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Given the mathematics discussed in this physics.stackexchange question , how would a DM handle a PC placing 5ft of a 10ft chain (the kind used by goblins to shackle a wolf) in a campfire, then grabbing a hold of the end not in the fire and whipping the chain at an enemy NPC in an Indiana Jones fashion when sufficient time had passed to heat the chain?

For those who don't want to check out the math, the specified chain will reach 80°C (176°F) in 38 seconds. This is over the temp for causing 3rd degree burns to human skin with 1 second of contact, which is 68°C (155°F).

Hit die for damage?

Bonus damage for burning/searing?

Would a critical success mean the chain wraps around a body part?

Damage over time if the chain isn't immediately removed?

Loss of concentration, fear, panic, other effects?

Do bugbears or goblins have skin that would require higher chain temperatures (more time in the fire) to be as effective as on a human?

I'm new to D&D, so I want to know if the mechanics of such a maneuver live up to what I imagine.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Since you have already done some math for us, it would likely help if you also did the math for calculating how quickly a single link of chain cools to a safe temperature when removed from the heat source. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 0:53
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarov : When you do the math for a smaller length, the cooling time to reach ambient cave temperatures is the same (38 seconds). This is because mass and area are part of the equation, and both are affected by length. It takes 22.66 seconds to cool any length of steel chain from campfire temperatures to 107°F, which is the human pain threshold. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 1:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ Aside from clarifying game system (D&D 5E), are there other things that need clarification? Also, need to amend prior comment to say "...from 176°F" instead of the current statement "...from campfire temperatures". \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 1:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ He screams and drops the chain because metal is very conductive of heat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mary
    Jun 23 '20 at 3:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ If you whip someone with a chain, it won't make contact for "one second". 80C is a hot cup of coffee - a brief contact won't hurt you. If you got whipped with a chain at 80C, making a fleeting, high impulse impact, you'd care about the chain, not the 80C. Unless you left it in the fire to get red hot (like 600-800C), the fire is basically irrelevant. A warm chain hurts about as much as a cold chain. \$\endgroup\$
    – J...
    Jun 23 '20 at 16:01
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TL;DR

It's up to the DM. Ultimately, I would not do anything special because I like following the rules from a mechanical point of view and usually allowing special mechanical effects with no cost opens a can of worms. The next day the players will "aim for the eyes" hoping to get a Blindness effect for free or stuff like that.

D&D is not a physics simulator.

The rules for improvised weapon are given in p. 147 and 148.

An object that bears no resemblance to a weapon deals 1d4 damage (the DM assigns a damage type appropriate to the object).

In this case, I believe most people would agree that the damage type is most likely Fire.

If you think the chain resembles a weapon, then the appropriate rule states

In many cases, an improvised weapon is similar to an actual weapon and can be treated as such.

In that case, you may still change the damage from the original slashing/bludgeoning to Fire. I am not sure I agree with Thomas' answer that it is similar to a Whip. It may have the reach property, but it feels more like a bludgeoning weapon, and no Bludgeoning weapon has the Finesse property, so it would be strength-based rather than dexterity.

And that's it. Nothing more. Nothing less.

Now, you can say...

Kay I don't want to go RAW, I want to reward my players for creative use of their campfire

Well, then you can do anything you like, as long as you are the DM, or ask anything you would like to your DM.

Without more details about the campaign, party composition and monsters you are encountering, it is hard to say anything about the balancing here. Ultimately, how would a DM handle something depends on the DM.

If you are the DM, that is your call. If you are the player, ask your DM. There is no way for us to tell you how to rule it or how your DM will rule it. That is based on your own table assumptions, what is fun for you guys, and many other factors only you are aware.

Ultimately, while hardly a one-use of this "trick" to deal some extra damage would imbalance anything, allowing it might open the wrong doors for the understanding of the game and may lead to players trying more and more to get "special effects" at little or no cost based on "real life", which is something I experienced a few times and quickly gets boring. For this reason, as a DM, I would treat it exactly as the rules tell us to, and that is it.

But if you (or the DM in case) are not worried about that, from your description it seems you are fighting Goblins, Wolves and Bugbears (Cragmaw Hideout perhaps?), and honestly, in that case, the DM may even rule that the attack hitting instantly kills the Goblin through melting his skin and insufferable pain - goblins can easily be one-hit by a properly created character anyway - without any actual balance problem.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you for your detailed answer. I'm the player. My DM seems a bit of a rule follower, so I expect I would likely get 1d4 fire damage. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 4:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @StevenMiller By the way, I noticed you are new and haven't taken our tour. When you have time, please do. I understand wanting to thank the helpful answers (especially when you are the person asking the question), but that is not what the comments are for. Comments are reserved for trying to improve the answer in some way - either by asking for clarification, pointing something you think is a mistake, so the answerer can review it, or other things like that. The upvote is enough to say "Thank you". (I do appreciate the thanks though haha you're welcome) \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Jun 23 '20 at 4:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ How long would the chain remain burning hot for? I imagine it wouldn't be very long (a round or two). So that would always be a balancing factor if you wanted to reward the player's creativity while preventing it from getting unbalanced by overuse. \$\endgroup\$
    – PJRZ
    Jun 23 '20 at 9:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @PJRZ My problem is not with the balancing of this specific question, but with the mentality behind it. As I said, how long before they start asking for " hitting the eyes" hoping to get blindness, or trying to "creatively" use 1st level spells to do the same a 5th level does? As I said, if the DM wants to reward them, go for it, no matter how he balances it, at the point they are, hardly it will break anything. \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Jun 23 '20 at 17:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ Unless it was heated well beyond the 176 degree mark, I don't think fire would even apply. At that temperature it's a painfully warm chain, not a flaming chain. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 21:22
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The rules don’t support this as an approach to bonus damage

There simply isn’t any rule for anything like this; improvised weapons always do the same damage and aside from magic weapons with magic flames on them, there are no rules for adding heat or fire damage to weapons.

But the game has tons and tons of things it doesn’t cover; it’s impossible to cover everything, after all. So the question becomes,

Did the rules miss some real effect that we should make a rule for? No.

Everything you want to do to make a weapon better at being a weapon, is going to make it worse at being a conductor of heat. Weapons want to focus their impact on a small area, and hit that small area with a great deal of momentum. Heat transfer wants a large surface area in prolonged contact with wherever the heat is to be transferred. These two goals are mutually exclusive, and I doubt you could ever impart a significant amount of heat by striking with a weapon that’s been heated over a fire.

A bullwhip (the kind of thing used by Indiana Jones) damages the skin via the extremely-high speed of the tip when you “crack” it—the crack is literally a sonic boom caused by the tip breaking the sound barrier. The amount of time that the tip spends in contact with the surface is extremely small, and must be for the bullwhip to actually cause harm, since its speed is so critical. Thus, the amount of heat that can be transferred in this timeframe—which is vastly less than the 1 second mentioned in the question—is also small, and not worth considering from a game standpoint.

On the other hand, a chain can’t be used like a bullwhip; the only reason a bullwhip works like that is because of the way it tapers (coming to a very thin point at the end), which a chain doesn’t do. Also, I’m pretty sure the links themselves are going to prevent the proper kind of flexibility and tension that a bullwhip needs, though I’m less certain of that.

Instead, a swung chain is basically a poorly-balanced flail, and swung properly, there isn’t a whole lot of difference between a chain and a solid iron bar. In both cases, you have to achieve fairly significant velocity at the end of the weapon to cause damage. The struck surface must then absorb some of the weapon’s kinetic energy, and in the process may be pushed away and/or break in some fashion. The typical approach to achieving the proper velocity, as well as to keep yourself moving and attacking (which is important both offensively and defensively) is typically to “swing through” your target. If you do this, again, the actual time spent in contact is going to be limited—less than a second. The amount of heat you can transfer in that kind of time might, just barely, be enough to do some damage, but I tend to doubt it.

And a chain is particularly poor here, because even if you tried to focus on the heat angle, you can’t just hold it against someone. With an iron rod that’s red-hot on one end—say, the classic fire poker—you can always just jab it into someone’s gut and try to hold it there, or swing it trying to force them to block it with their arm and then press in. It will cause nasty burns pretty quickly. But you can’t do those things with a chain; you have to keep it moving or it will just flop to the ground.

Also, all of that’s assuming we’ve struck bare flesh. Striking any kind of armor—or even just reasonably thick clothing—is going to see most of that heat get absorbed by the armor/clothing and not the skin, greatly limiting how much effect it can have.

Where a heated chain would actually be useful is wrapping it around the target somehow—as a garrote, maybe as a bolo or lasso, or, ya know, as chains. Thus, I could see having the chain deal damage when used to grapple a target. In this case, what I would probably rule is that you deal damage as appropriate for an improvised weapon, but in fire damage, on top of grappling the target.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, they'd be better off laying the middle of the length of chain through the fire, with both ends out to keep as handles. Grapple opponent with it and pull the cool ends to hold searing hot chain against foul goblin flesh. \$\endgroup\$
    – Doktor J
    Jun 23 '20 at 17:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DoktorJ Yup, my thoughts exactly. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jun 23 '20 at 17:50
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Treat as a torch, doing 1 pt of fire damage.

The guideline given for improvised weapons is to use a similar weapon when possible. The closest thing to what you describe would be a torch used as a weapon. A torch wielded as a weapon does 1 point of fire damage, which seams reasonable given the chain will not be noticeably hotter than a burning torch.

A torch burns for 1 hour, providing bright light in a 20-foot radius and dim light for an additional 20 feet. If you make a melee Attack with a burning torch and hit, it deals 1 fire damage.

I had a player use a branding iron as an improvised weapon and had it do something similar. I will also tell you from experience your chain will cool much faster than it heats up, because you are putting it in contact with cool objects. So I would only give it a few rounds before it stops doing fire damage. Personally I would roll 1d4 for the number of rounds. A successful hit would be when the chain does wrap around the target a bit otherwise there is too little heat transfer.

to get 1d4 bludgeoning damage with a cold chain, I would say the player has to fold the chain up in to a loop or wrap it around their hand to get that damage, as a 5ft length of loose chain is basically useless as a weapon, the balance actually minimizes the impact energy transfer. It is not really an improvement over just throwing a few links of chain at the enemy unless you fold it up to get more weight at the end. There is a reason all chain weapons have a weight at the end. If they try this with a hot chain they just burn themselves. Also keep in mind a medieval equivalent chain is not nearly as heavy or solid as modern chain.

Basically you can't use the chain effectively to get both forms of damage, this is going to be true with almost any form of burn based attack.

There is also a balance issue, an improvised weapon should not be doing more damage than an actual weapon especially a weapon as poor as a length of chain.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ One point missing here: the Torch is not a weapon, so even though it could be similar to a torch, it would still not be similar to a weapon. (The torch being used as a weapon is essentially another improvised weapon). \$\endgroup\$
    – HellSaint
    Jun 23 '20 at 4:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @John , Interesting perspective. Did you give consideration for the weight of the chain? \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 4:13
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    \$\begingroup\$ @StevenMiller consider that a torch does no other damage, even when it could be considered similar to a club. Improvised weapons in general are not great for damage. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Jun 23 '20 at 12:34
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A generous DM could give you a small amount of fire damage, say 1d4, for the first turn only, with no other additional effects. Your chain is going to cool to a safe temperature very soon after being removed from the heat source.

Implementing the rules of improvised weapons, slinging a chain seems to be adequately similar to a whip, with bludgeoning damage, but without the finesse property (it's a metal chain).

So it would do 1d4+STR bludgeoning and 1d4 fire damage during the turn it is removed from the fire, but the fire damage would go away quite quickly once exposed to the ambient temperature.

To be clear, there is no written rule addressing sticking your weapon in a fire. So the best I can offer is what I think is a reasonable ruling that remains well balanced.

In the spirit of this answer, the rules of Dungeons and Dragons are not a physics simulation. There is not going to be a meaningful way to answer questions like "how long do I leave it in the fire", or "does the type of skin worn by the target make a difference" within the context of the written rules. That has to be houseruled, and I gave you an idea of how I would do that. 

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    \$\begingroup\$ We're making stuff up at this point, but that does seem reasonable and thematically appropriate. I'll make that change. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 15:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I like this approach \$\endgroup\$ Jun 23 '20 at 23:17

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