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A player in my game wishes to create a Molotov Cocktail - arguably, some alcohol in a bottle, with a piece of oiled cloth as fuse. Is that viable in a fantasy game, assuming technology of say the Renaissance period?

There are three components to this question, I think

  1. Is it possible to gather the materials to create a Molotov Cocktail? Wikipedia says gasoline is used - will any type of flammable liquid works?

  2. How likely is a character to know how to create one?

  3. Is it easy to use in combat, and safe to carry around while adventuring (trekking long distances, climbing up sheer cliffs etc.)

Update: I am adding some setting info to provide context.

It's a homebrewed setting where it is high fantasy, pretty much like Eberron. There is also technology, such as clockwork and machinery, but the source of power is still rooted in elemental magic. For instance, instead of using engines using fuel or gasoline, the engines are ran by trapping elemental spirits within it, and the engine will then run clockworks, machinery and other contraptions. Was there discovery of petrol or gasoline? I would doubt so, because people rely on elemental magic for pretty much everything else.

In short, it's Eberron + Legend (Dragon Warriors' setting) + a mix of 'magi-tech'. That said, I am also interested in answer for a culture or setting with technology equivalent to the Renaissance period., so that when I justify to the players, I have some ground as to my justifications instead of "because my setting notes say so".

Update 2: The system in question is 13th Age. However, there's no rules for such devices in the game.

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"arguably, some alcohol in a bottle, with a piece of oiled cloth as fuse." -- I think that's backwards, the cocktail is a bottle of gasoline with an alcohol soaked rag. –  starwed Jul 24 '13 at 4:23
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Your setting is homebrew, but are you using a particular system? There may be rules for similar weapons already. –  StuperUser Jul 24 '13 at 10:18
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I've voted to close this. We can't really provide a concrete answer based on the information here: in all cases, it entirely depends on your decisions as a DM, and the characters' circumstances. You could make any of this easy or hard for them, and we can't tell you what decisions to make. There's nothing inherent about fantasy or your settings to suggest it should work any particular way. –  Jonathan Hobbs Jul 24 '13 at 13:41
    
I would like to note that incendiary weapons are one of the oldest 'special' weapon technologies known to man: globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/… Post-Byzantine it was perhaps improved as "naptha", and used up to (and past) the Crusades in limited ways. It seems to have always been a special weapon and was usually reserved for sieges, because 1:1 or group:group its not so awesome. "Realistically" it is a special weapon which is good when used right, but its usually a bad idea and if your system can't model that then its just a renamed damage potion. –  BrianDHall Jul 25 '13 at 4:59
    
@BrianDHall great link to globalsecurity.org that is a solid site. Also lets not forget Greek Fire! –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 26 '13 at 17:17
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closed as too broad by Jonathan Hobbs, BESW, C. Ross Jul 24 '13 at 13:33

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

8 Answers

Such a thing actually existed in that time period. Many different versions of setting your enemies on fire were popular. Check out Greek Fire.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greek_fire

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It does exist, but is it readily available? If Greek Fire is not, then I could justify the fantasy version of it as being effective, but costly. –  Extrakun Jul 24 '13 at 5:09
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@Extrakun That depends. Is your game is set in Greece with the player characters in the Greek military, or is your game set in the Native American wilderness ten thousand years in the past and the players are buffalos? What's your fantasy running with? We can't tell you if it's appropriate and readily available or known in your setting. –  Jonathan Hobbs Jul 24 '13 at 5:11
    
Good point, I will edit my question. –  Extrakun Jul 24 '13 at 5:12
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@JonathanHobbs For historical accuracy, ‘Greek Fire’ appears to have been a Byzantine invention (and the formula was so secret it's now lost to us). The contemporary name was ‘Liquid Fire’. So I'd say having Greek Fire would have been a costly, hard to obtain substance even in the days of the East Roman Empire. –  Alexios Jul 24 '13 at 12:27
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Any type of lantern oil or torch pitch should be viable. Honestly, if there is mechanisms then there needs to be something to grease the wheels (olive oil, animal fat, mineral oil, etc.) and most of these examples also burn quite well. –  Joshua Aslan Smith Jul 24 '13 at 13:03
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The answer to these questions is, unfortunately: it depends on your setting, your characters, and your RPG (in that order).

1) Is it possible to gather the materials to create a Molotov Cocktail? Wikipedia says gasoline is used - will any type of flammable liquid works?

This depends on your fantasy setting. Does it have a decently accessible form of sufficiently flammable liquid? Alcohol is a popular and flammable liquid, and may do decently well.

Beside that, though, in your setting, the players might be (or be working with) alcoholic goblins working on an oil pipeline. Oil is, of course, a new thing the goblins have discovered and are figuring out how to use.

There may be an even more potent substance for this purpose in your setting though: the Game of Thrones setting, for instance, contains a substance comparable to napalm.

In your magi-tech setting, is there anything to enable them to use magic to create flammable stuff? Can they stuff a Sprite of Exploding Horribly into a bottle?

2) How likely is a character to know how to create one?

This one is even more up in the air.

Who are your players? They may have indirect or direct exposure to explosives knowledge. They may be or have been soldiers or rebel fighters who've been taught to use such explosives. They may be explosives experts, or they may have worked with and learned some lessons from explosives experts. Either way they may have received some training.

It may even be a cultural or societal thing: people in the current area, or where the character in question grew up or travelled through, might simply know about this particular bomb. Maybe it's something young troublemakers know about and talk about (whether or not they've used it), or maybe in the past there was a rebellion and the villagers generally just learned about this recipe and never forgot about it.

They may have just heard about it in passing talking to strangers, or they may have in the past foiled a little plot to burn down a house using molotov cocktails.

Any number of things could lead to a particular person knowing how to make molotov cocktails. It may be a bit exceptional, but that doesn't mean they can't know about it.

3) Is it easy to use in combat, and safe to carry around while adventuring (trekking long distances, climbing up sheer cliffs etc.)

This is the hard part. You're carrying stuff around in a smashable, probably glass container, so this is risky. However, people often carry around potions anyway - do those get smashed often?

Does your RPG system specify rules for getting various items smashed? Are you willing to ignore it or would you rather make it a pain in the character's backside whilst mysteriously never smashing any of their potions?

If your RPG smashes stuff, it's very risky. If it hand-waves that part of the game away, I wouldn't treat molotovs as a special case. Let using them be risky, if you want, but don't make it a pain in the character's butt as a cost for even having them.

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The big challenge with the equivalent of a mundane Molotov cocktail is that you have to carry it in a breakable vessel. So unless you have a spell that causes the vessel to be very difficult to shatter while on the bearer’s person, any time they fumble or an opponent criticals, they’re likely to wind up covered in a flammable liquid. While an alchemist could be meddling with alcohol, naphtha, etc. to try and make something that sticks to the target, it’s not likely to come in handy in hand-to-hand combat. Greek fire was famous as a naval weapon, not something carried by Byzantine staff-sling troops.

If you really want the effect without the frangibility, you could introduce some minor elemental summoning spells that conjure the elemental out of whatever medium you supply. At first level, you conjure a water elemental out of distilled alcohol and it’s so small that it’s probably useless in combat but great for executing “sneak into that guy’s drink and then return to your plane of origin”. At higher level, you can conjure a pack of pumpkin-sized elementals who will happily jump on someone and soak them in alcohol or pitch. (Your pack mule carries the jugs of booze, which also double as trade goods.)

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+1 for use of the word "frangibility". –  gomad Jul 24 '13 at 7:48
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The first and foremost concern when creating such a weapon would be that the major component is volatile enough to cause major damage and be very hard to put out. The next concern is that the component isn't too volatile, as this can cause it to simply evaporate over the course of a few hours.

With this in mind I think that the best way of creating such a device is as follows:

Take a glass bottle and fill it to 1/3 with a strong alcohol(+50%) or possibly pitch, let the cloth settle to the bottom of the container in such a manner that it acts as a wick and absorb the liquid. Cork up the top with the rag hanging out. The device is now ready for use, simply light the rag and throw to your hearts contempt.

And to answer your list:

  1. Yes, if a strong enough destillation process is available in the world, the liquid can be produced

  2. Pretty unlikely, unless the character is an alchemist, distiller or accustomed to explosives

  3. The ease of use is questionable, but a stable, firm throw and an igniting medium of sufficient heat and staying power will help in the process of attacking. the liquid would have to be topped up every day or so to keep the level of combustant at a stable level, since it will evaporate to some degree.

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I don't think it would be practical to keep in such a "ready to use" form - you'd constantly stink of alcohol and it would probably leak all over your stuff, creating a danger of setting yourself on fire. A more realistic use case would be to keep the bottle sealed and prepare it right before a battle - shouldn't take more than a minute. –  Michael Borgwardt Jul 24 '13 at 7:42
    
@MichaelBorgwardt The "transport"-state of such a device would simply consist of pinching a small piece of the cloth in the cork in such a manner that it can be uncorked, set to "ready" and resealed. –  Marcus Wigert Jul 24 '13 at 9:33
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The main issue I can see is that in a medieval (although possibly not in a fantasy) setting, glass is horribly expensive. Clay vessels do not break in the same way (you want pretty much the whole vessel to break at one, instead of simply having it crack into two pieces).

However, putting the harsh realities of Molotov cocktails aside, "yeah, sure, go for it".

Damage-wise, it should be the same as being soaked in fire until extinguished (or about two minutes, whichever comes first).

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Perfect viable (with the assumption that D&D variant D20 rules are relevant as an example):

From http://www.d20srd.org/srd/equipment/goodsAndServices.htm#oil:

A pint of oil burns for 6 hours in a lantern. You can use a flask of oil as a splash weapon. Use the rules for alchemist’s fire, except that it takes a full round action to prepare a flask with a fuse. Once it is thrown, there is a 50% chance of the flask igniting successfully.

Oil is going to be closer than alcohol to petrol as it'll be a bit more viscous and will burn longer and stick to victims longer.

Depending on how much magic you're willing to accept in your setting there's Alchemist's fire.

You will be able to change the mechanics described in the links to suit the system you are using.

To copy Marcus Wigert's answer format:

  1. I imagine oil would be available in your setting, since kerosine was distilled in the 9th century.

  2. An inventive character or NPC could be seen improvise one from a lamp etc. during a brawl and then go on to make and or sell them as weapons.

  3. It would be as safe to transport as any other sealed bottle/vial.

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Bear in mind this isn't a D&D question. ;) –  Jonathan Hobbs Jul 24 '13 at 9:36
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The d20srd is not a generic d20 document. It's very D&D-3.5-srd. However, as an example of viability in a fantasy setting, your answer looks ok to me. –  Zachiel Jul 24 '13 at 9:52
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Your answer's decent, but makes an assumption that D&D or d20 mechanics are relevant, and that what D&D allows is applicable, and doesn't appear to acknowledge that neither might be. If this were a game of Fate, for instance, the only strictly relevant part here is that lamp oil is flammable, which hardly needs a d20 SRD reference to back up. The point about alchemist's fire is, however, probably relevant (I say probably because his setting is a mash-up between Eberron and others). I'm hesitating to upvote it for these reasons. –  Jonathan Hobbs Jul 24 '13 at 9:55
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@JonathanHobbs I've made the assumptions clear and suggested Extrakun can change the mechanics to suit their system. –  StuperUser Jul 24 '13 at 10:01
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I would say a Molotov Cocktail is a viable but limited weapon. It is limited both by logistics of managing the components (which you would probably only want to combine at the last minute, and which are heavier than say arrows or sling bullets), and by situational effectiveness.

As well as all the great answers supplying logical reasoning for why and how this player-invented equipment could and should work, I think you should bear in mind:

  • Even a direct hit with a flask of oil, and perfect coverage with flames, is not as immediately lethal as a direct hit with a sword or arrow. It is arguably less likely too.

  • This is a weapon traditionally more suited to battlefield control and damage to items than used directly against single opponents.

  • The rules you apply will affect how often the device is used in the game, and how much fun it is to play. As this is a custom rule for a specific player, only you can assess how much weight of creation rules the player will abide before they just give up on the idea.

  • I would err on the side of keeping rules simple and easy, but only moderately effective in battle, with the simple argument - "If it were really easy to do, and highly effective, then everyone would be doing it, and we'd be playing 'flaming oil wars'" - note that argument works both OOC as a gamist one, and in character for game-reality.

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It's a fantasy game, so don't worry about whether things were possible in the renaissance. Next thing you know, this player will be asking for gunpowder.

So yes anything is possible. But is it likely? No.

  • How did your player learn about molotov cocktails in the first instance, since they seem to be uncommon to your setting? Make this is a skill effort or something that the character should learn by roleplaying an interest in explosives.
  • Make molotov cocktails by fantasy, not phsyics. E.g. judging from the description of your setting, to develop something like a molotov cocktail you would need to trap a bull's spirit in bottle of brandy and then get it mad enough by waiving a red handkerchief at it to make to bottle explode
  • If your player still is willing to go through this foolishness in combat, make sure to set the right parameters: damage, range, it should all be in line with his other powers to make sure it's balanced
  • Also think of some funny 'bad consequences' e.g. the bull being set of by accident by the flirting gorgeous maiden in the bar, who happened to be dressed in red.
  • I think there's enough that can keep your player from not wanting a molotov cocktail. Just getting the bottle out is already burden (the reason why players always grap for their potions when it's too late)

In sum, don't say no, just play around with the difficulty and make your answer in theme.

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