances, there’s a shift in focus generally in regards to where the adventure lives, and certain abilities acquired at higher levels do make challenges encountered earlier, much less challenging :slight_smile: (Access to lots of Flight/Teleport is a good example of the same kind of death knell for the Wilderness Tier :sob: ). The game offers suites of different tools over time to the players as they advance, and once you can reliably magically conjure sufficient amounts of things like Food/Water/Light/Healing (there’s a reason why so many Magic Swords can be inveigled to glow after all) on a daily basis, some specific challenges occasionally fade (they can resurface of course…resources are still tracked, just different ones often become relied upon).

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That explains a lot, to be honest. I knew about the tiers in classic play but I’ve never seen them described in such detail, for whatever reason.

If the risk of torches running out is only supposed to be there at lower levels, then that obviates my concern that the players can buy enough torches to make light-tracking irrelevant. It’s not a bug, it’s a feature (as software and videogame developers would say).

That would suggest to me that tracking inventory space isn’t really all that relevant to making light-tracking work, though. It’s more about limiting the amount of torches they can get from the start, whether by the classic 3d6x10gp method or by “starting items” lists.


As an aside, those alchemically-treated torches that don’t produce smoke are an underutilized worldbuilding element! Who’s making them and what materials do they require?

Maybe the invention of these torches has made dungeon exploration practical for the first time, and that’s why the PCs are among the first to explore all these old crypts and tombs scattered about.


This is the stuff I really unabashedly love about these “bugs!”

I look to the general weirdness and nonsensical on the surface things that are inherent with these older games not as problems but as lovingly addressed invitations to come up with a way to reconcile them, usually with setting conceits or as opportunities to harvest for a source of adventure.

When I’m confronted with something just plain strange in the lacunae of these rules, it’s a very fun challenge to find a way to make it work in an interesting way. Sometimes this generates far greater implications for world building and such as well as a bonus.

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I generally lean more toward maintaining logical limits on things like Torches. I usually just do this with container capacities and a quick "reality check*. Sure, Torches are very inexpensive, but boy are they bulky and heavy. Just because one can afford to stock up on scores and scores of them, doesn’t mean that you’ll still be suitable for Dungeon Delving by bringing them with you. You may be equipped and prepared but it always comes with a cost outside of just the money involved.

If you want to be able to move quickly, quietly and fight effectively should combat erupt (or be able to navigate certain other challenges), being loaded down with several cords of flammable tinder might not be the best approach. Many a Porter and Mule has been lost this way as well. You don’t have to be faster than the Owlbear after all…just faster than the slowest member of the party :slight_smile:

Tracking encumbrance via coin-based bean counting isn’t for everyone of course (though that’s probably the system I still prefer after all these years…not adjusting things for every item picked up or discarded of course…just periodic audits/reconciliations when it matters, such as if they want to glean every bit of XP from a Dragon Hoard etc.), so things like slot based, significant items, or even fun tactile things like Mausritter have evolved to help make this a little easier for some tables…but for me sometimes it really just comes down to asking those simple questions: “How are you carrying all of that?”

Torchbearers/Lucifers in my games get a little LED votive candle in front of them at the table. Reminds me and the other players that this is where the light is, hands are occupied, and just helps keep it a little more at the forefront for tracking purposes :slight_smile:

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Without straying too far from the topic of the thread, inventory slots aren’t for me either. Too abstract and I don’t like being told how many lines I’m allowed to write my inventory on — I prefer a scrappier style of note-taking. I think if I ever worry about inventory I’ll use that “audit only when it matters” method, I’ve thought about using it before.


I wonder if there’s room for a system focusing on the non-timing issues with most light-sources.

Torches are big, and unlike most things you hold, you can’t freely move it about to prevent someone from knocking it out of your hand. The tip is super hot and you don’t want it near you.

Also, torches aren’t just sticks. Sticks won’t burn well or long and will give almost no light. Torches are usually wax- or pitch-soaked cloth bundles, tightly wrapped, that are affixed to a stick so they have a handle.

The upside to torches is that they are VERY bright.

Candles, by contrast, give very little light. Try lighting just one candle, then navigating about in rooms with blackout curtains. The candle is alright, but it’s not great.

Even worse, candles go out very easily. If you get in a fight, just dodging a swing will likely move the candle fast enough for it to go out.

So then we’re on to lamps and lanterns, the superior light sources. Still, they have drawbacks. If a candle or torch is dropped, you can light it again and pick up where you left off. A torch could take a swing from a sword or parry a mace and be fine.

Lamps aren’t flawlessly sealed. If you drop one, it will spill oil across the floor. For a minute, there’s plenty of light, and then the oil that was supposed to last another two hours is completely gone. In fact, just swinging a lamp about, unless it’s a very nice one, could splash oil out of it.

If a lantern takes a solid hit and start leaking, it stops being a lantern and starts being a fire hazard. If you drop a lantern, not only might it go out, it might crack the vessel that holds the oil inside. Just as bad, poorly made lanterns (lantern tech has advanced a lot) that end up on their side could have oil spill across the wick and ignite into a little fireball.

What we imagine as a lantern/lamp these days wasn’t invented until the mid-eighteenth century century. To quote “The great step forward in the evolution of the lamp occurred in Europe in the 18th century with the introduction of a central burner, emerging from a closed container through a metal tube and controllable by means of a ratchet.” So the lanterns in a medieval society are just a pinch to hold a wick in place, dipping down into a pool of oil. There’s no good shielding against going out from wind or sudden movement, no sealed oil-container that won’t slosh and spill, nothing making this noticeably safe.

The thing all of these tools have in common is that they are trying to master fire, and fire is unpredictable and dangerous. A party may have fuel to last six hours, but one bad fight can leave them in a dark room with half a candle remaining.

And remember, because the light is from fire, the light generated is always proportional to the rate of fuel being burned. Lamps may have denser fuel than candles, but not by that much. This is before the invention of kerosene (in most settings). Maybe you have whale oil, but it’s more likely vegetable oil or olive oil, or just wax.

(I referred to lamps as the open-top version and lanterns as shielded, but really it’s just that lanterns are designed to be carried around, but I don’t think this is important enough to rewrite what I said.)


These are good thoughts. It strikes me that adventurers might benefit a great deal from some non-fire-based light source, if they expect to be getting in fights. My mind goes right to lanterns full of bioluminscent bugs.

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This is sort of my thing.

So first, don’t worry about realism.

Never think about realism and fantasy adventure games. Dungeons aren’t real - the Great Pyramid’s largest chamber is 153’ long and 6ft wide with 30’ ceilings and rises in a sharp slope – try mapping that. The pyramid’s chambers were protected by stone blocks dropped into place. No secret doors, no spear and dart traps, yet it was plundered within a generation of its being built. Dungeons are a fantasy, don’t worry about the smoke and the light radius. The rules as they exist (and yes they are very vague in old D&D editions - sometimes contradictory) are for gamification purposes. Value them not because they simulate tomb robbing (which seems to be mostly chiselling through stone and digging 4’ by 2’ crawl-ways), but because they function to allow the procedural exploration of a fantastical space.

Second, embrace the procedure.

The torch exists and burns for 6 Turns (yes they aren’t ten minutes - they are a turn a unit of play that stands for abstracted time and really dungeon robbers don’t have stop watches) or until the Hazard die rolls a 3 not because it follows logic but because torches (or candles - call it what you like) function to make supply depletion and light sources are a secondary resource that the players spend to explore. In a space game you could use air tanks, and in another game something else. The key is that without some exploration resource (something beyond a universal HP resource) there’s no cost to caution, to backtracking, to navigating the fantastical space at all. Random encounters of course provide a risk, and sometimes that’s enough, but light is a secondary factor - another thing to watch a decision point for players.

This of course means that the PCs can’t carry enough light sources to never have to care about them. To make light sources matter (and so much of early D&D is about making them not matter) they have to be limited and the consequence of losing them grievous: no continual light stones in a jar (continual light is a spell for sanctifying places of worship - it fills a room with light, and each cleric can only have one continual light active - ever), no infravison or magic swords that always glow. Light in the underworld is power to meander, to explore with fewer cares and find the best past. This means the referee or designer has to judge A) how long the session is, B) how quickly the rooms/keys will be explored per session. With this knowledge you can set how much light should weigh - how many slots a lantern and oil fill, how many torches in a 1 slot bundle, or how many coins a torch weighs. It’s not about realism, it’s about how the threat to light will appear in play (it should always loom at low levels) and what the characters might have to give up or risk to maintain sufficient light sources (treasure, extra weapons or supplies?)

What this generally means in contemporary 2-3 hour sessions is that you need to limit light sources more then the old rules do. A bundle of three torches (say 18 turns) will likely cover a whole session of exploration so encumbrance rules should make bringing 6 torches a bit of a stretch.

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Two questions — I assume you have encumbrance rules designed to make carrying six torches a stretch? Can I see or get an explanation of those?

And, if a player asked why they can’t carry more torches in the middle of the game, would you offer an in-fiction explanation or make this same appeal to game-design logic?

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I use slot based STR = Significant items rules, I bundle torches into 3 and require a torch for every three party members to have illumination. There are other ways of doing it (10 +/- Str stat bonus is popular as being less punitive for low STR PCs) of course, but in general I find anything around 8 - 15 items (if you bundle things like specialist/thieves tools, javelins, throwing knives, torches and such) works fairly well.

The goal is something like: Your newly equipped dungeon robber – say a STR 12 Fighter (high average for 3D6 in order) – will have: 1) armor, 2) melee weapon, 3) shield, 4) ranged weapon, 5) ammo, 6) Secondary Weapon or Dagger, 7)Rope, 8) Mallet/Spikes 9) 3 Torches 10)Some other random adventuring crap: (venom antidote/a flask of oil/a sack of lard etc) and two empty slots for treasure or to take more torches, food, rope or whatever else they think is useful. I also tend to use random equipment generation for starter characters which great for A) fast/easy char gen, B) starting in the action, C) injecting setting/limited character detail in early.

This works because in a party of 6 you’ll need 2 torches on average every 6 turns. Generally it’s a turn between rooms and at least one turn in a room, so one bundle of torches usually get an average party of 4-6 in about 6 keyed areas. They won’t have enough light to get out again though, and no torches in a dungeon has it’s own gruesome table that often ends in a TPK. 6 keyed areas is (assuming fairly dense keying - and there are some other assumptions like this baked in here) about 2 hours of dungeon crawling I’ve found.

So. If a player asks why they can’t carry more torches, because yes they will want to.

They can - it’s just 3 per inventory slot. Going over slots produces the encumbered status and movement is halved, meaning twice as many Hazard die rolls.

There are other work arounds, but they all add complexity - a henchman is traditional but … even hiring a noncombatant linkboy requires a CHR over 5, and you gotta keep the lil’ fellow alive and happy - plus its more equipment and they have a high chance of running like hell when scary stuff happens, taking all your torches if you weren’t careful. Spells are good, and magic items as well, but people tend to like flashy damage dealers over the more useful stuff like light (perhaps the best 1st level D&D spell) and light producing items should be rare if you want to keep the supply part of risk v. reward.

If a player ever tries to argue some sort of quasi-scientific general rule that breaks the game, I just tell them it’s a game and that’s how the rules work, I will explain how the dungeon crawling model works if that’s not enough. I will also point out that every aspect of the rules represents abstraction and simplifications and that trying to make things more of a simulation rarely ends well. This is of course in contrast to problem solving uses of player knowledge, which are fine - though I tend to stretch those in favor of the players. Like how many people can actually climb 100’ of rope with a full pack, especially in say 10 minutes without being absolutely exhausted, and really pre-modern climbing rope was ether risky or absurdly heavy cable, plus how well is that grapple attached? I’m not checking these things, the rope and grapple are equipment the players used slots for, they are fit for the broadest use and a good idea should work.

Here’s some posts on the subject:

More about encumbrance and attacking supply

Finally I’d add that it’s a particular kind of game (or part of a game) and it’s like any other play style, both ref and players need to want to do procedural exploration and find it fun for it not to be a chore. I generally try to find ways to make it less of a chore – less bookkeeping, but if you want a game of tactical combat and heroics, or one of narrative and genre fidelity it’s maybe not the area to focus on, 'cause after all we each only have so much space in our heads when we sit down to play.


Does “a torch for every three party members” mean that, in a standard party of 4-6, two PCs are required to have a torch lit at any given time? Or, that there is some penalty if only one PC has a torch lit? I’m not familiar with that sort of rule.

Also, I don’t follow your math in this part:

This works because in a party of 6 you’ll need 2 torches on average every 6 turns. Generally it’s a turn between rooms and at least one turn in a room, so one bundle of torches usually get an average party of 4-6 in about 6 keyed areas.

This would imply (to me) that a party of six needs six torches for 18 turns; if there is a turn between rooms and one turn in a room, then wouldn’t that get a party through nine keyed areas? Or are you assuming that players spend two turns in about half the rooms?

I have to say, I’m not used to the idea of rolling for turns so often within rooms. Usually I only roll when the PCs move between rooms unless they’re really taking their time in a particular room.

  1. Yes, I require two light sources to keep a party of six illuminated. One would do for “dim” illumination meaning some penalties to things like combat and skill use.

  2. Yup my calculations were off. I figure there’s a torch exhaustion roughly every six turns (I use a hazard die every turn rather then tracking light - but torches are also traditionally on a 6 turn timer). Obviously it’ll vary but what I’m using usually goes something like:

TURN 1 - Party lights two torches and enters cave mouth.
TURN 2 - Party pokes around at the junk on the ground, and maybe someone tries to listen for spooky noises. Bellowing is heard.
TURN 3 - Party walks along short passage to side cave, enters, sees small 3’ tall door.
TURN 4 - Random Encounter check comes up positive, and 3 Lesser Wumpus bellow into the room. Reaction Roll isn’t great, and Wumpus’ block the exit to the cave mouth. Party chooses to rush through tiny door. It’s locked. Wumpus’ make rude gestures and threaten.
TURN 5 - Unable to escape territorial Wumpus’ and unwilling to negotiate, torches are tossed on the ground and frenzied mutual combat occurs. Combat is over, Wumpus’ can’t fight worth a damn and are dead piles of plush blue fur, their googling eyes staring at the ceiling. Party rest a few seconds.
TURN 6 - Party decides to skin Wumpus’ - who doesn’t love plush fur - luckily “Creepy Pieter the Hermit of the Lower Garden” is good at that sort of wilderness thing. So only a turn each to skin the things. 1 slot of encumbrance each value TBD. 2 Torches burn out.
TURN 7 - New Torch lit. Wumpus one skinned. Door poked at. Picking attempt on Door fails. Other four party members provide light for skinning and lockpicking efforts and stand guard.
TURN 8 - Wumpus two skinned. Listening at the door (bad roll) hears nothing.
TURN 9 - Wumpus 3 skinned and treasure stowed. Second picking attempt also fails.
TURN 10 - Tiny Door kicked in to reveal den containing 2 gnome swarms. The red hated, sharp teethed bastards are quite perturbed, but the reaction roll (even at minus four) just means squeaking and obscene gestures.
TURN 11 - Party offers gnomes food as recompense - 1 ration. Gnomes demure getting angrier and point to Wumpus furs. Negotiations continue and party gives gnomes a shield (door replacement and a Wumpus fur as indemnity.
TURN 12 - Party Returns to Cave Entrance. 2 Torches Burn out.

I guess it’d be 6 Turns or so (again it’s randomized) for two torches, leaving 1 torch of a bundle. That’s at most 3 areas (assuming no encounters and not more then one Turn poking about in each room. Obviously with random encounter checks every Turn and things to poke at it’s far less. Torches go fast. Of course, online sessions are short so I tend to make smaller dense locations (or nodes within larger ones) - not the 1/3 empty with long corridors of the old classics.