Designer Talk: The Original Darkvision Rules

One of the challenges the 3E designers faced was what to do with infravision, which is a really buggy design concept. The 3E team finally decided to scrap it and create a new sense: darkvision.

An early version of darkvision for 3E worked much like a bat’s echolocation. However, I had a talk with the design team about some problems that would cause (for example, you wouldn’t be able to see fog or mist with darkvision, you wouldnt be able to read the writing in a book, and so on). Because that would do a lot of weird things to existing adventures and monsters, the designers decided to change* how darkvision worked to “just like normal sight, but in shades of gray,” which is the form of darkvision 3E players are familiar with.

So if you’ve heard the “darkvision = echolocation” line, you probably heard it from a 3E playtester (or someone who heard it from them).

* At the time, I was working on a Forgotten Realms adventure called Into the Dragon’s Lair**, which featured a long section in a civilized goblin city locked away in an always-dark demiplane for hundreds of years, this required rewriting some common details about the city, like changing the “business signs are carved deeply into the stone so they can easily be read with darkvision” stuff to “it’s a painted sign.”

** Of course, Into the Dragon’s Lair had more than its fair share of annoyances dumped on the designers, which I should talk about in another blog post. I really should get around to finishing that old “trivia and anecdotes” series of blog posts I was doing years ago with behind-the-scenes info on books I wrote…

Designer Talk

Designer Talk


7 thoughts on “Designer Talk: The Original Darkvision Rules

  1. I can only imagine the issues you had to deal with regularly.
    I would love to read the posts about the behind the scenes aspects of writing.

  2. The goblin city was the best part in the adventure, we had so much fun :-) I hope you get the time to share the other annoyances in the adventure xD

  3. I’ve enjoyed Darkvision in my early playing of D&D decade ago, even if everything and their mum had Darkvision!

    However, I’ve always wondered, how “far” can normal vision people see? I know there’s the Sight rules in 3E based on -1 pert 10ft, but I always figured there was a baseline. I know the DMG “also” has some base sight rules based on the terrain, where Dungeons are based on the room size (so if it’s a big room, see everything in the room, assuming sufficient light?). So maybe I’ve never really put it all together, but is there a base sight distance before adding penalties that D&D designers have talked about, but never explicitly put into the rulebooks?

    • If you’re asking what I think you’re asking, then the answer is, “whatever a person on Earth would be able to see under those circumstances.” Which could be miles or more (frex, for a typical adult of average height, the horizon at sea level is about 3 miles away, but if you’re on a 100-foot tower, the horizon is more than 12 miles away).

      • The problem is, that Pathfinder and previous editions of the game (although Skulls and Shackles may have a chart, I don’t know) don’t really have a rule on long range perception. How far away can I reasonably hear a conversation? You know, that critical line where it doesn’t matter how good your Perception check is, you just can’t hear the details of a normally spoken conversation at over 100 feet (arbitrary number for this argument sake.)

        In my friend’s Skulls and Shackles campaign, he actually went to the internet to find out the actual distance you can see across the curvature of the earth based on your height off the ground. So on the deck of a ship you can see about 3 miles, but on the mast you can see about 15 miles. Or something such like that. But at what distance can you actually determine details? Is there a critical distance at which you cannot tell gender, height, or who a person is no matter what your perception check is?

        In Pathfinder, on a clear sunny day, with no obstacles, I can hear a normal conversation at DC 0 within 10 feet of me. The DC becomes 1 at 20 feet, 2 at 30 feet, and so on.So according to Pathfinder Rules, an average cleric of 5th level can hear all the details of a normal conversation at 120 feet without having to roll the dice. I’m pretty sure that in the real world, an average person would have a hard time hearing normal conversation after about 20 or 30 feet.

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