Tuesday 25 June 2013

The Law of Light

God it’s been a long time since I blogged anything I have been writing more than ever, hopefully one day you will see it.

Light is the core resource from which all others spring. If you only measure one thing, if you only remember one thing, remember light. Not ropes or food or even time, but light.

The key difference between this and other imagined underground spaces is the totality and necessity of the enfolding dark.

When most games describe a place, they do so with a series of assumptions. They use a kind of shorthand. It’s the same shorthand we use in our daily lives to arrange the spaces through which we move.

“You walk into a room.” Ok, so how do you know it’s a room at all? Because you can see the walls and edges from beginning to end, because you have seen thousands of rooms before and they all follow the same logic. Because this room is arranged in a grid pattern with other rooms in the same area. That’s what ‘room’ means. A thing like the other things you have already seen.

In a natural cave system this is not the case. You may not be able to see the roof or opposing wall. You may never have seen a place like this before. You do not understand the logic of their arrangement.

So when someone enters a new underground space, you should never say “you enter a cave”. Because they don’t know that. Only ever say “you see…”. And they can only see so far.

You should never assume sight. You should assume dark. A simple way to do this is to imagine the darkness as alive. Instead of being a simple black absence regard it as a kind of active liquid. It does not meekly disappear on the lighting of a candle. It follows the players like a stalking predator. Don’t think about what the players can see or how far their light can reach, instead think about how the darkness is following them, surrounding them. It infiltrates slender claws behind shadowed columns, reaching towards the lantern, hungering to snuff it out. It backs away reluctantly before the light, it follows carefully and relentlessly, creeping as close as it can. It leaves chew marks in the corners of your sight.

It should be almost embodied. In the same way that people in the Middle Ages often thought of god as a presence in the room. Not a general awareness or a set of laws but an actual person. Like someone standing silently in the corner of the room, watching you as you read this. The darkness is a character. It only wants one thing.

Rules are hard to remember and details are easy to forget under stress. Intent is not. Intent is easy to recall and unlike detail it actually grows more powerful under stress. You remember who hates you. The more stressed you are, the more you remember it. The dark hates the players, you play the dark. You will probably forget that a candle has a 10 foot radius but you will never stop waiting for the candle to go out.

Breaking yourself of the shorthand of description may be very hard. It’s shorthand for a reason. It’s very useful. If you don’t use it then you are deliberately making things more difficult for yourself.

I have tried to include sensory descriptions for the living things I have created. In most cases smell and sound are defined. Sometimes touch as well. I did this because I knew that people would need information once the light goes out. Those things also seem to lock a thing into existence, in the mind of the reader at least.

At least if people can only see a dark space around them they can still hear and smell things. They can feel air flow.

Also. Fuck Infravision. Sorry Elves but if you are at the bottom of a mine there is no light. Not even one photon. So far as I know no-one has ever conclusively set down how Infravison works. If it’s low-light enhancement like goggles then you can’t use it to see in pure dark. If its infra-red like predator vision then you can maybe see living beings even in total darkness from the heat they give out. But if you can see heat signatures then that brings in the whole difficulty of  tracking things and how far it works and what blocks it and how accurate it is and I can’t be bothered. If its magic and you can just see because then I say my magic is stronger. The dark down there is deeper and older than petty dungeon dark. Dungeons are puddles of darkness. This is the sea. So no. Infravision can work as a light-enhancer. This means you need less light to navigate by and can maybe see further in it, but that’s it.


  1. "Dungeons are puddles of darkness. This is the sea."

    Now that's something you should put on the tin.

  2. I've found mapping for players actually helps with this. Because rather than falling back to saying "a 40 x 60" space, instead I draw the wall out to their light radius and focus on other descriptive details (the temperature, other important features, etc). I didn't plan this style, but fell into it naturally using Twiddla and Google Hangouts, and now I like it.

  3. Check out the game Gruesome. In it, you play a Grue, and your job is to avoid the light of adventurers' torches as you hunt them. It's dead simple and quite cool.

  4. Do you ever run games on G+, 'cause I need to get in on this action.

    1. I have not DM'd in ages. i should probably get back into that.

    2. Here's to hoping.