I Attack The Darkness!

Today’s topic is in regards to how groups handle darkness. This is difficult because some characters have infravision, and others don’t. As DM we typically want our descriptions of an area to pertain to everybody at the table, and often forget about those who have infravision unless asked, which is fine, depending on how you handle infravision.

Me personally, I treat it as if they are seeing in the dark as we can when the ground has snow on it. I don’t consider it to be something that they have to focus on, it just comes naturally and their eyes require less light to see. It isn’t perfect, a scene which a human can see a man’s silhouette, an elf could determine just a bit more information, such as he is armed, he may be able to determine that it is either an elf or a human, but he can’t identify him.

If a human can identify the above, then the elf could possibly identify him if he has seen him before, and maybe, identify his shield or some other information, but that is all Infravision does in my game. Ultravision has its own rules, and thankfully PC’s don’t have this power so I don’t have to worry about describing scenes to them. Ultravision is the ability to see with no light what so ever.

That is how I interpret it, but I know that each DM is different, and most concerns regarding vision are all interpretational, EXCEPT for one. And that involves missile weapons.

Player Characters often find themselves in the dark, and while blind-fighting can aid you with a melee weapon, you’ll always have some smartass who tries to use a bow in a vast cavern and wants to know his odds for hitting the said target.

This is absolutely crazy! And to make matters worse, the Players Handbook doesn’t cover perfect darkness in the chart which tells us the modifiers for different kinds of light. Darkness can happen to you in other ways, such as a magic-user casting darkness, or blinding you, or even casting continual light in your eyeballs (ouch)! Thankfully The Complete Fighter’s Handbook corrects this error.

According to the handbook, a melee weapon attacks with a –4. A missile weapon at –6. And those with infravision have a bonus of +3, assuming, of course, that the target/enemy is within the range of the infravision limit.

I don’t think that I would allow Infravision to be this good, we are talking perfect darkness, and since my system requires some kind of light, the demi-human would be just as blind in perfect darkness as anyone else.

I have ran into instances of competing parties fighting with each other in the midst of a monster infested cavern. Both parties had to extinguish their lights and handle monster attacks in the dark with melee weapons which alerted the other party of their location so they shot at the noise, sometimes hitting monsters, some times hitting members of the rival party. I didn’t use this system to handle the case (but I wish that I had), instead I treated everybody as if they were invisible, except for for the monsters which had ultravision so they saw normally and used the disadvantage to ravage both parties.


Light is a fun tool to take a so-so scene, and really amp it up. If used wisely, you can even out other odds. A large monster such as a giant can be used to challenge low level adventurers by putting the fight more on their playing field. They can hide in the fog, and the giant can’t. Of course, if a giant hits somebody, then it will kill them, but wise PC’s won’t get close enough, and try to be as quiet as possible.

It works the other way around too, of course. Goblins attacking a party will have a good advantage, especially if they know the area and can use the fog to hit and run.

Namely, what we have to consider here, is Movement Rate, which will be slowed down to a crawl in low visibility and in an unfamiliar location, how much noise that the target is making, and if a character can see or not. Ultravision probably can, and a few monsters will need to be modified to adjust for this. Monsters which spend their lives in the dark will see perfectly . . . of course, is ultravision really vision at all? It might not be! In the real world, creatures that live like that typically don’t even have eyes. Nature has supplied them with an alternative sense.

Smell, super-hearing, psychic sight. Who knows what ultravision really is, but since we never have to describe it to the PC’s, we really don’t have to worry about exactly HOW it works, just that it does.

I’d also like to add that Dwarves and Gnomes don’t have ultravision, they use lanterns, and other forms of low light which wouldn’t be enough for humans to see by, but sufficient enough for the Dwarves and Gnomes to work in.

A cool game franchise that I love to play is the Fire Emblem series. In it, they use fog and darkness to increase the difficulty level of a situation. In order to see further, one must either use a torch, or a thief. If a fighter rushes into the fog, he runs the risk of bumping into an enemy and he isn’t allowed to attack. Initiative is automatically lost, and the enemy gets a free attack on him.

A thief can better ones odds of locating the enemy by using his “Hear Noise” ability. Thieves are highly dangerous during these situations because they have an improved chance of hiding in it, and can backstab an opponent much easier. A party with a thief present could qualify for a bonus to everybody, as long as they stay close to him. A torch will also reveal the enemy at a further distance if it isn’t too thick, of course, a torch will also reveal your position as well, but this is a risk that you are either willing to live with, or you aren’t.

If a thief is present, those within visual contact of him have a bonus equal to his backstab adjustment. Of course it won’t be multiplied, but added to attack only. A fighter fighting in dense fog would normally have a –4 to his attack, but with a 3rd level thief, whose backstab modifier is x2 gains a +2 to his attack roll by watching a thief who succeeded in his Hear Noise and can point it out, giving the fighter a –2 to his missile attack.

I hope that makes sense, I know some things are lost in translation, so let me know if I did nothing but write confusing gibberish.


Lior said...

A dissent: Infravision should be the ability to see deeper into the infrared than normal humans.

Since living things are hotter than the surrounding dungeon, they radiate at different infrared frequencies than their surroundings. Let's say the frequency range of ordinary infravision ends at 25 degrees celsius. Then someone with infravision would be able to see other living things, light sources, hot ashes, etc. Extra twists: a shrouded lantern is still warm, but Undead are at the ambient temperature and thus totally invisible.

Whether the temperature variation across someone's face is distinctive enough to identify them I don't know, but it's probably hard except at extremely close range.

Superior infravision should go even deeper, say down to freezing. Now you can see the radiation from the dungeon walls, the water in the underground river, etc. For a great illustration try this.

In conception infravision is different than seeing by reflected light: you are seeing the "light source" directly; a monster wouldn't be a strong enough "infrared torch" to allow you to see the walls of the dungeon. Skeletons are normally invisible, but a skeleton just coming from the room with the exposed lava would glow quite brightly.

Lior said...

PS Regarding combat: I would say that -6 for missible fire in total darkness is way too generous, but that -3 for missile fire with infravision is fine.

Ripper X said...

Howdy Lior.

I never liked that explanation. One of the biggest reasons is that, as a writer, I like to experience things to be able to describe them, and I just can't describe that. I can't see it. But another, and larger reason for refusing to do it as heat vision, is that if you run away from something, you are still in the dark.

I am treating this like a cat, how it can see in the dark more efficiently then humans can. It isn't because they can see heat, but because they can use such low levels of light. Under this system, a path through the woods would be highlighted, movement would be visible, and other things that we normally can't see.

Lior said...

Well, to me "infravision" (what dwarfs and gnomes can do underground) and "low-light vision" (what cats can do in the night) are functionally different.

Regarding running away from something, to me a dwarf can run effectively in the dark because of senses other than his sight -- look up "human echolocation" on google. The dwarf can run in the darkness without hitting the walls because he can hear the echoes of his footsteps and because he understands how underground terrain works. He can anticipate turns in the tunnel, tell the kind of masonry around him and even identify a nook where he can hide and ambush the pursures.

Turning back, he might be able to see the heat of creatures far into the dark but he can't see the walls themselves without a source of light, just like the dwarfs in the fantasy I've read.

PS: Regarding "seeing" infravision, did you look at the screenshot from the Matrix?

Tacoma said...

I've always felt that Infravision was a silly way to describe it. Like a pseudoscientific thing stuck in my fantasy world. After all, why not just call it "see in the dark 60' range" and be done with it?

Because I've seen infrared photos that show you'd be able to see buildings 400 feet away and mountains a few miles away. You can see the difference between water, grass, dirt, cobblestone, and pavement.

Low-Light vision is just as bad. The green light-amplification stuff is easier to interpret than the white-red-yellow-green-blue type.

What justification is there for such a short night-vision range?

Ripper X said...

I think that the justification is game balance. Most monsters have better infravision then any PC. Vision is one of the great limitations that we can use to make a session more exciting. One of my favorite movies which uses this as a gimmick, is "Ghost in the Darkness" a movie about rogue lions. Excellent film full of ideas for DMs.

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