Methanol – wood alcohol – is a clear liquid used as a solvent, an antifreeze, and a fuel. It has the uncanny property of burning without smoke and without color. In daylight, a methanol fire is effectively invisible. Let’s talk about how weird this stuff is and how to use it in games.
Methanol fires aren’t just invisible – they burn as hot as propane. Because methanol is miscible with water, if there’s enough of the stuff, throwing water on the fire may not extinguish it. The methanol may just mix with the water and keep burning. You have to keep diluting the methanol until it can no longer burn.
It’s also a poison. 10 mL of methanol (a quarter-shot) will make you blind. 30 mL can be fatal, though it usually takes about 100 mL (a teacup's worth) to kill someone. Assassins be warned – some folks are resistant to methanol poisoning. Methanol is absorbed through the skin, too, but dosages need to about triple for the same effect. Inhaling the vapors is also dangerous, and walking into a room full of methanol (it smells like booze) will bother your eyes and nose. Methanol poisoning looks a lot like drunkenness, even down to the flushed face.
But let’s talk race cars. Methanol is used as a fuel in some auto racing circuits. One advantage of methanol is that when it burns it doesn’t produce leaping flames and clouds of black smoke. Firefighters can more easily see what’s going on at the center of the fire – even if they can’t always see where the fire is.
(fire starts at 1:08)
Methanol would make a great trap in a dungeon. Douse your PCs with it, light them on fire, and describe how their flesh is blistering and feels like it’s on fire, even though there are neither flames nor smoke. Those may take a round or two to arrive, once the PCs’ hair and clothes start burning.
It also doesn’t have to be a deliberate trap. Methanol could be a super fun hazard. A magical font in a dungeon spills an unfamiliar liquid onto the flagstones. The room reeks of booze, making your head spin. A single spark could make the whole place go up invisibly, possibly with the PCs in it. You can get a similar effect aboard a starship with an accidental leak of a fuel or coolant with similar properties.
Or maybe a cask of methanol transported on a ship the PCs are traveling on was mishandled. The cask leaked, and now the timbers of the hold are soaked with the stuff. An errant spark sets the hold ablaze. The first flames are dim and blue, almost invisible even in the darkness of the hold. As the timbers begin to catch, the flames turn orange and smoke appears. This may even trigger a further adventure should the PCs discover the passenger transporting the cask is an assassin who doses his targets’ drinks with methanol.