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Light

The D&D rules regarding vision and concealment are clarified and fleshed out here, including some further details about items that can create light, problems they may bring along with them, and the effects on fighting in dungeons.

Often in dungeons things are shrouded in darkness.  Much of the worlds of D&D, and especially in the Forgotten Realms and the Serpentine Coast evening and nighttime is a time of darkness - with even towns and ciites typically being sparsely and dimly lit.

Some creatures have special vision allowing them to see in less than perfect lighting.  There are spells and special items that exist just for the purpose of lighting ones way.

Therefore D&D has rules to determine what happens when something cannot be seen clearly due to bad lighting.  This article is intended to clarify and where the rules are silent, to fill them in, in a consistent way.
  • The rules for Vision and Light are on Pg 262 of the PHB. 
  • The rules for Cover Concealment are on Pg 280 & 281 of the PHB.
  • The rules have been updated by the PHB errata
  • The updated rules are clarified and collected on Pg 222 of the PHB2.

Lighting in D&D 4th edtion


In D&D 4.0 there are 3 light levels:
  • Bright light - daytime, or in the range of a bright light source
  • Dim light - moonlight, in the range of a candle or phosphorescent glow
  • Darkness - no, or nearly no light
Here are items that can be used to light your way.

Items that produce light

NameBook & pageDescriptionDeep DetailsPriceWeightEffective distanceIncendiary
Candle PHB Pg 222, Pg 262 Produces dim light; for 1hr Made of wax, with a central wick, often white, around 6" tall. It is easily extinguished by a breeze or motion, if not protected. 1CP 10ft (2 squares) radius Yes 
Everburning Torch PHB Pg 221 This torch never stops burning. It sheds light but no heat, so it can be stowed in a bag. You cannot set fire to anything with it. This item is magic, and looks just like a burning torch. Arcana or Perception check = number of feet away to see that it is not a normal torch. It cannot be extinguished so to avoid enemies seeing you at night it must be hidden in a backpack, or destroyed. 50GP 1lb 25ft (5 squares) radius No 
Torch PHB 262, PHB 221 A burning source of light and heat; carried or fixed to the wall; it produces bright light for 1hr before burning out Usually wooden, and around 1ft long, its typically dipped in pitch or tar and lit with a flint and steel. It can be extinguished by rolling it on the ground, or dipping in water, and relit whereupon it will burn for the remainder of its 1hr. 1SP 1lb 25ft (5 squares) radius Yes 
Lantern PHB 222 Lantern, burns for 8hrs for each pint of oil A metal container 6" tall, with a handle at the side or top; it is fitted with transparent panes on the sides, typically of mica or glass. In the base of the lantern is a tank holding one pint of oil. When purchased the lamp is full. 7GP 2lb 50ft (10 squares) radius No 
Sunrod PHB Pg 221 A minor magic item that sheds bright light for 4hrs before burning out This burns like a signal flare, with a magic fire. It is very bright - can be seen from 1 mile away. Its a rod - about 1ft long. One end is cool enough to hold, and it may be stuck in the ground or wedged on top of a backpack. It will burn without air, for example underwater, and can only be extinguished by destroying it. 2GP (normally bought in packs of 2, for 4GP) 1lb 100ft (20 squares) radius Yes 
Showing 5 items from page Item Details sorted by edit time. View more »

Notice that all these items produce light in a radius - they evenly light the square they are in, and all squares up to the radius away.  They also allow any creature to see that a light is there, up to a much greater distance than the lights radius.  Most light sources can be seen for 1/4 mile (PHB Pg 262).  Exceptionally bright sources like the sunrod can be seen for 1 mile.

Another drawback to some of the lights is that they cannot be extinguished on demand, continuing to draw attention even when it is not desired.  Generally when characters sleep, it is assumed that lights are doused to avoid attracting attention and to save on fuel.  If a watch is posted, typically any campfire will be extinguished, and the watchman will have the job of deterring any creatures that approach.  If the players specify otherwise, then they should be aware of the risk of attracting attention.

To destroy a torch apply the rules for Damaging Objects on Pg 65 of the DMG.  An everburning torch or a sunrod is a small reinforced object - 15HP, 8 AC, 8 Reflex, 8 Fort - if its hit points drop below 0 and it is destroyed and extinguished. 

For magical items like the Holy Lantern from the level 6 Cleric Utility spell of the same name, or magical lamps and lanterns available from the Adventurers Vault - these behave exactly like the mundane items of the same type, except where the rules for that item specify otherwise.

Flasks of Oil

Lanterns (unless specified otherwise) burn out in 8 hours if their oil supply is not replenished.  For this purpose flasks of oil can be purchased. 

These were added in the D&D errata.  There is one pint of oil in a flask, they cost 1SP each and weigh one pound.  

Both lanterns and flasks of oil are fragile small objects and will break if subject to enough damage - see the rules for Damaging Objects on Pg 65 of the DMG - they have 5 HP, 8 AC, 8 Ref, and 8 Fort.  If the hit points drop to 0 or less, the flask or lantern is destroyed and the oil is dispersed over the square and anything in it.  

Note that in falling damage, if the character carrying an object suffers damage, any item carried also suffers this damage.  Throwing an item forcibly at the ground does 1d10 of damage.  Dropping it by simply letting it go does 1d6 damage.

If the lantern is lit, or the oil contacts something incendiary it catches fire.

Any fire set by the oil causes 1d6 + 3 damage for each pint of oil in the blaze, including any pint of oil in a lantern.  The fire continues by rounds.  Save ends.  If the oil is partially used, +5 to the save.  (Even if there is no creature or monster in the fire the DM will roll a save, and on a 10 or more the fire just peters out). 

Imflammatory Objects

You have a flask of oil that you want to set on fire, to burn some monsters.  What can you use to set the oil alight?

Generally light sources that burn cause heat such that there is a risk of setting flammable materials on fire.  There are a few exceptions such as the everburning torch, which magically appears to produce a burning flame, but no heat. 

These flammable sources that burn cannot be stowed into a backpack until they are extinguished.

As a rule if something burns, it produces heat and will set flammable things it is touched against alight.  Another pointer that something is incendiary is if it consumes fuel, and burns out after a time.  So for example if a gas floating above a swamp, burns with an eerie light for 4 hours, then the gas is incendiary, not a glowing source.  

Bright or very bright objects are nearly always incendiary.  This is true for magical fires, alchemical fires and natural wood or other fires.  

The lantern is a special case - it is incendiary, but the flame is shielded by a metal and glass surround preventing it from touching against flammable items.  If a flammable item somehow gets past the surround it will burn however - leaking gas in a dungeon, for example.

Sparks may be struck from a flint and steel and this will set flammable objects alight.

Any spell or effect that does damage, where the rules for damaging objects can be applied, and the fire keyword applies, is also incendiary.

Things that only glow may produce some heat, but not enough to set anything alight.

Lighting your Way

The portable light sources listed all allow for being held in a characters hand.  Generally when adventuring in dim lighting or darkness the light source is held up to light the way ahead, in the direction the character is looking.  The character must have a free hand for this. 

If they are grabbing in combat, or weilding weapons and/or a shield such that both hands are used then the character should specify what they are doing with their light source.

If the light source is not held, then for sources which are non-incendiary they can be placed into a backpack or tucked into a belt or strap.  When stowed the light source no longer lights your way.  It may produce some random illumination at the DM's discretion, but it is not in generall lighting the direction a player is looking.

Alternatively light sources may be placed on the ground or any other flat surface where they continue to shed light in the radius as determined by the rules (see the table above).  Obviously if a light source is placed on the ground it does not follow the character during movement.

Lighting and Lines of Vision

Generally light is simple and can be assumed to evenly light all areas in a room.  In dungeons lit by torches (magical or otherwise) fixed to the walls, this is the case.  Generally its assumed that an area has such "ambient lighting".

If most characters are carrying light sources, and looking around as normally alert characters would do by lighting their own way then again its equivalent to all areas in the room being evenly lit.

If a character is carrying a portable light source, then in reality, since light travels in straight lines, things (including objects, creatures and features of the setting) which are behind cover are not lit by that light source.  However if trying to see a creature to attack it, then the normal rules of cover, on Pg 280 of the PHB apply.  There is no extra penalty for it not being properly lit.

Basic Rule for Lighting

Evenly illuminated areas include areas where
  • there are torches or light sources on the walls; or
  • all creatures/party members are lighting their own way; or
  • a point light source exists & no obstacles/effects give cover from it
and in these areas no concealment is possible due to lighting

Cover from lighting does apply in situations where something is the target of a characters skill or ability check.  if a character is trying to understand an inscription, or detect a trap then the rules for cover on Pg 280 of the PHB apply.  Treat the light as the "attacker" and the thing being looked at as the "target".  If the target has cover then take a -2 to any skill checks involved - History or Dungeoneering to read an inscription, Thievery to detect a trap.  If the target has superior cover then take a -5 to any skill check involved.  This rule would only take effect if something prevented the characters moving their light source so that it illuminated the target - for example an area of traps.  The DM is free to ignore this effect for simplicity.

Hiding in Dark Corners

If characters are exploring a dungeon, or walking around an unfamiliar building, then dark unlit areas abound - until light is shone into them by the characters lantern or torch.

If a character for whatever reason is not carrying a light source, but there is a light source somewhere in the room - ie the room is not evenly lit - then these dark corners can conceal surprises for the characters.  These are cases where none of the conditions exist as described in the basic rule for lighting above.

This applies for example if a dungeon is being explored and the player characters have tossed a lit sun rod into the centre of the room, but do not carry their own light sources.  The sunrod lights for 100 feet in all directions, but behind obstacles there are patches of darkness..  If there is a large pillar occupying a square near the edge of the room a creature, or some other surprise may have cover from the light and thus be hidden from view.

Ultimately it is the DM who provides the information of what the characters see.  Perhaps the area is such that even though a single point light source is used, the reflected light from the walls fills the space, creating ambient light.

The DM may indicate if some part of the map is currently in dim light or darkness, given the current arrangement of lights. 

But players should take responsibility also for lighting their way, and be aware that if an area has cover from light sources it may conceal something: a monster, trap or anything at all that is small enough to fit in the dark area.

Just because an area which is in darkness appears empty on the map does not mean it is empty: a monster or other surprise may be lurking there if the area is in darkness.

The diagram below shows an obstacle, the marble column, blocking the light source and producing an area of shadow.  Notice that if the light source is a torch, then the bugbear would be in darkness anyway since the torches radius is 5 squares.  If the light source is a lantern the DM may well decide that the light casts a shadow as shown in the diagram, and a creature may hide there.  If the light source is a sunrod, and the area shown is surrounded by walls, the DM may rule that there is sufficient reflected light, and thus no shadow exists.

Hiding in Darkness

Whenever an area is not evenly lit (the basic rule for lighting does not apply) it may be possible for a player character, other creature or anything at all to hide in darkness.

Any square that has cover from a light source may be in shadow, and thus be dimly-lit or in darkness.

Ultimately the DM provides the information on what is seen.

If a character wants to be sure of seeing when something might be hidden by darkness, he or she should indicate to the DM eg "I shine my lantern at the end of the room, what do I see?"



Note that many spells, particularly warlock spells, and some monster spells like the shada-kai's "Deep Shadow" produce an effect of a "thick darkness", "thick poisonous haze" and so on.  Despite any wording, these effects behave like obscuring terrain, discussed in the next section.  In other words, they block or partly block vision.

Normal unlit areas, that is actual shadows, need to be distinguished from magical effects that have the keyword shadow in their name.  Normal shadows do not block lines of vision.

Normal dark areas or shadows result from squares having cover from a light source.  Creatures in the area of darkness cannot be seen, but creatures brightly lit - even if an area of darkness intervenes - can be seen.  In summary, normal areas of darkness do not provide any obscuring effect.

See the diagram above which illustrates this - the attacking ranger in the bottom left of the picture can target the brightly lit bugbear in the bottom right of the picture.  However the bugbear in the shadow of the column has cover from the light source and is thus in darkness.  The attacking ranger does not have dark-vision and thus the bugbear has total concealment.

In the case of the shada-kai witches "Deep Shadow" aura however, it behaves like obscuring terrain and the bugbear at the top of the picture thus has cover (at least one line of sight is blocked).

Obscuring Terrain

A square that is filled with smoke, mist or some other substance that prevents clear vision is obscuring terrain.  Obscuring terrain is like blocking terrain in that it gives cover from view to anything in or behind it.
  • Lightly obscured - foliage, fog, smoke and heavy snow/rain
    • target in or having cover by a lightly obscured square has concealment (-2 to hit)
    • see "Basic rule for Vision & Dim Lighting" below
  • Heavily obscured - very thick foliage, very thick fog, very thick smoke
    • target in or having cover by a heavily obscured square has total concealment (-5 to hit)
    • see "Basic rule for Vision & Darkness" below 
    • if the attacker is adjacent to the target, the target only has concealment, not total concealment
  • Totally obscured - darkness like a black wall, caused by some magical effects
    • target in or having cover by a heavily obscured square has total concealment (-5 to hit)
    • see "Basic rule for Vision & Darkness" below
The summary is that when it comes to obscuring terrain:
  • lightly means the same as dim-light
  • heavily means the same as darkness, unless adjacent when it means the same as dim-light
  • totally means the same as darkness
Special vision (see the next section) does not generally apply to obscured squares.

Vision


There are 3 kinds of vision creatures (and characters may have)
  • Normal vision - take a penalty in dim light, cannot see at all in darkness
  • Low-light vision - no penalty in dim light, cannot see at all in darkness
  • Darkvision - no penalty in any light
Notice in particular that creatures and player characters with low-light vision, cannot see at all in darkness.  So its not that they take a penalty, they - just like normal vision characters - cannot see at all.

However, in darkness there are other senses to guide you so all is not lost.  Read on.

Basic rule for Vision & Dim Lighting

Creatures when:
  • in dim light, against attackers with normal vision
  • or in or behind lightly obscuring terrain (like smoke or fog)
gain concealment - affected attackers take -2 to hit.

If a creature is carrying a light the creature is seen automatically (it is not concealed).

If a creature is in or behind heavily obscuring terrain, but the attacker is adjacent, the creature gains concealment - the attacker takes a -2 to hit.

Mnemonic: dim-light - lightly obscured = concealed: -2 to hit

Obviously this basic rule does not apply when the attacker has low-light vision - those attackers take no penalty.

Basic rule for Vision and darkness

Creatures when
  • in darkness, or
  • in or behind totally obscuring terrain, or
  • heavily obscuring terrain (but not adjacent to the attacker)
gain total concealment.  All attackers take -5 to hit.

Note that the darkness affects attackers with low-light vision just the same as attackers with normal vision.  Only darkvision allows seeing in darkness.

If the creature is in or behind heavily obscuring terrain, but the attacker is adjacent, then the Basic rule for vision and dim-lighting applies: the creature gains concealment only, and the attacker takes -2 to hit.


Area attacks and close attacks do not take the -2 or -5 penalty to hit.  Attacks which hit based by the square or squares which creatures may occupy do not take this penaly since they sweep across all those squares, and don't require the creature itself to be specifically targetted.

Targetting What you Can't See

The above two basic rules apply if when you can locate the target.  Where a creature has total concealment or is otherwise hidden, first the rules for "Targeting What You Can't See" apply.

These rules have been modified slightly by the PHB errata released by Wizards.  Basically the change in the errata is that the creature attempting to hide makes a stealth check as part of attempting to move in its turn (rather than at the end of its turn).  The rest of the details are left up to the rules for Stealth (Pg 188 PHB and Perception Pg 186 PHB, or Pg 222 PHB2) which cover the situation withouth the need to spell it out in the section on Concealment.


Basic rule on hiding

Creatures that are totally concealed are invisible and may make stealth check (vs each attackers passive perception) to become hidden per Pg 188 PHB.

Creatures not concealed can also make a bluff check as a standard action (opposed by each foes passive insight) to create a diversion to hide.  If successful on the bluff, they may then make the stealth check to hide.

Basically the Stealth rules introduce the concept of being hidden.  A creature may be invisible to an attacker, due to being in darkness, behind cover or any other way of not being seen.  But it is not necessarily hidden, since the attacker may hear it or sense that it is there through some other means.

This means that if a monster is in darkness, the DM may decide that it attempts to hide from the players.  If so, the DM rolls stealth for the creature.  This is not a action - standard or otherwise - its just a check of how stealthy it is whilst it does what ever its doing that turn.  This probably involves movement, since the players will know the last location of the creature, but there are penalties on stealth for moving or making noises.  It takes -5 to its stealth check for moving more than 2 squares, -5 for calling out (eg to warn its allies) and -10 for running.  Typically the creature will move or shift 1 or 2 squares.

Of course player characters can hide in the darkness too - the same roll applies.

If successful then the creature (or character) is hidden from (as well as invisbile to) the attacker.

In game, the DM will just announce that the creature or character is now hidden from whichever attackers it won its stealth check against.  If there is a miniature, then just leave it in place, for ease of play.  At this point the rules for targetting hidden creatures applies.

Basic rule on attacking hidden creatures

Instead of targetting hidden creatures attackers must target a square

If the square chosen contains the creature, resolve the attack at -5 penalty.

If the creatures last stealth check failed by less than 10, it is still hidden, but the attacker knows the direction the creature is in.

As a minor action the attacker may roll a perception check vs the last stealth check result.  On a success the square to target is known exactly.

Area and close attacks on squares that contain the hidden creature do not take this -5 penalty.

In game, the player (or DM if its a monster) attacking the hidden character or creature specifies their attack and which square they are centering their attack on.  For a melee attack the attacker can move up to the chosen square and attack it as tho' it contained the target.

The DM will resolve whether the attack hits the hidden creature, and then damage is awarded normally on a hit.

In the case of a hidden player, it is easier for the player to continue to leave their miniature on the map and count out movement normally. 

However the DM must make sure that DM knowledge is not "monster knowledge".  One way to do this is to use the square guessing rule below.

Monster Square Guessing Rule

When a monster attempts to attack an invisible player, the DM first specifies the monsters attack, which will be directed at some square on the map.

To guess which square an invisible Player Character is in the DM rolls percentile dice.  The target number is 30%.

For each square the Player Character has moved since becoming hidden (even if the movement is not in a straight line) subtract 5%, to a minimum of 5%.

The DM rolls percentile dice under this figure.  On success the monster guesses the correct square.  If the roll fails by less than 10% the monster guesses a random square near enough for an area or close attack to hit. 

On all other rolls the monster guesses some random square which does not contain the player character, and which would not include the player character in an area attack.

The attack takes place on the random square whether the player is in it or not.
Summary of Benefits for being hidden.

The hidden creature:
  • gains combat advantage over a target that cannot see it
  • cannot be targetted - attacks must instead target a square
    • if the square chosen for the attack target contains the hidden creature, the attack is at -5
    • close and area attacks already target squares and do not take this penalty

Basic Rule for Remaining Hidden

A hidden creature remains hidden, unless something happens to reveal it (see below), and it does not need to re-roll its stealth check.

Record the value of the creatures last stealth check to test against any new creature, or any active perception check.

A hidden creature is revealed to an enemy, and loses the above benefits if the hidden creature:
  • is seen, ie the enemy creature gains clear line of sight to it
    • concealment is enough to remain hidden
    • total concealment is not required
  • draws attention
    • by talking above a whisper
    • raising a light, or dropping something
  • moves more than 2 squares and fails a stealth check:
    • with -5 penalty when moving >2 squares
    • with -10 penalty when running
  • attacks - doing anything that requires an attack roll
Other than this, the creature does not require any stealth roll
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