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If the enemy mage casts a spell and I describe to everybody that it becomes pitch black all around them, they know that a Darkness spell is going on. If on the other hand I ask for a CON save and (after they failed) tell them that they can’t see anymore, they know the mage cast Blindness on them.

Similarly, if it becomes dead silent in the area, they would assume that someone dropped a Silence spell. But if I describe that they can’t hear anymore (after failing a save), they would think that they are now under the influence of a Deafness spell.

But how would they know the difference? Because at first glance I would imagine that somebody inside the effective range of a Darkness or Silence spell cannot tell if a spell messes with their head or with the environment. Or is it obvious what happens when the spell takes effect? (For example, a Darkness spell expands from the center or gradually makes everything darker, while a Blindness spell just kills your sight from one moment to the next?)

Because although losing sight/hearing due to Blindness/Deafness compared to Darkness/Silence seems identical from the character’s point of view, they have completely difference options in both cases.
A deafened spellcaster can cast spells with verbal components, but a spellcaster affected by Silence cannot. They could try to run out of the effective range of the Darkness/Silence spell, but they cannot run away from Blindness/Deafness. A spellcaster could cast Continual Flame at 3rd level to negate the Darkness spell, but this wouldn’t help if he/she is blinded.
At the same time they would have to make saving throws every turn and maybe they notice that (somehow)? Then again, they are in the heat of battle and could be too distracted to pay attention to the minute differences between the various options of not being able to see/hear.

Is this something I can use as a GM to mess with my players every now and then? Or would the players feel hassled, because the differences are obvious?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Just to clarify, are you asking how to resolve the fact that the characters don't know whether they were affected by a Darkness/Silence spell versus a Blindness/Deafness spell, but the players do (because of the saving throw)? Or is this about how the characters can determine which spell is affecting them? \$\endgroup\$ – Adam Apr 21 '17 at 14:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Adam: Do the characters notice right away which spell is affecting them? AND: If the characters have no way to figure out whether they are affected by Darkness/Silence or Blindness/Deafness, how can I present this uncertainty at the game table? \$\endgroup\$ – iribaar7 Apr 21 '17 at 14:32
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Standing still, there is no way to tell via mundane means

Darkness vs Blindness

Being inside an area of darkness puts you inside a heavily obscured area. This is true whether the darkness is nonmagical or magical (as in the one created by Darkness).

PHB 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.

All creatures inside a heavily obscured area suffer from the Blinded condition.

PHB 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).

Silence vs Deafened

An area covered by the Silence spell makes a much more direct comparison to Deafness:

Silence

For the duration, no sound can be created within or pass through a 20-foot-radius sphere centered on a point you choose within range. Any creature or object entirely inside the sphere is immune to thunder damage, and creatures are deafened while entirely inside it.

And so, there is no way to tell.


Except...

You can leave the area of effect

Both Darkness and Silence create static, non-mobile areas of effect. An easy, mundane way to know is to walk in a straight line until you have walked a certain distance. If you are still blind, it's the Blindness spell; otherwise you will be able to see the area of darkness behind you. If you are still deaf, it's the Deafness spell; otherwise you will start being able to hear again.

Alternatively, you can cast Detect Magic

Blindness/Deafness is a necromancy spell, whereas Silence is an illusion spell, and Darkness is an evocation spell. If you could cast Detect Magic, you would be able to tell the difference between these schools.

You can also try casting spells

Spells which require a Verbal component fail entirely inside an area of Silence, but you can still cast them while Deafened. For example, you can use a Healing Word on yourself. If you regenerate hitpoints, then you must be under the Deafness spell.


Can you use Blindness/Deafness/Darkness/Silence as a tool?

On your final question: is it a tool you have as a DM? Yes, of course it is. You could set up traps and puzzles that require sight or hearing to be gone. Or you can have deaf party members due to the Deafness spell trying to communicate with the other non-deaf party members. It's fun (for you, at least).

Will the players feel hassled? That depends on them. If you would really like to spring it on them, I say give it a shot. But if you genuinely believe they will strongly hate it, ask them to be sure. The reactions of your players will depend on that particular set of players and is not something the people at this Stack can determine for you.

Your job is to present them with obstacles and puzzles to challenge them. This is just one of those ways to do that. So yes, it is within your toolbox if you want to use them.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Leaving the area of effect might not be possible. Either because all exits of the affected room are blocked or because the area of effect is too big. Alternatively, the evil mage could cast Darkness on an object and carry it around, in order to keep you in the dark. \$\endgroup\$ – iribaar7 Apr 21 '17 at 14:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @iribaar7 In that case, the other methods of detection kick in \$\endgroup\$ – user27327 Apr 21 '17 at 16:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @iribaar7 The mage would have to Hide to conceal their presence. You can use Search repeatedly to try to beat their Stealth check. Even if you can't (e.g. they have Pass Without Trace) you can Hide so they hopefully lose track of you and don't know which way you're moving. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Apr 21 '17 at 16:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ To learn the shool of magic with Detect Magic, you have to see the target, so that method does not work for Blindness vs Darkness. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Apr 21 '17 at 17:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just to be clear, the Silence spell is static and non-mobile. The Darkness spell however can be placed on an object and moved around at will. \$\endgroup\$ – Carey Sauerbrun Apr 25 '17 at 19:52
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DnD Models Reality

Saves are things that actually happen, and characters can sense this, even if the reason for the sensation isn't entirely apparent. And players can distinguish between them, too. A Con save is a very physical thing, while a Wis save is mental.

The PC is still in communication with his party

In a RL situation of this nature, its rather simple to figure out if an effect such as blindness or deafness is just you or is everyone. If I stop hearing things, a quick glance tells me I'm the only one in a panic, and their obvious response to my question tells me that they can hear me, even though I can't hear myself. Similar disambiguation happens with darkness, but on audio.

Spells require casting

How is the BBEG doing this? Is he casting a spell? If so, the players can detect that he is, and identify the spell if they're capable. This includes any time a spell is cast in a way that requires an outwardly-detectable component, such as verbal, somatic, or material, or when the spell has, in any degree a outwardly-detectable effect. Which leads me to....

Spells are, by genre, almost always overly theatric

A darkness spell doesn't just "make it dark", its a creeping smoke that rapidly fills the room, extinguishing all light as it moves.

A silence spell doesn't just "make it silent", there's a distinctive skoom as audio is canceled, that skilled adventurers actually get used to hearing(See Tagon of SchlockMercenary for a similar example).

While these are not RAW, afaik, these ARE genre.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll admit, have like....zero familiarity with 5e, beyond being told that its ~roughly~ 3.5. I assumed saves worked the same on this front. \$\endgroup\$ – godskook Apr 21 '17 at 19:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ You don't automatically know if you failed a saving throw. Look at "Do you always know when you’re under the effect of a spell?" in the Sage Advice compendium - it mentions that a target that fails its saving throw against Suggestion will it think decided to follow the suggestion of its own will. That being the case, it probably doesn't know it made a save at all. \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Apr 21 '17 at 19:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Doval I've not read the article in question (and can't at this time due to work blocks) but your example is a situation where I'd agree where the character might not know they failed. But failing other saves have more obvious and immediate negative effects; I envision the effects of Blindness/Deafness as a sharp pain followed by loss of the relevant sense. As a general rule, though, unless a specific effect indicates a lack of knowledge of the target's end, I assume they always know. Charm Person and Friends are specific to include ignorance on the target's part. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Apr 21 '17 at 19:34
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Doval, that's a fair point, but I think its only relevant in cases when a spell's effect necessitates the target's lack of awareness. \$\endgroup\$ – godskook Apr 21 '17 at 19:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Pyrotechnical You're free to play Blindness/Deafness that way but that's not what the spell does. Here's the relevant snippet from SA: "You’re aware that a spell is affecting you if it has a perceptible effect or if its text says you’re aware of it...Most spells are obvious...Certain spells are more subtle, yet you become aware of the spell at a time specified in the spell’s description. Charm person and detect thoughts are examples of such spells. Some spells are so subtle that you might not know you were ever under their effects. A prime example of that sort of spell is suggestion." \$\endgroup\$ – Doval Apr 21 '17 at 20:18
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It depends on why you want to distinguish them. If you want the players to be able to distinguish them for the purpose of being able to understand and solve the tactical problem in front of them, making your description ambiguous and letting them think of and use techniques like the ones markovchain described would be great for your purposes.

If your purpose is to create enemies and situations that feel different even if they're tactically interchangeable (e.g. there's not much difference between the whole group being blinded and a sufficiently large patch of darkness), then it's all up to your description. I imagine that a blindness or deafness spell might hurt quite a lot, for example, whereas a magical darkness might be creepily gentle and oh-so-slightly cold.

Can you mess with them this way? If it seems like it will be fun for everyone by increasing the challenge and excitement, why not? But also keep in mind that a blindness or deafness spell is doing something to their characters' bodies (assuming that their characters were seeing and hearing in the first place), which may be more unsettling to players than having the environment messed with. As an extreme example, I once designed a magic item that applied a blindness effect by (temporarily, though that only became obvious later) removing a character's face and replacing it with a wet, blank surface. That was unsettling to my players, and something I only did because I knew everyone was down with horror in that particular game and wanted to fight unsettling things. I would probably not include that item in a non-horror game, especially with strangers. So, in sum, think about the role that these effects are playing in the story, the tone of your game when deciding how and why to use them.

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