The Gassy Gnoll: Darkness and Our Fascination With It

As the daylight gets shorter and shorter each day on the march to the winter solstice, night gains more ground. And I begin to wonder why humankind seems to fall into one of two camps: those who want to stay out of the dark and those who want to go in. There are always a few who fall in-between, but I suspect that each of them has found themselves in situations where they don’t necessarily *want* to explore the dark but are required to by outside circumstances or motivation…

If you think about it, I’m sure that stories have involved the dark from the beginning. Even the Bible starts with darkness, for you can’t have light without it. The creation myths of many peoples start with a void of some sort. Darkness represents the unknown and
danger as well as defining a border. Stepping into the unknown lies beyond the boundaries of protection of immediate family or community. Most campfire stories scare us by making us huddle near the light and warmth of the fire while we imagine being stalked by strange creatures or murderers just outside the firelight…

A photo of a light in a dark snowy night

Image via Wikipedia

Whether you’re a fan of fantasy, horror, modern, or science fiction-themed stories, there’s always a bit of darkness.

In the blackness of space nobody can hear you scream, but all those tight corridors and shafts on the Nostromo weren’t exactly well lit. Even the badass Riddick knew enough to be wary of the dark places in Pitch Black

Dungeons and caves are only lit until the torches burn out or lamps run out of oil. In ancient times (or perhaps just stories based in ancient times), sometimes jail or dungeon cells were left perpetually in darkness to drive their captives insane…

Spelunkers talk about the palpable nature of darkness in the deepest caves, where no natural light occurs at all. The kind of darkness that can mess with the senses if you ever run out of the artificial light you bring with you.

Even in the modern day, when the power goes out in a neighborhood there’s still an eerie feeling that settles over a community.

No matter where you are, at some point in your life you’ve had to deal with the darkness. Whether you’re afraid of the dark or not, it’s built into our DNA to have a heightened awareness in the black.

I’ve noticed however that in most of the games I’ve GMed or played in (with very few exceptions), we don’t typically roleplay the dark in a realistic fashion. We always seem to have low-light vision, infravision, magic, or some portable (yet temporary) light source. What happens when a normal human with no advanced vision properties runs out of torches, oil, or batteries and finds themselves in a pitch black place? What are the odds that character will find his or her way out alive and uninjured?

Is it that we roleplay heroes and heroes simply aren’t afraid of the dark? What about NPCs? What about PCs who were traumatized by previous events? Even the brave can show cracks in that armor now and then, can’t they?

So I ask you – what’s the best use of darkness that you’ve seen in a roleplaying game you’ve GMed or played in? If it was a pre-packaged adventure, what was the product? If it was done by a particular GM to set the stage or act out the part of an NPC, what were the circumstances? And if it was a player, what made that particular event work for you?

Please leave a comment below with your details. Share some stories and ideas for your fellow GMs and players to explore in their own games!


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4 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: Darkness and Our Fascination With It

  • In the past the best I can recall is the use of darkness spells to blind the PCs and watch they panic as they try to work out where their foes are.

    In my current game, Old School D&D but with no dark vision or the like, I’m tracking torches and the like so that they’ll run out of light in the dungeon… and as we play on-line using a VTT, when the lights go out, all they’ll be able to see of the map is their own tokens… all else will be darkness.

    • Fitz

      @Simon Forster – Now that’s what I’m talking about. I *LOVE* the concept of only showing the player tokens on the map in the dark. How do your players typically react to having their characters cut off visually in that situation?

  • Michael Prescott

    This wasn’t from a role-playing game, but the Tombs of Atuan would make a wonderful dungeon. It’s a holy cavern system and labyrinth in which light is completely forbidden.

    I think a totally dark dungeon would be fascinating. Perhaps player allies
    are hurt by light, or perhaps open flame consumes oxygen too quickly to be safe. But a wholly dark underground system would be terrifying. Having to feel your way along ropes or chains; potentially in an environment where some dangerous baddies have figured out a basic echolocation. Can you imagine encountering a giant spider by touch as you feel your way along?

    • Fitz

      @Michael Prescott – Brushing against the hairs on the legs or body of a giant spider… I wonder how that would work? Would the PCs be forced to use staves, ropes, and other extensions to keep apprised of their surroundings? Can you imagine stepping off a cliff in the dark with no way to know what’s coming below you?

      How would something like that work practically in a game session though? Would the GM have to keep the whole map secret and only show a segment of what they can touch at any given time? Combat would be BRUTAL. Anything with echolocation or some other enhanced sense (like a spider waiting to feel something in a web) would have a serious leg up on some poor fighter with no light, low-light vision, or darkvision. That would put a blind fighter to the test, wouldn’t it?

      Great suggestions! Very thought provoking.

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