View Full Version : Bringing Darkness and Light to life in Dungeons

2017-04-22, 08:50 AM
- "It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue."

- "I'm attacking the darkness!"

Ah, Darkness my old friend... Does your party use torches? Are rooms in your campaign described by what the characters can see in the illumination of their light sources? I dare to say, probably not. I don't recall light ever being even mentioned in any of the adventures I played over the last two decades. I also don't recall it being mentioned in almost all the many adventures I've read. Rulebooks grant a small paragraph to it, but it's never mentioned again in other places. I think in part this has to do with a lot of visualization of dungeons coming from movies and videogames. And these almost never show true darkness because then you would have no clue what's going on on the screen.

I think most of us don't even know what true darkness is. There are few basement rooms with no windows or lights in them and if you're anywhere near a large settlement then even a completely overcast sky will be pretty bright. But consider being underground in a cave with no light reaching to you from the entrance and without a big network of powerful electric lights lighting everything to the levels of a living room. Visibility wouldn't just be bad, it would be nonexistent. And it wouldn't be like looking for the light switch on the way to the bathroom. At your home you know where everything is.

Shown in this painting: Who the hell knows?!

I got Veins of the Earth this week, which I think is an amazing book that I wouldn't recommend to most people. As RPG books go, this one is on the very far out end of jumbly strangeness. It's a fascinating work of art, but not what most people would want out of a sourcebook for underground adventures. (Or at least not expect. If you're curious about it read some reviews first and be prepared to perhaps find nothing of use for you in it.) And it has some cool ways to get you thinking about darkness in caves and dungeons. Lamps and torches don't just simply define the distance you will be from doors, chests, and creatures when the GM tells the players what they come across in the dungeon. Instead you could think of the darkness as a substance that fills the entire dungeons and in which light sources create a small bubble around the PCs. As they carry their light forward they are parting the wall of black before them while at the same time the darkness is swollowing up everything they leave behind themselves. And the darkness is a threat to the characters because there are things in it. Things that await the characters with nasty big pointy teeth! Lots of them!

The darkness is a character. It only wants one thing. Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it. The dark hates the players; you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a ten foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.

In many videogames the map starts out black and is revealed as characters move around and becomes grayed out behind them to indicate that they can't see what enemies might be in those areas. Which given the static nature of most game levels is fine, but it really should get totally black again. This approach certainly lends itself to horror games or Subterranean Fantasy ****ing Vietnam, but I think it's also very interesting to consider for more heroic adventures.

How can this idea be used in practice?

One important thing would be that the spaces inside the dungeon need to be larger than the range of illumination of a torch. If a torch illuminates everything up to 30 feet away and there's a corner or door in the corridor every 30 feet or rooms have diameters of only 40 feet, then the players won't really get to see the darkness.

Monsters being able to see in darkness also becomes an important element. If a monster can move around in the dungeon without a light then it will easily spot the party as soon as they get within line of sight, regardless of how much "range" their light source has. The area that is illuminated to their eyes may be pretty limited, but the light source can be seen from huge distances by an observer sitting in total darkness.
In reverse, PCs who can scout ahead without a light source can spot monsters that are using light well in advance as well.

When you combine those two elements you can have a very nasty combination. Invisible archers. Except that they don't need any magic for it that can run out. Players may use some kind of flares to lighten up spots, but then the archers have just to move a few meters to the side to become invisible again.

Light can also be used as a resource. Or fuel can, to be more precise. In a big dungeon a party can go through a lot of torches, especially if they have two or three torches burning at the same time as backups.
For this purse the older editions of D&D have the time unit of turns in addition to rounds. A turn is 10 minutes in length and a torch burns for 6 turns. Since you probably don't want to track the whole adventure round by round outside of combat and deal with torches that last 600 rounds, it is assumed that one turn has passed after each encounter, after exploring a certain distance of space in the dungeon, or searching a given amount of space. The distances for explorin and areas for searching seem implausibly low to me, but generally it's a pretty handy solution to this problem.
When the players run low on fuel for their lights and either can't or don't want to get back outside before they run out, they can start looking around for other stuff in the dungeon that they could use as a light source. Expect the players to come up with some really weird and perhaps horrifying solutions. MacGuyvering stuff in hostile environments should be part of every exporation adventure. And light fuel can even be a kind of treasure.

I always love to put a lot of water in my dungeons and get the players to go into it. But I never considered the impact this has on fire based light sources. It's never a problem in videogames since all caves have a natural blue glow and magic torches that are burning for hundreds of years. But if you don't ignore the issue of light, than swimming and diving in caves becomes much more complicated.
I think everyone thinks of the breath water spell in D&D as a way to visit the mermaid kingdom under the sea, but it's actually much more useful to explore flooded dungeons. When this happens you pretty much have to rely on light spells to see anything. Or exoti light sources like glowing moss or slugs in a bottle, and those probably won't have a lot of range. Explore an underwater cave maze with a visibility of 3 meters and only a spell with a limited duration to keep you alive? Not a fun thought. (Unless the players decide to actually do it anyway, which is when things get really exciting.)

Light and darkness could be a fantastic addition to exploration game when used effectively. Do you have any more ideas what could be done with it?

2017-04-22, 10:44 AM
I know exactly what you mean about darkness not being used effectively in most games. My group recently picked up Torchbearer, and it's the first time I can remember seeing it done well. It does the old-school D&D thing where time in the dungeon is tracked in turns, with one turn passing every time someone rolls for something; light sources have both a time limit in turns, and a radius (candles light one character and last four turns, torches work for two people but only last two turns; lanterns light three people for three turns, but they're expensive). If you're in darkness, you can't do anything except run away from things and play riddle games, and are pretty much completely at the DM's mercy. It really adds to the pressure of pushing ahead before your torches burn out, and makes the dark feel scary.

Darth Ultron
2017-04-22, 11:03 AM
Maybe you are in a dense urban area, but trust me us folks in the country know darkness. When the sun does down there is no light...for miles....until you get to the highway. I'm far enough to not even see the halo from the city lights. And lots of cellars, basements and storm cellars have no windows...even more so as lots of them were made in like the early 20th century. And even in the work place...ever loose power at work in a standard ''no window/sky light (and, um, emergency light) workplace....it gets very dark inside places like warehouses...

Darkness and light can be lots of fun in a game....if the players go along. It does get kind of trickly as if something is just a couple feet out of the torch light it is ''invisible''. And that can greatly annoy players as they will whine that they ''should have seen the guy dressed all in black in total darkness.''

I agree most game do it the TV/movie way of..er, look, light is everywhere...now back to the game.