Elements of the Game

Darkness in the Dungeon

Three companions stood at the mouth of the cave, each one peering into the darkness, yet all three seeing things very differently. Darvin hefted his great sword anxiously; His human eyes saw no further than the dim light that filtered into the mouth of the cave. The elf, Adrie, felt confident. Her eye were much sharper than those of her human friend. She could see about 60 feet into the cave. It was broad with high ceilings. the floor of the cave sloped gently downward. Her spirits were buoyed by the thought of an easy exploration.

The warlock, Yug, saw more than either of his companions. Of course
, just as they hadn’t been able to see through his mysteries, they were blind to the magic that suffused this place. He could see into the depths of the cave as though they were illuminated by the midday sun. Indeed, these eyes his patron had given him…such a fabulous gift.

The words he spoke next crushed Adrie’s spirits, “This place stinks of the arcane. Undoubtedly, someone or something wishes this place to remain hidden. I think we may face a great danger here.”

Darkness is an essential element of a dungeon; dark corners create mystery and hide threats. Owing to the fact that majority of playable races have darkvision, most players start with 10 torches, and most casters can find a way to make light or fire, Dungeons and Dragons 5e rules makes it really hard to implement darkness in a meaningful way. So, how can a GM make vision and light a meaningful mechanic? Unless you go to a little effort your players will dispel darkness without even thinking about it.

Understanding How Darkness Works

Breaking it down, D&D 5e, there are three categories of illumination:

  • Bright light – Everybody can see normally
  • Dim light – Creatures with darkvision can see normally out to their specified range. Everyone has disadvantage on Wisdom (perception) checks that rely on sight.
  • Darkness – Creatures with darkvision can see in shades of gray out to the range of their darkvision. Creatures without darkvision are effectively blind.

Keeping Them In The Darkness

So, what can you do to keep your players from just sparking up a torch and ruining the ambiance of your dungeon?

1. Make the Darkness a Resource for your Players

Craft a situation where your players are outnumbered and the darkness is what prevents them from being overwhelmed. Additionally, you can use creatures that are also reliant on light, like other humans, grung or some beasts as the opponents. Of course, some parties will decide to rush in and give up the advantage the darkness provide. Above all, make sure they are aware of the cost of this decision.

2. Use Enemies That Can Take Advantage of the Darkness

The most common special trait that benefits monsters in dim light and darkness is Shadow Stealth. This trait allows the creature to take “hide” as a bonus action when in dim light or darkness. After that, be sure to provide plenty of cover for the creatures to hide behind. Check the table at the end of the article for creatures that get to leverage dim light and darkness.

3. The Nuclear Option: Magical Darkness

If you really want to make sure your players are in the dark, the only thing that will do it for almost all of them is magical darkness. Furthermore, combining with creatures with Devil Sight, Truesight, Blindsight or Tremorsense, the monsters will have a big advantage over them. You could have the whole dungeons under the effects of magical darkness, but if you do you’ll probably want to give the players a way to overcome this. It not only puts them at a big disadvantage, but having them feel there way through and entire dungeon will be painfully tedious.

4. Use Monsters That Punish the Use of Light

I created a monster, the Lichtfresser, that complicates the use of fire in the darkness. Specifically, this giant moth will attack any source of light and attempt to it it. Additionally, they are vulnerable to fire, and if fire kills them, they explode into a poisonous cloud. They are very weak and so, aren’t on their own, a threat to the players. However, they do complicate the player’s decision to use light. To illustrate, see how I use them in this encounter.

Somehow, You Have to Do It!

To be sure, no matter how you do it, keeping your players in the dark adds a lot of mood and atmosphere to an encounter. This is because darkness constrain the vision of creatures with darkvision to the specified range, making them easier to surprise. It helps establish a sense of claustrophobia and danger. Darkness also make the encounter feel different than other encounters, giving the players more things to interact with, and so more agency. Surely a well lit dungeon is the shame of any decent villain.

Monsters That Can Take Advantage of the Dark

The following table contains a list of creatures form the Monster Manual, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes, The Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, The Explorer’s Guide to Wildemount, Acquisitions Incorporated and Volo’s Guide to Monsters that have Shadow Stealth or another ability that interacts with dim light or darkness. Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, Mythic Odyssey of Theros and Eberron: Rising From the Last War have none.

Where the creature has an ability other than Shadow Stealth, I’ve listed the ability name in parentheses.

Ancient Deep CrowAI21115
Black AbishaiMTF1607
Deep CrowAI210210
Drow Shadow Blade (Shadow Step)MTF18611
Nabassu (Demonic Shadows)MTF13515
Rosie BeestingerAI2033
Shadow Dancer (Shadow Jump)MTF2257
Shadow DemonMM644
Shadow Horror (Shadow Stealth and Shadow Stride)GGR2959
Shadow Mastiff (Shadow Blend)VGM1902
Star Spawn ManglerVGM2365
Young Red Shadow DragonMM8513

After reading this article, you can find the other maps and encounters in this series categorized under Everdown Maps. My thanks again to probabletrain for their wonderful Dungeon Scrawl map editor.

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