Darkvision 5e: Hello Darkness My Old Friend

darkvision d&d 5e

“You enter the necromancer’s lair, and immediately you are engulfed by darkness. Your only source of light is from the few torches your group is carrying, barely illuminating the path ahead of you. The air is thick and heavy, and you can smell the stench of decay and rot. You hear the sound of water dripping from the ceiling, and the occasional squeak of rats scuttling in the corners. From what seems to be an endless void, you see two red dots resembling eyes staring at—”

“Hey DM, I have darkvision. What do I see?”

Are you a Dungeon Master planning out an intricate dungeon dive, or perhaps a gothic horror campaign like Curse of Strahd filled with traps and monsters hiding in the shadows. Or are you a player confidently plunging into the darkness because there’s nothing to be afraid of? Sounds familiar?

Look no further! Roll that initiative, as we peer into the void and discover how Darkvision actually works.

Vision and Light

Before we get to the juicy bits, let’s have a quick look on how vision and light works in tandem in D&D 5e. Light is essential for vision. In 5e, there are three levels of illumination:

  • Bright Light
  • Dim Light

and the absence of light called

  • Darkness

“The sun is high up in the sky. You find yourself on top of a belltower in the Castle Ward of Waterdeep. Down below, you see merchants and civilians walking down the streets. Up above, you see griffon riders patrolling the skies. On the horizon, Castle Waterdeep stands tall, known to be the seat of the city’s government.” 

Bright Light

First, what is Bright Light? This can be compared to daylight. It lets you see pretty much everything. However, this is not limited to the sun as torches, lanterns, fires, and other sources of illumination provide the same effect within a specified radius.

Dim Light

Next, let’s dive into Dim Light, also called the shadows, is the area where the light from a source begins to fade into darkness. It is that place where shapes and objects are just barely visible. It is a place of uncertainty where you start feeling an uneasy strain on your eyes as it tries to adjust to the darkness.

RAW (Rules as Written) also considers the gentle glow of twilight and dawn as dim light. Dim light is a lightly obscured area where creatures have a hard time perceiving things. In dim light, you can barely see things, but you can still make out some shapes and objects with heightened difficulty. Dim light is similar to patchy fog or moderate foliage, in that it makes it difficult to see clearly.


And finally, Darkness.

A heavily obscured area where you LITERALLY-cannot-see-anything. 

Close the windows, draw the curtains, shut the doors, and turn the lights off. This is the time when you must sharpen your other senses. Stretch out your arm in front of you, then place your open palm towards your face, and start waving your hand around. Can you see anything? Does it feel like your hand is invisible? Congratulations, you’re now John Cena. (Cue in John Cena’s WWE Intro Trumpets).

But for real though, this is what complete darkness should feel like. Your vision is immensely impaired due to the complete absence of light. Like you were plunged into a sea of ink. You cannot see anything, but you can feel the currents and the shapes of the things you come in contact with.

For those of you who are visual learners, here’s an example of how a player uses a lit torch. 

  • Bright light: The torch sheds bright light in a 20-foot radius centered on the light source. In this area, you can see everything as if it were daylight.
  • Dim light: The torch also sheds dim light for an additional 20 feet. In this area, you can see shapes and objects, but they are not as clear as they would be in bright light.
  • Complete darkness: Beyond the 20 feet of dim light, it is complete darkness. You cannot see anything at all. Zero, zip, zilch, nada!

Image from TaleSpire and tokens from HeroForge.

What is Darkvision?

Previously called Infravision from D&D 3E, Darkvision is the ability to see in natural darkness as if it were dim light. It’s like having a built-in night vision scope, allowing you to see shapes and objects in the darkness, even if they’re not as clear as they would be in bright light.

Not all races have darkvision, but some do. For example, dwarves, elves, and halflings all have darkvision. Some races, like drow, have superior darkvision, which allows them to see in darkness even further than other races with darkvision. 

The Player’s Handbook Chapter 8 page 183 states:

“Many creatures in fantasy gaming worlds, especially those that dwell underground, have darkvision. Within a specified range, 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.”

It is important to note that you do NOT get perfect vision with your Darkvision. You can only “kinda” see in the dark. 

Most creatures have a specified radius of darkvision centered on them. If a creature with 60 feet of darkvision is surrounded by complete darkness, then that creature can see everything within 60 feet as if it were dim light in shades of gray.

Anything beyond this range is still in complete darkness. Think of those low-quality black and white security night cam footage where you can see vague shapes and movement, but it’s really hard to identify what they are.

Image from TaleSpire and tokens from HeroForge.

“As you squint hard into the dark, you can barely make out a vague shape. Is it your cat, plotting your demise because you left their food bowl half empty? Or is it that nosy neighbor, trying to catch you in the act of summoning demons because they keep hearing guttural demonic voices while you’re playing D&D?

The shape moves.

Your heart stops.

It’s not your cat.

It’s not your nosy neighbor.

It’s something else.

Roll perception with disadvantage!”

Combat Mechanics

“Hey DM, I’m using a Longbow with a range of 150/600 but my darkvision is only at 60ft. How will this play out if I’m fighting in complete darkness?”

Before combat even begins, we must first resolve what your character can see. If your character is attempting to make a ranged attack against a creature, can you even see where it is – hmm? HMM?!

In complete darkness, a player with 60 feet of darkvision treats this space as dim light. While dim light gives your character a disadvantage on perception checks, your attack rolls will not suffer. 

So, if your target is within 60 feet of you, you can still make a ranged attack against them with your longbow without any disadvantage.

However, attacking anything beyond your darkvision, will merit a disadvantage on your attack roll on top of a fascinating game of Pin the Tail on the Donkey.

Attacking a target that you cannot see is essentially a guessing game. You’re firing your arrow into the darkness, hoping to hit something. There is no guarantee it will find its mark.

If you’re in a class that specializes in melee combat, it’s pretty straightforward. 

Image from TaleSpire and tokens from HeroForge.

We would follow the Basic Rules Chapter 9, page 73, under Unseen Attackers and Targets, which states that: 

“When you attack a target that you can’t see, you have disadvantage on the attack roll. This is true whether you’re guessing the target’s location or you’re targeting a creature you can hear but not see. If the target isn’t in the location you targeted, you automatically miss, but the DM typically just says that the attack missed, not whether you guessed the target’s location correctly.

When a creature can’t see you, you have advantage on attack rolls against it. If you are hidden–both unseen and unheard–when you make an attack, you give away your location when the attack hits or misses.”

Using the Darkness to your Advantage as a DM

One of the requirements for  “Hiding” is to be in a heavily obscured position, such as complete darkness. However, what happens if your monsters enter the range of a player’s darkvision? In that case, the creature cannot hide, unless there are obstacles in the environment that would enable them to break the line of sight with the players.

Hiding is essentially a contest between a creature’s Stealth roll and the Perception roll of the creature they are hiding from. If a player with darkvision is relying solely on their night vision, they have disadvantage on Perception checks in dim light. If a player does not actively declare they’re searching or if they’re not being careful, then we would use their Passive Perception…with a MINUS FIVE!

Chapter 7 of PHB page 175 under Passive Checks states: 

“If the character has advantage on the check, add 5. For disadvantage, subtract 5. The game refers to a passive check total as a score.”

This means that a monster hiding within the darkvision range of a player who is not carrying a light source would most likely succeed due to the player’s nerfed Passive Perception. This is not limited to creatures alone. It also applies to traps, secret doors, bottomless pits, and other environmental hazards. This makes having a light source (such as a torch or lantern) vital for exploring!

This forces players to think more carefully and be more cautious. They will start to appreciate the importance of having a light source, rather than relying solely on their darkvision.

Image from TaleSpire and tokens from HeroForge.

Using the Darkness to your Advantage as Players

While it’s a guessing game to try and attack something beyond your darkvision radius (in complete darkness), you have to remember that you only have to see them. 

They do not 

need to 



Playing in the dark now becomes a game of hide and seek. First one to spot the other wins.

If your target is near a light source, they will stick out like a sore thumb. You won’t need your darkvision, because the immediate area of your target is now effectively under bright light.

Image from TaleSpire and tokens from HeroForge.

Use your surroundings. If your target also has darkvision, remember that you’re the hunter now. Use their tactics against them. Hide behind cover and break line of sight. If you successfully hide and the target doesn’t sense you through sound or smell, you can now roll with advantage on your attack roll potentially ending a fight before it even begins. That’s right, rogues, it’s a free Sneak Attack!

Know when to use a light source. “Sticking out like a sore thumb” goes both ways. Being near a light source makes you a very easy target for enemies hiding in the dark. However, carrying a light source will nullify the -5 penalty to your Passive Perception check within the bright light your torch emits. Congratulations, you successfully noticed the trap door that leads to a pit with a Gelatinous Cube waiting to devour its next prey.

Final Thoughts on Darkvision

A few years back, D&D 5e had a lot of races that had darkvision, while there were only a handful that did not. This made it feel like not having darkvision was a handicap. However, Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has since added more and more race options to choose from, and darkvision has become a bonus, rather than a necessity.

Darkvision is not overpowered and it doesn’t break the game. It simply allows players to see in the dark, albeit in shades of gray. This can be a helpful ability, especially in dungeons and other dark places. However, it’s important to remember that darkvision does not give players perfect vision. They can still be surprised by enemies, and they can still miss traps and other hazards.

Whether you’re a DM or a player, the proper use of darkvision is key to making exploring the dark exciting and memorable. Players should use their darkvision to their advantage, but they should also be aware of its limitations. DMs should create dark environments that are challenging, but not impossible, for players to navigate.

And most importantly, communicate with your DM and your fellow players. Settings expectations and being clear about how darkvision works in your table is key to the ultimate goal of D&D: “Having Fun”

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One Comment

  1. this is an amazing, funny piece and explains darkvision perfectly! I’m going to share it with my DM son 🙂