Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On Darkness

One night this past weekend, I ventured outside this weekend into a narrow strip of woods near our place. (I was actually looking for a misplaced toddler bike, but no matter). On a night with no visible moon, I was struck by how very, very dark it was, even so close to civilization. Imagine then, how dark the woods would be with a sky that wasn’t dimly illuminated by the light pollution from some car dealer and a small Indiana downtown a mile distant.

I notice this when I go camping as well—out in the woods, with no moon, it is dark. Really, really dark. Storming, even darker. Now, some people are blessed with excellent night vision, but how do you think you would do if you dropped in a campsite in the middle of the woods with a sword and were attacked by goblins?

We did night exercises in Korea. Your eyes get tired. You begin to make humanoid figures out of shapes in the distance that aren’t really there. Movement blurs.

Most RPGs give some penalty for fighting in the dark, but I sometimes wonder if it’s sufficient. Those demi-human races with night vision are in good shape, but what about us sorry humans? I wonder if as Game Masters we adequately convey how frustrating and challenging not only fighting and other tasks would be on a dark night?

It seems to me, as a player and as a Game Master, I tend to treat the darkness in my head as sort of a manageable inconvenience, a sort of dimming background effect that doesn't really hamper as much as perhaps it should. This may be because it might be hard to represent on a minis mat the sort of uncertainty and difficulty darkness can bring, or perhaps it's because I want to imagine the scene in my head.

This is something I'll have to ponder for my group's next nighttime encounter.

I never did find the toddler bike until the next morning. I had passed right by it.


Tim Shorts said...

Say a group of goblins ambushed the party at their campsite. For the first couple of rounds they would suffer a -4 pentalty to hit as if the goblins were invisible. Once the party found the general location of the goblins the penalty would decrease to -2 for missile weapons and if engaged in melee would eaither have a -1 or no penalty at the time.

So when the party assigns guard duty its important that someone with some type of dark vision is available for the dark shifts.

Stuart said...

Imagine the flickering of a torch, the long shadows cast by the people and objects around you and how they'd make weird shapes across rough stonework or cave walls. :)

Avatar said...

In a realist gameset, probabily a -4 penalty would be insufficient, in my opnion. (just remember GURPS System, which gaves you a -10 penalty in situations of total darkness)
Talking about D&D, which try to have epic fights, it is good enough.

Avatar said...

But is a great idea to explore the narration (or storytelling, I don't know) of dark places, putting things that is not there and using the sounds to fright the players.

Nice post !

Aaron W. Thorne said...

This problem is why I prefer a separate "miss chance" roll, rather than making it harder to hit (or perhaps in combo with making it harder to hit). You definitely would have hit that goblin if it was actually a goblin and not a trick of shadows...

Rob Conley said...

I have some experience with this issue when played NERO LARP.

1) If there cover around (like in woods) the folks with night vision,infravision, ultra vison have a hell of an advantage and you are fighting blind.

2) If you are in the open, starlight is enough to fight by. Most people don't get to experience this because of light pollution.

3) But starlight doesn't do a damn bit of good trying to pick somebody out coming form the treeline. They would have to 10 or 20 yards away from cover before you can see them moving against the ground.

4) If you are not in a chaotic situation you can get around fine even in utter darkness. You do this by feeling the ground. I was particularly good at doing this was able to find people in the deep woods even with my crappy hearing. But there are limits.

One time I was searching for a group of friends. I was heading down a path feeling my way with my feet. I heard some rustling and then started carefully creeping along. Then like 5 yards ahead of me a flashlight just turned on in my face. I screamed, they screamed. When we calmed down we all started laughing. They thought I was a deer or something.

It is a slow way of moving and if you are looking for someone or something you have to be methodical about it using search patterns.

Again in a fight or other chaotic situation you are blind.

One time we were sneaking up along side a cabin on a bunch of trolls. They heard us or something because two of them jumped around the corner scaring the hell out of us. We ran in the opposite direction. We were on the side facing the open field and because it was a clear night running out there would not done as any good. On the other side was woods that we wanted to get into. So we are running and then color of the wall shift from a dark gray to black. We figured we cleared the corner of the cabin and so both of us turned.

And promptly ran into the wall. So hard we got knocked back on our ass. We managed to get up and get away before the NPCs playing the trolls got us. But damn that was funny as hell. Apparently that corner of the cabin was finished differently so it showed up black in starlight. In daylight the difference was apparent at night well the result wasn't so good with us.

5) With a fire or light it completely different. The advantage goes to the person sneaking around. People walking in front of the light are particulary vulnerable to mischief like a bow shot. When setting up camp you want a wide buffer area so you can see stuff coming otherwise they will be right on top of you. Unlike you are in a secluded area the fire will be a beacon in the night.

AWizardInDallas said...

Stuart and Avatar have it right. I think describing the "fright" of a walk in the inky pitch is far more important than inventing new game mechanics. The only difficulty I've had with this is in deciding how much moonlight there is on worlds with more than one moon. ;)

Mountzionryan said...

I am also surprised at just how much light some moon, not to mention a bright shadow-creating full moon, can provide.

assatur said...

Very nice post - brings up a few things. I guess the way I would handle it (in addition to whatever mechanical figurings) would be to really use the darkness in descriptions. In the heat of combat, per your goblin ambush idea, have perception checks to discern between an enemy, a friend, or a shadow. Don't let the players know how many goblins are attacking, just the three or so that they can make out as they scramble to gather weapons and fight. In fact, don't even let them know they're up against goblins until the fight is over or a successful perception check is made. Just tell them "scary humanoids of such-and-such size and shape." Spot/Perception checks for everything.