Light in the Darkness

Light in the dungeon is something I've seldom seen properly handled in roleplaying games. I've seen plenty of rules for it, some of them quite... anal, shall we say, but it's not often played well. We're so used to having bright, powerful light available on command that it's difficult for modern people to understand what it's like not to.

Imagine, if you will, exploring a creepy tumble-down old mansion with a flashlight. I expect you've seen this very situation on TV and in the movies dozens of times. It's an unnerving experience, stumbling around in the semi-dark with just that fragile beam of light to guide you; shadows move alarmingly, especially if there are several people waving torches around, and you're probably going to be kicking unseen obstacles on the floor. If you startle a cat or racoon or something with your torch, you will probably shit yourself and squeal like a little baby when it explodes into flight.

Now, that crappy flashlight is about a bazillion times better than any of the standard dungeon light sources; its light is focused, steady and strong. It's likely that it's a light rated in the tens, if not hundreds of candlepower.

Unless you're using some kind of magic flashlight-substitute, when you're stumbling around in the depths of the Underdark, what you have to guide you is basically a candle. If you're using a lantern of some sort, it's pretty much a candle in a box; possibly (depending on the type of wick) two or three candlepower. If you're using a torch, your flame is bigger, maybe up to four or five candlepower, but more erratic and vulnerable, and torches are bulky and they don't last all that long. A reflector bullseye lantern is the closest you'll get to a modern torch, and even a two- or three-wick version of that (which will suck through your lamp-oil like you wouldn't believe) puts out a surprisingly crappy beam of light.

Basically, ancient lighting sucks.

Your eyes do adapt somewhat to darkness of course, but one incautious glance into a torch flame — easily done, especially if there are several of you, all carrying torches or lamps — and you're boned; you'll have to start acclimatizing all over again, and it takes a surprising length of time for a human being's eyes to become fully dark-adapted. And if there's no light at all, because the goddam doofus cleric dropped all the torches down an abyss when he almost failed to jump over it, then all your iris-widening isn't going to let you see a goddam thing when you're underground.

Now, all the rules in the world aren't really that much help, except as a mechanical guide. What will make the situation come to life is if the DM (and preferably the players as well) knows what it's really like to be working with such limited light resources. Then the DM can really start putting the creeps on the party as they fumble their way along, waiting to be ambushed at any second by some tentacled monstrosity from the pits of Hell.

I really recommend that, if you get the chance, you go exploring an abandoned building on a moonless night, or down in some tunnels if you're lucky enough to have some handy, with nothing but some candle-lamps — or maybe a kerosene lamp or two, if you want to get a sense of what the absolute best lanterns available to the medieval world were like. (Note that medieval travelling lamps usually used horn or tortoise-shell, not glass, as their windows — it was much, much cheaper, and a lot less fragile, so if you want to replicate a standard medieval lamp with your modern kerosene or candle lamp, cover the glass with some kind of translucent material).

If you get caught trespassing, just tell them I sent you. It'll be sweet.


  1. Just discovered your blog. I like the ideas you are playing with here. I subscribe to the notion that going into a booby-trapped subterranean complex to fight inhuman monstrosities by torchlight is likely to be among the most horrible, sanity-wracking things a person can do. This post really brings home some of the logistics of that.

    Nice illustration too. Yours?

  2. Great post! I agree that lighting is not emphasized enough in play. I must think about this some more.

  3. Awesome Post! I know that when I go camping I think about this. We use old kerosene lamps because they are cheaper, but we use a whole mess of them, placed around the camp perimeters to (hopefully) ward off big cats and bears. We make a line to the bucket . . . er, um, bathroom, but nobody spends much time back there at night. We do very little moving around at night, and keep a modern high powered light or two handy.

    I have tried to handle light better in my dungeons, but most of my players are obsessed with playing elves, and I've given up on trying to figure out how they see things. I need to put more thought into it. Thanks Fitz!

  4. A couple decades back I was with family and friends exploring fort Warren in Boston Harbor, It's an old civil war era island fort that had some retro-fitting for WW1. It has some neat old buildings, bunkers and tunnels on it. It's all carefully blocked off (at least mostly these days) back when we went there it was easy to get to places you probably shouldn't: There was this one tunnel that was dark and not easy to get to so we had to go exploring, we all had flashlights and I was near the middle of the line as we went down the hall I discovered there was an open shaft right in the middle of the floor that everyone in front of me had failed to notice but luckily hadn't fallen down into (the shaft was deep enough we couldn't see the bottom), after a spell there was this odd fuzzy grey glow and all of a sudden the tunnel opened in a sheer rockface some 60 feet or more over the water (and rocks beneath), the "glow" of daylght didn't illuminate much of the tunnel at all and if one were running out of that tunnel...

  5. I've tried to limit my players 'vision' below ground when using a torch or lantern. In most instances, the radius of the light from a torch is 30 feet from the PC holding it. That's really not a lot of light. It's especially emphasized in larger chambers and caverns where the party is surrounded by a sea of darkness where anything can jump out from any direction. Exploring the Underworld is much about atmosphere and working with the light source is a big portion of that.

  6. Nice... There's a book called "At Day's Close", by Ekirch, exploring just how dark and dangerous night used to be.

    Also, please excuse the plug, but we've tried to do our part to help gamemasters enforce lighting rules easily, with the Turntracker: