Ask Angry: Seeing in the Dark

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Do you have a question for The Angry GM! Well, because people can’t get it right, I had to set up a separate page with instructions. About how to send a f$&%ing e-mail. Ready How to Ask Angry to learn how to submit a question.

You can call me Al. I really hate to even ask you this but it keeps coming up like a plague. Would you please for the love of balanced rpgs discuss why Darkvision is not the most powerful, overpowered, racial trait ever in D&D 5.0 or explain why it is? DM’s are giving up to 3 stat bonuses or a feat or sometimes two of your choice to balance freaking Darkvision for races that do not have it. Wow, I can see in black, white and shades of grey for 60 whole feet so I break the game WTF?

I will call you Al, but if you call me Betty, I’ll f$&%ing kill you. Got it?

Now, when someone sends me a question, the first thing I do is try to parse the question down to its hidden, deeper, inner meaning. There’s usually a reason someone asks a question and its rarely stated in the question. Hell, the person asking often doesn’t quite recognize the “real” source of the problem. But this one has me a little baffled. I’m not sure I understand where this question is ACTUALLY coming from. It’s very clear that Al has some serious, SERIOUS fury about darkvision. Or rather about not darkvision. Or about racial abilities. I’m not even sure.

As near as I can tell, Al seems pissed off that the races that DON’T have darkvision (presumably primarily humans) get bonus feats and bonus stats. And Al has decided that these bonus feats and stats are there to balance out the singular ability darkvision. So, let’s start there.

Whatever edition of D&D you look at, darkvision is NOT the sum total of what makes elves and dwarves different than humans. Each race gets a pile of bonuses. And, by the era of 5E, it was ALWAYS bonuses, never tradeoffs. Which, in itself is kind of interesting. Dwarves and elves, for example, get additional weapon proficiencies, skill bonuses, resistances to particular game effects, and so on. All of these things together – along with darkvision – represent the full benefit of playing a member of certain race over any other race. Some of these abilities are universally useful, like ability score bonuses. Some of them are situational and vary in how common they are, like skill bonuses in particular situations or particular resistances. And some are most beneficial when used in synergy with certain classes. Elven stealth and perception bonuses are exceptionally useful for rogues and rangers. But elven weapon proficiencies are kind of useless for fighters who already get those proficiencies.

If you look at the way 5E is constructed, you get a sort of rough picture of equivalences used to balance all of this s$&% out. A feat is a slate of somewhat related bonuses – some situational, some more universal – right? And a feat is equivalent is roughly equivalent to either a single +2 to one ability score or to a +1 bonus to two different ability scores. The rules tell us as much. And that is how we can see the “math” behind racial balance.

Assuming all of the races are ROUGHLY equally powerful, we see that everything a race gets is roughly equal to three feats or three ability score increases. One of those presumably derives from the +2 bonus to one Ability Score that every race gets (other than humans). The second one is half swallowed by a +1 bonus to one Ability Score. So, all of the racial abilities are basically worth one-and-a-half-feats. How do we know? Because humans get THREE Ability Score increases. They get a +1 to six ability scores. What’s REALLY interesting is that the variant human seems to lose about a half to two-thirds of a feat. But I suspect that’s to balance out the fact that being able to freely choose a feat – most of which are very broadly useful or will always be chosen for character synergy – is actually more valuable than the mixed bag of racial abilities that include situational and non-synergizing abilities.

If we balance out for that, we can say that all of the racial abilities are roughly worth a feat taken together. That a +1 bonus to one ability score is roughly equivalent to a single skill proficiency. And we arrive at a rough equivalence that a racial choice is worth two-and-a-bit feats. Of course, none of this is hard and fast. It’s all fuzzy. And that’s just the way it has to be. After all, many of the abilities are incomparable. In truth, the VALUE of ANY given ability, be it a +1 to an ability score, a skill proficiency, four extra weapon proficiencies, resistance to sleep and charm, the value of any of those abilities is going to vary wildly. So, all of this “math” is just rough ballpark and it was never meant to work out perfectly.

The takeaway though is that the premise of Al’s question – that Darkvision is somehow implied to be worth MULTIPLE feats – is absurd. No one considers Darkvision to be worth MULTIPLE feats or ability score increases. At best, it is worth a fraction of a feat – if such comparisons can even be meaningfully made.

By the way, if you’re curious about Pathfinder (and, by extension, D&D 3.5), you should check out the Advanced Race Guide. That book – which is a butt-ton of fun – goes about the arduous process of balancing out all sorts of different racial abilities against each other based on point values. Again, you’re going to find that Darkvision isn’t worth sixty bajillion points.

But I didn’t answer this question because I wanted to talk about racial ability balancing and feat equivalences and incomparables. I decided to tackle this question because darkvision is an interesting subject and I figured that, since I couldn’t figure out what the hell was ACTUALLY going on in the question, I could talk about vision and darkvision in just about any context I wanted. And there’s a few contexts from which darkvision is interesting. First of all, in the broader context of vision and light. And second of all, in the context of how undervalued darkvision is. And third of all, how much of a massive pain in the a$& it is to have races that can see in the dark and races that can’t in the same party.

Lighting and visibility is one of those problems like ammo, encumbrance, and food and water. It’s one of those things that most GMs don’t make a big deal out of. Lighting is a pain in the a$&. You have these rules for different light sources and the range at which they provide light and how much light they provide. Which is fine and dandy, except that that doesn’t really mirror how people USE lighting in their games. Most games handle light like this. The GM asks “who has the light source?” There’s a brief argument over who needs both hands to do useful things and then finally someone says they are carrying the light. And then no one ever bothers about light again. Once the party has a light source, the dungeon is lit. The PCs can see however far the GM cares to describe. And that’s it. At most tables, torches will burn forever even.

Of course, if you’re playing at one of those virtual tables with dynamic lighting, its completely different. But I’m not talking about those people.

The point is, no GM and no player wants to be bothered with remembering where the light source is, keeping track of the distance between the light source and any given character or creature, and tracking the time for which a light source is burning. And that’s on top of the fact that every light source is f$&%ing different.

And that’s why D&D makes it pretty easy to ignore lighting. In 4E, sunrods were super light sources that were freely available. In 3E, an everburning torch was about 100 gp, if I remember correctly. In 5E, light is a simple cantrip that every wizard takes. And that’s it. The point is, at any table where lighting and visibility IS a thing (because the GM is a stickler), the solutions are trivial so they don’t remain a thing for long. And any table where lighting and visibility ISN’T a thing, well, it just isn’t.

Now, the reason why no one wants to bother with lighting and vision is because it’s needlessly overdetailed. The difference between different light sources, the rules for visibility, all of that crap. It isn’t COMPLICATED, per se. It’s just that it varies so much from light source to light source. Quick, what’s the difference between a torch and a hooded lantern and a bullseye lantern. Do you know? What’s the radius of light on each one? How long does each one burn? What about a light spell? Daylight? A bonfire? A set of streamlined rules and simple conditions could make lighting more of a thing. It’s kind of like how encumbrance is a nice idea, but a pain in the a$& because of the amount of mathematical shuffling required.

The thing is, there IS a lot of value in lighting. It’s a necessary component for stealth rules, line of sight rules, and so on. But, beyond that, there’s a LOT of problems with visibility and lighting that get swept aside. The thing is, if you’re carrying a light source through a dark space, you’re visible from a long, LONG way away. Everything can see you coming. If you’re tromping through a dungeon with a torch, it’s almost impossible to get the drop on anything that can see. Because everything can see the light from your torch coming. Even around corners. Or around the cracks in doors. And because most of the creatures that live in underground spaces like dungeons can see in the dark, that means absolutely everything in the world that lives underground has a distinct advantage over the PCs.

But an oft-forgotten aspect of lighting is how dangerous it is to go tromping through the dark. See, if you’re like me and you’re a stickler for lighting, you eventually run into a few situations with your players. The first is the group of players that realizes how visible light makes them and decides not to have a light source, leaving the humans in the dark. They all join hands and wander through the dungeon together. And that’s a great way to end up with a broken leg. Or worse. See, when you can’t see AT ALL, something as simple as an uneven flagstone in the floor can catch you by surprise and lead to a very dangerous fall. You don’t see it coming and because of the disorientation, you can’t brace yourself from the fall adequately, and you can end up with a serious injury. That’s one of the major reasons why people didn’t travel by night, especially over trackless terrain. It was dangerous.

And then you have the issue of stealth and scouting. See, if you’re in an underground compound and you’re a human, it’s almost impossible for you to scout or sneak because you need a light source to effectively scout. And that means you’re visible to everything. That sort of ruins stealth.

What it comes down to is this: confronting creatures that can see in the dark is one of the deadliest things you can do. At least, it should be. Going down into a completely dark cave to hunt orcs should be absolutely f$&%ing terrifying for anything that has to carry a light source.

And D&D doesn’t give a f$&%. D&D just doesn’t think darkvision is that big a deal. And most GMs don’t either. Because the idea of different creatures with different senses in the same environment is a pain in the $& to keep track of and adjudicate. Want proof? Why does magical darkness ALSO spoil darkvision? Where are the spells and magical items that shed light only for the bearer? I mean, come on, where’s Draco Malfoy’s Hand of Glory? Where’s the light spell that only sheds light for allies of the caster? D&D is actually really uneven about whether lighting and variable senses matter.

So, what IS the use of lighting, then? If we’re going to sweep most of the big visibility issues under the rug and worry about them only when there are specific reasons (like stealth), why bother worrying about lighting at all? Well, lighting makes it easy to handle dungeon exploration because it puts limits on how far the PCs can see. That is to say, when they are in room one and peer down the hallway to see what’s down there, the GM can use the limit of their vision as a handy way to decide how far to describe out to. The shroud of darkness provides a convenient fog of war for exploration.

See, lighting provides the same sort of benefit to the game that the dungeon itself does. It provides a constraint. The war games that D&D grew out of were played on sand tables and other surfaces in which the entire battlefield was visible to all participants. Just as RPGs represented a downgrading in scale from armies to single warriors, so too did the dungeon (and the lighting issues that came along with it) represent a downgrading in scope from entire battlefields to single encounters. And when wilderness exploration came back into the game, hex-based exploration provided a similarly constraint. The hex on a wilderness map represents the scope of your perception in the wide world.

The thing is, if you ask the average person “how far can a human being see,” you get a lot of different answers. And the reason is because we’re rarely in situations where we can see to the limit of our eyesight. Very rarely do we have uninterrupted, endless lines of sight. And even when we do, such as when we are on the ocean or in a great open plain, the curvature of the Earth itself puts more of a constraint on how far we can see than our own eyes. Realistically, unless something is very tall, we can only see a thing about three miles away because after that, it drops below the horizon. If you’re on top of a high hill or a tall tower, this extends to about 12 miles. And we can recognize a human-sized thing as a distinct human-sized thing from about 2 miles away. Though it’s impossible to make out any real details at that distance.

But, as for light, we are VERY good at seeing light. In the darkness, we can see a light the size of a candle-flame from up to 30 miles away (assuming we have a line of sight to it). So, if something is coming and it has a light source, we’ll almost certainly know it. With or without our own darkvision. And light has a wonderful tendancy to diffuse around corners and spread through small openings like keyholes and door cracks.

What’s really weird about all of this is we have such a terrible sense of how light works in RPGs. And that actually comes from the weirdly detailed, oddly overcomplicated, and yet also weirdly vague rules about light. When we say that torchlight extends (say) 30 feet of bright light and 30 more feet of shadows, we tend to view those as absolutes. We imagine that 60 feet away, there is a wall of darkness. But, the thing is, we could conceivably light reflect off the right surface from much farther away. Like, say, a suit of armor.

What’s the point of all of this rambling? Well, it’s just this: the value of darkvision and visibility in general in RPGs varies HIGHLY depending on who’s running the game and how much thought they give it. But, in the average game, darkvision actually isn’t that valuable. Partly, its value is spoiled by the fact that, unless everyone has it, the party is going to need a light source and those light sources are pretty much equally as useful as darkvision because most GMs treat light as a binary thing: either you can see or you can’t. Done and done. That said, a clever party with a darkvision-endowed scout CAN gain some value from it. The trouble is everything they might want to scout also has darkvision, so the element of surprise is situational at best.

It’s a shame. Darkvision SHOULD be terrifying in the hands of the enemy. And honestly, it’s such a pain in the a$& when it MIGHT BE in the hands of SOME PCs that it’s probably better to just take it away from all the PC races and even everything out.

26 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Seeing in the Dark

  1. I recently started a campaign of my own writing, set entirely in the Underdark. I told the players that they should make characters to go into the Underdark. Two out of seven chose to have darkvision. The ones who chose darkvision had to be sent outside during character creation because they were almost screaming at the ones who didn’t.

    So now, they go everywhere with a huge target on their heads, and the wizard (who chose a darkvision half-orc) is really hoping to get some kind of mass darkvision spell in the near future, because when they reach the drow fortress they have to go into, walking around with a torch is going to scream “we don’t belong here”.

    Ah well, they will learn eventually!

  2. I won’t lie, halfway through the article I was expecting some ingenious, groundbreaking new Angry Rule about how to deal with lightning, visibility, and stealth, in a simple yet effective manner. Like, you know, your usual.

    Great stuff, though.

  3. I’m currently running a game where only one of five characters lacks darkvision – the human rogue. He’s a new player and having to deal with his inability to see got unpleasantly frustrating for him, so I threw him a bone and gave him a pair of Goggles of Night as treasure. To balance this out, since dim light imposes disadvantage on Perception checks, I’ve applied that to ranged combat as well: ranged attacks are made with disadvantage, and anything making a Dex save against a ranged spell has advantage so long as it can see the caster. With a ranger, a wizard, and a sorcerer in the party, they still end up wanting a light source more often than not once they’ve finished their scouting.

  4. I’ve always treated it as darkvision working only when you’re in the dark. Which means if you’re in a party with others who do not have darkvision, and they’re carrying a torch, then your eyes would adapt to the light and you wouldn’t have darkvision until the torch was out.

    So darkvision is equivalent to carrying a torch. Except that it’s more stealthy, but less useful if your party has non-darkvision members.

    • wow, how come i’ve never tought of that? I usually describe my scenes giving details to what is in plain sight, dim light and in the dark and let my players decide if they can see it or not (when some of them have dark vision). I also roll d6 x level “meta-gaming” dammage the instant I can legitimately call their bull$hit, so they don’t dare cheat xD

      Guess I got something better now, thanks ^^ (but I will keep my meta-gaming dammage)

  5. “DM’s are giving up to 3 stat bonuses or a feat or sometimes two of your choice to balance freaking Darkvision for races that do not have it.”

    He’s suggesting he knows of DMs giving people additional bonuses on top of the game’s existing balance.

    Al is going to need his own blog if he hopes to discuss the types of games these DMs are running where darkvision would prove so valuable. Almost certainly the correct solution for these DMs would be removing darkvision rather than trying to buff everything else.

    • I think this bit of hyperbole was based more on examining racial traits, ignoring the ones they didn’t like, and concluding that non-darkvision races received substantially more mechanical benefits to compensate for the lack of all-powerful darkvision.

      Mostly because the alternative seems even sillier.

  6. Dark vision should be huge advantage to adventurers who go into ancient dungeons and kill monsters for their treasure. Mostly it gets ignored because it is a hassle. I also think that creatures that can see in the dark would still use light. With most dark vision being 60ft and not being able to read in the dark civilized creatures would light up their cities. Another use would be aecurity. If you had a long tunnel, say 200ft, you could put a lit area at the beggening and guards at the far end and then when the pc’s step into the light they would get seen by guards and hit by arrows.

    • Good points. Also fires are a good source of heat, and surely most humanoid races (orcs, goblins etc) would also value the comfort of heat? Burning torches can also be used to scare away vermin, animals and other unintelligent monsters.

    • Back in the day it wasn’t darkvision but rather infravision aka being able to see heat. Most DMs however messed that up worse than darkvision and so it was changed to straight darkvision as it was easier for DMs and players alike.

  7. I think this is why I like the Game Torchbearer and its lighting rules(which goes into its turn based rules) You have torch, candle and lantern. They each have different ranges of people it can affect and diffierent amount of times it will last. If you are in the dark everything becomes harder,and you can’t do certain things, If you are in Dim light everything becomes harder. Very simplified way of handling things but it works because everyone instantly gets it after awhile.

    • On the other hand it introduces an unneeded “make rolls for your equipment and hotel even if you have money” mini-game that has no point (especially when “emulating” old school play) except to create a death spiral… I guess it evens all out in the end. 😉 (tongue in cheek)

      • Money is not money. When you loot a dungeon you aren’t collecting modern currency. Also remember that the value of that currency was based on the metal it was made from which in turn had its price fluctuating. So when you go to settle up your tab you are essentially bartering on services you have already received (unless you went to the market or temple). What was the price of that dinner you had? Well, that depends on how scarce food is.

        Add to that the fact that you are rolling resources, which represents your overall wealth. Sure you can augment that with loot, but you don’t have to (Unless you have resources 0). So again this goes back to an economy where you are trying to pay a fluctuating price based on what equates to dividends plus commodities.

        In the end though, that subsystem is all about creating tension and the need to keep adventuring. Certainty of paying X price out of a book does not create that same tension or hard choices (Do I stay at the hotel and chance not being able to pay or should I stay at a flophouse and chance not fully recovering?). So yeah, its supposed to make you uncomfortable. I’d guess that’s why you don’t like it.

  8. I’ve been enjoying my current all-humans campaign for exactly this reason. Granted, I’m guilting of forgetting about reflections from outside the main light radius, but my players are being forced to nervously watch their flasks of lamp oil dwindle, forego using their versatile weapons two-handed because they have to hold a light, and they’ve been ambushed constantly because everything can see them coming a mile away (which I rule as giving the monsters advantage on their Stealth since they have so much easy time to prepare).

  9. Nice article, I like the point about reflections, thats not something I have thought about before.

    I remember one game I ran where one of the players wanted to hide behind a darkness spell without actually being in the affected area. I said that isnt how light works, but she insisted that if there is darkness between you and a lit area thhe darkness will block your view of the well lit area and a very long argument insued.

    Only gamers can argue so vehemently about something so easy to disprove.

    • She was right, though. Magical darkness isn’t penetrated by light the way normal darkness is, or the spell wouldn’t work at all, much less as described. And if light can’t penetrate the darkness, it is, for purposes of visibility, a solid object.

      The alternative is the light does penetrate the area, in which case you’d new able to see things within it as shadows against light on the other side, if nothing else.

      Alternatively, the globe of darkness is created by lensing light around the area, rather than absorbing it. But if that were the case it wouldn’t look like a glove of darkness. It’d just be invisible from outside.

      So, basically, the only way it works is as a magical field that absorbs all light that enters it, which would, indeed, block vision through it as there would be no light reaching your eyes through it.

  10. Good article.
    This is pretty much my experience with darkvision and lighting as well.

    Few thing that I discovered during my time GMing underground adventures or adventures in the darkness that I want to add into the conversation section.

    Combat in the darkness limits ranged combat heavilty. Average dark vision is 60ft, so, spells and ranged attacks beyond that become useless, assuming it’s two groups with dark vision fighting each other.

    A character with a bullseye lantern can technically see further then a group with Darkvision, but he would be the target of attention. Still, You could have 1 character with a bullseye lantern and several of his allies behind him readying ranged actions. The enemy group with darkvision could target the lightbearer but not his allies, or atleast they wouldn’t know about them right away.

    Playing with light and darkvison can possibly lead to interesting combat scenarios and strategies.

  11. I had this issue with our most recent 5e campaign. Over and over again. The usual mixed raced party problem, some with dark vision, some without. The halfling rogue didn’t have dark vision so the elf wizard ended up doing all the scouting ahead (as the PC with the next best Stealth ability).

    I have often felt that group of adventurers tramping round a dungeon in heavy armour, waving a torch around are going to telegraph their location to any creatures they come across. But I don’t want every encounter to start with the PCs being ambushed. Then the game gets bogged down in “light management” strategies and processes, and endless sneak rolls. I still haven’t settled on a solution that I find satisfying in terms of verisimilitude and ease/speed of play.

    • I note that Out of the Abyss had the terrain lit by some magical light source. Possibly to mitigate this exact issue?

      Perhaps absolute darkness needs to be rare so that it becomes an interesting variety.

  12. Super nuanced topic! Awsome! I’m running a game in the fossilized rule set of the Rules Cyclopedia, when Darkvision was called Infravision. Well, it’s more accurate to say they aren’t comparable or the same thing at all… So maybe I have no valid input for this discussion heh… But I can say that In the end, keeping track of the duration and ranges of light sources shouldn’t be any worse than tracking the exact same information concerning spells or class features. As with all things the DM does, this requires knowing… Knowing how long it takes to get down a corridor, or from one area of a setting to the next.. knowing how big rooms are… Once you have such info in your head, and internalized, it’s easy to think to yourself (and note) “their torch will be out when they get there”, or “they’ll only see half this room when they come in”, or “they can’t see the roof here without dark vision”, or “If they bring a light in here this thing will see them”. The more you know your setting, the less difficult it is to deal with these things, in my prep-obsessed opinion anyway. And it never has to be exact, it’s not like the players are going to crunch the numbers, but it’s good for immersion that they know lighting has consequence. Thanks again for the wisdom angry.

  13. In HARP, Elves get Night Vision, which allows them to see in open spaces at night, but not underground. Only Dwarves and Gnomes get Dark Vision, and they see in black & white at a limited range. That might be an answer to balance things. Some monsters also have Dark Vision, but like dwarves only black & white, so they would still need light for some things. Only Demonic Vision allows to see perfectly in the dark, but that’s only avaliable to, well, you guessed.

    Also, the talents(sort of feat) Dark Vision Greater and Lesser as well as Night Vision are avaliable to be bought by anyone(although it’s kind of expensive).

    Just dropping my two cents for you D&D people.

  14. I’m building a World of Darkness Chronicle (Changeling: The Lost), so the use of light is quite important to me, and I’m glad to see some reminders from Angry and commentators how light and dark work in the real world. I’ve got a case where I thought of my own strategic use for lighting people might find illustrative for some circumstances:

    This morning, I was contemplating things to do with one of my players whose character concept is looking a little too murder hobo. (Calling this character “Mr. S.” for now.) He said Mr. S views himself as a tool for someone worthy to use. This strikes me as the stuff of horror game antagonists, not protagonists. I’m going to talk with him about redesigning the character, but if he insists on Mr. S. as is, I’m going to proceed with a one-on-one in-character interview, playing as one of my NPCs.

    The plan: My NPC is going to offer Mr. S a meal at a bar at night in a booth so they can chat. Next to a window. The bar is well-lit. The exterior is not. Those of you who understand how vision works under those circumstances probably know where this is going. I’m sure many of you figured it out at “window.”

    For those who haven’t figured it out: He’s going to have a sniper aiming at Mr. S’s head. If my NPC concludes that Mr. S is a threat to the freehold or the mortal community, he gives the signal. The sniper can see into the bar easily, but those in the light don’t have their eyes adjusted to night vision, and thus can’t see the sniper. The goal of the interview: Make my player prove that Mr. S has hidden depths and can be sympathized with, and is not obviously a serial killer in the making. He at least has to be able to fake sanity.

    • To be honest, it sounds like you just don’t like his character concept, and you’re planning to force his hand through either adding depth that matters only to you and not him, or killing his character so he’ll make a “good” one next time.

      We all get something different out of games like these. Just because this player doesn’t value character depth and role-playing as much as you do doesn’t mean he’s wrong, it just means he values other things more. Unless it’s proving enough of a distraction to ruin the game for the rest of the table, you should leave it be. And if it is a distraction, you should either have a table discussion about it, or your players should be using their characters to influence his character’s actions.

      There’s no wrong way to have fun.

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