Biblyon the Great

This zine is dedicated to articles about the fantasy role-playing game Gods & Monsters, and other random musings.

Gods & Monsters Fantasy Role-Playing

Beyond here lie dragons

How to build a fire

Jerry Stratton, November 17, 2011

In the medieval world, anything important requires planning. Even things we consider the most trivial of actions require making a plan, collecting resources, and using those resources to execute the plan.

Take building a fire. Matches are awesome things. It’s not a wonder that time-travel novelists wanting to get their protagonists in trouble with the locals give them matches. However, in the standard fantasy faux-medieval world—such as Gods & Monsters’s Highland—there are no matches. Matches were only developed during the seventeenth century and onward, and until the late nineteenth century were dangerous.1

If you have magic, that’s almost as good. Anything that a match can light, fan of flame or eternal flame will have no problem lighting, and you won’t have to worry nearly as much about wind.

Without magic, however, how do you start a fire?

Starting a fire without magic consists of three simple steps:

  1. Start with a fire.
  2. Light a torch, candle, lantern, log, or other long-burning combustible using the fire.
  3. Transport the torch to where you want to build a fire.
  4. Light your fire.

Yes, the best way to build a fire barring magic or technology is to start with an existing fire. The need for an existing fire is almost as important a reason to have a torch or oil lamp as the need for light.

Starting a fire without a fire

Whether you have a spark or need to make a fire completely from scratch, the most important step to building a fire when you don’t already have a fire is finding something that will burn easily. You want the kind of thing that makes brush fires start spontaneously: very dry, very light, soft, filamented and frayed. You don’t want density, you want fluffiness. Thin strands of something very flammable. Leaves, if they’re very dry, will work well, but they’re rarely really dry. Straw is another good choice if you can get it. Dry grass, too. If you have dry rope, unravel it and unravel it again. If you need something to carry, aged and thin wood shavings are probably the best combination of durable and flammable. Sawdust is awesome.

If you want to make it easier, make or get some “charcloth”. Start with something very thin and light, such as cotton or linen fiber. Then dry it even further under heat (put it into a pot over a fire, for example). Put this in with your kindling, and the charcloth will light as long as it catches a single spark.

The second vital ingredient to making a fire from scratch is patience. Once you get that ember going, you need to blow fresh air onto it—but not too much or you’ll blow out the ember. In fact, you may find that waving your hand, while less impressive, will provide a more appropriate (and probably less damp) flow of fresh air to the ember.

Starting a fire from a spark

The hardest part about starting a fire is getting fire. So if you don’t already have fire, getting a spark is the next best thing. Lightning? Hey, that’ll work. You’ll need some patience to wait for a storm…

More likely, you want steel. If you have steel, you can make a spark. The stereotypical flint and steel that adventurers carry works because of the steel, not the flint. Any good sharp mineral will work in place of flint, as long as it can shave steel. Flint is useful because it’s hard and can easily be made sharp.

Steel burns in contact with air; usually, we call this “rust”, but rapidly shaving flakes from steel will accelerate the process into sparking. Non-steel iron also rusts, but it’s too soft to easily accelerate into sparking. Hard steel is what you want: good carbonated iron. Hard steel flakes more easily and into tinier pieces. It’s been used since at least Roman times to make fire.

Often, you’ll have a piece of steel made into a curved shape for easy handling. You’ll hold the flint in one hand, and strike the steel against the flint.

Use the ember to flame the kindling. As the kindling burns, add heavier and heavier materials: small twigs, larger twigs, small branches, larger branches, and finally logs.

Take very good care of your kindling. Any moisture, even absorbed from laying it on the ground, will make starting a fire from an ember much more difficult, if not impossible.

Starting a fire by rubbing wood

Ancient fire drill

The method in this diagram will work if you build it. You will find it easier to notch out the sides where the drill holes are, to hold more kindling and charcloth, and more easily catch the ember.

Starting a fire using sticks and wood is very similar to starting a fire with a spark: it just takes longer to get the ember going. Once you’ve got the ember, you’ll build the fire slowly until you have a real fire. Often you’ll use charcloth, just as when sparking steel, to transform your hard-won ember into a flame. That’s often the hardest part. Unlike sparking, which puts the ember right into the kindling, when you rub sticks together you need to transfer the ember to the kindling.

  1. Prepare the fire lay, probably as a tipi or lean-to of twigs and light branches. This is where the final fire will be.
  2. Start the ember by rotating a stick of wood against a larger piece of wood.
  3. Transfer the ember to the kindling (use charcloth if you have it).
  4. Provide fresh air very slowly to the ember and build it into a flame.
  5. Transfer the burning kindling to the prepared fire lay.

Steps two through four require patience. Do it right, not fast, or you’ll have to do it twice.

The drill stick and the wood you’re drilling into need to be a light wood, and it needs to be very dry. Fresh wood won’t work: if you don’t have some wood you’ve been drying, find deadwood. Or, you could dry the wood in a fire… except you haven’t got one yet! The importance of keeping a fire burning at all times becomes clear.

Aspen, poplar, cedar, and willow are all traditionally good choices for wood. You want the wood to be soft. Dense woods will not form an ember as easily. You also want to avoid woods with liquid in them, such as pines: the sap will keep the wood from forming an ember. Take very good care of your drill and your fire board: never store them directly on the ground or otherwise expose them to moisture because, being very dry wood, they will suck that moisture up and will no longer form an ember as easily. Treat your fire kit as if it were the most expensive and fragile item in your possession!

If you’re pressed for materials and all you have is wood and kindling, use the simplest method, the one most commonly associated with starting a fire from wood: rubbing a straight stick’s point in a piece of wood. You want the point of the stick to be, well, pointed or rounded. Your drill should be relatively uniform in thickness from the top to the start of the point. If it tapers larger toward your hand, it will rotate more slowly, generating less friction. If it tapers smaller toward your hand, it’ll be harder to rotate and more prone to slipping and perhaps even breakage.2

You should also lubricate it toward the top. Lubricating it keeps you from rubbing your skin off by keeping the stick from slipping as you rub your hands against it. It also makes the top denser, which will keep it from heating up as much as the drill point. Lubricate it with something sticky, such as sap, soap, tar, or a thick grease.3 Don’t use any lubricant that will migrate down to the point—it will keep the fire from starting!

Drill evenly with a slight downward pressure, and drill constantly. You’ll probably find that your hands move down the drill as you rotate it; work out a method to walk your hands back up the drill as you keep rotating it, so that you can resume the necessary slight downward pressure.

Your drilling will create wood dust and the dust will form your ember, but if you can also get some charcloth around the drill it will help. If you can notch out a section of the board where you’ll be drilling into it, you’ll find it easier to get your kindling and charcloth close to the ember.

Eskimo fire bow

The block at the top of this sketch is probably a piece of rock for holding the drill steady as you draw the bow back and forth. The bottom block (not shown) will be the same as for a standard fire drill.

If you can build a bow drill, you’ll save a lot of work. This involves making a bow, and wrapping the string of the bow around your drill. Then, instead of rotating the drill by rubbing your hands against it, rotate the drill by pulling the bow back and forth in a sawing motion. The bow string will rotate the drill faster than you can with your hands—fast enough that you won’t be able to hold the drill down with your hands. You’ll need a piece of stone, metal, or hard wood with an indentation or hole in it to hold the drill steady and allow you to apply a light downward pressure.

It’s a good idea to make your fire when conditions are best for making a fire, which is to say when you least need a fire. Don’t wait until the mist rises or the rain starts or the dew falls. Build a fire in the afternoon when the air is dry and your kindling is, too. On the other hand, if you’re stuck in snow, build your fire when it’s so cold that all of the moisture is gone from the air. But take extra care to ensure that your fire-making equipment doesn’t get ice or snow on it: as soon as that ice or snow melts, it will quench your nascent fire.

I can’t stress patience enough. Rush it, and you’ll blow the ember out. Get anxious, and you won’t produce a smooth enough motion to get enough friction on a single point to start an ember going. Give up, and you’ll shiver through the night—if you survive.

Keep the fire burning

I wouldn’t be surprised if using lamps and torches for light was originally just an aftereffect of trying to keep a flame available. Try making fire using sticks and you’ll appreciate the importance of keeping a flame burning twenty-four hours. You’ll see a lot of examples on the web of people making fire in a few minutes. None of the examples are in the rain.

If you’re in a stationary camp or at home in your castle, however humble it might be, you almost always want to keep your fire burning once it’s started. You don’t need a roaring fire; all that’s necessary is enough red-hot wood or coal to relight the fire when needed. If possible, assign the task of keeping the fire burning to someone, such as a guard, who will often be near the fire. Part of the need for keeping a watch at night is to keep the fire burning. The punishment for letting the fire go out will be having to start it again from scratch.

If you’re traveling, don’t need to keep hidden, and can keep steady, light a candle in the morning’s fire. Store the candle in a ventilated container to protect against the wind, and carry it with you to start the night’s fire.

If you have a cart or carriage, consider putting some of the the hot charcoal from the morning’s fire into a coal scuttle or brazier, and carry it with you. Take enough so that the embers are still burning at day’s end, or continually feed it during the day.

If you have a wagon train, transport the whole fire in one of the wagons—don’t keep it flaming, but keep the embers hot.

Got cigar smokers in your group? Consider transporting the fire by cigar. Someone will need to keep the cigar burning by continually puffing on it, and you’ll need to light new cigars throughout the day as the old ones burn down. You might keep two or three lit at a time in case someone lets their cigar burn out. This method will require kindling, since you’re basically carrying a continually-burning ember with you.

Long after the invention of central heating the importance of continual fire lingers. Most people have forgotten why, but “keep the home fires burning” still means keeping a house in good order and ready for habitation. There are no rules specifically for starting a fire—that would be far too piddly for Gods & Monsters. But starting a fire is a common enough occurrence in fantasy gaming that describing it is an easy way to add some fun immersion to your game.

  1. Which is why modern matches are called “safety” matches: to differentiate them from the dangerous ones.

  2. A little tapering smaller might be useful to make it rotate faster, but since few if any examples taper smaller, I suspect it doesn’t help enough to offset the difficulties.

  3. Should the grease be a non-flammable grease? Look, you’re trying to start a fire. Having part of your kit spontaneously burst into flames is not a problem to be avoided. You should be so lucky!

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