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I am the DM of a group of players that are planning some crazy ways to fight a vampire. I'm looking for a general rule (or rulings) on what counts as sunlight to deal with some of the possibilities.

Vampires have lots of bad things happen to them in sunlight, including but not limited to the following malus:

Sunlight Hypersensitivity. The vampire takes 20 radiant damage when it starts its turn in sunlight. While in sunlight, it has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.

But when exactly are they "in sunlight"?

Some example situations that a general rule should handle:

  • Sunlight comes down from the sun and hits them directly (obviously in sunlight here)
  • Sunlight comes through glass and hits them
  • Sunlight comes through clouds and hits them
  • Sunlight bounces off a mirror (or several) and hits them
  • During the day, the vampire is under the shade of a tree. That area is not dark, as a result of indirect sunlight.
  • Sunlight bounces off the moon and hits them
  • Sunlight comes from a distant star and hits them

About broadness - I could split this question into several, asking about each of these situations - but that would not solve my problem of what the general rule is so I can make sensible rulings on the fly about odd variations of sunlight-redirecting that my players might try.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Depending on the setting, moonlight and starlight may have nothing to do with the sun. \$\endgroup\$
    – Marq
    Jul 5, 2018 at 18:41
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    \$\begingroup\$ Are you concerned with spell effects and item effects that are considered "sunlight"? Like Dawn or a Sunsword? \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Jul 5, 2018 at 19:20

8 Answers 8

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As there is no general rule, the best I can give is what I do.

Can you see the sun?

I rule that if the creature can see the (image of) the sun, they're in sunlight. How would this fit your examples? Reflections count if they're clear enough to see the image of the sun, so mirrors count, but a building or the moon would not. Wispy clouds would not block sunlight, but a thunderstorm would.

It seems very clear that the intent of the rules is that the sun refers to the star around which the world orbits and no others.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Or additionally "Could a normal human get a sunburn here?" The sun can harm humans, so perhaps this is super amplified with vampires. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2018 at 1:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ @grant_davis, that's an interesting point, but I'm not sure they're exactly the same. Snow, for example, reflects almost all of the UV light of the sun, but not its image. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2018 at 3:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ So... what would (should? could?) happen to a vampire under a tree on a snowy field on a sunny day? Yay or nay? \$\endgroup\$
    – xDaizu
    Jul 6, 2018 at 8:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ "It seems very clear that the intent of the rules is that the sun refers to the star around which the world orbits and no others." Given that the sun is defined to be the star around which the earth revolves, sunlight literally can not come from another star. It's not just intent that's clear. \$\endgroup\$
    – UKMonkey
    Jul 6, 2018 at 10:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @xdaizu, according to my answer, no damage. I think the sunburn route is just as valid of an approach as mine, and if Grant or someone else created an answer based on it, I think it would be a meaningful contribution. Zorsal's goes in this direction. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2018 at 12:25
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As a dm I would rule sunlight that would cause an area to be brightly lit, as opposed to dim or low-light, as a direct result of the sun would count. So enough mirrors would do it. But a sufficently stormy day could be safe.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Not sure why this one was voted down, but I think it provides the best mechanical explanation for dealing with sunlight sensitivity. It explains why sunlight from stars or reflected off of the moon would not harm a vamp, and is easily applied to answer the other questions. Other "this is what I do" answers have been upvoted, so it isn't because it is opinion based. I'm honestly curious as to why people dislike this answer - brevity? \$\endgroup\$
    – cpcodes
    Jul 5, 2018 at 18:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's possible the downvotes are because there is nothing but opinion here without even a statement that this IS how they rule at their table and what issues (or no issues) they have seen. \$\endgroup\$
    – NotArch
    Jul 5, 2018 at 20:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ It also doesn't directly apply this rule to any of the cases that OP actually asked about. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2018 at 13:25
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The Sunlight Hypersensitivity (further: SH) is designed to make Vampires more nocturnal, so this leads me to believe the moon reflection and distant stars' light should not count for the Vampire's SH.

Other than that, it is in your purview as DM to decide what counts as "in sunlight" for the Vampire's SH, but you should most likely have a rule and have it discover-able to the players. For example, I would rule the Vampire's SH as being triggered by whenever light from "the sun" (as distinct from other stars) touches the Vampire with enough strength to cause a shadow. (This means all of your other bullets would trigger SH under my ruling).

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It's largely DM discretion. RAW, it's ambiguous. RAI, it's generally obvious that this is intended to make vampires nocturnal.

Personally, my rules for this are as follows:

  1. Direct sunlight, including light within the area of effect of spells that say they produce 'daylight' or 'sunlight', always applies unless something explicitly says otherwise.
  2. Indirect sunlight (reflected, passed through glass, etc), only applies if it's properties have not been visibly changed, or the rules explicitly treat it differently.
  3. If an area contains enough areas within it that rule 2 applies to that it's statistically likely that the vampire could move around between them with minimal effort, I treat the whole area as safe for the vampire.
  4. Areas of shadowy illumination count as safe as per rule 2.

Now, beyond that, I have a generic house rule that would apply here too, namely, I always say that any aspects of physics not explicitly covered by the rules behaves just like real life. Photonics (the study of light) is largely not covered by the rules, so most behaviors of light from real life also apply in game in my games.

This means for your examples, my rulings as DM would be the following:

  • Direct sunlight:. Exactly as you said, by virtue of above rule one.
  • Through glass:. Depends on the glass. Heavily tinted glass and darkly colored glass would not count, but clear glass such as what would normally be used for windows does, all based on rule 2 above. Through gemstones (I've actually had this come up before, one of my players splurged and got a carriage with windows made of solid milky quartz (among other extravagances)) works the same.
  • Through clouds: it depends on the clouds. Total cloud cover does not count, minimal cover does, both based on rule 2 above. The cutoff point I normally use is 70% cloud cover. Much less than that, and it's too hard to keep to the shadows of the clouds, based on rule 3.
  • Reflected in a mirror:. Almost always counts, provided it's what someone these days would call a mirror. Mirrors made of simple steel, tin, aluminum, copper, gold, or other metals that recolor the light or don't reflect it very well count only on a case by case basis (and I make it clear to my players if they count or not). Also based on rule 2 above.
  • Under the shade of a tree:. Shadows are safe as per rule 4 above. In most cases, the whole area under the tree is safe as per rule 3 above, though this functionally requires you to be under the shadow of the canopy (so stuff like acacia trees is tricky).
  • Bounced off the moon:. As per my house rule, this is reflected sunlight. As per the exception to my second rule above for these cases, this is no longer sunlight, because a number of spells and effects treat it specifically differently from sunlight, so it's safe (which appears to be in line with RAI).
  • Light from stars: There are a number of things that require sunlight but won't work with starlight in previous editions. Later editions behave as previous editions unless stated or ruled otherwise (and I know of no rules or rulings for 5e that say otherwise), thus starlight is not sunlight. Based on this, it's safe (and this also aligns with apparent RAI).

Now, it's probably worth noting as well that I usually don't run 5e games (I do on occasion, but they're not the norm for my groups). In 3.5e, I handle things differently, because disadvantage isn't a thing in 3.5e, at least not like in 5e. There, you take numeric penalties on things. With 3.5e, I instead treat filtered sunlight (shadows, through colored or dark glass, through clouds, or reflected by imperfect mirrors) as applying a penalty on all rolls (not just attack rolls and ability checks, but also saves and damage rolls) scaled based on the 'purity' of the sunlight.

The other thing to consider here because I play older editions is that direct sunlight doesn't weaken vampires in earlier editions, it destroys them (on the second round of exposure). Quoting directly from the 3.5e Monster Manual:

Exposing any vampire to direct sunlight disorients it: It can take only a single move action or attack action and is destroyed utterly in the next round if it cannot escape.

This aspect of total destruction is a large part of why I'm so liberal about what counts as 'safe'. It makes things a bit harder for my players, but I have a couple of regulars who often voluntarily contract vampirism or lycanthropy (or become a lich) simply for the bonuses they provide, so I tend to rule in ways that don't make them completely useless except at night or indoors.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Clouds don't actually block a lot of sunlight, they just diffuse it to an extent. They do reduce visible light by a small extent, but barely impacts UV light at all. Huge storm clouds are a bit of a different beast (although still much, much brighter than night time!). \$\endgroup\$
    – Cubic
    Jul 6, 2018 at 14:58
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Cubic Whether or not that matters really depends on what you decide makes it 'sunlight'. I've also updated things a bit to clarify more on why I rule the way I do on this (short version is that I mostly run 3.5e games, not 5e, and sunlight is much more dangerous to vampires there, but I try to keep my rulings consistent when possible across editions so my regulars don't get confused). \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2018 at 15:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ "obvious" is not obvious. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2018 at 17:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JackAidley The exact wording might not be, but taken together with everything else said about vampires and looking at older editions, it's not really hard to figure out that vampires are supposed to be nocturnal. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2018 at 17:45
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This might be a DM ruling, but I think it's generally an easy one. Essentially, the sun is an effect that emits sunlight for an unlimited range (the range isn't actually unlimited, but when you need to get further than Mars before the effect wanes, it may as well be). Anything that impedes a path between the sun to a target, means that creature is not is sunlight.

I come to this conclusion by virtue of there being multiple elements within the game that specifically generate sunlight and do so for a specified range. For example, the sunburst spell deals a pile of radiant damage to creatures in a 60-foot radius and the light it creates is specifically stated to be sunlight. Were a creature behind total cover relative to a sunburst spell, they would be exempt from the effects of it.

So applying this logic to your original list:

  • Sunlight comes down from the sun and hits them directly (obviously in sunlight here) Definitely in sunlight; much regret on vampire life choice
  • Sunlight comes through glass and hits them Glass is impeding line of effect; safe while the glass remains
  • Sunlight comes through clouds and hits them Clouds are impeding line of effect; safe while the clouds remain
  • Sunlight bounces off a mirror (or several) and hits them Looking at a sunburst outside its effect radius is not harmful, so bounced sunlight doesn't count either.
  • During the day, the vampire is under the shade of a tree. That area is not dark, as a result of indirect sunlight. I'm leaning towards no unless it is an unusually thick tree, streaks of sunlight usually cut through tree canopies, so although most of the vampire is not in sunlight, some of the vampire is; much regret on vampire life choice
  • Sunlight bounces off the moon and hits them Same as with the mirrors
  • Sunlight comes from a distant star and hits them This comes back to what I'd stated initially about the actual effect range of the sun's radius for sunlight. This is wholly a DM call, but it should be tempered with consideration for how vampires exist and persist in the world. It's a lot harder for them to be widespread, regional threats that their reputation suggests if they can only go out on cloudy nights.
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    \$\begingroup\$ There are so many points here that I disagree with. Sun going through glass is definitely sunlight; light from a mirror probably should count (see disco ball of doom from Dusk Till Dawn); light from distant star: clearly not because it's not sun light. -1. \$\endgroup\$
    – UKMonkey
    Jul 6, 2018 at 10:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @UKMonkey I think you're judging the answer in an unfair manner, but that is your prerogative. The criteria I provided herein is strictly to enable a DM to make a consistent ruling that complies with the RAW with the PHB and DMG. Though it may seem counter intuitive to suggest that a vampire is not in sunlight when they are behind a window, that would be the case if a spell were to originate on the other side of that window. Same for reflected light, simply seeing a spell's reflection does not make you subject to it. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 6, 2018 at 18:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ I've got to criticize the mirror rationale here. You speak of looking at a sunburst outside its effect radius, but you also say that the sun has an unlimited range, so "outside its effect radius" doesn't apply. Now, if you instead made reference to whether or not you can be affected by a sunburst spell when you're around a corner from its origin, but otherwise within its radius, then I could get behind the comparison with the sun for mirrors. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2018 at 17:56
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Note: I will use basic physics knowledge for this.

  1. Obviously he is damaged.
  2. Unless the glass is magical and specially designed for vampires sunlight hypersensitivity, he is damaged.
  3. Obviously he is damaged since it doesn't matter how much light he recieve, just the fact that he is or not receiving the sunlight (and he is).
  4. Reflection doesn't change the light nature, so he is damaged.
  5. If he sees the object, then part of the sunlight is reflected to him, as said before, reflection doesn't change light nature, so he is damaged.
  6. Still reflection, but as in fiction vampires usually resist that particular reflection for whatever reason, he is not damaged (but if you want to apply physics, he does).
  7. This would have the same answer as the 6th, they should but in fiction universes were vampires exist, they aren't usually affected (unless they should based in physics).

Also I would like to add that even with sunglasses he would be taking part of the sunlight so he would be damaged. (I know this wasn't asked but wanted to add it as a curiosity.)

Also, I wanted to state that in “Which wavelength of light from Sunlight burns Vampires in Vampire Diaries / The Originals?” on SF&F SE, it is said that the part of the light spectrum that affects vampires is UV (this would affect the 2nd and 3rd answer depending on the mirror's and the cloud's refractive index). I know that link isn't related to D&D 5e but you could use that as reference if you wanted (just giving you some tools you can use to justify your decision as DM). Remember you are the game master and you decide what of the light affects the vampire.

Addition: If you see something illuminated by sunlight, then you are receiving that sunlight, why is this? Well, the sunlight is reflected over the material, which, depending on itself, can absorb some parts of the light (determining its colour), then the reflected sunlight goes to your eyes and your photoreceptor cells receive them (then your brain, uses the information received by the photoreceptor cells and defines the environment where you are, with its colours and all that stuff). Therefore, if something is illuminated by sunlight and you see it thanks to sunlight, then you are receiving that sunlight (this would be the explanation of a vampire being damaged if it goes to the exterior in a sunny day, even if he is under a shadow).

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RAW distinguish 'sunlight' from 'direct sunlight'

Vampires have (bold mine):

Sunlight Hypersensitivity. The vampire takes 20 radiant damage when it starts its turn in sunlight. While in sunlight, it has disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks.

Many other monsters (including drow and kobold NPCs) have sunlight sensitivity, which does not include taking radiant damage, but which does include disadvantage when "in sunlight".

Drow and kobold (VGtM) PCs, on the other hand, have (second bold mine):

Sunlight Sensitivity. You have disadvantage on attack rolls and Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight when you, the target of the attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight.

Myconids have (second and third bolds mine):

Sun Sickness. While in sunlight, the myconid has disadvantage on ability checks, attack rolls, and saving throws. The myconid dies if it spends more than 1 hour in direct sunlight.

From these examples, particularly that of the myconids, we can see that the rules distinguish between being in sunlight, and being in direct sunlight, with the second being a specific and more restrictive case of the first. We know that vampires are affected by the more general case, and thus their sunlight hypersensitivity is triggered not only by direct sunlight but by 'indirect' sunlight as well. We can take 'indirect' as synonymous with reflected or refracted sunlight, that is, any sunlight that arrives at the vampire without having a direct path (line of sight) to the sun. In the OP's list of cases, then, we know that vampires are vulnerable when (1) sunlight comes down from the sun and hits them directly [they are in direct sunlight], (2) sunlight bounces off a mirror (or several) and hits them [they are in sunlight], and (3) during the day, the vampire is under the shade of a tree but the area is not dark [they are in sunlight].

RAW darkness includes very dim light

The PHB, in its section on the Environment; Vision and Light, explains that:

The presence or absence of light in an environment creates three categories of illumination: bright light, dim light, and darkness.

Of the three, "Even gloomy days provide bright light", while:

An area of dim light is usually a boundary between a source of bright light, such as a torch, and surrounding darkness. The soft light of twilight and dawn also counts as dim light. A particularly brilliant full moon might bathe the land in dim light.

Finally:

Characters face darkness outdoors at night (even most moonlit nights), within the confines of an unlit dungeon or a subterranean vault, or in an area of magical darkness.

Even though, for the sake of rules simplicity, there are just three categories of lighting, we understand that light is a gradient or continuum. The brightest light will, with distance and intervening obstructions, eventually become dim light and then darkness. What we call 'darkness' is not necessarily the complete absence of light, but simply lighting that is too faint to call dim - most moonlit nights, and all moonless but starlit nights, are in 'darkness', despite the fact that there are clear sources of light visible from within them. Likewise, artificial sources of light, such as torches, typically have a defined range in which they create bright light and a further range of dim light. But beyond this their light still travels a much farther distance. The DMG tells us that:

The light of a torch or lantern helps a character see over a short distance, but other creatures can see that light source from far away. Bright light in an environment of total darkness can be visible for miles, although a clear line of sight over such a distance is rare underground.

From this we understand that obstacles to sunlight, such as clouds or shade cloth or thick and colored glass, reduce the brightness of sunlight without affecting its 'directness'. Even a gloomy day is still bright, but when the sun has been reduced in intensity to a bright moon it is dim. Further reductions might reduce the intensity of the sun to that of a pale moon, and at that point a vampire would no longer be 'in sunlight' despite a visible sun in the sky. Thus the sun could be directly overhead, but if the air was obscured with thick thunderclouds and rain, or sufficient ash, dust, or smoke, then the vampire would not be affected by the wan light that remained because they would categorically be 'in darkness'.

When the OP asks what happens when (4) sunlight comes through clouds or (5) through glass and hits the vampire, the answer is that it depends on how thick the clouds are, or how dark the glass is, and thus how dim the sun has become.

The nature of moonlight and starlight depend on the campaign

OP assumes that moonlight is reflected sunlight and that starlight comes from more distant suns. This may be true within the cosmology of a particular campaign setting, but it is not necessarily so. In 5e, the Spelljammer rules state that (emphases in the original):

Every D&D world - whether round, flat, or some other shape-exists in an airless void known as Wildspace. A world might be solitary, or it might have neighbors: one or more suns, worlds, moons, asteroids, comets, or other bodies. This neighborhood of celestial and planetary bodies is called a Wildspace system.

Thus any given Wildspace system might have one or more worlds, suns, and moons - but such a system does not have stars. And the sun or suns of any given system are not stars to other systems. Rather (emphasis in the original):

If you were to leave your home world and continue outward until you neared the edge your Wildspace system, you would begin to see a faint, silvery haze. By traveling into this haze, you pass from from Wildspace into the Astral Sea, more colorfully known as the Silver Void. The deeper into the Astral Sea you travel, the thicker and brighter the haze becomes, but the stars that shine through it are always visible.

Thus we can see that at least for the default cosmology of 5e, suns and stars are fundamentally different celestial bodies. Suns exist within a specific Wildspace system, while stars are points of light scattered through the Astral1 Sea. From this it follows that 'sunlight' and 'starlight' are different kinds of illumination, and no amount of starlight, no matter how bright, is enough to provoke sunlight hypersensitivity in a vampire, any more than the daylight spell would. Not all campaigns will adopt this cosmology, and it may well be that OP's vampires exist in a world where the stars are, in fact, distant suns. But in this case we fall back to the previous section, noting that no amount of starlight is, RAW, enough to illuminate an area from darkness to dim light, and thus a vampire in starlight is not 'in sunlight' regardless. In neither case then would a vampire be affected when (6) light comes from a distant star and hits them.

Moonlight is a little trickier, because the Spelljammer rules do not explicitly say whether moonlight is reflected sunlight or not2. In at least one official campaign setting prior to 5e, however, it was not. The description given for the Greyhawk setting does not explicitly state that the moonlight from the two moons (Luna and Celene) of the Oerth is not the reflected light of the sun (Liga, or Sol). However, extrapolation from the different stated positions of the sun and moons at different times of the year make it clear that the phases of the moons cannot be explained by the relative positions of the moons and sun, but rather must be a consequence of where the moons are in their orbit around the Oerth, independent of the position of the sun3. Thus, at least within the Greyhawk setting, moonlight is fundamentally different from sunlight.

The answer to OP's final question, what happens when (7) sunlight bounces off the moon and hits the vampire, is thus that in some cosmologies moonlight is not reflected sunlight, but has its own essence, and will not affect vampires. For settings in which the DM has made it clear that moonlight is reflected sunlight, a vampire would be 'in sunlight' on only the brightest of moonlit nights, when the moonlight is sufficient to create the condition of dim lighting. For any moon paler than that, the vampire would be 'in darkness' and unaffected.


1 One notes that the word 'astral' comes from a root which means "star" in Greek.
2 There might be something in the accompanying adventure, but I have not scoured it.
3 In first edition, even this could be explained away by an in-universe narrator who was mistaken in believing a geocentric model for the system. However, once this geocentric model became established as canonical fact in second edition with the publication of Greyspace, it was irrefutable.

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Answering this is your Job as DM

Ultimately as the DM it's your job to make this call. I'd posit that since vampires don't have reflections in mirrors, reflected sunlight is largely ineffective. Generally they're not affected by full moons or starlight (in a world with multiple suns, they might be affected by only one). So quantity is important too.

I'd probably rule that direct sunlight (including through transparent material like glass) has full effect.

For some situations I'd give partial effect... probably disadvantage but little or no damage. Thick clouds, alchemically treated stained glass.

For reflected light from a mirror, I'd probably give them a save of some sort to ignore it, otherwise they'd act at disadvantage due to the psychological fear of sunlight even if doesn't actually affect them.

If you're players are planning this, a successful skill challenge should allow them to suss out exactly what will and will not be effective.

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