Dungeon Masters: Just a Little Attention to Darkness Pays Off

My favorite sightseeing stops include caves and inactive mines. Cave tours inevitably include tales of the cave’s original explorers. I imagine myself in their place, delving by a feeble glow from a lantern, discovering underground landscapes and traces of people and creatures long gone, and I relish the feelings of wonder and mystery. My love of dungeons seems inevitable. In sprawling undergrounds, even modern lights don’t reach far before darkness engulfs their glow. I gaze into midnight shafts and feel a shiver much like leaning over a rail on the 95th floor. These tours always pause to extinguish all the lights and give a taste of complete darkness, but not before making sure no one feels close to panic. Like heights, spiders, and snakes, darkness triggers a primal fear that we share.

As played by most groups, the Dungeons & Dragons rules for light work like this: When the party starts their descent into darkness, the dungeon master asks what they have for light. Perhaps everyone has darkvision and that’s that. More likely, the group includes a human, so someone fires a torch or casts light and then no one pays attention to the subject until the next dungeon.

Through most of my experience as a DM, I played that way. The same goes for the multitude of DMs I’ve played with. After all, the rules as written make careful attention to light seem like a chore. How can anyone be expected to keep track of who carries a light and how that glow interacts with the senses and positions of various characters? You need a computer for that. My scrapheap of article-ideas-never-written includes a post describing light as a thing everyone ignores because it never adds fun. Everyone would have ignored that post too.

Surely tense dungeon-survival sessions can bring fun. In those campaigns, parties struggle to escape the dungeon with their loot before their supplies of torches and oil run out. But most D&D players favor heroism over such grit. Besides, D&D gives so many characters darkvision that calling out the stumbling humans and halflings seems pointless.

I’ve changed. When I run dungeons now, I pay some attention to light without getting mired in detail. The benefits of a little consideration surprised me.

As a party explores a dark space, I pay attention to just one thing: about how far they can see past their front row. For most groups, that’s 60-feet from the character with darkvision closest to the lead. And then when I describe, I mention what they can’t see because of the cover of darkness. When possible, I describe any sounds that come from that shrouded space. Imagine the scratches, the whispered malevolent voices, the creak of doors, the drip of water. Sometimes perceptive characters see glowing eyes that suddenly wink out in the depths. If the party recklessly chases ahead into the unseen, they deserve the panicked moment when monsters close from every direction. When I draw maps as players explore, my lines for the walls end where the darkness starts.

That small regard pays off with a sense of tension, atmosphere, and mystery.

In cramped dungeon rooms, light hardly matters, but in long corridors, underground cathedrals, vaulting caverns darkness easily swallows the feeble glow of a lantern. Darkvision only makes 60 feet seem like dim light. Beyond that who knows what spies the party’s glow and clamor?

10 thoughts on “Dungeon Masters: Just a Little Attention to Darkness Pays Off

    1. Mick Eye

      The same here, with the transition to Covid playing via roll20. In fact, the players said they loved the imperfect information and slow revelation of map features. When the party got separated it was actually scary to the players.

      Because of the size limits of sensible (in-world-realism and computer limitations) maps, I’ve also downgraded the range of darkvision in my game to 30′.

  1. Mike Bailey

    Yes to this article, plus the fact that if you have a light source, you can be seen from very far away (even miles if conditions allow) by denizens of the deep. Makes it very hard to surprise enemies unless one is carefully shielding the light, and one is not in a large open space.

  2. ThrorII

    I’ve never liked D&D’s light rules. I’ve used a torch, and you’re lucky to see more than shadowy shapes 10′ away. I’ve gone into caves with a bright LED lantern, and it did NOT illuminate to 30 feet….more like 15′.

    Allowing for the unlikely sight range of D&D illumination, I always track torch & lantern durations.

  3. Toimu

    Mundane darkness is a great tool for low level games. One of my favorite characters was a hunan light Cleric that was afraid of the dark and didn’t like dim light.

  4. Arkaxis

    But didn’t most monster have the same sight limitations according to dark vision rules? I mean some creatures have superior dark vision that gives them 120ft vision, but they are not that common at low levels, most cave dwellers have the same 60ft darkvision as the playable races that have darkvision, so if the Assimar cleric can see them beyond 60ft neither the prowlers in the dark can see them past that same reach so

    1. Kasper

      Only if everyone in the party has darkvision. If someone needs a light source, the party can only see however far that light source illuminates but the monsters can see the light source (and the party) from any range as long as there isn’t a wall in the way.

  5. simontmn

    I find some people love Dynamic Lighting – and some *really* hate it, to the extent of their PCs going catatonic!

  6. snazzy

    Great article! I find that most of the difficulty comes from having physical props or maps laid out that the PCs shouldn’t be able to see but the players can. Sometimes it’s not always possible or convenient to limit your map drawing to expected sight lines. So you get into the habit of “well, since they can already see it I guess I’ll give it to them”.

    Easily the best part of online play is dynamic light. It really brings that sense of discovery to the world when you move your token and see something cool that was previously hidden.

    I find this topic highly relevant to me since I’m running Rime of the Frostmaiden. The near perpetual night has proven to be a challenging scenario to work with. At the very least it goes a long way to alleviate the age-old question of how you can have wilderness encounters over flat stretches of land like tundras, where you should have a couple miles worth of visibility.

  7. alphastream

    I really like your ideas of describing what is beyond the darkness. That’s great advice.

    I agree with those saying that the key problem in D&D has been that the radius of light is huge. 60′ covers most rooms. Even 30′ is actually a very big radius to illuminate.

    At least once per campaign I like to create a situation where magic impedes the radius of their light, vastly reducing it. The torch, the lantern, even the light spell… suddenly shrinks in efficacy to 10′. (I also like to describe it as flickering and fading, as if at any moment it might give out.)

    Now the whole party can’t be in the radius of a single light source. They might not see each other! And they get a tangible gripping feel for the unknown being just beyond their reach. And, of course, then I add things that make use of this problem. it might be small monsters that can suddenly swarm and attack a lone character in the darkness. Or, a single horrid beast that attacks and retreats, wearing them down. It’s a lot of fun, and a supremely different experience.


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