A figure holding a torch in a dark tunnel

Light and Darkness | 5E+

  • Reading time:13 mins read

This article was originally found on the Grinning Rat Publications Medium account. It has been brought over and made free for viewers. Note: Some ideas and considerations may be out of date.

Imagine the following scenario:

You’ve written up a dark adventure that takes the party deep into the unknown depths underground. The party finds themselves staring at the yawning portal of a cave that descends into pitch blackness. As you’re explaining how the shadows of the cavern dance against the reflected torchlight in the hand of the human warlock, the elven player suddenly asks a question.

“Hey, DM? I can totally see in the dark with my darkvision. So I don’t see any of this, right?”

You watch as the half-elf bard agrees, asking the same question. Then the dwarf. Then the tiefling. Then the aasimar. Then the Drow character’s player reminds you they have superior darkvision. You feel your chest tighten as you shuffle through your pages and pages of darkened caves, hidden traps, monsters waiting in the shadows. You ‘um’ and ‘ah’ while you desperately look for some solution to not make this adventure a total walk in the park.

As you do, the human warlock puts a hand up. Your eyes glimmer with hope, only for them to say:

“Yeah, I also have the devil’s sight invocation, so is that like superior darkvision or is it… like, better?”

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The Problem with Sight in 5E

The mechanics of sight in DND 5E suffer from an issue that pervades many of the rules in the system. Namely, the designers sought to correct some of the confusion from previous editions and ended up over-correcting to the point of the mechanic being almost useless in certain parties.

If the example story above didn’t highlight the issue, allow me to explain.

In DND 5E, two-thirds of the races presented in the Player’s Handbook offer Darkvision, which reads:

“You have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.”

Certain subraces allow for a mechanic called Superior Darkvision, which has the same effect as normal darkvision, except that “your darkvision has a radius of 120 feet”. To make matters even more complicated, warlocks have access to abilities at certain levels called Eldritch Invocations — one of which is Devil’s Sight which reads:

You can see normally in darkness, both magical and nonmagical, to a distance of 120 feet.

Besides the fact that the invocation is worded in a way that is fairly difficult to parse how it actually works, this essentially means that every single race in DND 5E has the potential ability to see in the dark — some being able to see through magical darkness to a distance of 120 feet!

So a lot of people can see in the dark. Why is this a problem? A lot of people don’t seem to think its much of one and if the game designers put it in the game, it must be at least playtested right? It can’t be that bad!

Allow me to go through some of the common defenses for why darkvision isn’t a big deal and why I disagree with them.

Darkvision only allows a creature to see in darkness as though it were dim light. Dim light gives disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks, so it’s not that big of an improvement over the alternative.

There are some instances where the task is impossible for the party to succeed on, no matter how hard they try. Tasks like trying to make out something in pitch darkness when you have no light source and cannot see is an example of a task that is fundamentally impossible to succeed on. If you can’t roll at all, that is infinitely worse than being able to roll with disadvantage.

Not every person in the party is going to have darkvision.

And for those who don’t have darkvision, they are constantly going to be the odd one out for having to pull out a torch or lantern. In fact, they are almost always going to be holding the party simply due to the fact that they either require light (which may accidentally give away their location) or simply fumbling around in the dark unless a fellow party member leads them around.

Darkvision only really matters in combat anyway, and by that point it doesn’t matter if you’ve got lanterns and torches out.

Seeing out to 60ft in darkness is a huge benefit to anyone traveling through a trapped dungeon, a perilous set of tunnels, or any other situation where one wrong step will land you in trouble or worse. Any sort of surprises the DM wants to spring on the characters also ends up being spoiled by being able to see them from an entire room or two away.

So how do we actually fix this? There are multitudes of systems out there to gauge light, track shadows, manage equipment, and hundreds more in the same wheelhouse. But those systems can prove to be cumbersome and require the party to all buy-in to it — often having to implicitly agree to another layer of resource management.

My recommendation? Just get rid of darkvision.

John Maeda: “The simplest way to achieve simplicity is through thoughtful reduction.”

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Getting Rid of Darkvision

Removing the darkvision mechanic and reserving it for the absolute fringe cases is a simple and effective way of adding far more importance to light and shadow in your 5E games.

Think about it: unless a character is deliberately from a culture or species that lives 100% of the time underground, they will have to depend on stocking up on torches, lanterns, oil, and other methods of illumination — all of which come in decent enough supply to not be a massive hinderence, but enough that you can introduce interesting obstacles that would otherwise be of no concern.

If a party cannot see in the dark, what happens when they come across an underground lake they must swim across?

Does a party attempt to travel the wilderness roads in darkness not to draw attention to themselves, despite the risk of getting lost in the woods?

When a party defeats a camp of bandits, do they fill their last few pounds of inventory with gold? Or with precious torches and oil found in the bandit’s stores?

We can also, by the same perspective of those who say having darkvision is not a major benefit, say that removing darkvision is not a major detriment. If the rule adds little to the gameplay, then it also harms little in its removal.

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What to Keep in Mind When Removing Darkvision

There are a few recommendations when running games that exclude darkvision:

1. There are some races of characters that make sense to have a darkvision trait.

Drow and Deep Gnomes are two subraces that spend the majority of their lives living underground and in dark conditions. These two subraces, along with other species of creatures that live underground and in areas with little to no light, make sense to have darkvision. Not superior darkvision, but darkvision nonetheless.

2. When introducing creatures that have darkvision, have it be special.

That being said, when you’re introducing characters that are drow or deep gnomes, focus on their ability to see in the dark. Introduce it as something that is inherently alien to the party — like breathing in water or flying through the air. Have the character watch or follow the party, ushering warnings or tips through the shadows — either acting as a guardian angel or a nameless, formless threat from beyond their vision.

3. Allow ample opportunity for acquiring sources of light (outside of caverns and dungeons).

If the party wants to spend some time in town purchasing lanterns, torches, oil, and rags — let them. Encourage it, even. Your goal as a DM is not to deliberately make the players have a bad time; its to provide a challenge for the players to overcome. However, make sure the party is aware that once out in the darkest reaches of the world, their stockpile is often the only thing they can rely on.

4. Create more obstacles that require the use of light — then threaten those resources with other obstacles.

In the previous section, I gave some examples of how to push the party outside their comfort zone when it comes to light and sight. Make sure to press these often if the game allows for it. Rather than the party feeling a cool breeze in a cavern, have it be a strong breeze that threatens to blow the torches or lanterns out. Have torches create smoke and a choking smell, attracting other denizens of the dark towards the party. Allow lanterns and torches to be ruined when submerged in water, or to accidentally start fires when attached to people and obstacles. A general note, however: don’t constantly try to put out their fires — enough to keep them on their toes, but not so much that light management becomes the focus of the game.

5. Introduce creatures that are repelled by the light.

If every member of the party is carrying a torch or lantern, give them opportunities to use those tools offensively. Some creatures are perhaps repelled or even harmed by the light — make these creatures appear between situations of despair and desperation to give the party a sense of accomplishment. In other words, just as the party is woefully unprepared for areas of total darkness, there are likely opposing creatures that are unprepared to be faced with fire and light.

There are other resources in DND 5E that can make a big difference in whether they are tracked (and more specifically, how they are tracked). I plan to cover more of those in this series, but as for next time I’ll be covering something that may end up taking a few articles to talk about: the problem of race in DND.

Thanks for reading!