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Seeing in the Dark

Clark Timmins
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Humans are afraid of the dark. Whether it’s social, cultural, or biological, the fact remains that very, very few non-blind humans feel safe when they can’t see. Thus, throughout the history of gaming, various methods of “seeing in the dark” have been proposed.

Artificial light sources are, by far, the most common method. Torches often are used in fantasy games. They are easy to construct, cheap, and (at least in theory) offer some degree of protection and/or allow you to start things on fire. Generally, a torch is a stave (often wood) with one end wrapped with something flammable. Roman torches used lime and sulfur mixes, which would even burn underwater. Modern torches use a wound wick soaked in paraffin (the modern Olympic style torch actually is something like a giant cigarette lighter with a pressurized fuel reserve). Single-use modern torches may use a solid fuel tablet. A “tiki” style torch uses a wick descending into a flammable liquid held in a reservoir. Medieval torches were typically made from a pine knot or an oil-soaked and tightly-wound hide or linen. A torch has many drawbacks, however. They are smoky and smelly, they provide very limited illumination, they are bulky to carry, and they feature a hazardous open flame. Most rules suggest a torch provides light for about an hour (an optimistic duration).

Some games suggest lanterns of various types. The simplest lanterns consist of a small wick floating on an oil reservoir – these are very difficult to transport, however. More complex lanterns use a mechanical clip to hold (and adjust) a wick that descends into the flammable liquid reservoir. Lanterns are somewhat less bulky than torches but they also are generally fragile by comparison. If they are broken, it’s likely that the flammable liquid reservoir may ignite with bad results. A “miner’s lamp” is made primarily from metal and is durable – but also provides less illumination than a glass-enclosed lantern. Also, lanterns again don’t provide that much illumination. Most rules suggest a lantern will burn some unit of oil in an hour.

Many fantasy games use magical light sources. These are too variable for easy summarization – they range from “torch-like” light to full daylight in huge areas and often are available in various colors or other effects. From abt. 3rd Edition onward, Dungeons & Dragons has made the various “light” based spells create magical light equivalent to a torch or lantern, which certainly helps standardization. The Original D&D rules gave light spell areas in “inches”, which varied inside vs. outside. There has never been an intelligibly realistic rule about what happens to magical light beyond its range of effect. Is it a “ball of light” within the area and then immediately pitch black outside the range? Can the magical light be seen by people not in the area of effect? Does the light radiate from a magical point source or does it just fill the whole area? Who knows? In any case, creating magical light is something that almost every fantasy games makes simply and readily available to characters.

Many fantasy rules provide various types of vision that don’t rely on good illumination – or any illumination at all. The very first implementation of this was in Dungeons & Dragons (Original Edition) where various non-humans had “Infravision” that allowed them to “see in total darkness”. The clear intent was that regardless of its name, Infravision was a sort of magical vision that didn’t require light. But this led to lengthy and ongoing disputes, explanations, hypothecations, and theorizing in almost every gaming periodical about exactly what the mechanics of Infravision were . In Basic Dungeons & Dragons this became the ability to “see heat”. Hardly an improvement, this further complicated the issue with all sorts of inscrutable questions. Could you identify an individual person with Infravision (vice just seeing “a” person)? Could you see a door in a wall? Could you read? Could you read magical scripts? While these considerations filled hundreds of pages they never were answered to everyone’s satisfaction. Toward the end of its commercial life, Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st Edition) even introduced “Ultravision” to further complicate things.

Presumably the whole Infravision debate arose because gamers could just look up thermal imaging results and see what “it looked like,” and it sure doesn’t look like what the rules seemed to suggested. From about 3rd Edition onward, D&D generally has eschewed Infravision and Ultravision in favor of new types of vision that are meaningless outside of the game. This clearly makes the game definitions “correct”. The first is “Darkvision” which started out as the magical ability to “see in the dark” but by 5th Edition has become something like “super good low-light vision”. There’s also “Blindsight” that really isn’t seeing at all but functionally is the same – the critter just “knows” where stuff is and what’s going on, within a limited range.

In D&D the sweet spot of visual range seems to be about thirty to sixty feet. The venerable torch has illuminated as little as thirty feet across (in 2nd Edition) to as much as sixty feet across (in Basic). The lantern has been at least as good as (and often better than) a torch. The “Bullseye” lantern presumably uses reflective surfaces and a lens to double the range as the cost of most of the visual field. Beyond the ranges indicated in the rules, the light usually is considered too dim to be of any use. Of course any party carrying light in the dark readily is visible from a far, far longer distance than they can themselves see. Until 5th Edition the approach to lighting in D&D was all or nothing – there was functional vision within the area of illumination and no vision beyond it. In Dungeons & Dragons (5th Edition), the concept of “bright light” and “dim light” are used – “dim light” yields various penalties. I recall reading one analysis of light and movement that determined a running character could not stop fast enough to avoid a hazard if their only light source was a torch or lantern.

In Lands of Adventure, torches and lanterns provide an illumination radius of twenty feet, but the illumination is provided in one foot increments with a penalty of 5% per foot. Torchlight thus offers “full vision” only in the first about one foot, falling off to essentially no vision at about twenty feet. Silhouetting halves the penalty. While this penalty-by-range is more realistic than the “all or nothing” approach, it’s also more complicated. In Gods & Monsters some species have Night Vision or Underground Vision. Night Vision is something of a cross between thermal imaging and low-light vision – it requires at least some ambient light. Undergound Vision is thermal and a “combination of senses” and requires no light whatsoever.

While there are a lot of variables involved, a “typical” torch might produce 250 lumens during normal burning time. While that’s better than a typical candle (about 11 lumens), it’s nowhere near a typical Coleman “mantle” lantern (about 900 lumens). A typical pocket-sized (small) LED flashlight puts out about 250 lumens as well. The torch is going to cast the light in a sphere, while the flashlight is going to focus the light in a beam. I’m quite familiar with the use of a Coleman “mantle” lantern as an area lighting source (our cabin is a simple wood box with tin roof and no utilities). The lantern yields enough light to play cards, as long as it’s hung over the playing table. I’ve also done a fair amount of spelunking with various incandescent flashlights (LED flashlights were after my young-and-dumb phase). I believe that the D&D standard range of thirty-ish feet without penalties is quite optimistically generous. I think the Lands of Adventure mechanic is far more accurate.
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