Banishing the Darkness

This is pretty directly related to yesterday’s discussion of realism. I guess I didn’t get it all out of my system.

In old-school tabletop RPG’s, the GM’s having to ask who held the light and where that person stood in the “marching order” (another old school concept) was always an acknowledged requirement because subterranean environments are by their very nature cloaked in utterly impenetrable darkness. This practice, of course, led to the advent of all kinds of ingenious ways for securing a light source without occupying a hand with the task. Attempting to keep a low profile while carry a light to avoid tripping on uneven footing was always considered a prudent goal, too. It is more than a little tough to make any attempt at stealth with a light hanging from the horns of one’s helmet – something akin to wearing a target in the dark when traversing the lair of dangerous beasts or foes. Just TRY to see past the glare – and so much for peripheral vision!

It should, of course, be standard operating procedure for a PC who is holding a light source to automatically be spotted by on-lookers out there in the darkness – assuming they are not also carrying a light-source of their own.

There goes the element of surprise.

A character either gets to see where he is going, or he gets to have stealth and the element of surprise, not both. They are mutually exclusive except through the application of appropriately designed magicks. Coming across a light-activated trap suddenly makes keeping track of who had the light and where they were standing or located in the marching order very important. In the dark underground in some deadly labyrinth, who is carrying the light(s) and where they are standing relative to the rest of the partyshould always be important, however.

Unfortunately, this quite reasonable assumption and practice has given rise to the incredible and ludicrous position that, quite to the contrary, most underground locales used for adventure sites should be or are automatically assumed to be lit by some form of light source rather than leaving the PC’s mired in the natural perpetual darkness that normally shrouds those environs.

Dealing with darkness, natural or otherwise, may be considered an annoyance or irritation by some, but that attitude shows a complete disregard for the true nature of the obstacle. True Stygian darkness, where one’s hand is not even visible in front of one’s own face, was a fact of life commonly encountered by those of the medieval and earlier eras. It was an almost palpable force that perpetuated primal fears of the unknown and unseen from earliest times that persist in our subconscious even into the modern era. It is part and parcel of the atmosphere of a cavern or “dungeon crawl”. It is the quintessence of an archetypal exploration of the unknown.

This intolerance also shows a total inability to shed the condescension and arrogance of the modern perspective towards the technological challenges of playing in a medieval milieu. Darkness underground and after sunset is a fact of life without fire or magick to drive it away. Inconvenient? Oh, well. Those who label the simple facts of the predominantly rural medieval life this way commonly strive to apply modern standards of not only convenience but comfort and bring corresponding means to accomplish those goals into the game. These are the sorts who consider taking their Winnebago© to an RV park to be “camping”. Hopefully they create Wizards or one of their ilk so they can accomplish that for themselves, or perhaps choose a different milieu to play in, one which features the modern conveniences and comforts they refuse to do without.

Whether they are able to wrap their heads around it or not, the lack of modern innovations in a period RPG setting is part and parcel of the charm of such a game. The point of playing a medieval fantasy game, or any other period one would hope, is to experience life in that period!

Some have gone so far as to stipulate that many labyrinths or “dungeons” (regardless of the actual nature or purpose of the structure, simply that it be subterranean, in spite of the actual meaning of the term) in which adventures may occur, and even natural caverns, are always to be illuminated to some degree, since only a few “monsters” in residence within (regardless of their true nature) are actually equipped for and comfortable with living in true darkness. That presumes, of course, that someone does indeed live there, or that they stay there for periods of time sufficient for them to install the more home-like amenities like candle stands or torch cressets.

These “dungeons” are often illuminated by great oil-filled braziers or stone channels that burn continuously (presumably replenished periodically with oil from some central point), or with torches in (perhaps) less travelled areas. These make sense but require maintenance by residents, or resident caretakers at the very least. These must be accounted for if there is to be any rhyme or reason to the setting.

Some GM’s might stipulate torches to which some sort of ghostly glowing balefire is affixed that never ceases to burn but without ever consuming the torches, requiring no maintenance at all, or even globes of light that drift through the air like Will-o-wykes for the sole purpose of providing illumination whither they wander, and others still might employ ceiling panels magically imbued with light – so very like the modern mind to try and recreate the look of suspended fluorescent lighting.

While it is not too much of a stretch to stipulate that natural caverns might be filled with phosphorescent fungi or lichen, or even phosphorescent wandering critters like slugs or centipedes, or the like, to say that each and every one of them IS so just stretches belief too far for disbelief to be suspended any longer.

To postulate extraordinary mineral veins that glimmer in the dark is clever, but making them commonplace is not. Employing streams of glowing lava begs the question of just how hot is that environment, but the occurrence of eerie aurora-like ghostly veils of glowing balefire undulating high above a cavern floor should be rare in the extreme if natural, or put there for the sake of daily convenience by some resident Wizard or other of that ilk – if he is still in residence and that was a priority for him. Perhaps he is dead now, though, and he spent a piece of his life force long ago to make that dweomer permanent for the convenience of those who would visit the location long after he passed into Spirit.

Well maybe.

It could happen!

Maybe his tomb is there and he wants to entice the adventurous to seek him out … maybe in death he still needs or wants something from them …

This general line of thought, of not being willing to suffer the inconvenience of dealing with the darkness, no doubt comes from the same movement in game design philosophy that decided to get rid of all the parts of roleplaying games that were ‘un-fun’. Those would be all the nitty-gritty bits of life in the mundane world we all have to deal with every day which they didn’t want to be bothered with in their gaming. A pity they couldn’t tax themselves to come up with a way to represent the ‘un-fun’ parts in a way that was less onerous in game terms instead of wasting their time coming up with ways to get around them that are so painfully transparent.

What is so terribly wrong with the (quintessential, stereotypical) idea of a dank, DARK castle interior, or underground places simply being naturally dark, and a Knave asking a fellow adventurer “Oi, be a luv ‘n bring that light over ‘ere so’s I can see, would ye?” when he has a lock to pick or a trap to disarm?

The idea of making a constant light available so everyone can see is the most pernicious of attempts at “leveling” the playing field in gaming when the playing field was never intended to be “level” in the first place. All the races are different. They are SUPPOSED to be different. The playing field is NOT supposed to be “level” for all characters in all aspects. It is SUPPOSED to be better for some in certain ways and for others in different ways, and humans are the standard because they just outnumber everyone else and don’t really have any special abilities in any way. They have none of the penalties the others suffer, either, which balance what benefits the others receive. Strengths are supposed to be balanced with weaknesses so every one’s advantage is relative, they are “equivalent”. Trying to make all the characters equal in all ways is senseless pandering. Individual strengths and weaknesses are what make each character unique. Just like the Real World.

Some ignore the need for light sources until it becomes important in the game – the same with food and water, sadly enough. As long as the characters carry some sort of light source and some amount of food and water it is simply assumed that they use them and replenish them at every opportunity, even when they say nothing in regards to doing so during play. That might be alright, for the most part, if an understanding is reached with the GM beforehand, UNLESS no attention is paid to how much they buy and how long it has been since they replenished. Some only make a point of tracking such things when they become an issue related to the action or plot in the game – such as when the PCs become stranded in a desert or on a deserted atoll. Suddenly, keeping track of food and water becomes important. What if they don’t have enough? But they muddle through because they are the PC’s, and once they reach civilization again it is assumed they replenish their supplies (providing they have the coin for it), once more ready to travel.

But how much did they buy and how long can it last?

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