That Burning, Burning Feeling: Flaming Oil in D&D

“Burning oil will deter many monsters from continuing pursuit.”

—Gygax & Arneson, “Dungeons & Dragons Volume III: The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures”

Burning oil is the traditional equalizer for low-level parties in old school D&D. It’s a deadly ranged weapon that’s also dirt cheap and usable by anyone. Despite the risks of setting oneself on fire, it’s the most effective tool that starting PCs have for dealing with their enemies, dealing an average of 9 damage over two rounds—enough to kill even the toughest normal man or orcish sergeant.

But… why is it so deadly?

Clearly, dousing someone in burning oil is going to be deadly. In fact, in the Chainmail ruleset, dumping a cauldron of burning oil on targets kills them instantly! But using this as a baseline for the effect goes against the core of D&D combat. It’s like saying that running someone through with a sword will be deadly; this is true, but it’s also not a presumed effect of any successful attack. And just as a successful melee attack might reduce the target’s hit point total through a bruise, a graze or even a threatening near-miss, a successful burning oil attack might drench an easily-removed cloak, deliver only a few burning droplets or even result in a threatening near-miss.

On the other hand, burning oil isn’t actually that bad in terms of game balance, since it takes two rounds and two attack rolls to set someone alight—one to douse them in oil and another to hit them with a torch. This doubles the combat effectiveness of the party’s dagger-wielding magic-users, but isn’t nearly as beneficial for more fighting-oriented types. Alternatively, you can spread the oil on the floor in advance and light it when they come into range, but most opponents will be able to withdraw from the burning area after one round, and you risk getting pushed into your own oil patch or having it block your own escape.

Things really break down when you allow players to make and use oil-based Molotov cocktails. These are allowed in the Rules Cyclopedia, but there’s no mention of them in pure Red Box. Pre-lit oil lets you deal 2-16 damage with one attack roll. That’s definitely unbalanced at low levels, and makes Molotov-lobbing first level hirelings effective even in the deeper levels of the dungeon.

My recommendations:

  1. Allow a character hit by burning oil to spend a round rolling around and putting out the flames, thereby preventing the second round of damage from the oil.
  2. Disallow the use of Molotov cocktails, or make them sufficiently flawed that it’s a meaningful tactical choice as to whether or not to use them.
  3. Incorporate oil into the extant class-based weapon restrictions; it can be used by classes that can use any weapon, and as it lacks an edge it can be used by clerics, but magic-users can only wield daggers and thus cannot effectively throw oil (or at least suffer a penalty to do so).
  4. Consult Philotomy’s advice on burning oil for detailed suggestions regarding complexities arising from burning oil use.
  5. Set the PCs on fire and watch their oil flasks explode! (You may wish to employ a pyrologist for this purpose.)

This should make burning oil less of a trump card while still retaining its usefulness. It’s a decently effective weapon, a method to slay enemies resistant to ordinary weapons (such as mummies), a means to destroy wooden structures, and a barrier against hostile foes. There’s no reason for it to be anything more.

13 Responses to “That Burning, Burning Feeling: Flaming Oil in D&D”

  1. 1 Naked
    September 9, 2010 at 3:39 pm

    I see a problem in a lack of area-effect defenses/attacks in OD&D. There is sleep, sure, but until later magic-user levels there is an absence of ways to damage multiple enemies. No weapons exist to bridge this gap, no rules for nets, ropes, or snares that could incapacitate several at a time, much less damage or kill.

    The Byzantines’ Greek fire was as deadly as it was unique. I have a hard time suspending disbelief about how effective lantern pitch would be to light and then effectively drench onto multiple on-comers. But lacking an alternative I let it slide (spill).

  2. September 9, 2010 at 4:21 pm

    @Naked: I’m confused here. Are you suggesting that there are rules to allow a PC to spray multiple targets with oil at the same time? Because I don’t see that either in the OD&D books or in my post.

  3. 3 Naked
    September 9, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    Depends on how large the monsters are. The party got a bunch of rats covered last session. Placed or spilled on the ground, it is a mass-effect device.

  4. September 9, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    It would make sense to allow some mechanism for opponents in a patch of unlit oil a chance to get out of the patch as it’s being lit, as they see the fire spread. This could be based on initiative somehow, or it could be a standard saving throw.

  5. 5 cr0m
    September 9, 2010 at 8:58 pm

    Quick question: is there something in Basic/Expert D&D that specifies that burning oil flasks *aren’t* molotov cocktails? That’s how we’ve always played them, partly because it’s a custom hallowed by time and sanctified by usage! And partly because I’m a big softy who thinks that first level PCs are going to die anyway, might as well let them have their moment of triumph.

  6. September 9, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    “Oil thrown on a creature …. must be set alight for it to cause any damage; otherwise, it will only be slippery. The chance of oil catching fire depends on the situation, and is left for the DM to figure out. Touching the oil with a flaming torch should almost certainly cause the oil to light. Other methods may have less chance of success.”

    Per the rules, you throw the oil first, then light it separately. One can read the text as allowing the use of the molotov cocktail, but even then, there’s a chance that the oil will not catch fire.

  7. 7 cr0m
    September 9, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Huh. I think my prejudices (ie years of molotov cocktails) got the better of me when I read that passage in the rulebook. I treated it as a suggestion, not a rule, when it’s clearly How Oil Works in D&D. Probably also because the bit about lighting it is so half-hearted.

  8. 8 cr0m
    September 9, 2010 at 10:57 pm

    Though it’s interesting that it specifically says “touching the oil” but there are no rules anywhere about how difficult it might be to do that!

  9. September 10, 2010 at 2:31 pm

    I’d figure it as the following:

    Spread oil on floor and touch torch to it: Automatic.
    Spread oil on floor and throw torch at it: Ranged attack vs. AC 9
    Throw oil on victim and touch torch to it: Melee attack vs. AC 9 (plus shield/dex bonus)
    Throw oil on victim and throw torch at it: Ranged attack vs. AC 9 (plus shield/dex bonus)

    How much of a monster’s AC comes from Dexterity can be adjudicated on the fly.

  10. 10 cr0m
    September 10, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    I can’t fault your reasoning, but man, oil just got a whole lot more deadly.

  11. 11 cr0m
    September 10, 2010 at 4:31 pm

    Shoot, I misread. You’re saying the torch attack is vs AC 9. Very reasonable.

    What about hitting someone with the oil in the first place? Do you also ignore armor?

  12. September 10, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    What about hitting someone with the oil in the first place? Do you also ignore armor?

    Yep, also ignores body armor but is affected by shield/Dex. Same for holy water.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

September 2010

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