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As part of my ongoing preparations and musings about a possible West Marches style campaign, I began to think about lighting. I really like the idea that adventuers have to rely on a torch or lantern to see in the deep dark dungeons of my world. I like the idea that a sudden gust of wind could blow out their last torch and leave them stranded in the darkness with all the horrible monsters.

Of course, having characters with darkvision (almost) completely prevents that sort of event from having its intended effect. The characters with darkvision can guide those without. What's more, the characters without darkvision suddenly become an annoying hindrance to those with it.

I do not want to ban all of the darkvision races however, as that would deny too many options for my players.

My question is, how embedded in the balancing of the races is darkvision? Would removing it adversely affect this balance? What alternatives and/or replacements are there?

As always, I would rather that the problem be solved, than the specific question be answered, so, if you can think of a different solution, other than removing darkvision, feel free to suggest it.

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If you remove Darkvision from PCs nothing much happens. If you remove it from monsters some encounter design becomes painful.

Well I haven't outright removed darkvision in any of my games it has bothered me for awhile. In 5e six out of the nine races have darkvision which, for my games, is ludicrously too common. For a bit over a year I've experimented with ways of limiting darkvision's effectiveness through area design. Some examples of things I've tried:

  • Various types of undead are invisible to darkvision which (in an undead heavy area) make it near useless from a PC perspective
  • Areas where darkvision's range is heavily limited
  • Lots of color based areas so characters relying on darkvision (as monsters do) would be lost whereas those with lights (hopefully good guys) would get clues

The end result has been that the players don't trust darkvision and use it only as a last resort. They carry lamps, the wizard casts light, they actually care if an area is lit or not, and then carry on as usual. They do have more issues scouting as a lamp gives away your position pretty quickly, but we consider this a feature not a bug.

For my part I get to describe moody forests and dark tombs without bothering about what the elf/dwarf/gnome/half-orc/tiefling/half-elf sees different. I see no reason why removing darkvision from PC races would be much different and likely will do so in the next iteration of my game.

An addendum: I won't be removing it from most monsters. I enjoy designing dungeons that are reasonably functional ecosystems and figuring out how all the monsters find their way around in the black is a headache I see no value in. This isn't a problem for me because, in for my game, I'm comfortable with monsters having access to abilities that the PCs don't. Monsters are... monsters, they're supposed to be different and for most being able to, "see", in utter-darkness is suitably terrifying.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Do you plan to replace Darkvision with some other racial trait? \$\endgroup\$ – Ellesedil Jun 3 '16 at 23:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ellesedil Nope. We've had no balance problems (and people still preferring the darkvision races to say... human) with it being near useless up till now so I see no reason to replace it. \$\endgroup\$ – Ceribia Jun 4 '16 at 0:13
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Excising a feature is delicate business, and I generally avoid doing it; the implications are difficult enough for me to predict that I'd rather find other ways to achieve my goals. Happily it sounds like your goal isn't to remove darkvision, but to have occasional dramatic scenes in the dark, and the looming promise of such scenes.

For that goal, we don't need to do anything permanent to the rules or mechanics: we need to seed the world with the potential for scenes in the dark when it would be dramatic.

To this end, I present The Creeping Black.

As the party explores the nearer, lower-level areas, they hear rumours of strange thick cloying darkness. Deep in a low-level dungeon, they encounter shadows which darkvision cannot penetrate, and which reduces the radius of light sources. It may provide a moment of tension, but overall is simply a curiosity--except for those persistent rumours...

...and then, as the PCs penetrate further into the wilds and explore more dangerous dungeons, the Black shadows grow stronger and bolder. They're cold and thick and try to snuff out uncovered lights, stranding the party in the impenetrable dark.

Deeper still? Perhaps the Black is all-consuming, or perhaps it conceals horrible things. Does The Creeping Black herald some approaching evil? Or is the Black itself a foe to be vanquished (if so, how?). If the party fails on some high-level mission, might they find the Black creeping closer to their home base?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminds me of a certain Doctor Who Episode. Definitely an idea I will think about using, whether it solves the problem completely or not. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Jun 6 '16 at 13:07
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Since you mentioned you're open to other options than just straight removing it, you could try changing it to low-light vision. Basically, you just remove the ability to see darkness as dim light. Sure, at first players might feel like just being able to see dim light as normal light makes no difference, but the thing to remind them about is the section on Light and Vision, which states

In a lightly obscured area, such as dim light... creatures have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight. (PHB, 183)

and the section on passive checks

If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. (PHB, 175)

So, while you remove the big advantage of being able to see in pitch blackness, the races still have the minor advantage of being able to see in dim light without disadvantage to perception checks, like taking a big hit to their passive perception score while walking in a dimly lit room.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This is actually pretty clever, have you tried this? What was the result? \$\endgroup\$ – daze413 Feb 16 '17 at 4:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ While I haven't used it myself, Low Light Vision was in 3.5e along with Darkvision, but it had different rules. But I figure the results would work a bit better than removing Darkvision entirely. Although You could argue that players without it could just take the Skulker feat, which includes ignoring the disadvantage imposed by dim light. \$\endgroup\$ – J Nason Feb 16 '17 at 4:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for the suggestion. In the end, I did something rather similar. I gave such races advantage on perception checks in darkness and dim light. This cancelled the disadvantage for perception checks based on sight in dim light (as this answer suggests), and also gives advantage on perception checks based on hearing in both darkness and dim light. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Feb 16 '17 at 12:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ladifas I recommend this answer over simply granting advantage, as it neatly avoids certain stacking issues (negating dis/advantage from other sources, double-dipping with other darkvision-like effects to gain net advantage). \$\endgroup\$ – Taxi4Dave Sep 24 '19 at 10:11
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you go this route, I would suggest removing the range restriction, to make it feel like less of a nerf. So Darkvision now affects dim-light at any distance, but no longer affects darkness. I might also make this change only apply to PC races, and not monsters, as that makes light feel more valuable to protect against the monsters in the dark. \$\endgroup\$ – Taxi4Dave Sep 24 '19 at 10:14
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Short Answer

It is never good to take away from players what the core books give them.

As the DM you wear many hats. Do not forget that one of the hats you wear is that of adversary.

If you find it necessary to remove from your players as important an ability as the one to see half the time in order to excite them, it is not the ability that needs fixing.

Expanded Answer

Player-to-player is not the only balance to consider. There is DM-to-player balance. The game gives players a very small tool box with which to accomplish their goals. It gives the DM a huge tool box to accomplish their goals. It is not a mater of style if a DM finds it necessary to remove standard tools from the players' tool box in order to accomplish their goals. I suggest it is usually a lack of ability, knowledge or laziness. (Unusual niche type campaigns would be an exception.) As a DM I never do that. As a player I hate when a DM chooses the easy way out at my expense.

I would assume since you are seeking answers laziness is not the issue. That leaves knowledge or ability. I would like to think if one works hard at it, ability would be something one could improve. There are plenty of Youtube videos out there on how to become a strong DM. They would solve either of the last 2 possibilities if that was what you desired.

D&D is not Monopoly. The true limit is the DM's imagination. There are countless ways to accomplish the effect you desire. The good ones will not leave your players feeling you have taken something from them.

Other options that do not permanently steal player abilities in order to create a desired effect:

  1. Fog

  2. Magical darkness

  3. Shorter passageways, maybe with tight turns.

  4. Walls in a specific dungeon radiate an interference with the DV spectrum

  5. Frequent standard illusions will cause them to question what they see.

  6. Frequent illusions in a dungeon that are easily seen through if exposed to a light spell.

  7. Snow blindness. Snow does not have to be the source. Now they are closing their eyes by choice.

  8. Smoke

  9. Dust

  10. Wind, strong enough to require unprotected eyes to really squint or be covered.

If you're just looking for a dark, windy description it's still there to give even if some players have darkvision. Darkvision is not supposed to be comparable to daylight at all. It's shorter, colorless and pretty dim.

There are so many tools a DM has, and that's why I consider it weak when they resort to removing tools from the players' tool box instead of using the DM tools they were given.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Right now the answer reads as "the thing you're trying to do is bad," which we call a "frame challenge." This meta post has some good discussion on how best to handle frame challenges. One specific point is that we should still answer the question posed, in this case "what happens if the PCs don't have darkvision?" You don't touch on that at all. \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Jun 5 '16 at 12:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ I edited your answer for grammar and spelling. Please revert or edit further if anything in that edit changed or detracted from your intended meaning. An example of "a good solution" would improve this answer. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jun 5 '16 at 14:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think this answer is deserving of so much downvote. The OP stated that he wasn't married to the idea of removing darkvision, only to try and limit that aspect of the PCs power. This post provides some thinking toward not removing anything and provides some examples to counter reliance on darkvision, using the rulesets given. \$\endgroup\$ – JPicasso Feb 16 '17 at 13:50

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