Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Illumination, the Observer Effect, and the Room That Isn't There

It's commonplace of our hobby that illumination is a big deal in dungeon crawls. Perhaps too big a deal for some tastes. A certain school of gamers consider the traditional requirement to take a light source into the underworld with you as no more than a nuisance, and require that their dungeons be pre-illuminated, either by the traditional torch-in-sconce, or by luminescent fungi, glowing walls, or pure handwavium. These filthy oiks even claim that such luminaries of fantasy as Terry Pratchett and A.A.Merritt support their blasphemy!

"Dungeons with built-in lighting. Whatever next? A set number of encounters per day? Poppycock!"
*harrumph, bristles moustache, rustles Times*

To a true adventurer that flickering torch/lantern/gnome-on-a-stick, or (for the especially fortunate) the tireless eldritch glow of a magical sword, is the last ward protecting your character from the merciless stygian darkness wherein lurk Grues (by which you are likely to be eaten) and other such horrors. If you can see it, you can kill it; if you can't, it can kill you first.

However bad things are; it's worse in the dark.

The fact it that if you cannot see, then you can't adventure. You can't move safely, or fight effectively, or explore in any meaningful way. I've racked my brains trying to think of a single famous explorer, navigator or surveyor who was blind (No! Mark Pollack doesn't count. Hiking to the South Pole 100 years after Amundsen got there isn't exploration, it's just masochism). Dungeoneering isn't simply a glorified form of fumbling about in the dark; it's the illumination of the unknown by the surface dwellers. Yes, demihuman party members might have their nightvision (by whatever name) to fall back on, but that just leaves them acting as seeing eye dogs for an otherwise crippled party. And relying on the goodwill of the mythic underworld to provide you with light (or white sticks) is simply offering up hostages to Fortuna, or to that infinitely less forgiving deity, the DM.

You know, it might even be possible to have a little fun with the wrongbadthinkers who know not the importance of carrying one's own light, and who comprehend not that mastery of light-making is the very foundation and hallmark of civilisation.

Take as a starting point the indie game Closure, a platformer with an interesting design conceit. To whit: "if it isn't illuminated, it ain't there". Here's a video of what I'm talking about:

How about applying something like the above to a section of megadungeon? Call it something cheesy but evocative, like the Chambers of Devouring Night, throw in rumours of a huge cache of adventurer catnip (aka: treasure) somewhere in there, and mark down on your notes something obscure about the observer effect being an actual reified thing in this part of the underworld. What does that mean? See above.

How do the players find this out? Hopefully the hard way when one of the party steps beyond the light, and all that is heard of them is a descending scream. Congratulations folks! You've just wandered into a part of the dungeon where if a thing isn't illuminated and beheld, it simply isn't there (and, yes, that includes the floor).

Now, a proper (i.e.: mean) DM will add to the nerve-fraying tension of keeping to the light by adding in strange noises in the dark, errant gusts of wind, semi-occluded hazardous terrain, and hostile creatures (Grues, Shadows, Vashta Nerada, Hadean sharkbats, or Shutai) who hate the light and want to restore their home to its accustomed darkness. What was that? How do the natives maintain their existence in the absence of light? Echolocation, and they're sick of the sound of one another. Now shut up and roll!

A place where that usually disregarded or hand waved circle of light is the only thing that exists, and the enemy want to snuff it out. Suddenly who has the torch isn't a matter of boring, unfun simulationism; it's a matter of life and death. Suddenly the party are torn between husbanding precious resources, and burning anything they can lay their hands on. Light: sometimes it really is that big a deal in the hostile under-realms.

Heh, I think I'm going to have fun with this.

Thoughts? Opinions? Reasons I should shut up and watch such-and-such a film first?

Thanks to:


  1. That certainly is a wonderfully-imagined game.
    -&-I like your application of those ideas. :D

  2. Sounds awesome! And that demo looks very cool!

  3. testing Chambers of Devouring Light tonight, soon as the girls are done walking the dog.

    i'll use a roll of tape encircling the minis to model it.

  4. This is absolutely brilliant.

    What tickles my fancy is the idea that in the midst of this game world that purely exists for the benefit of the 3-6 player characters, the idea is taken to it's extreme in that what they can't see or hear or smell etc. literally doesn't exist. There's no pretence at an outside world that is beyond the current knowledge of the party. While I hate the term, it's very post-modern isn't it? (Sorry, I won't say that again, I promise).

    So what could exist outside of the light? Anti-matter creatures? Pure chaos-stuff?

  5. Play-test notes:

    -This is effect is actually spooky. Player response:

    "Holy shit this is some weird vampire shit going on here."

    -If you haven't been keeping close track of lamp oil up 'til that point it's important to have an otherwise harmless room that DOES remind PCs they're using lamp oil at an alarming rate (I had a library with important books but no light--they research, they lose lamp oil). This way, when the PCs go into the Chambers of Devouring light they aren't ALL immediately lighting their lamps or torches--which kinda kills the effect. It;s best when only one lamp's lit

    -It is important to design rooms with things in specific places on the wall, obviously, and things that will make them want to leave the "circle of light" created by whoever has a lamp. So something has to MOVE, and move fast, or else they just say "we check out the room"

  6. If things only exist when they are observed by anyone, then the echolocation creatures will cause the floor to continue to exist even when it is dark, even for the PCs. If, on the other hand, things only exist for you when you observe them, then a PC will fall through the floor when he closes his eyes (or is knocked out).

    Don't get me wrong, it's an interesting idea. But count me among the people who prefer self-illuminating dungeons.

  7. @all: Thanks for your comments. I thought this was more likely to garner a "well, duh!" reaction than anything else.

    @Zak: Thanks for the playtest notes. Glad you and the girls liked it.

    @leptopus: What, you want to ruin a perfectly trick room by applying your relentless logic? ;) Can the PCs perceive echolocation? If not, then it doesn't apply to them.


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