How Wielding 5e Visibility Rules Can Lead to Exciting D&D Scenes
A D&D 5e Underwater True Story
by Riley Rath
Recently, Awesome Dice published a post on darkvision, how it sucks in D&D 5e, and all the ways players and dungeon masters can make it better. It also offered some homebrew rules to make it more exciting.
Overall, I make the case that having encounters with dynamic lighting can make darkvision not only useful, but actually exciting.
But you know what that post was missing?
A good example.
Fortunately, I was able to peer back into my past and find a relevant, true story from one of my own campaigns.
It captures the power visibility rules and darkvision have to create intense scenes players will never forget...
The story begins at a research installation in the middle of a large lake. It was a series of small buildings resting on floating barges. 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 my table 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. The found supplies, a study/lab, a kitchen, and a common room in the middle.
Ya know, standard science/research stuff.
But when they opened the door to the far room, they discovered candle wax... and blood... and a pentagram... and robes... and abyssal texts...
Image © A+ Props
Ya know, standard cult stuff.
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:
1. A moonpool
2. Deep diving suits
The table erupted in excitement... and FEAR.
To go down would mean to break the golden D&D rule (NEVER split the party).
On the other hand, what are the odds of using deep diving suits ever again in ANY campaign?!?
Furthermore, 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 moonpool.
A short decade later, and a few "oh, what the hell" and "F- it" later, a war-vet tiefling and teenage noble human were in the suits and descending into the deep, dark waters.
Down they went... surrounded by endless waters... several hundred feet... until the platform rested upon the lake floor.
They Are "Lights in the Darkness"
Deep water is already dark. But at night it is the DARKEST of dark: 100% darkness = blinded condition.
Furthermore, the celestial warlock's Light cantrip would only have half its range: 10ft of bright light and 10ft of dim light.
But even then, the dim light was a fuzzy, gray static... making out only general objects 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 they were 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... 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... a chest half-submerged in the sand.
She eldritch blasted a hole to reveal a strange object wrapped in rotted canvas.
As she picked it up, the necklace was going crazy, brimming with arcane energy.
But as soon as she did, suddenly, the tiefling noticed movement about 20ft away...
Something stirring in the sand...
The Light cantrip combined with her darkvision meant she could see 20ft just fine...
But for the other 20ft... she had a -5 passive perception... which meant she had no idea of the scope of their danger...
For hundreds of yards around them... skeletons were coming to life.
Rising from the sand... corpses of ancient pirates and paladins... lifted themselves from the lake bed... the guardians created from some last ditch curse of a drowning cultist.
Without a moment to spare, the ranger and warlock began making haste for the platform... double time!
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...
The tiefling hacked surfacing skulls with outstretched arms...
The human blasted skeletons leaping from the shipwrecks moments before they landed on top of him.
Image © Disney
They fought their way for several rounds... beating back the undead bleached bones.
But after a survival check, the tiefling had her eyes wide with horror: her breathing tube had gotten crossed and tangled.
In the chaos... the darkness... unfamiliarity... they had taken a wrong turn and wandered back into the shipwrecks...
With a panicked look in her eyes, she turned to her human friend, letting off desperate blast after blast... unaware of the dozens of skeletons just 20 feet away from him...
This was the end.
It had been 30 minutes since the 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 bodies.
But then, out of nowhere, they felt a tug on the rope for the platform.
They had made it back!
They vigorously began pulling them up through the water... and soon the halfling looked into the moonpool and noticed a bright light.
But it wasn't the object from the Light cantrip... it was bigger... brighter...
As the platform came out of the water they saw only one dive suit: on the body of the unconscious tiefling.
But there, standing before them... was a radiant being... eyes and mouth shining with pure white light...
Image © Gigi Gvalia
A warlock temporarily embodied by a servant of Tyr himself: the god of law and justice. There he stood in menacing, awful splendor.
As he spoke, in some transcendent tongue... the building shook and the other characters trembled and fell to the floor.
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" to save the party from an almost certain death?
Did I goad them/railroad them into going down there?
Was it an unforgettable session?
Oh HELL yes.
Several elements combined to create a TENSE situation. A vulnerable and divided party, exploring/fighting underwater, and a reward of a legendary magic gave the session the highest of stakes.
But something else made it exciting: the use of darkness and visibility.
Every movement and every shipwreck turned from mere setting description to a terrifying potential enemy.
And when the combat started, the lack of visibility prevented them from executing some perfect strategy, forcing them to stay in the moment and act on instinct.
Needless to say... it was fun!
I believe that if we want to make 5e darkvision better, we need to add some homebrew variety.
But I also believe that if players and DMs follow the rules as written, darkvision can become an amazing tool in encounter design.
Even with low level enemies like skeletons... an encounter in darkness can bring your players to the edge of their seats.
Did You Enjoy This Post?
We'd Really Appreciate It :)
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 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!