Sunday, June 21, 2015

Vision and Light in Basic and Advanced D&D

After thinking about light in 5th edition, I went back a bit to see how earlier editions handled light. The results are a bit more varied than I expected. I'm primarily referencing the first and second edition AD&D books and Rules Cyclopedia for basic D&D here. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that things were different in other versions.

First off, what's immediately apparent is how much second edition really did organize things fairly well. First edition scatters things about and the Rules Cyclopedia was the worst for trying to find these things. Thank god for the digital version where I can actually search for all the terms you need (light, darnkess, blindness, infravision...). But second edition both the PHB and DMG have short chapters on vision and light, though you do need to reference both books to get the whole story.

Light Spell
The second noticeable thing is how the light spell itself differs. Clerics and wizards had different light spells. In AD&D, the cleric spell lasted 60 minutes + 10/level, while the wizard version only lasts 10min/level. That's a huge difference at low levels when torches really matter. In the Rules Cyclopedia, the cleric version just lasts a flat two hours while the wizard version is 60 minutes + 10min/level. So the wizard is eventually better at light than the cleric when the spell no longer matters much.  Interestingly, both the Rules Cyclopedia and second edition explicitly call out the ability to cast light on a creature's eyes to blind it, which is just implied in first edition AD&D.

Infravision (and Ultravision)
Most important are infravision and ultravision. These would later become darkvision and low-light vision in third edition and beyond, but back in the old days these were somewhat scientific. Infravision is sight in the infrared spectrum and largely heat-based. Ultravision (I'm not sure which creatures had it) was ultraviolet vision but apparently since only stars tend to give off this sort of light, it just means you can see outside at night fairly well. Apparently it didn't occur to Gary Gygax that Elves or Dwarves could have low-light vision just like dogs and cats. The first edition DMG makes it clear that there are, in fact, two types of infravision: 60' range and 90'+ range. The 90'+ range infravision is simply better. Generally restricted to underdark-only creatures, these creatures see their surroundings as though it were a bright, moon-lit night. With only 60' range, you see as though it were a dark night (with presumably some very dim light so you can make out rough shapes of your surroundings but few specifics).  The second edition AD&D books call out the meaning of infravision as option: you can do it as actual heat-vision or it just means you can see in the dark. Obviously this is where third edition ran with things. The Rules Cyclopedia mentions infravision as specifically heat-vision and explicitly calls out that it is hard to recognize individuals and also that reading is impossible. So fighting a bunch of goblins using only infravision is easy because you can tell what's a goblin and what isn't. Dwarves fighting Derro or Deurgar however... an interesting option.

So infravision is pretty clearly useful, it even penetrates normal darkness spells (i.e. reversed light, available only to clerics), but infravision has some clear limits. Not even mentioning that fire can spoil the use of infravision. It is obvious that, as originally written, infravision alone (at least the PC version of infravision for the basic races in the books) is not a primary method of dungeon exploration. Its a neat trick, but unless you're a party of Drow you still want other sources of light. And even creatures like enemy drow using infravision will be messed up by your torch. As far as I can tell, the drow archers 120' away should be able to target whoever is holding a light source but take a -4 attack penalty because they can't actually see the character. It isn't spelled out very clearly in the rules though.

It is also relatively interesting how some aspects of the game are written to be real-world accurate and others aren't. In a few descriptions of infravision, for example, you may be able to track some creatures by their warm footprints. Presumably only warm-blooded creatures (or otherwise warm creatures?) and I'd imagine that wearing shoes of any kind would largely make humanoids immune to this. Also, the light spell is described as emitting light, whereas the reverse, darkness, must somehow magically dampen light in the radius? You can imagine a more magic version of light where no shadows are cast. But if the light spell does cast shadows, that gives us leeway to interpret the rules like Torchbearer where a light source on the ground only casts dim light (dim light not really being a concept in these older rule sets).

Another aspect that's come up about darkness is when you can't see, you can't move very fast. Blinded characters or characters in darkness can only move at one-third their normal rate. I haven't seen this in later editions of the game, but I like it.

Third edition reclassified vision into a lot of little categories, but its actually delightfully clear on many things. Low light vision still requires some form of light, and you can read using it. Darkvision is black and white and requires no light source at all, but you don't get color. Its not clear if you can read while using darkvision, but I'd assume you can't given that low-light vision specifically calls out that you can. Though in the race description, dwarves are said to be able to function just fine with no light at all. Then there's blindsight (sonic and non-sonic) and blindsense and tremorsense, which are cool but its not clear how useful these are as in older editions I don't think anyone would have automatically assigned oozes or slimes attack penalties for being blind. Though up until now it never occurred to me to target an ooze with a blindness spell or "cast light at its eyes".

How do the retro clones do it? Swords & Wizardry, an original edition clone, just defines darkvision as the ability to see in darkness, so that's either what was originally there or the S&W simplification. Basic Fantasy likewise lists darkvision as the ability to see in the dark without color but also notes you can't use it when there is other light around. Lamentations of the Flame Princess seems to just ignore infravision alltogether. OSRIC, a first edition AD&D clone, lists it as the ability to see in the dark but that it is not a help with making detailed investigations, so even orcs will often carry torches in the darkness.

What can we take out of this all? 
Light spells are a bit kooky, and the priest was the best source of light early on. Infravision is a bit mixed, and it seems that the interpretation of this rule would have huge consequences for how light sources were tracked. At least in later D&D, infravision wasn't intended to eliminate the need for light sources, except possibly for underdark dwelling creatures. It seems like it was a neat bonus that dwarves and elves got which would let them function a little bit when the lights went out, primarily in combat. A nice magic trick, but not a primary sense. But this gets lost in 3rd edition and later when we shift to darkvision, probably because that's how people were beginning to play it in 2nd edition. Infravision as heat vision was just kinda weird and maybe hard for people to describe. So you either just pretend it means you can see in the dark in the rare cases you assume the PCs actually need to because who was really counting torches back in the day? Well, its possible your interpretation of infravision leads to one play style or another. The grittier play style (more resource management at least) is the one in which infravision or darkvision are that little trick, not a primary sense.

I think infravision made for a more nuanced game. There's certainly more tricks you could use against the PCs, like having them fight skeletons (difficult to see until they start moving) or enemies of similar shape and girth (human bandits rather than orcs or goblins). You could use fire to distract the drow archers and ruin their sight temporarily, and maybe track a few foes by their heat signatures or discover a couple clues because of the temperature. Its maybe not quite worth it all though.

But in 5e, we can bring that back by altering Darkvision a bit maybe:

Option A: Say it isn't that you don't see the world in black and white, but you see no color at all. Its hard to make out differences in people other than gross body shape differences, you just have a sense of where walls and objects are. Fine detail is lost, so maybe you can make out large carved letters but the texture of walls are lost and you clearly can't read anything.

Option B: consider "darkvision" to be more like low-light vision, and it doesn't function in absolute darkness. A single candle or a bit of glowing moss would allow all the dwarves to use their darkvision though.

Option C: By the book. You have disadvantage on perception checks while you're in dim light, and with infravision darkness is dim light for you. You could still force perception checks to have people discern allies from enemies in darkness, and there's plenty of traps or missed secret doors (or just missed writing on the wall) that can be used to teach a party not to rely on darkvision. Heck, you could take another line from Torchbearer and force wisdom saves to avoid being scared for being in a dimly lit dungeon for too long, or just have the natural hazards causing people to trip in dim light.

I could see either option A or B, but option A is a bit more in-line with the rules and doesn't require a dramatic change. Though interpreting dim light as in option C might be just as good. What's really lacking with these is the protection that torches provided from infravision: that torch was super noticeable, but so overwhelmingly bright to infravision that its the only thing that could be seen, and firey spells could possibly blind infravision users for a round. A few underdark races are susceptible to bright light though, so you could make those rulings just for those cases.

I also really like the idea of penalties for moving too fast while blinded, so I'd imagine a DC 12 dexterity save or dexterity (acrobatics) check to remain on your feet might be the way to go. 

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