DM Advantage: Darkvision

Let’s talk about advantage. In particular, let’s talk about DM Advantage: Darkvision. Darkvision is defined in the 5th edition Player’s Handbook as an ability to “see in darkness as if the darkness were dim light.”1Mearls, Mike, and Jeremy Crawford. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2014. 183-185. Print. Unfortunately, many players have taken this to mean simply that their characters can see in the dark. But if you continue reading you will see that darkvision only allows a player to see shades of gray when they are in darkness. I can understand the value in granting players the full spectrum of visible light. Ignoring darkvision is perfect for less gritty campaigns where you don’t want to get bogged down in such details as whose hands are holding what and whether someone can wield a shield with the same arm that is carrying a torch.

When we published our first module on DMs Guild (Truly, Madly, Deeply—A Savage Garden All Around Me) we encouraged DMs to “set the tone of your game, establish the group standards of play, and interpret the rules” as well as to “make the game fun!”2 We’ll use this short article today to give an insight into what we’re talking about. We hope you enjoy, leave some feedback, and share with your friends.

DM Advantage: Darkvision
Who’s this amateur bearing a torch? (Death Knight from the 5th Edition Monster Manual)3Mearls, Mike, and Jeremy Crawford. Monster manual. Renton, WA: Wizards Of The Coast, 2014. 47. Print.

Is darkvision bad or broken?

This is a matter of perspective really. Some people don’t care for too much crunch and are eager to jump right into some action. But others enjoy running and playing in campaigns where you track every copper coin, arrow or crossbow bolt, rations, and even spell components. For the former, darkvision offers an easy suspension of disbelief when the rules are interpreted loosely. The DM has no need to explain lighting sources in dungeons and everyone at the table can just assume that vision is not an issue. But for the latter, those kinds of gritty campaigns are particularly advantageous for using the rules as written. Maybe we should take another look at the full definition:

a creature with darkvision can see in darkness as if the darkness were dim light, so areas of darkness are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned. However, the creature can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.4Mearls, Mike, and Jeremy Crawford. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook. Renton, WA: Wizards of the Coast, 2014. 183-185. Print.

Great! So what?

Okay, they can only see shades of gray. So how can that be used to the DM’s advantage? Since PCs with darkvision can’t see color, stalking through a dark dungeon can take on a whole new element. Is the shaggy mass near their feet just a heap of discarded furs or have the adventurers wandered into a wolf den? Is the floor wet with condensation or is it a deeper pool of water or maybe the lead party member is about to walk across some gray ooze? Stalagmites may be indistinguishable from stone golems in low light conditions. Furthermore, wielding a torch or lantern in a dark dungeon is a lot like shooting tracer rounds at night: it’s helpful because you can see where the rounds are going but you also give away your position. A human with a torch is just begging for attention from the dungeon’s denizens.

Humans don't have darkvision.
Bringing the human was YOUR idea! You know they can’t see in the dark.5

Furthermore, as per the PHB, only dragonborn, halflings, and humans DON’T have darkvision. This adds an interesting dynamic to a mixed group of dungeon crawlers if the majority of them do have the ability. Also, casters are able to cast Light at will (since it’s a cantrip) as often they want. But in keeping with a gritty campaign, the material components—fireflies and/or phosphorescent moss—will eventually be depleted.


Whether you interpret the darkvision ability loosely or strictly RAW (rules as written) it should never be the bane of your existence. Use it to your advantage or let it go largely ignored. If you prefer, you could get as draconian as house-ruling that darkvision does not exist in your campaign. But if you are implementing darkvision then use it to its fullest extent! A sneaky rogue that is relying on shadows and stealth should be having a field day in your dark dungeons. Maybe you give him advantage on his stealth roles or inspiration for playing to his character. Just always remember, whether you use darkvision strictly or loosely, as the DM, your first objective is to make the game fun!

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Author: Patrick

Board gamer, role-player, father, blogger.

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