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One thing I’ve been struggling with as a newbie GM is keeping track of how light or dark a certain room is. My players and I have been playing a D&D 5e starter campaign with me as the GM. I might read in the campaign book something like:

This is Area 4, area 4 is dark.

… however, in either the thrill of the actual game or in the confusion of battle, I forget that Area 4 is, in fact, dark.

I thought this was because I was running a published campaign that I didn’t make or internalize but when we played a campaign I made myself last week, I still had the same problem.

How do I remember to describe light, light sources, and darkness?

My shortcomings in this regard have resulted in my players not lighting a single torch for the whole duration of The Lost Mines of Phandelver. I feel like this is a problem as I feel like I’m taking a level out of the game that greatly affects ambiance and style of play.

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D&D5 has only 3 levels: Dark, Dim or Light.

In the absence of a light source it's Dark - take this as the default state for underground and nighttime. Start with everywhere is dark; If you are in the dark you are effectively blinded.

To remember: Write "Dark" prominently on the map.

To make an area Light you need a light source, blindsight or darkvision.

Light Sources

Natural

The sun is a good one; if it is daytime and you are outside or inside but with decent sized windows/doors its light, as a rule of thumb Light will go about 20 feet inside; Dim another 20 feet; after that it's Dark. Most above ground buildings will not be big enough or opaque enough to be dark. Therefore, Darkness only matters either a) at night or b) well inside (e.g. underground).

To remember: Write "Day" and "Night" on a piece of card and put it right way up on the map for aboveground adventures.

As DM you can create other natural light sources: lava, phosphorescence etc. These will be relatively rare and therefore memorable in their own right.

To remember: Write prominently on the map where these special natural light sources are and sketch the areas they illuminate as "Light" or "Dim".

Artificial

The rules for artificial light are given in the PHB. Someone is either carrying them (in which case the area around the carrier is illuminated) or they are fixed in a position (in which case someone needs to maintain them).

To remember: Write prominently on the map where fixed artificial light sources are and sketch the areas they illuminate as "Light" or "Dim".

To remember: Get some rigid clear plastic (the covers on women's shoe boxes is what I am thinking of). Cut them into the shape of the light source at the scale of the map (60-foot circle for a torch, 120-foot cone for a bullseye lantern etc.). Mark the boundary between "Light" and "Dim". Cut a hole in them for a miniature to fit through if you want. Drop them on the map and move them around.

Consumption Most artificial light sources don't last forever. A torch, a Light cantrip and a Daylight spell lasts an hour, a pint of oil 6 hours etc.

To remember: You need to track time - if resources are not an issue you do not need to be precise - a party adventuring for 24 hours underground will be active for about 16 - they will use 18 torches or 3 pints of oil per day, this allows for the "overlapping" time where two are lit at once. This is generally close enough. You see the value of the light cantrip - too bad if the only PC that can cast it gets incapacitated while 3 miles underground (evil grin).

To remember: Good tactics for monsters with darkvision or blindsight is to target the light source - extinguish the torch or cover the light cantrip object.

Darkvision

Darkvision provides the equivalent of dim light and is black and white only. Most monsters and Demi-humans have this; humans don't. Dim light imposes disadvantage on Wisdom (perception) checks.

To remember: If your party/monsters consist solely of creatures with darkvision, then everywhere within range is dimly lit. If they want to find things though they will still need a light source or else deal with the disadvantage.

Blindsight

These creatures don't see and don't need light to operate

To remember: This is generally limited by range. Outside that range they rely on normal vision, if they have it.

Weird stuff

As discussed in How far away can you see light?, most of the time we use the modern scientific interpretation of seeing. That it is reflected light falling on your retina that allows you to see. Therefore, it is the lighting on the object being seen that matters.

In a fantasy game of course; it doesn't have to be that way. As the PHB says, if you are in the dark you are "effectively blinded". You can take this as written and say that if you have no darkvision and are standing in the dark then you can't see anything even if that object is illuminated. That would be ... strange, but maybe also fun. Note that it seriously disadvantages humans over the other races.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I liked the part where you said "Start with everywhere is dark." but the rest of the answer strayed a bit. Also, I can't find in the PHB where the light source table is, I can't seem to find it. \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 17 '15 at 14:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I gave the question an edit to emphasise that the problem is forgetting/remembering, not handling the mechanics of lighting after remembering. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jun 17 '15 at 16:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ @daze413 it isn't consolidated anywhere, you need to look at equipment, spell and Darkvision descriptions. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Jun 18 '15 at 3:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ For those who are reading: Candles emit bright light for a 5 ft radius and dim for another 5 for 1 hour. Lamps 15/15 for 1 hour. Torches 20/20 1 hour. Hooded Lanterns 30/30 for 6 hrs, with the added benefit of using an action to reduce the light to dim for 5 ft (for missions that need you to be sneaky-beaky like). Bullseye Lantern emits 60/60 in a cone for 6 hours. Source: (See adventuring gear in PHB) \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Jun 20 '15 at 5:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ The 5e DM screen does have them all together if you own it. \$\endgroup\$ – Derek Stucki Jun 15 '16 at 3:58
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Using The Lost Mines of Phandelver as an example, here's how I handle such situations.

  • Map I frequently forget elements when going off published maps. So I take the published map, photocopy it, and mark it in a way that makes the key elements of each room impossible for me to miss. For example, if the room is dark, I outline the shape of the room using a dark brown or black pen. If there is illumination in the room, I use a highlighter to mark the illuminated area of the room. I keep the map pinned to the inside of the DM screen or consistently visible in some other location.

  • Room Description Text The challenge for me with published adventures is that the map and room description are often not on the same page. So if there's an aspect of the room I know I'll forget, I make an annotation directly in the adventure book. I also sometimes use color-coded Post-It flags. Usually I do this to indicate that there is something dangerous in a room, but you could also use it for illumination: yellow for light, orange for dim, red for dark.

When creating my own adventures, I just set up a simple format for each area. Every area gets the same treatment: Lighting, footing (rough ground, muddy, sandy, cobblestones, etc.), air (stale, breezy, humid, etc.), and walls (cave, rough-hewn, fitted rock, brick & mortar, etc.). This forces me to think about the same aspects for each room, and the act of writing them down helps me remember later, so usually I don't even have to look up what I wrote.

Basically the act of writing helps me memorize what's going on in that area as I make the notation, and by giving me a quick visual reference I can check in-session if necessary.

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If you use miniatures

If you use miniatures, it might be useful to get some kind of small ring (like, cut out top of a cottage cheese or margarine container, leave just the rim) that you can place down around the light sources. Obviously: a) it's not exact, and b) you need to find something a close size for the actual light to your map, but it can serve as a way to remind people where the light source is and about how far out it goes.

No miniatures

Color Coding a Map

Copy the map, and get some colored markers. Mark the places that are LIT, and assume everything else is dark.

"Who's got the light?"

This qwuestion will become a common thing for you. Ask it regularly, note it down, especially when you note things like initiative before a fight, and then after a fight.

Light/Random Encounter Countdown

In older D&D, so many turns passing caused a random encounter roll to trigger. So, tracking time was kind of important - I would just make a small check list of boxes or circles and mark which ones meant a light source was burning out or a random encounter was going off (this also was useful for tracking things like magic or poison durations as well). When you're doing this, it also is a useful reminder to consider light sources.

Considerations for light and your game

Most videogames and modern fantasy movies simply skip the issue of light. Any place where anything interesting happens just always seems to have some kind of light - glowing moss, sun skimming in from a gap above, burning torches, etc. That's because mostly people like to see the action and not worry about light sources. This is a pretty good way to do things if you are running a "hack and slash" game and don't care as much about the logistics.

The other side of it is basically making darkness a constant thing to struggle against - torches running out, lanterns getting dropped, etc. This pushes up the logistical concerns for characters quite a bit: who has a free hand to carry the light source? Who is in front? Who is in back? What happens if you get knocked down and drop it? What if you have to run? It's a lot harder now, and makes things quite different.

Both are reasonable things to do, but they're fun in different ways and you should know what you're aiming for and find out what your players enjoy doing. There's rules for light sources, but a lot of gamers simply handwave it away because it's not what interests them.

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If you're using a game mat and you're drawing the map out as you play, any room that is dim has diagonal lines in one direction to signify that the light in that room is in fact, dim. If a room is completely dark, draw diagonal lines in the opposite direction and add curved lines in the corners of the room to signify that the room is dark. If a dark room has a light source calculate how big a light radius the light is producing, everything outside that radius is dim.

If you want to take it a step further or really get into the darkness mechanics or bring in some houserules, double the radius of your light source, anything outside that radius is dark. Here's an image I've drawn to illustrate what this would look like on a hand-drawn or photocopied map:

Light source map

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I'm a big fan of clipping things to my GM screen for everyone to see. NPC pictures to remind them they have some NPCs along, a ship's mast to remind them "you are all on a ship," etc.

For lighting, you could make little pieces of paper with a sun (light), a moon (dim) and just black (dark) and have the relevant one pinned up on the top of your screen (bulldog clips work well) so that everyone can see it. Not great for complex lighting conditions but good for everyone to remember general ambient lighting conditions.

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One simple technique that I have found to easily track who is carrying the lamp (or torch, etc.) is found in this (slightly amusing) video by Lindybeige.

He suggests that you blu-tac a small tiddly-wink to the bottom of the lantern-carrying character, so that you always know where the light source is. This both reminds you to think about light, and gives a good indication as to what the light source should illuminate.

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I actually use Roll20 for managing combats and dungeons.

They have features like "dynamic lighting" that help me manage that. Dynamic lighting is a premium feature, but even with the basic (free) package, you can give your PCs with Darkvision an "aura" with their Darkvision size. Having the big Aura not only reminds you that are in the dark, but also that not everybody can see the same things.

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