How to Understand D&D 5e Visibility and Actually Make it Exciting
Plus, a Simple Chart That Will Make It Easy for Your Players
By Riley Rath
Table of Contents
Illustration (True D&D Story)
How Does Sight Work in 5e?
What is the Visibility Range in D&D 5e?
Players Need to Know 5e Visibility Rules
DMs Need to Design More "Darkness Encounters"
The Problem With 5e Visibility Rules-As-Written
Simple + Expanded D&D 5e Visibility Chart
Recently, we here at Awesome Dice published a blog on darkvision...
It's about how it sucks and how to fix it. It is pretty clear that you cannot understand D&D 5e darkvision without first understanding D&D 5e visibility.
But after some further thought, we realized 5e visibility rules needed their own post. Not only to explain them, but because they ALSO need their own fix. Or... more accurately, they need a simplified chart to make it easier for players.
This post discusses 5e visibility rules, makes them easy, and insists that using them can make unique, exciting encounters.
But before I "dive into" (the pun will make sense in a second...) visibility rules, I have a true story from one of my actual games that captures how GREAT it is to know/develop visibility rules. And how building an encounter around visibility can create heart-pounding encounters/scenes your players will never forget...
But if you don't care about stories, just click here to skip it.
The story begins at a research installation in the middle of a large lake...
Under a full, fall moon floated a series of small buildings. It was as isolated as it was mysterious; the flickering lanterns shone through the mist as the structures rose and fell with the gentle waves.
The party had been tracking a foreign "scientific society" operating throughout the region. Having no evidence to bring the law to bear, the local lord had hired the adventures to investigate and "deal with" this strange university expedition.
So after loudly and violently dispatching the guards (easier said than done...) the party explored the six rooms of the small facility. They found supplies, a study/lab, a kitchen, and a common room in the middle. Ya know, standard science/research stuff.
But then they opened the door to the far room to discover candle wax... and blood... and abyssal texts. Ya know, standard cult stuff.
Image © A+ Props
As suspected, the "scientific society" was a front for some sort of cult of the undead. This realization was further confirmed in the study/lab. It's tables were covered in books, devices, and papers with more than enough testimony to satisfy any judge, bishop, or lord.
But then the party discovered something they did NOT expect...
A hallway led to a building separate from the rest of the installation, with two things:
A moon pool
Deep diving suits
My players erupted in excitement... and FEAR.
The cult was a human cult, so the suits only fit human-sized creatures. That nixed the half-orc, dragonborn, and halfling. All that was left was the tiefling ranger and human celestial warlock. But to go down would mean to break the golden D&D rule: NEVER split the party.
On the other hand, they had acquired a necklace that glowed when magic items were nearby, and it was starting to go a little bit crazy when they placed it near the moon pool. And besides, what are the odds of using deep diving suits ever again in ANY campaign?!?
A short debate and a few "oh, what the hell" and "F-it"s later, a war-vet tiefling and a teenage noble human were in the suits and descending into the deep, dark waters.
Down they went... into endless waters... penetrating the darkness... several hundred feet... until the platform rested upon the lake floor.
(Side note: Check out our Luminary Oceanic Dice; they are 'lights in the darkness"!)
Deep water is already dark. But at night, it is the DARKEST of dark: 100% darkness (blinded condition). And while the celestial warlock had his Light cantrip, it would only have half its range (10ft of bright light and 10ft of dim light).
Which meant the tiefling (with darkvision) could only see 20ft as bright light and 20ft as dim light. But even then, the dim light was a fuzzy, gray static... making out only general object as they approached.
Using the necklace as a compass, they slowly walked... one heavy boot step after another.
After a few minutes, they met a terrifying sight: jagged, fearsome masses littered the landscape in front of them. The tiefling peered in, but still failed her perception check. The two players, paralyzed, debated on what to do next. After pausing to prepare for an attack, they tentatively moved forward...
... and were relieved to discover the masses were underwater shipwrecks (not some terrible lake monsters).
So they kept moving, weaving through the wrecks, looking for ANYTHING that stood out.
Honestly, they weren't even sure what they were looking for... or even what the cultists had been looking for all this time. But the necklace was clearly glowing a bright yellow and not only vibrating, but pulling the tiefling... almost like gravity.
A few minutes later, it pulled her to the ground... to a chest half submerged in the sand. The warlock eldritch-blasted a hole to reveal a strange object wrapped in rotted canvas. As she picked it up, the necklace went crazy, brimming with arcane energy.
But as soon as she did, suddenly, something stirred in the sand...
The Light cantrip combined with her darkvision meant she could see out to 20ft just fine... but for the other 20 feet... she had a -5 passive perception... which meant she could tell things were happening... but had no idea the scope of heir danger was 30ft away from them.
For hundreds of yards around them... skeletons were coming to life. Rising from the sand... corpses of ancient bandits, pirates, and paladins... guardians created from some last ditch curse of a drowning cultist... lifted their hollow corpses upright.
They wasted precious moments peering into the waters...
But once they grasped the horror, the ranger and warlock began making haste for the platform. But they were handicapped... heavy laden with the suits and fighting one-handed: the tiefling with the object and human with the light source.
As they strode across the lake floor, they attempted to follow their breathing tube and retrace their path... all while hacking at outstretched cadavers and blasting leaping skeletons.
They fought their way for several rounds... beating back the undead bleached bones. But after a failed survival check, the tiefling turned, gazed, and despaired:
Her breathing tube had gotten crossed and tangled.
Not only did this restrict her breathing, but it clearly indicated that they were going in circles. In the chaos... the darkness... the unfamiliarity... they had taken a wrong turn and wandered back into the undead laden shipwrecks.
With a panicked look in her eyes, she turned to her human friend, who was himself unleashing desperate blast after blast at the ever-encroaching undead... unaware of the dozens of skeletons just 20 feet away from him... hoping against hope for a miracle.
This was the end.
It had been 47 minutes since the half-orc, dragonborn, and halfling had let their friends down. The oxygen line had violently moved back and forth before going still. They were worried out of their wits, and debated trying to create some sort of makeshift suits for their larger (and smaller) bodies.
But then, out of nowhere, they felt a tug on the rope for the platform. Despair gave way to desperate hope, as they vigorously began pulling them up through the water. Moments later, the halfling noticed a bright light rising through the moon pool. As the platform came out of the water, they saw only one dive suit: on the body of the unconscious tiefling.
But the bright object wasn't a light cantrip.
In the place of the warlock stood a radiant being... eyes and mouth shining pure white light in terrible splendor. As he spoke transcendent tongue, his voice boomed through the floating structure, sending all the other characters crashing to the floor.
© Gigi Gvalia
But then the light faded... their human friend returned to form... and collapsed on the ground... unconscious... with a strange object in his hand...
Did I, the DM, pull a "Deus Ex Machina" by turning the warlock into an avatar of Tyr, the god of law and justice, to save the party from almost-certain death?
Did I goad them/railroad them into going down there?
Was it an unforgettable session?
Several elements combined to create a TENSE situation: a vulnerable and divided party, exploring/fighting underwater, and the reward of legendary magic. But something else made it exciting:
The use of 5e darkness and visibility rules made the encounter EXCITING.
The rest of the post explores why and how we can easily use visibility rules more often.
How Does Sight Work in 5e?
As stated before, I realized that 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. Here are 5 different categories and the important mechanics:
1. LIGHTLY OBSCURED: For searchers, disadvantage on perception checks that rely on sight.
2. HEAVILY OBSCURED: Searchers automatically fail any perception checks relying on sight (blinded condition).
3. BRIGHT LIGHT: Normal vision.
4. DIM LIGHT: Things that are in dim light are lightly obscured (disadvantage on perception checks).
5. DARKNESS: Things that are in darkness are considered heavily obscured (blinded condition again).
Visibility = How easy it is to see something.
Obscurement = How much stuff is in the way of seeing.
Lighting/Darkness = How the lack of light makes something obscured.
The amount of light depends on the source of light.
Sometimes they overlap, but they do not stack.
Different light sources create different levels of light. Here is a chart of all the primary light sources (including how Control Flames changes them) (NOTE: missing is a campfire, which I would say is 25ft bright and 25ft dim):
"So what is the visibility range in 5e?"
While the PHB does provide some examples, they are all out of context and do not include the light sources. As a result, I found them difficult to understand. In response, 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 shadowed parts of the land are covered in DIM LIGHT.
- Once it is over and you arrive back at your campsite, the land is covered in DARKNESS.
- Your friends within 25 feet of the fire are in BRIGHT LIGHT.
- Your tents 25 feet father away are in DIM LIGHT.
- Your friend going to the bathroom in the woods can use their "bullseye lantern" (flashlight) to see 60 feet of bright light and 60 feet of dim light in front of them, but darkness around them.
- The forest, lake, and trail—all farther 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, obviously, HEAVILY OBSCURED.
When you are sitting on a porch during a summer thunderstorm:
- 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 is HEAVILY OBSCURED... 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, walking outside, are 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:
DARKNESS and/or HEAVILY OBSCURED = impossible to see
DIM LIGHT and/or LIGHTLY OBSCURED = difficult to see
BRIGHT LIGHT = OBVIOUS TO SEE
Our Glow-in-the-Dark Dice Are Visible Even in Magical Darkness
Players Need to Know 5e Visibility Rules
As with every "problem" with D&D 5e, I want to provide help for people who do NOT want any extra rules; solutions that work within the rules-as-written. In his case, I believe both players and DMs have a part to play in making visibility a bigger part of our campaigns.
Starting with the players... look at the GIF below, which demonstrates dynamic lighting on a Virtual Tabletop platform:
Isn't the lit map (which changes as your character moves, btw), like, WAAAAY different? Doesn't it create a greater sense of mystery regarding what lies ahead? Isn't it a more DYNAMIC and immersive playing experience?
Of course, this experience can be automatically built into any VTT map. But even if you are playing in person, DMs can cover part of the table, or narrate settings in the theater of the mind. In other words, you... the player... can still experience dynamic lighting by using your imagination... you can put yourself in your character's shoes and see through their eyes!
Players will have MORE FUN if they actively know and imagine what their character can and cannot see.
I know, I know, I know... it sounds like obvious or tedious work (the chart later on will fix that).... 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 new layers of strategy.
- Role-players can evoke clear emotions as they visualize the setting.
- Explorers can build excitement as they wonder WHAT is around the next corner.
So how do you, the player, help make darkvision in DnD 5e better?
Players... 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 (here is the link again) and you need to keep track of how they impact your darkvision. After all, 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!!!
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. But if you know the lighting rules well, you can incorporate that into the way you imagine every scene... just as tabletop was intended!
DMs Need to Design More "Darkness Encounters"
Speaking of scenes and building narrative... I now turn my attention to YOU, oh great Dungeon Master!
Darkness and darkvision need to play a role in some of your encounter designs.
Whether you intend it or not, darkness plays a role in storytelling. It sets the mood... creates mystery and anticipation... plays upon the imagination and emotions of your players. All these are helpful for creating interesting encounters.
After all, as we all know, the most boring combat encounter is one with no strategy... no nuance... no creativity... just "go kill the evil thing":
- Players approach an open field
- Bad guy on other end of open field
- They run at each other
- They fight
- Bad guy or group dies
You make combat encounters more interesting by adding layers: incorporating story motivation, adding difficult terrain, creating alternative goal(s) for ending the combat, etc. Each of these things builds complexity and gives the players meaningful agency.
But 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 are hidden and 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 can easily hit the party (hidden condition) AND is better defended from their attacks.
Without reliable visibility, everyone at the table would know the chances of a TPK just increased dramatically. So if your players hope to stand a chance in the combat encounter they better A) get a light source or B) rely on their characters with darkvision.
Or what about exploring dungeons, which are usually full of traps? They party will probably be making perception checks every 6 steps. And if you are using Passive Perception rules, then they will probably spot anything that doesn't have a DC of 17 or higher.
But... if you put the whole dungeon in dim or dark light... well... Dim Light means Lightly Obscured, which means... DISADVANTAGE ON ALL THEIR CHECKS or -5 TO THEIR PASSIVE SCORE.
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 reliable light source and/or B) rely on the player character with darkvision. Otherwise they are sure to set off every trap they come across.
Unreliable lighting inserts a puzzle in the middle of an encounter... making it more interesting and dangerous.
Now, of course you could say "well, what if they have torches?" Well, torches only last 1 hour, and most players do not carry half a dozen torches.
And besides, you can always have a monster or some environmental/magical effect put our their light source...
If that is the case, a simple dungeon stroll becomes a high-stakes situation. 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 has now mixed with role-play... with the threat of combat!
Sounds a bit more engaging, huh?
The Problem With 5e Visibility Rules-As-Written
© Wizards of the Coast
Usually this is the part of the post where I drag Wizards of the Coast through the mud... where I commend them for making something accessible, but condemn them for making it too unclear and simple.
But in this case... I think they did a relatively good job. They created interesting rules that can result in interesting adventures, but players and DMs don't seem to get around to learning them. Good job, WOTC!
WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON WITH "COVER"?!?!
If you are not sure what I am talking about, while lightly and heavily obscured is covered in "Vision and Light" on page 183 of the PHB, "Cover" is discussed on pages 196 of the PHB and 251 of the DMG. Cover is when a creature or monster is standing behind a fence, or pillar, or behind an ally. Each of those different types of cover come with different combat bonuses because they affect the line of sight of someone attacking them.
Wait a minute... "line of sight"... that sounds a lot like visibility! So then the level of cover is immediately translated into "lightly obscured" and "heavily obscured"... right? NOPE! In combat, there are 3 types of cover: "½ cover," "¾ cover," and "hidden."
WHYYYYYY ARE THERE 2 TYPES OF OBSCURITY AND 3 TYPES OF COVER?!?!?!?!
This gets SUPER confusing when you try and figure out if you, the player, can hide or not. Because page 183 of the PHB implies that players can hide when lightly obscured, but then on page 24 it clearly states that wood elves have a special ability to hide even when "only lightly obscured"... which implies the standard player CANNOT hide when lightly obscured.
This... THIS... I suspect... is why players have such a hard time with visibility rules.
Visibility and cover kinda, sorta blend... but not really. Plus, there is no helpful diagram to help players understand when they are lightly/heavily obscured as they explore.
Simple + Expanded D&D 5e Visibility Chart
For those of you who are open to a teeny tiny bit of homebrew, here is my proposed "visibility chart." It is based on the idea of a player character trying to hide (i.e. make a DEX-based stealth check) and how their level of visibility impacts their roll.
It expands both "cover" (formerly "obscurement") and "light" to four categories each, making a nice, neat chart. It is something you can give to your players to make it easy for them to stay immersed in the game and actually use the visibility rules.
NOTE: this chart still works with our 7 homebrewed racial darkvisions (check them out now)!
You might be wondering something like "a normal roll in total cover? WTF?" and I get that. I deliberated back and forth. But I came to the conclusion that while the chart adds strategy, I didn't want to take away all the advantage of players that choose to be proficient in stealth and have high dexterity. That said...
Exposed and Bright are self-explanatory: together, it's as though the creature is standing in the middle of a street on a sunny day. In that case, one is VERY visible, and thus would be incapable of hiding. Hence, any attempt to hide would be an auto fail.
Darkness is the same as it is on page 183 of the PHB. If a character is in darkness, i.e. PITCH BLACK... then it doesn't matter how exposed or covered they are... NO ONE is seeing them. Hence they automatically succeed... with an asterisk (they auto-succeed UNLESS some creature searching for them has Blindsight or Truesight).
Total Cover is when no part of you, from any direction, is visible. You might be in a chest or underneath the desert sand. It gives you a huge advantage when it comes to hiding, but not so much that it's an auto success if you are well lit.
(For example, in the Assassin's Creed games, you can hide from enemies by jumping in a hay bale. In that cause, you would be totally covered. HOWEVER... there would also probably be signs that you tried to hide there... loose hay or startled passersby... that, on a bright day, might give your position away).
It's the areas in the middle that get tricky... and up to DM discretion.
Dim light I kept he same as the PHB on page 183... it is dark enough that a person would have to squint and stare to really see what they are looking at. This would include moonlight, a faintly lit castle, or a cave barely lit by a few glowing plants.
The new category I added is Shaded... which is basically dark enough that someone can try to hide... but they're going to need to find some cover. In my imagination, this is any place full of shadows, where if someone WASN'T actively looking, a person could get away with hiding, even if they were crouching behind a couch.
½ Cover is, in general, things that are lightly obscured. So if someone is standing behind a waist-high fence, or in patchy fog, or is behind a bush that you can still kind of see through. None of these are great hiding spots, but if someone isn't looking, you might be able to get away with it.
¾ Cover is in between the effective blindness of RAW Heavily Obscured and RAW Lightly Obscured. If someone was hiding, it would be if just their feet or hat were sticking out... something that could easily be missed even by someone looking intently. Of if they were blending in with a crowd, or were camouflaged with their surroundings in a forest.
In conclusion: when you aren't sure what area is which, as a player just ask your DM. And DMs... go with your gut!
We Put Our Visibility Chart in a PDF
Along With Charts for Seekers, Passive Stealth, and Passive Perception
Based out of Spokane, 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 DnD related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!