Lately, I’ve found myself thinking about lighting in fantasy RPGs, especially in D&D 5e, which is my main game. When designing a game, you have to make concessions to reality in the name of game play. You simplify some things that don’t seem as important to focus detail on things that do. Lighting and vision in D&D seems to be one of those simplification trade offs. On the surface, it doesn’t seem that important to play. Characters need to be able to see, so let’s make up some plausible light sources based on history, assign some ranges to those sources, and move on. And for most folks, the lighting in D&D has mostly been ignored as unimportant. They ask, “Is there a light source?” and get on with the fighting. I did, too. Something nebulous bugged me about it, but I couldn’t focus on what, so I lived with it. Until 5e, that is. And COVID. Because, of course, COVID.
In the latest D&D rendition, the developers chose to give a large fraction of playable races the ability to see in the dark, upgrading those who used to just see a bit better in dim light, rather than just making them see normally. The ramifications of this decision got me to thinking about how we handle vision in D&D. Around the same time, we went into lockdown and my RPG group’s play switched to a virtual tabletop which had nifty little buttons for handling light sources, normal vision, and darkvision. Fiddling with those buttons pulled the concept of RPG vision into the limelight. Now I was finally able to put a finger on what had been bugging me. I was losing my immersion due to diminished verisimilitude. Not realism, obviously — this is a game about magic, after all — but the feeling of truth in the game took a hit for me.
I started looking into the numbers in the simulation. The ranges of the various lighting sources seemed… optimistic to me, to say the least. And the durations seemed ad hoc, too. So I did some research on things like how long candles and torches actually burn, how bright they really are, and in what situations they were used, historically. It’s fairly interesting, and I encourage you to spend an afternoon chasing down that rabbit hole. But the upshot is, I felt D&D fell short of the mark in several areas, and I decided to houserule some tweaks to vision, lighting, and light sources. Moving forward, I’ll be using the following, in some form, in the bulk of my fantasy games.
Light intensity is broken into five broad categories: Glare, Bright, Normal, Dim, and Dark.
Glare — Found most often on the outer planes in the realms of the celestials, this lighting condition is so bright that it overwhelms the eyes of those with normal vision, effectively blinding them just as darkness would.
Bright — Most often encountered outdoors on a cloudless sunny summer day, especially in lower latitudes, this lighting condition makes seeing things difficult for creatures with normal vision. The need to lower one’s eyes and squint against the painful brightness makes areas of Bright light lightly obscured.
Normal — This is the lighting condition outside on a cloudy to partly cloudy day, whatever the season. It covers a wide range of light intensity. It is not too bright to read, nor is it so dim as to strain the eyes. One can perform most activities without squinting and tearing up or missing something in the shadows.
Dim — Artificial light sources mostly provide dim light, though the moon can provide dim light when near full. One can see just well enough to read, but it is a strain. A house with only a few small windows on a cloudy day would be shrouded in dimness. Dim illumination is shadowy and subdued, making forms indistinct and details washed out. Dim areas are lightly obscured.
Dark — Areas of darkness can span from a moonless, though cloudless, night to the absolute absence of visible light in a cavern. These areas are heavily obscured and occupants with normal vision are effectively blind.
Darkvision and Its Fellows
In our game, there are five types of vision: Darkvision, Dimvision, Normal, Brightvision, and Glarevision. In general, only non-humanoid creatures (i.e. “monsters”) have an actual ability to see in the dark. The playable races listed with Darkvision instead have Dimvision, except for the Tiefling and Aasimar, whose Darkvision is modified. In addition, Tritons gain Darkvision, as dwellers in the deeps. See below for the modified vision capabilities of each race. For
Darkvision — Within a specified range, a creature with Darkvision can see in Darkness as if it were dim light, so areas of Darkness are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned. However, the creature can’t discern color in Darkness, only shades of gray. The creature sees in Dim light as though it were Normal light, and in Normal light as though it were Bright, so areas of Normal light are lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned.
Dimvision — A creature with Dimvision can see in Dim light as if it were normal light, up to the limit of its normal sight. Also known as low-light vision.
Brightvision — A creature with Brightvision can see in Bright light as if it were normal light, up to the limit of its normal sight. Also known as high-light vision.
Glarevision — Within a specified range, a creature with Glarevision can see in a Glare as if it were dim light, so areas of Glare are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned. However, the creature can’t discern color in the Glare, only shades of ochre. The creature sees in Bright light as though it were Normal light, and in Normal light as though it were Dim, so areas of Normal light are lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned.
The standard light sources of D&D are greatly exaggerated in their ability to light a space, while being under generous in most of their durations. This bit aims to bring a little verisimilitude to lighting sources. The following table lists the standard light sources, plus two historical additions to round it all out.
Torch Staff — When medieval folk needed a torch that didn’t burn out in 10–30 minutes, they created a really long torch. The torch staff has a fuel-source head long enough to burn for several hours mounted on long shaft. The burning end must be periodically pruned of the burned material. The whole thing is around the length of a quarterstaff or short polearm. It can be wielded as a quarterstaff, and the flaming end has a 25% chance to set fire to a combustible target on a successful hit, as well a 10% chance of being doused. Note that both torches and torch staves are extremely smoky and not best used in tight enclosed spaces.
Oil Lamp — An oil lamp can be as simple as a dish of oil with a bit of wick dangling over the edge, but more often they are made of clay with a covering lid and a spout for the wick to rest in.
Lanterns — Lanterns are basically a candle or oil lamp in a wood-framed box of vellum, parchment, rawhide, or horn, oiled to improve the transparency. They are superior to torches and bare candles or lamps in that they are wind resistant and less prone to set nearby items on fire. A bullseye lantern has a polished steel reflector set behind the flame so that it shines only in a quarter circle.
Casting Time: 1 standard action
Components: V, S
Duration: 8 hours
As you incant the words of this spell, a misty gold lightness coalesces above and behind your shoulder (choose one), and slightly off to the side, always out of your peripheral view. The spell culminates in the formation of a small, brightly glowing orb which emits a steady, even light. The light is normal light in a 30 foot radius from the source, and dim light for an additional 30 feet. The witchlight remains fixed in place for the duration of the spell, or until dismissed.
The Race Modifications
Aasimar — Glarevision: Blessed with a radiant soul, your vision can easily cut through the celestial glare. You can see in glare conditions within 30 feet of you as if it were bright light, though only in shades of ochre. You can see in areas of bright light as though it were normal, and in normal light as though it were dim.
Dwarf — Dimvision: Accustomed to life underground, you have superior vision in dim conditions. You can see in dim light as if it were normal light.
Elf — Dimvision: Accustomed to twilit forests and the night sky, you have superior vision in dim conditions. You can see in dim light as if it were normal light.
Gnome — Dimvision: Accustomed to life underground or beneath the dense forest canopy, you have superior vision in dim conditions. You can see in dim light as if it were normal light.
Half-elf — Dimvision: Thanks to your elf blood, you have superior vision in dim conditions. You can see in dim light as if it were normal light.
Half-orc — Dimvision: Thanks to your orc blood, you have superior vision in dim conditions. You can see in dim light as if it were normal light.
Tabaxi — Dimvision: You have a cat’s keen sensed, especially in dim conditions. You can see in dim light as if it were normal light.
Tiefling — Darkvision: Thanks to your infernal heritage, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in darkness within 30 feet of you as if it were dim light, though only in shades of grey. You can see in areas of dim light as though it were normal, and in normal light as though it were bright.
Triton — Darkvision: Accustomed to the dimness of the briny deep, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions. You can see in darkness within 30 feet of you as if it were dim light, though only in shades of grey. You can see in areas of dim light as though it were normal, and in normal light as though it were bright.