[RPG] How to more effectively use darkness in a dungeon


In more than one of my D&D campaigns, I've found myself feeling disappointed at my inability to make the darkness of the dungeon matter.

Everyone has enough torches, and I'm not likely to be able to undo that repeatedly. I can strip the party of torches once or twice, maybe, and after that I'm just a jerk. I don't even need them to be in total darkness, I just want the darkness to have an impact beyond easily-ignored ambiance. So far, it feels like its main impact is that the party can't split up as easily, and at least one of the party's hands is tied up holding a torch.

I've tried thinking about films that I think do a good job with darkness, but so far not many have helped: they all have protagonists caught without a light, or using a flashlight – a very directional light, which totally changes the nature of visibility.

Here are some options that have come to mind, but I would love to hear from the voices of experience, rather than being forced to try each of these in turn:

  • crank the chances of a random encounter way up because of omnidirectional torches
  • add occasional rooms where torches won't or shouldn't stay lit (wind, flammable gas)
  • crank up the chances (read: add a chance) of torches going out during combat

…and beyond these, which just look to reduce the use of torches or other fire, I want to improve the effectiveness of darkness as a environmental effect even when there is some light source. After all, eventually the party will have continual light and I can't threaten them with mine gas. How can I make the darkness matter, even when it's only outside the 30' radius of the light source? So far, I've got even fewer ideas here:

  • any creature moving in the outside the torchlight is invisible

Thanks. I look forward to finding out how to make darkness a real problem.

Best Answer

An important difference between a torch and a flashlight, which you noted, is a torch is omnidirectional. What other omnidirectional sources of light are people familiar with? Campfires. Ever sit at a campfire on a dark night and look into the woods? What can you see? That's right... squat. A torch, unlike a flashlight, is always in your eyes. It's impossible to keep your night vision. Any space it does not light up will be pitch black. A great movie to watch for ideas is The Burrowers, a kind of Lovecraft/Cowboy/Horror movie.

Same goes for continual light and most every DnD light source except maybe a shuttered lantern, and since when do PCs think to pay for those?

So keep this in mind when determining what the PCs can see. They can see 20 feet away, 20 to 40 feet is indistinct, colorless. Beyond that is pitch black. You may even want to lessen the typical radius. This means they can't see down corridors. They can't see into the next room. If the non-torch bearer pokes their head around a wall they can't see the thing about to rip their face off.

Hollywood, and ubiquitous illumination, has trained us to think that dark isn't very dark. Indoors is pitch black. Outdoors totally depends on the phase of the moon, so keep track!

Racial night vision? Blinded while the torch is lit. Doesn't matter what the rules say, just make it so. Now the PCs have a motivation for putting the torches out and leaving the poor humans blind.

Torchlight carries way farther than the torch bearer can see, and you see the torch bearer distinctly from far away. This will attract lots of "fun" things. Smarter monsters can even use this to their advantage, seeing the PCs coming from far away, probably noisily talking and clanking, they can set up an ambush. Maybe, with no warning, spears and arrows fly out of the darkness! Punish the PCs for being so visible and so blind.

Torchlight, unless you're right up close to something, doesn't let you see very well. When a PC without their own light source is examining something, make the description indistinct. Make them want to get their face in real close to have a good look. Maybe brush their hand over it. Best way to find out it's a green slime. :-)

Things can hide in the darkness, but not always monsters. Pickpockets, spies, poisonous insects... all sorts of creepy crawlies can take advantage of the PCs being A) nearly blind and B) totally lit up.

Finally, there's lots of ways to get rid of the PC's light source. In combat, moving around wildly, there's always a chance of it blowing out. If the character gets hit, maybe they drop it... into a puddle. Maybe they drop it into something flammable. Maybe they need both hands to cast a spell or wield their weapon.