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I'm having a lot of trouble trying to divine the intent of the darkness spell in PF. It starts off easily enough:

This spell causes an object to radiate darkness out to a 20-foot radius. This darkness causes the illumination level in the area to drop one step, from bright light to normal light, from normal light to dim light, or from dim light to darkness.

Ok, so it just lowers the light level, that seems pretty easy to run. But, this is then qualified/contradicted by

Nonmagical sources of light, such as torches and lanterns, do not increase the light level in an area of darkness. Magical light sources only increase the light level in an area if they are of a higher spell level than darkness.

Imagine an area brightly lit by torches. What happens when I cast a darkness spell? Is the light reduced by one step, as per the first quote, or to complete darkness, since the second part tells us to ignore torches? A pedantic/literal reading might suggest the latter, but that doesn't jibe with how the spell as a whole is worded, so I'd be kind of surprised if that's the actual intent. (Especially when comparing to the 3.5 version of the same spell.)

Does anything different happen in an area brightly lit by sunlight, or is the first rule only applicable to (stronger) magical light effects?

Is there any clarification from other parts of the rules or the designers? Is there something about the darkness spell itself I've misread?

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+1 Good question. That is a bit confusing. (and what happens in bright sunlight, I wonder) –  Jonathan Hobbs Feb 4 '13 at 4:39
    
Thanks, I went ahead and added the sunlight issue. Also, I found a thread where most people go with the literal interpretation, and no clarification is mentioned. –  starwed Feb 4 '13 at 4:46
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3.5's Darkness spell was much clearer: It created an area of shadowy illumination. If you cast it in total darkness, it actually made the place lighter. This made little sense, and no-one I knew ever played it that way, but at least it was unambiguous. –  GMJoe Feb 5 '13 at 4:51
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4 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

Ah, finally found the Pathfinder FAQ. (It's weirdly hard to locate, as a little tab at the bottom of the core rulebook product page.) It contains the following:

Darkness: Can adding additional sunrods to the area of the spell (Core Rulebook page 263) increase the light level?

No, sunrods can never increase the light level of an area of darkness because they are not magical sources of light. In such an area, it automatically defaults to the ambient natural light level, and then reduces it one step.

—Jason Bulmahn, 10/21/10

This clarifies the intent quite nicely. Sorry for answering my own question, but it is exactly what I was looking for!

Now the bit about "ambient natural light level" is a still unclear (would it include, for instance, environmental light such as glowing fungi?) but it at least gives something to work with.

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There is natural light (also called ambient light) and there is artificial light. Artificial light in Pathfinder has two flavors, magical and non-magical. So natural light sources ( the sun, moon, glowing fungus, etc ) are what is referred to as the "natural light level". Torches, bonfires, sunrods, etc would be considered artificial, non-magical sources of light and thus have no affect on the area under the Darkness spell. –  darelf Feb 5 '13 at 20:46
    
@darelf I question whether there's a real difference between carefully grown glowing fungus and carefully lit pieces of wood; both are taking advantage of purely natural processes of the world. :P Seriously though; are the terms "natural" and "artificial" game terms in this context? That is, are they defined somewhere? –  starwed Feb 5 '13 at 21:43
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You don't need to apologise for answering your own question - doing so is normal and good use of the system! You can also mark your answer as accepted if you want to. –  Jonathan Hobbs Feb 6 '13 at 2:13
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Well, in the real world, yes. Because physics is physics and light is light, and it doesn't really matter what the source is. However, the magical spell Darkness apparently seems to care. (usual caveats about it being your game, etc.) And I agree with Hobbs, answering your own question is perfectly cool. –  darelf Feb 6 '13 at 15:54
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I believe the second part you quoted says it, magic sources of light (or in this case darkness) trump non magic sources, meaning a torch or lantern will have negligible effect If within an area affected by Darkness, and when two competing magical sources come into play the higher level of the two wins out.

Daylight spell: Daylight brought into an area of magical darkness (or vice versa) is temporarily negated, so that the otherwise prevailing light conditions exist in the overlapping areas of effect. Daylight counters or dispels any darkness spell of equal or lower level, such as darkness

The bottom section of the darkness and daylight spells seem to suggest that if the magical light sources are the same level, they counter each other, and if one is of a higher level, it dispels the other.

for the confusion between lowering the light level or casting total darkness, i think the difference lies in something being "natural" light or "artificial" light. The spell description seems to indicate that it renders all artificial light useless and so an area underground with no natural light would go straight to complete darkness when introduced to the spell, where as outside where natural light like the sun or a bright moon it would simply lower the level.

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This answer doesn't really get at my problem with the spell, and doesn't really show any rules support to the idea that the sun and torches are affected differently. –  starwed Feb 5 '13 at 19:46
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My reading is that you can't keep adding non-magical light to the area of a darkness spell and expect to increase the light level. If you have a normally lit room which is then subject to magical darkness, the light level drops to dim. You could strike a sunrod, or build a bonfire in the middle of the room, or rip the roof off and expose the room to direct sunlight, or ignite a limelight and none of that would increase the light level within the area of magical darkness above dim.

Once cast, then, the darkness spell applies an absolute cap on light levels. Only magical light sources of higher level can overcome it.

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This result seems silly, but all other possible results are sillier! Darkness, how does it work? –  Melon Feb 4 '13 at 20:29
    
This was my initial guess as to the spells intent, but the more you think about it the less sense it makes. Especially because the darkness effect is quite mobile if you cast it on a small object! –  starwed Feb 5 '13 at 19:21
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The best way to think about it is to assume that magical darkness isn't so much the absence of light, but actual anti-light. So the spell causes an object to radiate waves that actively consume the light. When you cast the spell, it draws the darkness from the ambient area and magnifies it into the magical anti-light. Adding more normal light simply gives the darkess more to "feed" on, rather than destroying it. Since it's magical anti-light, it can consume a limitless amount of normal light. You need magical light to actually destroy the anti-light. –  Bacon Bits Feb 5 '13 at 23:19
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Wow, I hadn't noticed how badly-worded that is. I think the most natural way to interpret the intention is as if the last two sentences were replaced with

Darkness has no effect in an area also affected by magical light of higher spell level. If the effects of darkness and magical light of the same spell level overlap, neither effect dominates and the otherwise prevailing lighting conditions hold.

This assumes that the mention of mundane light sources was meant mostly to contrast with the following mention of magical light sources and can therefore be safely eliminated from the rules text.

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