The darkness is alive and hungry, striking without warning and mercy when you least expect it. Its power lies in the fangs, claws, and tentacles of the creatures, the Grues that inhabit it. It is our duty to fight the darkness, and bring back the light.
Tyrone Malhaven, Cleric of the Light, 945 AS
A world without light shapes people, races, and motivations in ways that are both different and alien to what those where light exists. For this article, I’m taking a cue from 5th edition, but keep in mind that these are commentaries on how such a world might affect a character, but any tabletop RPG could use them with a bit of brainstorming and tweaking. These ideas are not meant to be a blow-by-blow of how characters should be shaped or played in such a setting.
Notes on the setting
Biology teacher and commenter Wyvern gave the following comments for such a setting. Thanks to him for helping me improve my article and giving me additional things to consider for this article. His comments are shown as quotes.
There was light, but now it’s gone. In this case, unless life adjusts to the change extremely quickly, you’re usually going to end up with near-total extinction in very short order. This is probably going to require either magic or technology; natural selection ain’t gonna cut it.
With world-changing magic, such that light wouldn’t exist (at least not as a natural phenomenon), I feel that magic or technology (or both) would step up to ensure the survival of the world. Man is infinitely adaptable. Take away something necessary for survival, and we will figure out how to produce it, import it (see below), or live without it. Which would happen would depend on the setting, the special effects (magic or technology) available, and the plot.
There’s no light here, but there is elsewhere. In this situation, life depends on food being brought in from outside. This is how real-world cave ecosystems survive. Same deal with most deep-sea organisms — the main producers in the ocean are phytoplankton, which are found only near the surface of the ocean, where there’s enough light for photosynthesis. This means that all those deep-sea fish are dependent on food coming down to them from above.
If the light were to vanish suddenly, maybe people would figure out how to “farm” light, bringing it into the world from another dimension, but such light wouldn’t be the type or quality that would be necessary for life to thrive. It might be tainted, warped somehow. Maybe large cities could have better portals, and as you get away from them, the light becomes more diffuse, and while the countryside might be more dangerous with “creatures of the night.” The inhabitants of the cities might even experience day-night cycles as the portals are set to open and close.
There was never any light in the first place. In this case, the producers would have developed from the outset to rely on some other source of energy such as chemosynthesis […and geothermal energy], and the native lifeforms would probably be completely [alien,] unlike anything we’re familiar with.
I think that’s part of the fun of roleplaying games, to figure out how the entire setting would be different, how monsters, plants, and animals could adapt to it.
The Light-Darkness Dichotomy
There is an inherent dichotomy between light and darkness. In such a setting as a world without light, a distinction needs to be made between our daily experience and the changes that constant darkness would produce, even one where light could be imported. If you decide to run such a campaign, in your timeline, you might want to note “BD,” before The Darkness or perhaps “BS” to indicate “Before Shroud,” and “AD” to mean “After Darkness” or “AS” “After Shroud” to denote the times before the darkness befell the setting. Those who had been born after the darkness or shroud had descended may feel considerably different than those who knew the day-night cycles of “normal life.”
Notes on using this information
If you’re running a game as a world without light, use these ideas as an additional source of characterization, not a replacement for the “standard” background a given class has.
Skill Proficiencies Changes
In a world without light, there would be quite a few more characters that have unique senes – whether that ability comes from the sense of smell or taste, vibrations from beneath the feet or the air around them, electrical senses akin to what sharks possess, a magical 6th sense or something else entirely. Here is a list of specialized senses characters or monsters may possess.
D10 Specialized senses
- Blindsight (Odor based, vibration-based, change in air currents, etc.)
- Vision outside the normal range (d6)
- ultra-violet light
- slow motion
- extra colors
- ambient light manipulation
- Light polarization sight. Octopi and mantis shrimp have this.
- Hearing outside the normal range
- Enhanced hearing
- Variable hearing: the ability to modify one’s hearing due to the environment.
- Electroreception senses
- Super scent ability.
- Phermones: A subset of this ability would be the ability to detect Pheromones. In real life, this ability is useful to the sense that a member of the opposite (or same) gender is around for mating (or to protect one’s territory from an invading male). In a game setting, the ability to sense pheromones might be useful to track anything that produces them.
- Taste: snakes flick their tongues to “taste” the air to get a picture of the world around them.
- Magnetic field tracking. Turtles have this to navigate the oceans.
- Magic sense: the ability to sense creatures with magical abilities
- Blood (Life) Sense: the ability to track anything alive. In real life, vampire bats can detect the veins of animals from which they feed.
- Mental senses: the ability to detect the minds, and emotional states of sentient creatures
- Synesthesia, roll twice and combine
Interestingly enough, in a world without light, hiding would become even more specialized, valuable, and rare. Because there are so many ways of detecting, finding, or discovering things (or enemies) located in the dark, creatures or characters with the ability to hide from enhanced senses would be more impressive than what standard characters would possess. Maybe the character or monster has a way of scrambling one or more of the extraordinary senses of others. Roll on the table above to determine which senses are scrambled.
While not “tools” per se in the traditional sense of the word, all characters in a world of darkness (many monsters too!) should be able to use flint and steel, matches, etc. unless they can navigate without sight. Though some of them may choose to stick closer to areas where there are light portals.
Because there is no outside light, bioluminescent creatures might create entire languages consisting of light patterns, strobes, and based on light polarization. Furthermore, other creatures that have developed extra light sensitivity might be blinded or stunned due to the presence of another race holding a conversation. Taking the idea of “light portals” from above, maybe some creatures can manipulate them from a distance to have a conversation.
In a world without light, creatures that rely on light to see would need to have equipment that would allow them to produce light. Maybe they’d capture bioluminescent creatures like fireflies and feed them, so they have a constant (albeit blinking) source of light. Or perhaps they’d always carry torches, provided there was something to burn around. Another option is to give all light-reliant characters some permanent magical or technological light source. Finally, there’s the option of equipment being able to temporarily possess enhanced senses, such as military-grade night vision goggles.
D8 Reason(s) why the Darkness exists
There should be some reason for why the darkness exists, even if that reason is currently a mystery for the players to solve. Here is a list of possible reasons
- Idea 1: there is a magic that has permanently blotted out the sun, and despite attempts, no one has been able to remove it
- Idea 2: There has never been light, and everything exists due to magic. The idea of light, therefore, is a foreign concept to those living in this type of a setting and would question what it is if someone brought up the idea.
- Idea 3: this world without light is an invention of the Mists of Ravenloft. It’s up to the PCs to find the dark lord and dispose of him.
- Idea 4: there is light, but none can see it (including animals) due to a curse.
- Shield: there is something that is shielding large portions of the planet from the sun’s rays, such as an opaque dome or giant alien spaceship
- Pollution: the sun has been blocked out by smog, but heavily filtered light can get through it, albeit sparsely.
- War: In the far-flung future, there was a nuclear war that caused nuclear winter, thus causing the sun to be unable to be seen
- Solar System Problems
- Planetary catastrophe: the entire planet was moved and therefore further away from the sun
- Solar catastrophe: the sun itself died
- Eclipse: another planet or a moon are blocking the sun’s rays.
- Divine Causes
- Divine intervention: the gods caused the removal of the sun’s light from the planet.
- Divine tragedy: the god of light died; therefore there is no light anymore.
- War of the Gods: the gods are at war, and it’s affecting the light getting down to the planet
- Idea 1: there was some accident, and no one knows what happened or why.
- Idea 2: there was an accident, but the reason a conspiracy or multiple hides the reason(s).
- Idea 3: there was some accident, but the exact sequence of events that led up to it is so rare, it can’t be duplicated.
- Conspiracy: there was a conspiracy to cause the darkness deliberately.
- Roll twice and combine
Being in a world without light tends to warp individuals – either because they’re desperate to regain light that was lost, or wanting to keep the darkness so they can operate as they like.
D6 Personality Traits
- The light was a myth; we must accept the darkness is all there is.
- The darkness brings trouble, so I always need to have a plan for what to do when things go wrong, as they invariably will.
- I can’t fight the darkness, so I have made it my ally.
- The darkness has altered my personality, making me more serious than I once was.
- I am scared of the darkness. I always have some method of producing light.
- I have honed my senses, so the darkness is as light for me.
- I listened to stories of the time before The Darkness in my youth, and I yearn to see its return
- The darkness is too strong to defeat, so I will bring what light I can to others by helping them
- The only light we have are the laws. Those that don’t follow them must be punished.
- The only light we have are the freedoms we possess. Laws are irrelevant.
- The darkness whispers vile secrets; I must fight it wherever I can.
- I (or my relatives) were a part of bringing the dark. I must bring back the light to clear my name of shame.
- I have a fellowship with all who stalk in the darkness.
- I am brothers with any who have lost loved ones due to the dark.
- Those who lived in the world before this present darkness are my kin.
- My teacher taught me how not to rely solely on my sight; I owe everything to them.
- I have a rival who’s trying to bring back the light before I do.
- I will support my brothers-in-arms who are trying to bring back the light.
- I lived in the era before the shroud of darkness covered the land. I will do literally anything to bring back the light, including betraying my teammates.
- The Darkness is the heart of evil; I will avoid dealings with evil at all costs
- Because the Darkness hides my actions, I will do what I can to keep it around
- The Darkness has a hold on my soul; its ebb and flow sway my actions without my knowledge or will.
A Handful “World without Light” Plots
- Someone is attempting to blot out the sun permanently. It’s up to the PCs to stop them before it’s too late
- The gods of light are evil. The PCs must bring about the darkness to stop their schemes.
- There is no light, but there once was; it’s up to the PCs to bring it back. Maybe the PCs even had a hand in its disappearance.
- PCs from other places or another dimension get shunted to this lightless world. Their task is to get back home.
- The light portals that the world has relied on for so long are failing. It’s up to the PCs to find out what’s going on and fix them, if possible.
- The PCs are in a world where light never was, but they stumble upon the idea of light. How do they respond?
- The PCs are asked to escort a VIP through the Dark so the NPC is not eaten by a Grue. Will they succeed in their mission or fail?
- A Grue has the scent of the PCs in the dark. Do they have what it takes to survive?
Hopefully, this has given you some ideas on how to play in a world without light.