I'm trying to get to the bottom of using a torch as an improvised weapon in 5e D&D.

Moving from the more to the less certain:

If you make a melee attack with a burning torch and hit, it deals 1 fire damage. (PHB pg.153)

The most certain thing is "1 fire damage", though the wording does not say either "only 1 fire damage" or "an additional 1 fire damage", the former is probably the most natural reading.

As "torch" is not listed under weapons, we seem to be in the area of improvised weapons here:

Sometimes characters don’t have their weapons and have to attack with whatever is close at hand. An improvised weapon includes any object you can wield in one or two hands, such as broken glass, a table leg, a frying pan, a wagon wheel, or a dead goblin. (PHB pg.147)

And a torch (burning or not) certainly fits the "any object you can wield in one or two hands" bill.

In many cases, an improvised weapon is similar to an actual weapon and can be treated as such. For example, a table leg is akin to a club. (PHB pg.147)

Like the example of the table leg in the PHB, a torch would seem to be most like a club, so presumably proficient in this weapon could add their proficiency bonus. Even if a torch is not considered similar enough to a club, which has a damage of d4 bludgeoning we read:

An object that bears no resemblance to a weapon deals 1d4 damage (the DM assigns a damage type appropriate to the object). (PHB pg.148)

So 1d4 bludgeoning in any case.

If a character takes an unlit torch, the improvised weapon rules are certainly in effect, so 1d4 damage. If however the torch is lit ... the damage drops to 1 (specific rule beats general). Absurd but apparently the case.

My question is twofold:

  • Have I correctly understood that the rules-as-written mean an unlit torch has a damage of 1d4 (bludgeoning), whereas a lit one has a fixed damage of 1 (fire)?
  • Or would it be possible to recurse to the improvised weapon rules and say "I want to really hit the enemy with my torch, not just burn them a bit". If this latter case is possible, are we looking at 1d4 bludgeoning only, or 1d4 bludgeoning +1 fire damage?

I'm aware that this question is open to house rules, and I'm cooking up my own already, but I'd like to know what orthodoxy I am departing from.

  • One thing to consider is can a torch (lit or unlit) be an improvised weapon given that it is identified as a weapon for which stats are given? Similarly for the other items you mention. – Dale M Mar 1 '15 at 22:01
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    It's not listed as a weapon, but as equipment, though it is given a damage rating. In any case even weapons can be used as improvised weapons if used unusually (e.g. throwing a weapon without the thrown tag). – harlandski Mar 1 '15 at 22:57
up vote 12 down vote accepted
  1. RAW interpretation:

Torches would deal 1d4 unlit as an improvised weapon and only 1 lit as per torch description, specific overrules general.

A reason for this by RAW could be it's burning, twigs and sticks that are alight are brittle and fall apart at the softest touch.

  1. Rules as Intended/Logic

Torches are usually a bunch of reeds, sticks, cloth and other flammable substances attached to a piece of wood, of which the strength there of may vary (DM's decision whether it is a solid piece of oak or a simple flex of more solid branches). They can be fairly flexible but brittle too and therefore not really appropriate to be used as an improvised weapon. Think hitting someone with the equivalent of a pool noodle, that's not going to do 1d4 damage.

Just because rules allow for many things to be used as an improvised weapon does not mean that anything and everything can/should be. I stab him with my sewing needle, it's an improvised weapon, I deal 1d4 damage. Common Sense Rules.

Torches cannot practically be used as an improvised weapon, they would most likely break apart after one hit. So would deal no damage as a weapon unless lit when it deals 1 fire damage.

  1. DM Allows Torch as Improvised

If your DM is going to rule that they can be used as an improvised weapon then they would deal 1d4 bludgeoning and if lit 1d4 bludgeoning + 1 fire damage.

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    Hmm, a torch of "twigs and sticks" sounds to me more like something you might make with a survival skill, than one you'd by back in town. Wouldn't those be more like sticks with rags soaked in animal fat, like these: outdoors.stackexchange.com/questions/9224/… – Tim Grant May 15 '16 at 13:37

Simplest explanation/the rule I use in my games? If you are swinging it like a club, you can do 1d4 damage, but you aren't really applying fire to the target enough to do fire damage. If you are pressing the flame against your target, so as to burn them, it does 1 fire damage, but you're not really bludgeoning them.

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    This was exactly my first thought. Trying to ignite someone by poking at the flappy bits with a burning brand isn't going to bruise, and trying to beat someone senseless won't ignite. – nitsua60 May 14 '16 at 17:20

This came up recently in our 5e game too. I ruled it as 1d4 bludgeoning +1 fire. In my specific case it was against spider webs, so the difference in damage types mattered. Not sure if that's the actual intended ruling but it made sense to us.

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    Thanks for this. As I said at the end of my question, if the RAW are as they at first seem to be then it begs a house rule and yours sounds sensible, but I'm looking for an answer "by the book". – harlandski Feb 28 '15 at 14:27

It should definitely be only 1 fire damage. You could swing a torch to deal 1d4 bludgeoning damage, but I wouldn't add the fire damage. Swinging an open flame quickly enough to hurt someone with it is likely to put out the fire on the torch, similarly to dropping it a long distance or having a particularly strong wind blow it out, and using it as a bludgeoning tool would also likely weaken the flame similar to stomping out a campfire. As always it's up to the DM; I personally apply the fire damage once if they use it as an improvised weapon but then make them burn a bonus action to relight it.

A torch also counts as a simple weapon, and most like a club as you mentioned. Anything you can pickup can be an improvised weapon, but things that approximate simple weapons can be wielded with proficiency if you have proficiency in simple weapons. Therefore the torch, lit or unlit could be wielded as a club, and a lot torch would add 1hp of Fire damage. In the instant that the torch struck, it's not likely to ignite anything unless it's a volitile fuel, like gasoline or proof alcohol. Even lamp oil is unlikely to ignite without an open and steady flame. Using a flask is different because a wick is lit which warms just enough of the oil to ignite the rest when it pops and splashes.

Now I have not played 5e and I am not really an all experienced DM. But I normally play with the rules that if you hit an enemy with a torch, it deals, in the way you have put on there. 1D4 damage. but also burning damage as well (I think its normally 1d6 in 3.5e) Depending on the enemies clothing as well, I roll a D100 to see if the item of clothing is likely to be set on fire (about a 75 or higher on the D100, depending on how long the torch is near the enemy)

I could be extremely wrong, but this is how I would deal with the improvised weapon

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    Hello and thanks for taking the time to answer. You're being downvoted as I asked about fifth edition, not 3.5. Take a look at the first line of my question and the tags. – harlandski Feb 28 '15 at 13:29
  • I apologise because I did not proof read my paragraph. I meant to say I have not played 5e, but gave what I would do in 3.5e – Skullyian Feb 28 '15 at 13:31
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    Ah well then you're being downvoted as that's not relevant to my question which is about 5e rules-as-written. – harlandski Feb 28 '15 at 13:32
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    @Skullyian That is where House-rules come in, and OP has asked for Rules-As-Worded in the 5e Core Books. If you don't have a really thorough understanding of the 5e rules, then you can't really contribute much to this question, right? – Javelin Feb 28 '15 at 16:25
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    @Skullyian Incidentally, in 3.5 a lit torch did 1d4 bludgeoning damage and 1 point of fire damage, not 1d6. – GMJoe Mar 2 '15 at 23:49

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