Shedding the Light on Illumination

In the iconic D&D experience, an adventuring party descends into the depths of an underground dungeon to face the darkness and the unknown perils that lurk within it.

Queue the sunrod.

“Does anyone have a light?”

[Players look around at each other].

“I’ve got two in my adventuring kit,” says one player. (Nevermind that he/she has said that the past eight sessions every time the party has needed a sunrod).

“So you use it?” asks the DM.

“Yeah—that illuminates…20 squares, I think”

20 squares. 100 feet. 4 hours. So much for the big, dark scary dungeon. Now the dungeon is lit up like a carnival—only it’s less scary because there are no clowns. My point to this protracted example is that I hate the sunrod. It kills the mystery—the fear and tension from plumbing the depths of underground caverns and ancient, haunted corridors. That’s why I say no more.

No more sunrods. That’s right, you have to go back to your torch and candle. Everburning torch? Sure, I might allow that. Light spell? Go for it. These modest sources of illumination provide less than 10 squares of illumination, ensuring that the darkness remains exactly that—darkness.

It also adds tension if you’re fighting in a situation where your torch might go out. Say you’re fighting beside a river, and you’re holding the only source of light. You sure as heck don’t want to be pushed in and have your light go out, giving the grimlocks the advantage. Then, when the grimlock berserker knocks you back into the river, the DM lets you decide—you go, or the torch does. Maybe you can hurl it to your companions, or maybe your throw is short and they must get to it before the grimlocks can put it out. Light sources that have risk built into them are much more interesting than magical ones, so long as the DM understands that no one wants to fight an entire battle in darkness and provides some “outs” for the adventurers.

Aside from the small matter of removing all the tension and mystery of dungeon delving, light sources interact with another element of the rules that I could live without: concealment. I’m not entirely opposed to concealment, but I think I’d be perfectly happy with one type of darkness and one type of concealment. Let’s do away with dim light and lets ditch total concealment. Now concealment is just concealment. You can hide in it; you take a small penalty to attack. Save the –5 penalty to attack when you’re actually blinded or can’t see because of magical darkness. I think I’d be okay downgrading total concealment to normal concealment in almost every scenario in which it’s appeared. And come to think of it, I’ve never used total concealment in my home game (aside from when creatures produce totally obscured areas). The only other times it has come up were in pre-generated encounters, and it almost always ended up being more of a hassle.

Concealment makes the battle drag. Lowering accuracy for the monsters, the PCs, or both, makes the battle slow down. That’s not what we want. I’m not sure what the solution is—maybe a penalty to defenses while in concealment. Then everyone is on equal footing, and its speeds up the battle and makes it more deadly to fight in fog or darkness.

If you haven’t figure it out, I’ve been playing Alan Wake, which capitalizes on the visceral effect of being surrounded by darkness. A video game has the liberty of illustrating just how little you can see. It can take advantage of the flickering shadows and thin threads of moonlight to create an atmosphere of horror. One might think a Dungeon Master is at a disadvantage here, but I beg to differ. D&D players have vivid imaginations. It’s one of the reasons they play. A DM can capitalize on that by constantly adapting the surroundings and the encounters to play into the players’ fears. Listen to the players speculate, and take their ideas. In D&D, you don’t go back to the last checkpoint if your character dies. If nothing else, that is enough to make the darkness a truly sinister thing.


16 thoughts on “Shedding the Light on Illumination

  1. I know what you mean. In the KotS, as soon as it got dark, the characters lit up a sunrod and there went all the shadows for the goblins to sneak around in.

    I think sunrods should give no more illumination than an ordinary torch. The advantages of a sunrod are that it can’t be put out by ordinary means and doesn’t burn the holder, justifying the expense.

  2. I honestly thought that was a strange design decision in 4e: To have all these rules for light and concealment, but then hand out something like sunrods as part of the standard adventurer’s kit at first level. I think it also slightly hurts races who have low-light vision, as that ability becomes moot when you can light up a whole dungeon. The rules might as well have said, “Players should not concern themselves with light sources and assume everything is lit with daylight and dungeons always have lit torches every 5 feet…”

    I also bristled a bit at something like a sunrod being part of an adventurer’s pack, simply because it is a magical item and I guess I don’t like to think of magic items being common enough that everybody has one (even though it’s D&D and every third monster and treasure horde bears some magical bauble or such).

  3. Oh, thank god I’m not the only one who hates those things and all the different levels of concealment. I’m going to run this by my group and hopefully they’ll be ok with it. I want to be able to surprise them every so often and provide that atmosphere of suspense and fear. Besides, what good is a Shadow Army if there aren’t any shadows 🙂

  4. I had a sun rod totally ruin the atmosphere I was building while in a dank spiders den in the beginning of my campaign, I’d completely forgotten about them. I was going for a “you turn around, face to face with a giant set of spider eyes and dripping fangs” and instead I got “hey let’s light this road flare, oh there’s the boss!” – it sucked to say the least but at least my players were happy.

    Also: I hope you enjoy Alan Wake, it was a good run even though it’s a short one. I also hope you look forward to buying months worth of DLC to complete the story because it’s only half a game. 😦

    1. If you don’t want to completely houserule the sunrod but don’t want it ruining a den of spiders, you can always apply some type of “gloom” or “magical darkness” that reduces the aura.

      Haven’t finished Alan Wake. Not sure if I will or not, but it was definitely inspiring for my Gloomwrought D&D game.

  5. I agree the sunrod as it is hurts the atmosphere of many dungeons. I think it should provide less light than a torch due to the fact a torch can be extenguished in many mundane ways. Perhaps the “sunrod” should be about 5 squares of bright light or ten of dim light (hmmm twilight rod) with either of those id say keep it at the same price and duration.

    1. “Twilight Rod.” That’s nice. I could definitely see a low cost “twilight rod” that goes 5 squares and then a sunrod that goes 10 squares. I’d prefer no to tangle with gradients of illumination. As I said, I prefer either light or dark, without having to track what areas in between are partially illuminated. That being said, I think the penalties for being in darkness are too severe.

  6. My favorite line, by far, was “Nevermind that he/she has said that the past eight sessions every time the party has needed a sunrod.”

    That made me chuckle.

    Have you played Gears of War 2? That has a fun moment when the lights of your truck go out and you see nothing but a black screen, until two evil eyes flicker right in front of you.

    1. Haven’t played it. Do you recommend it? One of the things that’s difficult to capture in D&D is a sense of horror. So much depends on the DM’s narrative skill and not having the players giggling or cracking jokes.

      1. I highly recommend Gears of War. I’ll bring it for you to borrow so you can judge for yourself. I normally don’t like shooters, but the plot, characters, and weapons of “Gears” are excellent. Yeah, you’ll be late for work the next day…

        Agreed, creating a sense of horror in D&D is very difficult. I’ve seen it pulled off really well only once, and it required an immense amount of DM prep (and money!)

  7. I banned sunrods in my home game first thing. I don’t really use heavy penalties for fighting in gloom, unless it is unnatural I ignore the -2 but allow for the hides and surprises. I don’t want to slow the combat down and I assume D&D dungeon adventurers fight fine in normal gloom, but I do like being able to have things leap out of the dark.

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