I just recently noted that essentially all of the undead (maybe actually all?) in fourth edition have darkvision.

I was going to reveal some information to my party by having one of their associates scry upon a rival group of adventurers. However, the adventurers are underground, and they're all undead. If they all have darkvision, then they wouldn't bother with light sources. This means the scry won't be useful, since there's nothing but darkness to look at.

It seems very strange to me that undead would get darkvision as a matter of course. What is the basis for this game design decision? Did undead have darkvision in previous editions? Is there any precedence for zombies or other undead seeing in the dark in other media?

Why would the game designers choose to make all the undead have darkvision?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The last undead-infested tomb I was in had very poor lighting, if I recall. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 8, 2015 at 22:21
  • \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener I'm not after an in-universe explanation unless that in-universe logic is what compelled the game designers to make their decision. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Jun 10, 2015 at 2:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @DCShannon ok. You seem to want something out of the answers that only one answer has provided so far though, and I'm not sure what that is, which means you are probably not asking clearly for that thing in your question and should do so. (Was the edit just now that change?) \$\endgroup\$ Jun 10, 2015 at 2:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Yes, like that question. If they made the same decision in previous editions, then the question would be why they made that decision in those editions. I didn't tag it as just 4E, because "they did it in 3E" would not be a useful answer. Meta question. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Jun 10, 2015 at 2:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because questions about designer reasons are off topic. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Dec 10, 2019 at 21:00

2 Answers 2


Is there any precedence for zombies or other undead seeing in the dark in other media?

Yes, in fact I would venture to say the vast majority of depictions of all kinds of undead have them operating just fine in the dark.

Why would undead require light to see? They either have:

  1. No eyes (skeletons)
  2. Rotted burst eyes (zombies)
  3. Spirit eyes (all the incorporeal junk)

Furthermore, loads of other undead depictions in media have them not inhibited in the dark at all - usually that's where they have an edge on the living!

Did undead have darkvision in previous editions?

Yes, in earlier editions undead could see in the dark.

In 3e+ it was specifically darkvision. In earlier editions it was hotly debated if and how - "Life sense," "mystical sight" from being magically animated, whatever. The rules were all hole-y and house ruled back then. But most people let undead see in the dark (the unintelligent ones would be mighty useless otherwise, not like they can light torches, and the incorporeal ones are moving through walls so how do they see light or no, and vampires and such are the definition of creatures of the night...).

There wasn't darkvision per se in editions prior to 3e. 1e AD&D didn't mention this at all. 2e labeled undead as "Activity Cycle: Night" and did not explicitly mention infravision for them. Modern RAW theory would conclude that undead can't see in the dark. That was not how we played back in the day, the concept of D&D as a complete legal system didn't reach fruition until 3e. None of the monster manuals had all the senses detailed like they do now, so there was a lot of interpolation. I think giving them all darkvision in 3e is just a codification of how the game was effectively played.

In OD&D and earlier all monsters can see in the dark, but no players can do so. (The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures) So undead could see in the dark, but so could all the critters.

Why do undead have darkvision in 4E?

Because they did in previous editions, and it seems to make sense since undead are known for operating in the dark. Therefore, undead have darkvision in 4e.

Why did the designers let undead see in the dark originally?

Now keep in mind that D&D does some approximation. "Darkvision" and other senses are often just used as code for "can operate in the dark as well as the day" not that they can technically see. So for example, the Walking Dead wiki discusses zombies as found in that universe. "They can also use sight to distinguish living from the dead, although they seem to have poor eyesight as their irises fade and decay, but they make up for it in very heightened senses of hearing and smell. Darkness seems to have little effect on zombies' senses at close ranges, and in areas devoid of light they can still find their way around as they would in the day." So a game designer just says "darkvision." Would it perhaps be more precise to give them something like blindsight? Maybe. But D&D is more worried about the condition effects - if you don't have penalties due to not being able to see, then you have sight, effectively. The name of the ability is to some degree just fluff.

For all monsters that have darkvision, from drow to demons to undead, it was an essentially arbitrary decision. "This critter, is it in the dark a lot? It should be able to see in the dark. Voila, darkvision." It's not black magic.

  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, ""Darkvision" and other senses are often just used as code for "can operate in the dark as well as the day" not that they can technically see" This contradicts what the rules actually say, but makes sense as a justification for the decision and as a method for handling the situation in game. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Jun 11, 2015 at 20:06
  • \$\begingroup\$ Definitely. I might note, for example, an animated chair has darkvision. d20pfsrd.com/bestiary/monster-listings/constructs/… It's not about the eyeballs, it's about beating on you in the dark without hindrance. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jun 12, 2015 at 17:46
  • \$\begingroup\$ For mxyzplk: "About no players can do so." Greyhawk introduced dwarves and elves with 60' infravision to OD&D, before 1st edition, but not half elves. Page 5. You may wish to revise your reply in that regard. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 15, 2015 at 15:43

For this specific situation, perhaps you can just have the undead party camped near an outcrop of bio-luminescent fungus or other dim light natural source. It's something innocuous that the undead might ignore, and lets your story work as needed.

As for undead having night vision, this is a very common trope across a wide range of media and types of undead. Undead creatures, especially vampires, are often depicted as nocturnal and able to operate at night with as much ease as humans operate during the day.

Dark vision adds to the horror factor for these creatures because they can come out of dark places we can't see into.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Being able to operate at night is not the same as being able to see in pitch black darkness. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Jun 10, 2015 at 2:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes it is, from a D&D point of view. No penalties from not being able to see = sight. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jun 10, 2015 at 20:42
  • \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk 'Operate' != 'see', but your edited answer makes it clear that you're viewing 'see' as shorthand for 'operate', which I most certainly was not. \$\endgroup\$
    – DCShannon
    Jun 11, 2015 at 20:08

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