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In discussing this question, I came to realize that the real question was whether Darkness blocks vision or merely creates "darkness".

Per the wording of the spell:

Magical darkness spreads from a point you choose within range to fill a 15-foot-radius sphere for the duration. The darkness spreads around corners. A creature with darkvision can’t see through this darkness, and nonmagical light can’t illuminate it. (emphasis mine)

Normal darkness is defined in the game as creating a heavily obscured area and the only description added to the darkness is that it is magical, which (to me) just means that it is created by magic and is subject to the magical rules.

Darkvision is defined in the game as basically being able to see in darkness as if they were seeing in dim light. So, the text "darkvision can’t see through this darkness" merely means that it affects darkvision in the same way it affects normal vision. (See earlier versions of the spell below, which had similar wordings.)

I see nothing there that implies it is a barrier to vision, just an active and utter absence of illumination.


Previous editions have varying descriptions. What's the history of the Darkness spell? and this wiki article give accurate accountings of the various versions.

  • The 1e Wizard version seems to actually imply a sphere of opaque blackness that even blocks infra/ultravision, while the 1e Cleric version is a reversal of the Light spell and creates totally normal darkness, with no block to special visions.

  • The 2e version is similar to the 1e Cleric spell. It creates an area of darkness "equal to an unlit interior room".

  • The 3.0e version comes closest to the 5e version. It "causes an object to radiate darkness out to a 20-foot radius. Not even creatures who can normally see in the dark (such as with darkvision) can see in an area shrouded in magical darkness." Still no reference to any sort of opacity and the wording makes it clear that darkvision is being treated specifically here.

  • 3.5e Darkness is similar, although instead of darkness, it creates "shadowy illumination". This affects darkvision as well as normal vision.

  • 4e doesn't have a Darkness spell, but rather a Cleric Utility called Veil of Darkness, which creates "a zone that is heavily obscured and blocks line of sight." So, finally, a reference to opacity, in "blocks line of sight", although I question if opacity was the intent.

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I see nothing there that implies it is a barrier to vision, just an active and utter absence of illumination.

You are quite right - there is nothing in the spell that says it blocks vision, just that the area is in Darkness.

However, a strict reading of normal darkness means you can't see through that (PHB p.183):

Darkness creates a heavily obscured area. 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.

And a Heavily Obscured area is (PHB p.183):

A heavily obscured area—such as darkness, opaque fog, or dense foliage—blocks vision entirely. A creature in a heavily obscured area effectively suffers from the blinded condition (see appendix A).

Which has been erratad as:

A heavily obscured area doesn’t blind you, but you are effectively blinded when you try to see something obscured by it.

So, darkness (magical or otherwise) creates a heavily obscured area. A heavily obscured area "blocks vision entirely".

Now, while it is clear what this means for "opaque fog, or dense foliage" is simple and straightforward - you cant see into this stuff and you can't see through it to stuff on the other side of it.

Applying this to darkness, however, seems to result in nonsense because, in the real world, darkness isn't a thing. In the real world darkness is the absence of light hitting your eyes from a certain direction. This can be because of an actual absence of light (underground) or because, even though the region is full of light none of it is coming your way (space). But this isn't the real world, is it?

So you have 3 options:

  1. Darkness works just like it says in the book - you cannot see into it or through it. This would be really cool for a gothic horror campaign even though it would make navigating at night ridiculously hard.
  2. Darkness (magical or not) works as it does in the real world - you can't see into it but you can see through it to illuminated areas beyond. I think this is what the rules intended even though they and the errata were poorly drafted.
  3. Normal darkness works like 2. Magical darkness works like 1. There is no support for this in the Darkness spell description but this is how it worked in prior editions.

Its your world - make it fun.

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    \$\begingroup\$ The errata means that you can see through/past/out of (nonmagical) darkness, just not into it. ie, like real life. But that doesn't answer what magical darkness does. (see OP's linked question) \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Aug 11 '16 at 2:40
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Adeptus you could read the errata that way but what it actually says is that if you try to see something obscured by the heavily obscured stuff you are effectively blinded. As I say, this makes sense for solid stuff but not so much for "darkness". \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 11 '16 at 3:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ I guess it depends on how you define "obscured by". Could mean "in", could mean "in or behind". In 5e's case, it probably means "ask the DM". \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Aug 11 '16 at 4:01
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    \$\begingroup\$ For options 2 & 3, if there is an area of darkness between two areas of light, are creatures within the darkness "silhouetted" as dark shapes by the light background behind them, or are they simply invisible? \$\endgroup\$ – Imaginary Aug 11 '16 at 16:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WillRhodes to get really technical, darkness (as in impenetrable shadows) is a relative thing. The human eye can see across an absolutely enormous range of illuminance levels, just not all at once. A dark alley in daylight is much brighter in physics units than the Main Street at night, however, in human perception it is much "darker". \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Aug 31 '16 at 1:59
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5e clearly states;

A creature with darkvision CAN'T SEE THROUGH this darkness, and nonmagical light can’t illuminate it.

Implying it is in fact a visual barrier, as it clearly says "through". So, seeing what's outside the darkness spell from within is just as much of a problem for anyone outside looking into the spell's area or what's behind the area.

The only ones that can see through it are people wielding -magical light- (Not normal light) outside the radius to illuminate into it (Light entering the zone will immediate snuff out all magical/non light), and creatures/players with something like True Vision which can see into magical darkness.

Or Warlock Invocation; Devil's Sight, which lets you see through magical and nonmagical darkness normally up to 120 feet. Cast darkness on yourself (Darkness will move with an object if cast upon it) and just troll the battlefield with the disadvantage anyone attacking you now has.

Should be noted older version of the spell work very differently. Pathfinder drops the light level by 1 in the area so no impact on people with darkvision other than normal lighting penalties. 3.5 anyone inside gains a 20% dodge chance, even if the attacker has darkvision.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I explain why the phrase "darkvision CAN'T SEE THROUGH this darkness" doesn't logically support this conclusion in the post. Can you address that point? \$\endgroup\$ – Will Rhodes Jan 10 at 21:37
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I would argue that darkness let's you see illuminated areas beyond it. This thread has already made a good job explaining why from a real world perspective but I'm going to use a specific vs general argument based off how the darkness created by hunger of hadar specifically states creatures inside are blinded, despite other identical terms being used in the description. Notably the 'no light. Magical or otherwise can illuminate the area' part of the text.

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