Friday, June 19, 2015

Light in 5e

Inspired by Torchbearer, I've thinking about light and vision. I got a copy in an old Bundle of Holding, though I was very tempted to pick up a hard copy last winter before I realized I had the pdf in the a bundle. It looks complex, and I can barely comprehend how all the different resources get managed. But, obviously, light is an important one.

But I'm wondering, particularly based on a conversation with the Antagonizer, how one might deal with light in your garden variety 5e. Obviously light spells in 2nd edition or earlier existed, and can similarly replace a torch (and Continual Light makes tracking torches somewhat obsolete), but 5e is a bit of a different beast.

First off, Torchbearer. In Torchbearer you might have candles, torches, and lanterns. A candle provides light for one person for four turns, a torch provides light for 2 people for 2 turns, and a lantern provides light for 3 people for 3 turns. Each light source provides dim light for a similar number of people, and the turn is an abstract unit most similar to an encounter. I like the idea. It gets light down to about the same abstract categories of Close-Quarters / Melee / Missile type ranges (I think I first encountered this in the old Dragonlance SAGA rules), so its pretty good for its level of granularity. If you set a light source down, it only provides dim light (and whoever would be in dim light while the light source is raised is now in darkness). Torches might be extinguished at the whim of the GM when they're dropped or set down. The system is relatively simple, and being in dim light provides a penalty to most rolls. This, by and large, seems very portable.

Now, let's look at lighting in 5e. I was apparently mistaken about this when I first read. Darkness is heavily obscured, so sight is blocked and folks are effectively blinded. Dim light is lightly obscured, which provides disadvantage on wisdom (perception) checks. That's it, just disadvantage on perception checks, not attack rolls or anything. If you have darkvision, you can see in dim light as though it were bright light out to a certain radius, but you can't discern color. So there really isn't a great penalty for a party of Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Half Elves, Half Orcs, or Tieflings going around without a torch or any source of light at all. Well, except finding traps and secret doors, I suppose. But there's really no penalty in combat for that. Depending on your interpretation, it might not be easy/possible to read things while using darkvision or make out crucial aspects of artwork [Hat Tip: the Antagonizer for the comment.]. There's also color-specific plots you could use, but its not super relevant if one of the party doesn't have darkvision.

For spells, there's the ubiquitious light cantrip. Its hands-free and provides bright light in a 20' radius. All day long as needed. In Torchbearer terms, that's presumably enough light for 3 characters. Your run of the mill party will have at least one character with darkvision so there's really no problem here at all. The dancing lights cantrip, in comparison, requires concentration and provides four sources of dim light. Which is pretty shitty in comparison, and I'm not sure the versatility of the spell makes up for it. Produce flame isn't as readily available as the others, but likewise is a constant torch, though it does at least require a hand. Prestidigitation or Druidcraft might also be able to create a candle equivalent, but 5e isn't quite as open ended as to say that's certain. Continual flame, like in earlier editions, basically makes a flameless torch which can be covered up to conceal the light. So in any edition of D&D by 3rd or 5th level you're not tracking torches, and when you have cast continual light on a feather that you can stick in your cap you don't even need to worry about how many items you can wield in your hands. Unless your enemy has dispel magic.

So if we can imagine playing up the lighting issues in 5e for a dark dungeon, you get something like the following.

Exploring the dungeon, characters with darkvision have no real need of light at all, other than searching for things. So there's a danger that a party relying on darkvision will miss secret doors or fall into traps. There's some incentive for the scout to have a torch, even if they have darkvision. But not that much unless you really play up the trap angle. The light spell (and other light-providing cantrips) is basically one really nice torch, and continual flame spells will eliminate any need for counting torches or tracking their use really. Either could be dispelled by an enemy magician though.

In combat, there's really no penalty to relying on darkvision at all, unless someone goes invisible. Though there can be other sources of heavy obscurement such as fog clouds and the like. Technically illusions would still function just fine in the dark as far as I can tell. The one downside to relying on darkvision is if your enemy is more than 60' away from you while shooting at you. Any light source the party has would give your position away, and true underdark denizens (e.g. Drow) have plenty of range on your run-of-the-mill elves and dwarves for seeing underground. So there's one combat-related weakness.

What about some simple tweaks? I've been thinking through a couple:

1) Light Obscurement imposes disadvantage in combat. This means characters in dim light would suffer disadvantage on attack rolls. This is a huge change to parties relying on darkvision, namely that they'd need at least one source of light to function effectively. The elves or dwarves could still make an attempt at sneaking about or leading a blind party out of the dungeon, but it would be very hard to function well without some source of light for the party. Obviously one cantrip would do the trick though, and at 3rd level one continual flame spell would be plenty.

2) The light cantrip requires concentration. This would really make the cantrip virtually useless in most combats, because concentration spells are so goddamn useful. Dancing lights already requires it though, so it might not be crazy. A concentration-required light cantrip would still be quite useful for exploration. Produce flame doesn't need concentration, but does require a hand, so that's still one resource for light and its less light than the light cantrip. Ultimately once continual flame is available though, this is a big unnecessary.

3) Change light so it scales. Maybe at 1st level the light cantrip just is candle light, and at higher levels (scaling with damaging cantrips) it produces more/better light. You could also add a brief concentration rider on it, so a basic light spell is a candle, at 5th level its either a non-concentration candle or a concentration-required torch, and so on. I kinda like this option, but feel like it might mean you'd need to change some of the other cantrips to follow suit and also its still outclassed by continual flame.

4) Remove/modify continual flame. This option is a bit shitty, as surely a magic torch is one of the first items any party will be interested in if they could afford it. So keeping treasure low will make the first casting or three of this spell actually meaningful at least. Raising the cost per casting is another method, but also a little unsatisfying.

Ultimately I think, at the basic level, there is motivation for the party to be carrying one torch/lantern in 5e. Hit them with traps to show this, because they won't notice the secret doors unless its obvious at the end of the dungeon that they could have skipped some parts. Outside a dungeon, any scouting is still going to need a source of light, such as casing a house/castle or whatnot. Moonlight might be crucial, so the occasional new moon could also come into play. All of this is most applicable during the first 2 levels where the party is too fragile to do much of anything, much less explore the underdark. If you take option 1 and impose disadvantage on attack rolls in dim light, then there's definitely motivation for carrying one or more light sources, though it'll honestly just be one of the casters who is likely to have a free hand anyway. There's a lot of different spells that could reasonably produce some kind of light, and modifying them all is a rather large task.

Overall this seems a little unsatisfying, though I'm really wondering what the other consequences of option #1 are. If light isn't a constant threat though, you can still play it up in 5e. Traps will remind players that they need some light or risk missing a few important perception type rolls. A well placed dispel magic can eliminate their magic light sources on occasion, plunging the party into darkness. Likewise, a "dark" dungeon where light is dampened can easily be a thing to occasionally play up the need for light while you're exploring the unknown. Its no torchbearer game, but it might be enough for a little taste.

Edit: An Afterthought. There is, I suppose, an option 4 for modifying light rules slightly. This would be adopting the Torchbearer rule that anytime you set a light source down, it goes from shedding bright light to dim light. This is particularly relevant for the levels 3+ (the continual flame era) where hand economy is more important and parties are likely relying on a few magic light sources. Most light spells will be cast on helmets or shields or staves maybe, but even those can be knocked to the ground or otherwise disarmed by some clever kobolds or an enemy magician. Clever tactics are probably the hallmark of intelligent enemies, and kobolds probably know they can gain a nice advantage by getting rid of that magic light somehow. This is certainly a simple addition which could make light a little more interesting if the party isn't built around not needing light or combined with dim light imposing disadvantage.

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