According to pages 183-185 of the Player’s Handbook, darkvision means a creature with this trait can:
“see in darkness as if the darkness were dim light, so areas of darkness are only lightly obscured as far as that creature is concerned. However, the creature can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.”
Veteran D&D enthusiasts know this rule already. Darkvision is essentially a staple of 5E and hardly needs an introduction in most cases. In my experience, the biggest issue with remembering the rules is generally which races have it and which don’t. It’s fairly simple to remember if you’re only considering the races found in the Player’s Handbook since only three of the races (and their subraces, if applicable) do NOT have the trait. Humans, halflings, and Dragonborn cannot see in the dark. (For your convenience, a consolidated table is at the end of this article.)
Is Darkvision overdone or overpowered in 5E?
Wizards of the Coast scaled back on this trait with subsequently released races. I think that’s indicative that the company believed darkvision was initially overdone. Depending on the players’ and the DM’s styles, this ability can upset the immersion of play. If the DM is describing a moody and dark dungeon and someone blurts out that they can “see in the dark” then a foreboding sense of tension may be handicapped.
When I first started playing fifth edition, I was so disenchanted with darkvision that I often chose races without it for my characters. The exception being my rogue who, for some reason, I chose to be a half-elf. There was something I just didn’t like about seeing in the dark without some form of light. Over the years I have modified my position and contend that when you follow the rules as written, the trait is not game-breaking. Far from it, actually.
Darkness versus Dim Light
Turning our attention back to page 183 of the Player’s Handbook again, darkness “creates a heavily obscured area” and dim light “creates a lightly obscured area.”
Darkness is self-explanatory in concept but heavily obscured means something specific in D&D 5E. A player in a heavily obscured area is effectively blinded and this can happen in thick fog or in areas with dense foliage as well as darkness. Page 290 of the Player’s Handbook tells us that a blinded player automatically fails any ability check that requires sight and that all attack rolls the player (or creature) makes are made with disadvantage. Additionally, attack rolls against the blinded creature are made with advantage.
Where I see (no pun intended) darkvision being most misused is when a player/creature is in dim light. When you’re in a lightly obscured area, such as dim light or patchy fog, or moderate foliage, you have disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight. This also means your passive Wisdom (Perception) suffers a -5 penalty. I know most people tend not to enjoy grittier play sessions where you track your encumbrance, spell components, ammunition, and water/rations closely or other tedious accounting. It’s much easier to forego some rules to keep a good pace in the game. I’m fine skipping that sort of resource management—in fact, I much prefer the Forbidden Lands style of tracking consumables—but this isn’t something you should overlook.
My aforementioned half-elf rogue, Buriso, has darkvision. But when he’s scouting ahead without a light source, his passive Wisdom (Perception) drops to a 9. Now the traps he’s trying not to spring become harder to find.
Shades of Gray
Probably the most overlooked stipulation of darkvision is a creature can only see shades of gray when in darkness. It doesn’t matter whether you can tell if a bugbear’s cloak is red or green. Well, unless the party is looking for one bugbear in particular who favors some color over another. But what about a puddle of water? If you can only see it in a desaturated color spectrum, can you distinguish between a simple puddle of water or a gray ooze? Or maybe what the party thinks is spilled treasure is actually a mimic. It wouldn’t matter if the mimic was able to replicate with 100% precision the color and sheen of glittering gold.
For the most part, players with darkvision have it up to 60 feet. There are exceptions (like with drows who have it up 120 feet). If the creature that a player is encountering has a greater darkvision range then that could be problematic. A deep gnome might not normally wield a bow, but a shortbow’s range of 80 feet (up to 320 with disadvantage) coupled with the deep gnome’s darkvision range of 120 feet means it could get off one or maybe even two shots against creatures with the “normal” range. With an intelligence score of 12, deep gnomes aren’t stupid. They could very likely set up an ambush outside of the 60-foot range. Their better range means they can attack without disadvantage. Remember, the disadvantage applies to seeing something in dim light, not attacking something in it.
Wrapping It Up
Transparency is always best and your preference of how strictly you adhere to darkvision rules as written should be communicated to your group. They could very well be choosing their races based on whether they have the trait or not. Or they could select the 2nd level transmutation spell (class allowing) if they don’t already have the trait. Or the Light cantrip. It will also dictate how important candles, torches, and lanterns are for the party. In any event, this is one of those rules you want to want to have a consensus on at your table.
5E Races with Darkvision
Patrick began playing RPGs around 1994 when his brother introduced him to AD&D and Cyberpunk 2020. His current favorites are D&D 5E and Forbidden Lands. Raised on a steady diet of jalapeños, MTV, 80s action, sci-fi, and horror movies, his gut has been wrenching for nearly 40 years. He lives in North Georgia with his family and way too many books.