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In more than one of my D&D campaigns, I've found myself feeling disappointed at my inability to make the darkness of the dungeon matter.

Everyone has enough torches, and I'm not likely to be able to undo that repeatedly. I can strip the party of torches once or twice, maybe, and after that I'm just a jerk. I don't even need them to be in total darkness, I just want the darkness to have an impact beyond easily-ignored ambiance. So far, it feels like its main impact is that the party can't split up as easily, and at least one of the party's hands is tied up holding a torch.

I've tried thinking about films that I think do a good job with darkness, but so far not many have helped: they all have protagonists caught without a light, or using a flashlight – a very directional light, which totally changes the nature of visibility.

Here are some options that have come to mind, but I would love to hear from the voices of experience, rather than being forced to try each of these in turn:

  • crank the chances of a random encounter way up because of omnidirectional torches
  • add occasional rooms where torches won't or shouldn't stay lit (wind, flammable gas)
  • crank up the chances (read: add a chance) of torches going out during combat

…and beyond these, which just look to reduce the use of torches or other fire, I want to improve the effectiveness of darkness as a environmental effect even when there is some light source. After all, eventually the party will have continual light and I can't threaten them with mine gas. How can I make the darkness matter, even when it's only outside the 30' radius of the light source? So far, I've got even fewer ideas here:

  • any creature moving in the outside the torchlight is invisible

Thanks. I look forward to finding out how to make darkness a real problem.

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I really need to know what edition and what sort of dark vision players are using and spoiling, etc, if I am answering this. One of the biggest things about the dark is the ability for other things to see the party coming way in advance. A torch may give a 30' light sphere, but that sphere can be seen an awful long way off by others –  LordVreeg Jan 22 '12 at 16:06
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This has been a problem for me in many games and editions. I am happy for solutions for any kind of fantasy RPG. Specifically, atm, I am running a B/X D&D game (PCs are humans and elves), a 4E game (PCs have normal or low-light vision and one PC right now has darkvision), and Mazes & Minotaurs. –  rjbs Jan 22 '12 at 20:54
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Just a quick note: the game Amnesia does a great job using darkness (play the demo, if you haven't already). –  Jeroen Jan 22 '12 at 21:46
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Invest a day or so to go to your local caving group and take an induction course. Personal experience of caves will gives you a hell of a lot of things to draw upon. Wieliczka salt mines are a must to see if you are in Poland. –  Sardathrion Jan 23 '12 at 12:02
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9 Answers 9

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An important difference between a torch and a flashlight, which you noted, is a torch is omnidirectional. What other omnidirectional sources of light are people familiar with? Campfires. Ever sit at a campfire on a dark night and look into the woods? What can you see? That's right... squat. A torch, unlike a flashlight, is always in your eyes. It's impossible to keep your night vision. Any space it does not light up will be pitch black. A great movie to watch for ideas is The Burrowers, a kind of Lovecraft/Cowboy/Horror movie.

Same goes for continual light and most every DnD light source except maybe a shuttered lantern, and since when do PCs think to pay for those?

So keep this in mind when determining what the PCs can see. They can see 20 feet away, 20 to 40 feet is indistinct, colorless. Beyond that is pitch black. You may even want to lessen the typical radius. This means they can't see down corridors. They can't see into the next room. If the non-torch bearer pokes their head around a wall they can't see the thing about to rip their face off.

Hollywood, and ubiquitous illumination, has trained us to think that dark isn't very dark. Indoors is pitch black. Outdoors totally depends on the phase of the moon, so keep track!

Racial night vision? Blinded while the torch is lit. Doesn't matter what the rules say, just make it so. Now the PCs have a motivation for putting the torches out and leaving the poor humans blind.

Torchlight carries way farther than the torch bearer can see, and you see the torch bearer distinctly from far away. This will attract lots of "fun" things. Smarter monsters can even use this to their advantage, seeing the PCs coming from far away, probably noisily talking and clanking, they can set up an ambush. Maybe, with no warning, spears and arrows fly out of the darkness! Punish the PCs for being so visible and so blind.

Torchlight, unless you're right up close to something, doesn't let you see very well. When a PC without their own light source is examining something, make the description indistinct. Make them want to get their face in real close to have a good look. Maybe brush their hand over it. Best way to find out it's a green slime. :-)

Things can hide in the darkness, but not always monsters. Pickpockets, spies, poisonous insects... all sorts of creepy crawlies can take advantage of the PCs being A) nearly blind and B) totally lit up.

Finally, there's lots of ways to get rid of the PC's light source. In combat, moving around wildly, there's always a chance of it blowing out. If the character gets hit, maybe they drop it... into a puddle. Maybe they drop it into something flammable. Maybe they need both hands to cast a spell or wield their weapon.

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Yeah, the "see squat beyond that" is probably the only good thing I found in the 1E Dungeoneer's Survival Guide about the dark. Thanks for that and the rest! –  rjbs Jan 23 '12 at 3:18
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This is probably the best answer to this. You don't need to invent contrived magical weirdness to counteract the adventurers' use of light; just make sure to treat light and darkness realistically instead letting players turn torches into "portable suns." –  Mason Wheeler Jan 24 '12 at 18:31
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One thing to consider is the effect of carrying a torch during combat. If you want to hold on to the torch, require a "two weapons" mechanic. You cannot use both a weapon, a shield and hold a torch. A dropped torch is likely to go out (by having combat taking place on top of it, if nothing else). Even if it doesn't go out, a dropped torch is static and as the combat moves around, it'll vary in how useful it is.

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So here's some things to think about with a torchlit party.

  1. There is a limited distance to the light. So you can have creatures outside it with, say, missile weapons shooting in with impunity (this requires large spaces of course). Though not necessarily that large; in Pathfinder for example a torch lights a 20 ft radius and dimly illuminates out to 40'; the vast majority of dungeons have rooms larger than that. Creatures hiding get a really big bonus in even dim illumination.

  2. Holding a torch requires a hand. So not everyone will be carrying one. What happens when the guy with the torch (or light spell, or whatever) goes down the pit? Everyone else is in the dark.

  3. Some PCs will be carrying torches but drop them when a fight starts (to sword and board or two weapon or shoot a bow). Then if the fight is even reasonably mobile it's easy to get out of reach of them. And if there's, say, a couple inches of standing water then the torches go out pretty quickly. Plus there is the danger of fire in areas with straw or whatnot on the floor.

  4. Any intelligent monsters in darkness know that if the one or two torches go away, the party is likely meat for it. So they will certainly target for separation such PCs. Or better yet, if they have dropped torches they may try to toss them away.

  5. Carrying a light source makes it basically impossible to hide in a dark/dungeon setting. It can be visible even through doors if they're normal junky wood doors, or even coming under the door if not. It makes parties very conspicuous.

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As part of a short conversation in chat on how to physically implement low-light conditions on a battlemat, I made a couple of suggestions:

  • Only draw parts of the map that they have seen.
  • Use a template to indicate "lit" area (something like transparencies with circles of light range and a dot for centering on the light source).
  • Remove (non-player) miniatures which are outside the range of light.

With these in mind, this suggests two light/darkness-related encounters, given a large enough area that the party moves into:

  • Enemies that like the darkness. Have a bunch of creatures that prefer the darkness and whenever possible, they move out of the light. Give them ranged weapons, and you have a potentially interesting combat. Be aware that if the enemies are too mobile and your party has trouble chasing them down, this could be quite frustrating.
  • Enemies that like the light. Have the small sphere of light attract the enemies. This could either be small raiding parties of creatures who periodically attack the main party as they make their way through a hall, or swarms of creatures who keep appearing. If the party dispatch the first wave quickly, you can make more appear from out of the darkness (but obviously, don't over do this).

This can add an extra element to any climactic scene if the enemies are appearing only six squares away, instead of being able to see them across a chamber and react.

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The Mistborn books deal a lot with nighttime skulking in fog by folks capable of superhuman vision that cuts through it & frequently comments about how normal humans not only show everyone where they are long before it's too late to get out of the way with their torches, but the light reflecting off the flog pretty much blinds them to anything more than 10 feet or so. Not living anywhere with nighttime fog ever happening, I can't really confirm, but headlights do similar to early-morning fog & are usually a bad idea in foggy conditions, making it seem likely true. You could use foggy nights for similar effects at night in a way that affects the ones with darkvision as much as the nearly blind humans.

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The way I understand your question: you want the atmosphere to be different when exploring a dark place. I do not think it's something you can solve by tweaking the rules (especially with D&D, which is not exactly an ambiance game - personal opinion). Here are some tricks I would try:

  • Switch off the light; it seems stupid, but fear of the dark is something we all have in our memories (and I am not talking about Iron Maiden only). Playing with one or two candles only is a good way of putting your players in a more careful mood. If you play during afternoons, of course, it's gonna be more difficult…
  • Use your players' imagination; do not completely describe what's happening; say "you hear some squirking noise coming from above your head" instead of "there are bats everywhere in the cave". Use silences when your players are asking you questions (works very well when playing in the dark); let them imagine what this thing can be before giving them the answer.
  • Describe things using other senses than just vision; in the dark, they are not supposed to identify a bear at 50 meters easily, but they will hear it breathe and growl at such a distance… Once again, let their imagination play against them. A harmless thing can be scary if you can't identify it.
  • Don't give them indications they are not supposed to know; when entering a huge cave at night, you will not see that there are two doors on the opposite wall — you'll not even see the opposite wall.

Here are some ideas; I am sure there are plenty of others to try. In conclusion: play with their nerves.

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Thanks! I am definitely open to things beyond rules changes. –  rjbs Jan 22 '12 at 14:54
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This is a good answer: it takes the effect the dark causes (a loss of information for the people stuck in the dark) and translates it to GM actions. –  TehShrike Jan 23 '12 at 5:01
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One of the enemies of fire is water. Sure, your party may have stacked up on torches, but do they have waterproof bags? Put in an underground river or lake they have to swim through, or a waterfall they have to go through. The torches may be soaked afterwards, and take a few hours of drying before they can be relit.

Distance may also work in your favour. They may have torches, but how many? The party have a long corridor to march through, or there's a pile of rubble to be cleared. It's situation that can be played in a few minutes, but in-game many hours will have passed. The party may have run down on the number of torches they have, and will now be forced to make decisions: how often are we going to lit the few remaining ones?

And maybe the party is hunting a specific monster. One that just doesn't show itself in the light. You can have light or heat triggered traps (heat seeking missiles ;-)). Or give your dwarven warrior a magical weapon which only give bonusses in the dark -- and he'll be the one nagging the humans to extinguish their torches.

As a player, situations where the characters have to make a conscious decision on whether to use light or not (being in a situation where either has advantages and disadvantages) are the most fun.

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I really like the "only works in the dark" magic items... perhaps as treasure they pick up on the way, too –  Simon Withers Jan 27 '12 at 0:47
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You can deal with this by dousing the lights forcibly:

  • A monster that eats light sources can be a huge annoyance. Give it a lot of speed and an ability to avoid attacks, and use it as a harbinger of a larger encounter, and your party will start cursing when they show up.
  • Torches and sunrods go out eventually. Extended stays in dark areas will become dangerous without some spell or artifact that provides continual light.
  • Once your party has continual light, if you still want to have the effects of darkness, you can have a source of magical interference with that class of magic (illusion or fire, most likely).

You can also allow them their lights but make them less useful. Fog and smoke can do this easily -- think about driving in a blizzard with your high beams on.

And then you can provide incentives for not using light. A background aura that reacts to light by setting up a resonance giving all your magic users a blinding headache. A moss that grows rapidly in the presence of light, climbing up the party and blocking off their exits. Monsters that are attracted to the light -- even if they're relatively easy to kill, the players will get annoyed at the constant fighting.

If you take one of these tactics and your players are really hurting for light, try giving them something that they can use that's safer. A single Hand of Glory for the party to share. Goggles of infravision. Some old, half-burnt torches to replace non-functioning helms of permanent light.

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  • Perhaps the monsters/guards/whatever are WAY too powerful for them to handle, so its them trying to remain undetected, so darkness represents safety instead of danger. [granted, this only works for a certain type of quest]

  • The light will attract something that will otherwise be a non-issue (another torch-prevention method). Exploding moths, a powerful spirit waiting for their living lover to return to them who will be pissed if the brave adventurers with the torch aren't the person they expected, the energy from the torch causes it to produce a strong steady tone due to its being the strongest target for the strange magic in the dungeon, so if they want to use the torch, they're going to have to deal with their detection being much easier AND virtual loss of their hearing as an investigative tool, etc.

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