Light in the Dungeon

No doubt you’re familiar with this:

D&D Basic Set Box Cover (Sutherland)

1977 (Holmes) D&D Basic Set Box Cover (by Sutherland)

Though I never played this edition, it is the the one that I remember seeing as a kid when D&D was just beginning to enter the public consciousness. I was checking out the artwork the other day when I realized that there’s a little touch in there that speaks to what I see as the old school exploration/resource management approach to the game. It’s this bit on the far left in the magic-user’s hand:

Basic Box Torch

Wand in one hand, torch in the other.

It’s not that I hadn’t noticed the torch before. It’s just that I had never really thought about it. It struck me, because I’ve never really been one to be a stickler for lighting in the dungeon.

Oh, I make sure that the part has a light source and only describe what they can see based on the limit of their torch or lantern. And they know they’ve got about a 0-in-6 chance of surprising any monsters while they’re stomping around with unshielded light sources. I’ve even been making them light new torches when the hour is up, lately.

But when it comes to combat, I’ve not yet spent much effort making sure that the lighting is taken care of. I don’t really want to get into the game of tracking the 30′ radius of light centered on the torch bearer and penalizing those who stray outside of it. At least not down to the level of turning things into a miniatures combat game. We’re pretty fast and loose with our combat, figuring that everything is pretty chaotic and that everyone is constantly moving around when the swords and spells are ringing.

However, I would like to crack down on this a bit. Not in an overly strict sense, just enough to make it clear that someone has to be holding a torch during the fight and that if it falls or goes out, darkness penalties for surface dwellers will set in. Our new homebrew game has only human pCs, so they would be effectively blinded if the torch went out.

Maybe some of those non-combatants my players keep not hiring when looking for men-at-arms will suddenly be useful.

Of course, if some chump is hanging back a bit and holding up a torch or lantern so the rest of the party can see the monsters, isn’t said chump likely to become a target faster than you can say “ready, aim, fire”?

How do you guys manage this? Do you make the effort to keep things a bit “real” when it comes to dungeon lighting, particularly during combat? Or is it too much work or not worth the effort? Like everything else, we want things to feel as real as possible without slowing the game or sucking out the fun.

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5 Responses to Light in the Dungeon

  1. bighara says:

    Why, with a TurnTracker of course! 😉

    Seriously, though. I do like to keep fairly close track of things like torches used, etc. I also give players a modicum of grief about how far they can see. I enjoy a level of “resource management” in my games, and arrows whistling out of the dark is the MOST FUN EVER! 🙂

    • Kilgore says:

      LOL. I use poker chips as turn trackers. One chip per turn, five of them for an hour; when I reach for one and there isn’t one left, I pull them all back and tell the players that their torch is about to burn out.

      I’ve only detailed the lighting in combat when it’s been a specific part of the encounter. I’m thinking it should be considered a specific part of the encounter every time.

  2. Andy says:

    The games I’m in now also play pretty fast and loose with this other than specific moments when the DM remembers that they need light to read something for example.

    I think it’s just something that the DM has to take special effort to pay attention to. I absolutely love Kilgore’s poker chip idea. That sounds like a brilliant way to remember to keep an eye on lighting.

    Excellent post on a vital question to D&D.

  3. I’ve been on top of lighting recently.

    I definitely recommend the Faster Monkey Turntracker. It really does remind me about light and keeping track of turns. Reminding yourself to turn it every 10 minutes is a bit of a drag, but it is a good resource. In most instances low level players are in the dungeon for only short bouts of time and in that context it isn’t a big deal and easy to record. It’s more of an issue if you are playing larger dungeons or if the PCs get cut-off from the exit. Often I just ask the players, where is your light source? so they keep track of it. It’s also good for a DM to know as most monsters attack the torch-bearer first. Muahaha

  4. John says:

    My players have now switched from torches to lanterns so that they can put down their light source when a battle starts. And they have one lantern in the second rank, and one in the back. I am not a stickler for radius and the like, but they are now very aware that they need light to do things. It has added another dimension

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