5e Darkvision Is Stupid. Let’s Fix It and Make D&D More Fun
By Riley Rath
Darkvision in D&D 5e is stupid.
And I'm guessing you want it to be better in your own campaign.
Read this blog post to understand why it's bad and learn the solutions we all need to implement.
If you already agree it sucks and just want the homebrew alternatives, jump to the last "easy fix" section.
But if you are a new player or DM, I suggest jumping to your sections first.
Boom. Intro over.
Table of Contents - Click to Navigate!
- The Obligatory Introductory Rant
- What Every D&D Player Gets Wrong About Darkvision
- Visibility: The Key to Understanding 5e Darkvision
- How YOU, the Player, Are Neglecting Darkvision
- How YOU, the DM, Are Using Darkvision Wrong
- How YOU, Wizards of the Coast, Dropped the Ball on 5e Darkvision
- Easy Homebrew to Fix WOTC's Darkvision Mistake
Some Dice have Darkvision Too...
The Obligatory Introductory Rant
Ok... the intro isn't quite over...
Let's start with this totally unbiased fact I just so happen to passionately believe:
In the current iteration of Dungeons and Dragons, darkvision sucks really bad.
No, no, no... don't fight it... just accept the truth... things will only get better when you do...
It isn't fun, or cool, or anything exceptional really. It's an annoying, forgettable, disappointment.
And given that D&D is a fantasy game, that is crazy.
I mean, come on... humans have been ACHING for something like darkvision since the Stone Age. To be able to actually SEE in the dark... just like during the day? To be a nocturnal creature at home in the light of the moon!?
Doesn't that sound... enchanting? Mystifying? Sublime?
Darkvision has amazing potential to be a core element of every player's experience and a tool used by DM's for creative encounter design.
But instead of something special, what is darkvision like in D&D 5e?
- An irritation... something long-time players feel gets in the way of a good session.
- A joke... repeated on DnD podcast episodes as something standard (rather than special) that EVERYTHING in the game seems to have.
- An afterthought... something DM's forget, or at least never place in the top ten of their "things to consider" for a combat encounter.
- (That said, it is NOT an afterthought for new players, who for soooOOOOoooome reason, never remember which die to roll, but always know to scream "I HAVE DARKVISION!!!!" whenever we enter a cave... but I digress...)
Image © not Awesome Dice
Darkvision COULD be special... but it's not... and that is a serious shame.
How did it get this way? How did it become something so neglected?
Well, I'll be the first to raise my hand: for years I have perpetuated the misuse of darkvision in my 5e campaigns.
But I'm no martyr... with my other hand, I will point at everyone else... we are ALL responsible!
Thankfully, not only is D&D just a fun game (and therefore nbd), but also...
It is really easy to fix darkvision in D&D 5e.
All it takes is a few reminders and a few homebrew rules.
Now... if you just peek back up at the Table of Contents, you can see that this isn't some endless list of everything darkvision.
I repeat: this is not an exhaustive "all in one" guide with every single gawd dayum rule and reference to darkvision.
I am not going to turn page after page through official resources... and then turn around and throw fact after fact in your face.
And there are three reasons why:
- It's a ton of work
- I get paper cuts easily
- Our friends at Black Citadel RPG already did that (and plagiarizing is kiiiiinda immoral...)
(Yes... actual friends... we talk and stuff!)
What I am going to do is identify why darkvision is a let down and show you HOW to use it to make your games FUN.
If you want to know every single detail about darkvision... follow this link.
But if you want to learn how Darkvision can transform your game for the better?
Double the Fun in the Dark
What EVERY D&D Player Gets Wrong About Darkvision
I'll cut right to the chase... 90% of us do not know how 5e darkvision works.
Gif © also not Awesome Dice
But it's ok! It's not like you are feigning ignorance to gain bonuses in session (if you are... hecka LAME).
It is quite likely you simply do not understand some specifics.
Most new players equate the D&D darkvision ability with the only real-world correlation: night vision goggles.
They assume that if you take away the green and make it gray... bam!... you have 5e darkvision!
Well... I hate to burst your bubble... but darkvision is NOT the same as night vision goggles.
For instance, the most common form of DnD darkvision only lets you see 60ft of darkness as dim light. But do you know the range of night vision goggles?
SIX HUNDRED FEET (300 yards ... 3 football fields)! And that's just goggles... some night vision scopes can see up to 3,000 feet at night!
The following two images do not belong to Awesome Dice.
The Goggles of Night are NOT night vision goggles!
Shockingly, real-world night vision science does not match the rules of darkvision in a fantasy tabletop game.
For this post, it is not relevant to talk about how night vision goggles amplify infrered light by passing electrons through a phosphor screen...
But it is very relevant to talk about the specific rules of darkvision (Player's Handbook: 183, 185):
- Each creature/monster with darkvision only has it for a certain range (usually 60ft).
- Within that range, they can see DARKNESS like DIM LIGHT
- Within that range, they can see in DIM LIGHT like BRIGHT LIGHT
- Darkvision only sees in shades of gray (ok... that one kind of is like the night vision goggles...)
So many players just assume darkvision turns night into day. They imagine their character can just "turn on" their eyes and suddenly the world around them is bright and clearly visible for hundreds of yards.
But that's not what happens at all...
All darkvision does is make everything close to you a little easier to see.
Make sense? All done?
Probably not. I mean.. what the heck is bright, dim, and dark light!?
Our Green Glowing Dice Are Akin to Night Vision
Visibility: The Key to Understanding 5e Darkvision
You see, in order to understand darkvision, you need to understand the 5e rules behind LIGHTING and VISIBILITY, also found on page 183 of the Player's Handbook (how convenient!)
- Lighting/darkness = much light there is
- Visibility/obscurement = how easy it is to see
- Sometimes they overlap, but they do not stack
There are 5 different categories to know: 1) HEAVILY OBSCURED, 2) LIGHTLY OBSCURED, 3) BRIGHT LIGHT, 4) DIM LIGHT, AND 5) DARKNESS.
I'm not going o regurgitate the fine details to you. Personally, that is not how I learn, so it doesn't seem helpful.
Instead, here are some examples from the real world that should make each category immediately and intuitively obvious:
When you go camping and are sitting around a fire:
- As you watch the sunset, the land is covered in DIM LIGHT.
- Once it is over and you arrive back at your campsite, the land is covered in DARKNESS.
- Your friends within 10 feet of the fire are in BRIGHT light.
- Your tent 10 feet further away is in DIM light.
- Your friend going to the bathroom in the woods can use their flashlight to see 60ft of bright light and 60ft of dim light.
- The forest, lake, trail... all further away, are in DARKNESS.
- The owl up in the tree is LIGHTLY OBSCURED by the branches.
- The bear on the other side of the hill is HEAVILY OBSCURED.
When you are sitting on a porch during a downpour of a thunderstorm on a summer's day:
- Everything outside is in BRIGHT LIGHT.
- Your cat hiding in the space under the porch is in DIM LIGHT.
- Your family in another part of the house are HIDDEN... you are blind to them.
- The person walking their dog in the pouring rain on the other side of the street is LIGHTLY OBSCURED.
- A plane flying in the clouds is HEAVILY OBSCURED.
When you are walking the streets of a city late at night:
- The bachelorette party you see through the window of the bar is in BRIGHT LIGHT.
- You are walking in BRIGHT LIGHT if you are within 5ft of the window.
- When you pass the window, you are in DIM LIGHT.
- When you walk near and under a streetlamp... you are in BRIGHT LIGHT.
- The drunk person walking in the middle of the street is in DIM LIGHT.
- The smoker standing behind the telephone pole is LIGHTLY OBSCURED.
- The mugger hiding behind the dumpster is HEAVILY OBSCURED.
- The mugger is also in an unlit alleyway... and is in DARKNESS.
Ok, no more examples... but I'm sure you noticed a few things:
1. DARKNESS and/or HEAVILY OBSCURED = impossible to see.
2. DIM LIGHT and/or LIGHTLY OBSCURED = difficult to see.
3. BRIGHT LIGHT = obvious to see.
But if your character had darkvision?
Then the things in DARKNESS and in your range would become only difficult to see... and the things in DIM LIGHT would become easy to see.
Stuff that is obscured would remain the same difficulty of visibility.
Our Glow in the Dark Dice Are Visible Even in Magical Darkness
How YOU, the Player, Are Ignoring Darkvision
Ok... that's a lot about lighting... what does all this mean for a player's character with darkvision?
Seeing with darkvision is an insanely DYNAMIC playing experience.
Look back at all those examples of visibility and obscurement... if you moved at any time, what you can and cannot see changes.
Your darkvision is not some "perception check auto-success factory"... it adjusts every time you or your light source moves.
If you play any online Virtual Table Top platforms (Roll20, Foundry, etc) this should come as no surprise.
Look at the two images below:
Image © still not Awesome Dice
Isn't the lit map way different?
Yeah, like, night and day different (pun intended).
And this is a still shot... on the platform, the lighting changes as your character moves... but only for your character's perspective (i.e. other players on their screens can't see what you see!)
And yes, even players without darkvision have to keep adjusting what they can and can't see... but only half as much as players with darkvision, and they are half as helpful.
So how do you, the player, help make darkvision in DnD 5e better?
Here is your homework: learn the lighting rules!!!
Yes... YOU need to know the rules for bright, dim, and dark light.
You need to know the range of each light source and you need to keep track of how they impact your darkvision.
Here, I'll do the research part for you... here is the range of all light sources.
Why memorize, or at least have the light sources on hand?
For one... lord knows your DM has enough things to deal with. I think it is fair to take "tracking the light around your specific character" off their weary, burdened shoulders.
But more importantly... it will make the game more fun for you!
D&D is an imaginative game. It is your job to understand the environment and situation the DM is describing so you can experience it and interact with it.
That will often involve you asking clarifying questions and then acting upon the answers they give you.
I know, I know, I know... it sounds kind of like tedious work...
But no matter what kind of player you are, it will add layers of depth and fun to your experience that you won't regret.
Metagamers can exploit the new layer of strategy (see next section)... role-players can add tangible details and immerse themselves in the scene... and everyone in-between can better visualize the setting.
It's no wonder that people are freaking out with excitement when they experience the dynamic lighting on VTT.
But if you know the lighting rules well, you can incorporate that into your imagination of every scene... just as tabletop was intended!
How YOU, the DM, Are Neglecting Darkvision
Speaking of scenes and building narrative... I now turn my attention to YOU, oh great Dungeon Master!
Now, on the one hand, darkness plays a role in storytelling. It sets the mood... creates mystery and anticipation... plays upon the imagination and emotions of your players.
But that is a post for another time...
For now, let's content ourselves with the role darkvision plays in your encounter design.
Or lack thereof... (bear with me for a sec).
As we all know, the most boring combat encounter is this:
- Players approach open field
- Bad guy on other end of open field
- They run at each other
- They fight
- Bad guy or group dies
There is no strategy... no nuance... no creativity... just "go kill the evil thing."
And the easiest way to make a combat encounter more interesting is to add layers: incorporate story motivation, add interesting terrain elements, create alternative goal(s) for ending the combat (etc).
Each of these things adds complexity and gives the player's meaningful agency.
And as a DM, another way to make encounters more interesting is to "blind" your players
Creatures that are affected by the Blinded Condition...
Fail all checks that rely on sight
Have disadvantage on all their attack rolls
Enemies have advantage when attacking them
And guess what causes the blinded condition?
That's right... heavily obscured areas... including darkness.
So any monster that lingers in darkness... any bandit ambush being launched from the shadows... can easily hit the party and is better defended against their attacks.
Needless to say, their changes of not being hacked and burned to death by murder hobos just increased significantly... as did the odds of a TPK.
Knowing this, if your players hope to stand a change in the combat, they better A) get a light source or B) rely on their players with darkvision.
Suddenly, the player with darkvision has a new, interesting role in combat. They an't just sit back and hurl fireballs or charge in with a battle axe...
They have to be a leader, using their special vision to direct the party to safety/victory.
If you design a combat encounter with lighting in mind, you insert a puzzle in the middle of the fight... making it more interesting.
Let's shift gears and talk about exploration encounters.
Say your party is exploring a dungeon... for the sake of simplicity, we'll imagine a standard, stone, dark, expansive dungeon.
The "basic b*tch" of dungeons
And what is the thing the players are looking out for in a dungeon?
Players will roll a perception check every step if you let them... which highly increases the likelihood of finding every single trap you lay for them.
That would make for a boring dungeon that lasts hours longer than it needs to.
Which is why the DMG and vet players everywhere insist you use "Passive Perception" (PBH, 177). Passive perception is 10 + the player's wisdom modifier. It is the character's "standard" for noticing things.
Which would give a lot of players between a 12 and 15 perception roll MINIMUM. In that case, they would still notice a good portion of your traps.
But guess what can lower that passive perception?
Mmmmhmmmm... DIM LIGHT = Lightly Obscured = disadvantage on perception checks relying on sight.
If players are NOT in bright light, then all their passive scores get a whopping -5.
As a result, any traps or treasures that are particularly well hidden would NOT be found, creating a much more interesting... and threatening... dungeon.
Once again, the party has to A) find a light source and B) rely on the player character with darkvision. Otherwise, they are sure to set off every trap they come across.
Additionally, what if you, oh great DM, then add some sort of skill challenge? Or timer? Or something hat keeps putting out their light source?
Suddenly, a simple stroll through a dungeon becomes a tense situation where they have to strategically make high-stakes choices.
The player with darkvision can maybe see something in the darkness, have to describe it to the party, and the party has to make intelligence and wisdom skill checks to figure out what is going on.
And your exploration encounter is now mixed with roleplay... with the threat of combat.
Sounds a bit more engaging... huh?
So, fellow DM... ask yourself:
When was the last time your players had an encounter where the lighting played a major role?
Yes, this is ANOTHER thing DMs need to do...
BUT... what this does NOT mean is that you have to have a perfect understanding of every light source on your map... that would be way, WAY too much work.
Keeping track of enemy spell slots and HP is tough enough. Just tell the players it is their responsibility to ask about it and be aware of it... and that their lives depend on it!
But what it DOES mean is that the LIGHT of an area needs to be something you incorporate into your combat and exploration encounters.
Thoughtful lighting can also make DnD 5e encounters more engaging for players with darkvision.
This is how you, as a DM, can make darkvision suck a whole lot less.
How YOU, Wizards of the Coast, Dropped the Ball on Darkvision
So far we have talked about how players and dungeon masters can get he most out of 5e darkvision.
But there is only so much you can do with so little.
That's right... "so little"... because WOTC just completely biffed it when it came to darkvision.
For one, the darkvision rules are so simple they make no sense.
In DnD 5e, you either have darkvision or you do not. That is it. No nuance... no variety... just all or nothing.
And I mean... really? That was the best professional game designers could come up with!?
Some we are just supposed to assume that a dwarf that mines under the mountains and an elf that takes walks under the stars BOTH have a darkvision that works exactly the same? No racial or cultural variations to darkvision whatsoever?
And here is the thing... the creators kinda agree!
So, logically, these races have superior darkvision:
- Their darkvision range is extended to 120 feet, and
- They have "sunlight sensitivity"... which basically means they have disadvantage doing anything in bright light/sunlight.
Now THAT is some good darkvision variety: awesome racial flavor that makes our D&D experience richer!
Basically, WOTC made this ONE exception for anyone who had a childhood in the Underdark.. and then made no more.
No special forms of darkvision to distinguish the Orcs of Grummsh from the dragonborn, descendants of dragons!?
It's an outrage (that we will fix at the end of this post).
But while WOTC has this problem with a lack of VARIETY... they make it worse by having a problem with QUANTITY...
Way, WAY too many races and monsters have darkvision.
Take the original 8 playable races... only THREE do not have darkvision.
With the expansion of the playable races, the percentage of those with darkvision went down from 66% to 51%... BUT THAT IS STILL 25 RACES WITH DARKVISION!!!
And what about monsters? There are hundreds of monsters in fifth edition... surely darkvision is a special ability that should surprise players?
Just over HALF (1.2... 50%) of the 1,200 D&D 5e monsters across the published resources and adventures have darkvision.
And if the odds of an enemy having darkvision are so high that players can flip a coin, then it's not a surprise or novelty... they just plan for it every time.
Psssst! If you are looking for EVERY race, monster, and means of darkvision... check out Black Citadel RPG's comprehensive list!
In fact, one could argue that darkvision is now seen as a STANDARD for adventurers, rather than something special and unique that sets them apart from their fantasy society.
Why else would WOTC offer so many easy ways to get it:
- Uncommon magic items (ex: Googles of Night)
- Class Abilities (ex: Gloom Stalker Ranger)
- Tattoos (ex: Shadowfell Brand tattoo)
- Spells (ex: Darkvision)
- Eldritch Invocations (ex: Devil's Sight)
With aaaaall that in mind... I mean... do I even need to say it?
Yeah I do :)
When everyone has darkvision... no one does...
Image © Disney
This is why I suspect the ONLY time DM's and players notice darkness is when it is magical darkness.
It doesn't matter if you lived in a pocket dimension of darkness your whole life... no darkvision can see through magical darkness.
But you know what happens when a DM drops magical darkness in an encounter?
Suddenly... darkness and light becomes a fun, dynamic part of the encounter!
- Everyone gets creative... using the darkness to flank or confuse enemies.
- Or, if it is wrecking them, they pour through their spells and abilities to find anything that might bring the spell down.
- And if there is nothing they can do to affect the darkness, they adjust their priorities in battle and go after the spellcaster.
THAT is what we want for all darkness and dim light: we want to make it a challenge that darkvision can HELP solve.
And when we do that, darkvision will become something cool rather than a dumb trope or cheat code.
In summary... no variety + overuse = sucky darkvision.
Too Many People Have Darkvision...
Not Enough People Have Glow in the Dark Dice
How to Fix WOTC's Darkvision Mistake
Wizards of the Coast made two mistakes when designing darkvision for D&D 5e: 1) they made it too simple and 2) they gave it to way too many creatures and monsters.
Do the opposite.
All it takes to fix 5e darkvision is to add variations that can be dispersed among monsters and creatures.
So, finally, here are my homebrew suggestions for "darkvision 2.0":
"While underground or in a structure, a creature can see in dim light within 60ft of it as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. Outside, they have normal vision."
Image © Grey Knight Dante, Warhammer Wiki
This is the "standard" darkvision... with a twist. These would be creatures that regularly mine or live in caves... any creatures that spend time underground, but not so much that they belong to the Underdark. Best for dwarves, the Gloom Stalker Ranger, bats, and trolls.
"While outside under the starlight and moonlight, a creature can see in dim light within 60ft of them as if it were in bright light, and in darkness as if it were in dim light. In caves they have normal vision."
Moonlight in Caras Galadhon. © Sara Morello.
There are certain creatures that are more "in tune" with nature. They regularly dance in the moonlight and have a special connection with the elements. The rest of us may still struggle with the shadows at night, but these creatures can see by starlight almost as well as they do by sunlight. This is an obvious choice for elven races, but also the Twilight Domain Cleric, storm giants, and pretty much ANYTHING from the feywild.
"A creature can see in dim light within 60 feet as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. However, during the transition period, at dawn and dusk, if they are outside, they have disadvantage on all perception checks (WIS) relying on sight and on any long rage attacks outside of 15 feet."
Yup, I stole this directly from Reign of Fire... and I'm not sorry. It's an awesome idea from an awesome movie (watch a clip here). The idea is that their darkvision is woven into their racial identity. Obviously, this would be for most dragons, dragonborn, and kobolds, but also tabaxi and owlin.
"While underwater, a creature can see in dim light within 100 feet of it as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. Outside the water, they have normal vision."
Image © Wizards of the Coast
As anyone who has swam deep in a lake or ocean could tell you, it gets dark... QUICK. And yet, sea creatures' eyes have adapted to the unique way light reflects through water. The Helm of Underwater Action should include this type of darkvision. Any aquatic creature should have this as well, including tritons, bronze dragons, krakens, and sahuagin.
"A creature can see in dim light within 120 feet as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. The creature has disadvantage on attack rolls and on Wisdom (perception) attacks that rely on sight when you, the target of your attack, or whatever you are trying to perceive is in direct sunlight."
Image © Wizards of the Coast + R.A. Salvatore
This is word-for-word taken from the Drow racial features on page 24 of the PHB. It is a combination of "superior darkvision" and "sunlight sensitivity." This is for the races that already have it (drow, duergar, deep gnome) as well as monsters from the underdark like Hook Horrors and Illithids/Mindflayers. I would also put the Goggles of Night in his category... but make it a rare magic item.
"A creature can see in dim light within 120 feet as if it were bright light."
Image by Mark Molnar © Wizards of the Coast
Some creatures love the shadows... they dwell in them, linger in them, delight in them. They may feel out of place in a dark cave, but in dim gloom they move like wraiths.
I am sympathetic to arguments that anything in the Shadowfell should have superior darkvision. But the Shadowfell isn't total darkness, and some creatures and monsters should definitely have this instead. Shadow Magic Sorcerers and shadar-kai should have this version of darkvision, as well as anyone with a Shadowfell Brand tattoo.
"A creature can see in dim light within 60ft as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. This is maintained in any environment."
Finally, we are at darkvision rules as currently written. However, having been made much more rare... this is the only "universal" darkvision... and is therefore much more special.
I would place the origin of this kind of darkvision in magic and eldrich evil. warlocks, who make pacts with evil deities, or races with infernal or evil heritage like tieflings or yuan-ti, would all be privy to this kind of darkvision. Beyond the 3rd level spell Darkvision, the warlock invocation Devil's Sight and the magic item "Robe of Eyes."
There you have it...
All the ways I think we make darkvision sucky and stupid.
And the best ways I think we can work together to fix it...
Turning it into something interesting, something fun, and a valuable adventuring tool.
My last point is this: don't be stingy!
If a player can justify in their backstory why they should have any of these versions of darkvision... give it to them.
Just be sure to incorporate it into your campaign!
Looking Forward to Using Your Character's
New Darkvision in Your Campaign?
Based out of San Diego, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help D&D related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!