Trees Like Torches Blazed with Light: Lighting and Darkness in RPGs

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“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” -JRR Tolkien

Over at Ultanya, Grand DM shows various real-world ways to create torches and other fire-based lighting sources. I’ll definitely be sharing this with my Torchbearer players.

Reading the article got me thinking about how lighting affects both the mechanics and the mood of a game.

In most D20 RPGs, lighting is mostly ignored by players, or relegated to a -2 to skill checks when you have a hard time seeing. In addition, many player races can see in the dark, negating the need for light. Torchbearer makes lighting much more important, focusing on how many people are lit by the torch, lantern or candle.

ccda189d8d0338bd5afa5ec6db08a592But there are so many other ways that lighting can be used. To begin with, magical darkness adds an air of gloom and despair. I find that having the magical darkness not be completely enveloping makes it even more frightening: Your torches only light five feet in front of you. This darkness could be either from Drow (always a good way to know there are Drow about), or from some other source. A statue of pure evil? Some vile ritual? Hmm…

In addition, if you’ve got a group who don’t have darkvision, using lighting sources throughout a room can be quite effective at setting the mood. The massive obsidian room has torches along the far edges, but the center of the room remains in darkness. Do you approach hesitantly?

Slipping notes to those with darkvision can help leave the players who have normal vision “in the dark”, so to speak. This leads to player communication, where the humans have to rely on the dwarves to peer through the darkness.

Also, keep in mind how monsters use vision and light. Drow are vulnerable to sunlight, many monsters see in the dark, and some even have tremorsense. Imagine a group of Drow teaming up with a tamed purple worm to cast a room in darkness, then rely on tremorsense to find the heroes. There’s so many options there.

LanternThere’s also real-world lighting to keep in mind. As the heroes venture through the darkness, dim the lights, leaving only tea lights (or electronic tea lights) to guide their way. Force them to rely on a candle to read their character sheet (and accidentally covering your character sheet with dripping wax looks really cool.) This can particularly matter for a game like Call of Cthulhu, where playing in a brightly-lit room with the dishwasher running and the local Top 40 radio station playing in the background will quickly kill the mood and pull everyone out of game. Pay attention to how light affects your games.

Play more with lighting in your games. I know that Torchbearer is forcing me to think of these issues more. I hope you look at how they affect yours.

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