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.