Darkvison in 5th Edition

Elven thoughts on Darkvision in 5e. Do I like it? Do I hate it?

Sora Miyuki 空 美雪

11/4/20237 min read

This is my first topic for a blog post. I was planning to do AI-related topics, but I have not finished gathering data for it, so it will need to wait. However, I can't really postpone a blog post. So, I will start with something that was really annoying me in Dungeons and Dragons 5e: Darkvision.

Before we dive into 5e Darkvision, let's check how Darkvision was treated in previous versions.

In the Original Dungeons and Dragons, the three brown books published by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, not a single race had Darkvision or any kind of vision. On the other hand, every single monster was able to see in the dark, bringing elements of horror and resource management to the game. Players needed to track their light supplies, such as torches and lanterns, or face a serious disadvantage in combat. There was a level 3 spell called Infravision that allowed a caster to see infrared light waves, but it was up to the Dungeon Master to interpret how much they were able to see.

That changed with the release of the Greyhawk supplement, which retconned some race's abilities. Elves and Dwarfs received Infravision, but the ruling on how this vision worked was still left to the Dungeon Master's interpretation. AD&D 1st edition brought a detailed description of Infravision, with Gary Gygax himself stating that creatures with Infravision saw the world as if they were looking through a heat-sensing camera, with warm things appearing bright, cool things appearing grey, and very cold things appearing black. Most races, except humans, got access to Infravision. AD&D 1st edition also introduced Ultravision, allowing certain creatures, especially monsters, to see in total darkness, including magical darkness. This ability was often described as an enhanced form of Infravision, and it allowed these characters to see shapes and objects in conditions of complete darkness that would normally be impenetrable to those without the ability. Both vision types had drawbacks in AD&D, as Infravision could be spoiled by heat and Ultravision could be spoiled by magical items, but neither of these vision types were as powerful as Darkvision in 5e.

AD&D 2nd Edition brought two types of Infravision ruling: a simplified version that simply allowed races with Infravision to see in the dark in colors and an optional rule that stated Infravision worked as a heat detector with hot things appearing red and cold things blue, with a spectrum of colors between them. AD&D 2e strongly suggested using the simplified version of the rules, while Ultravision was mentioned as a possibility but recommended not to use.

3rd Edition and 3.5 Edition of D&D marked the end of Infravision and the birth of Darkvision. The rules were simple: Darkvision allowed creatures or players to see up to 60 feet in black and white. Only two player races had access to Darkvision: Dwarves and Half-Orcs. Elves, Half-Elves, and Gnomes had access to low-light vision, allowing them to see twice as much as humans in moonlight or torchlight.

4th Edition took away the ability of Darkvision for player characters and made it a monster-exclusive ability. Players playing as Elves, Half-Elves, Dwarves, Tieflings, and Eladrin were only presented with low-light vision, which allowed those races to avoid penalties on attacks in low-light scenarios. There was no range limit or color blindness for monsters using Darkvision. And now, in 5e, we have Darkvision as we know it.

The history lesson is now complete, so let's analyze the implications of Darkvision in 5e. Out of the 61 races in Dungeons and Dragons 5e (not counting legacy ones replaced by Monsters of the Multiverse with the new version), 32 have Darkvision. This means that 52% of races have an advantage in caves, dark areas, and during the night. The percentage increases even more when we start counting subraces.

There is no reason for Elves to have Darkvision, not to mention Half-Elves or Yuan-ti. The only reason Elves were granted Darkvision was to compensate for other racial disadvantages, something that is long in the past and Elves no longer suffer those penalties. Yuan-ti, on the other hand, were based on snakes, which have poor eyesight compared to other reptiles, although they still see color and ultraviolet light. Snakes rely on different senses for survival and navigation, including their sense of smell, touch, and vibrations. Considering that, there is simply no reason for Yuan-ti to have Darkvision; Infravision would be much more appropriate for them.

So why does D&D 5e have so much Darkvision? It all started with the 4th Edition of D&D. Although it removed Darkvision from player races, it put extreme focus on making sure that dungeons were well-lit. On page 262 of the Player Handbook, it states:

"Many dungeons are illuminated, since only a few monsters are at home in utter darkness. Dungeons are often illuminated by torches (sometimes magic torches that never stop burning), ceiling panels magically imbued with light, great oil-filled braziers or stone channels that burn continuously, or even goblets of light drifting through the air. Caverns might be filled with phosphorescent fungi or lichen, extraordinary mineral veins that glimmer in the dark, streams of glowing lava, or eerie aurora-like veils of magic fire undulating high above a cavern floor."

As we can see, 4th Edition removed Darkvision but made sure that dungeons were properly lit. Now, in 5th Edition, Dungeon Masters have been given full control over designing dungeons, but at the same time, players were granted Darkvision.

I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that Darkvision annoys me in 5e, but why? Because it makes Dungeon Crawling a terrible experience for some players. The very first moment I noticed that Darkvision is bad was during the adventure I ran for my group. Four players had Darkvision, but one did not. The four players did not care about light while exploring caves, leaving that one poor soul in the dark nearly all the time. To the point when after a few sessions, that player asked me if he could reroll his character as he felt like he was not doing anything in the game.

That situation made me think more about it, and I did some research, which brought me to the conclusion that Darkvision is extremely harmful for 5e. Many spells, such as Dancing Lights or Globe of Light, are neglected and not picked by players due to most of the party having Darkvision. Things like torches and lanterns are not managed and are neglected due to the same fact. I have heard some people countering my claims, saying, "Darkvision is not that powerful," and I would like to analyse the wording and ruling of 5e. The Darkvision states:

Darkvision. You can see in dim light within XXX feet of yourself as if it were bright light and in darkness as if it were dim light. You discern colors in that darkness only as shades of grey."

What is dim light?

"Dim light creates a lightly obscured area. This is often used to describe the hazy area between bright light (as caused by a torch or other light source) and darkness. Twilight, dawn, and even the light of a full moon are all considered dim light."

Over half of the 5e races can see in a full moon night as in a normal day, and in darkness (non-magical) as if it was a full moon night, minus colours.

So what penalties do races with Darkvision suffer in darkness? Let's see what lightly obscured means:

"Areas that are lightly obscured cause a creature to have a disadvantage on perception checks that require sight."

So the only penalty they suffer is a disadvantage on perception checks. How will it work against a character that does not have Darkvision? To compare it, we will need two rulings on heavily obscured vision:

"Darkness, as well as things such as thick fog or dense foliage, cause an area to be heavily obscured. In these areas, creatures suffer from the blinded condition."

And the Blinded Condition states:

"A blinded creature can't see and automatically fails any ability check that requires sight. Attack rolls against the creature have advantage, and the creature's attack rolls have disadvantage."

The difference is huge, putting races without Darkvision at a significant disadvantage. By providing over half of all races with Darkvision, we suddenly made a situation where when a party is composed mostly of characters with Darkvision, they do not care about this minor inconvenience.

So what would be the solution in my mind? Following the 4th edition idea of removing Darkvision from player characters would be a good move, but I would propose a different approach.

Darkvision should be retained by Underdark races such as Deep Gnomes and Drow, as well as underground-dwelling creatures like Dwarfs and Kobolds. Races like Yuan-ti would receive Infravision, and races like Elves and Leonin, who used to have beneficial sight, would receive a bonus to perception checks in dim-light areas. By doing that, we would reduce the number of classes with Darkvision and reintroduce the Dungeon Crawling experience from the original Dungeons and Dragons. If Dungeon Masters don't want to manage light, then we can put in an optional rule from 4e regarding lit dungeons and create an equal playing field for all players.

5e has lost some of the old-school Dungeon Crawling vibes, where the horror of dark, torch-lit dungeons was a real challenge. Many say that 5e is made "easy," which is why it's so popular, but in reality, Darkvision in 5e complicates the game and creates an uneven playing field for players.

In conclusion, the presence of Darkvision in Dungeons and Dragons 5e has raised some concerns, particularly when it comes to gameplay dynamics and the atmosphere of the game. While Darkvision offers an advantage to many player races, its overuse can undermine the significance of light management, spells, and items that were once essential in creating a sense of tension and exploration in the game.

A potential solution proposed here is to reconsider which races and creatures should have Darkvision and introduce alternative vision types, such as Infravision, for races that don't naturally fit the Darkvision mold. By doing so, we can restore the excitement of exploring dark, mysterious dungeons and bring back the suspense and thrill of navigating the unknown.

Ultimately, the purpose is not to make the game needlessly complicated, but to strike a balance that maintains the sense of challenge and adventure that has been a hallmark of Dungeons and Dragons for years. Revisiting the role of Darkvision in 5e could help recapture the magic of dungeon crawling and reignite the sense of wonder that makes this iconic tabletop role-playing game so beloved.