Monday, September 26, 2016

Vision and Light in DragonQuest

Vision and Light in DragonQuest

Vision and light are rather vaguely defined in DragonQuest (DQ). Light sources aren't discussed at all within the rules and no details are provided for the four light sources found in the rules (candle, candle lantern, oil lantern and torch) such as radius of illumination or for what period of time they last. The majority of other RPGs available during the time when DragonQuest was released included this information so, to me, it was an odd thing to leave out.

I'm going to look at the vision types described for the various races and monsters in DQ, the types of vision granted by spells, the spells that produce light, and the spells that obscure vision. I'm not going to propose any changes or fixes in this post but may do so in a later one.

Racial Vision

The various non-human player races appear to have two types of vision. The first (Dwarves and Elves) is some type of low-light vision and is defined by how well humans can see at certain times of day or under certain conditions. The second is referred to as infravision and given to Orcs, Giants and Halflings. Of the creatures detailed in the rules under section VIII, Monsters, only Goblins, Hobgoblins and Kobolds are described as being able to "see in the dark". What exactly that means isn't noted. As they are lumped in under Earth Dwellers along with Dwarves, Halflings and Orcs means it could be vision like that of the Dwarves or infravision like Orcs and Halflings.

The low-light vision is somewhat problematic because of the terms used and how they are used. Looking first at the vision of Dwarves, it is written as: "A Dwarf may see in the dark as a human does at dusk." First problem with that is that dusk has a specific meaning but that meaning depends upon who you are talking to. For civil authorities, dusk occurs at the end of civil twilight and is roughly the point at which you can no longer read comfortably without another light source. There are also definitions for nautical and astronomical purposes with those occurring roughly a half hour and an hour after civil twilight. In many locales in the US the law requires you to turn on your headlights at dusk which is typically specified as 30 minutes after sunset or civil dusk. At dusk there is approximately 1/10,000th the amount of light as there is under full daylight and while humans can still see well enough to probably not trip over large objects in their path their ability to see and detect threats is definitely limited.

Returning to the Dwarf vision statement again there is another problem and this is that "dark" is not defined. While it might mean the absence of light the next part of the Dwarf vision description says, "His effective range of vision in the dark is 50 feet under the open sky, 100 feet inside man-made structures, and 150 feet inside caves and tunnels." Looking at the first of the three conditions one interpretation of "in the dark" along with "under open sky" is a starlit night with no moon. But as humans do not see perfectly well at dusk this also means that a Dwarf does not have perfect vision in this condition.

The second condition, "100 feet inside man-made structures" while also "in the dark" tells us it is the interior of a building but it isn't made clear that this is at night or day or perhaps both. It also isn't clear if this is buildings above ground or does it apply to tombs, catacombs and dungeons underground but man-made and presumably with no light leaking in from outside.

The third condition for Dwarven vision, "150 feet inside of caves and tunnels" while also being "in the dark", tells us that Dwarves see better (or at least farther) underground than when outdoors or inside of man-made structures. A normal assumption would be that a cave would have no natural illumination. This suggests that Dwarves don't have low-light vision but something else entirely. Not infravision as that is specifically called out for three other races. Perhaps it is from mana flowing through the earth?

Interestingly the combat rules do give us Lighting Condition Modifiers in table 17.6. The modifier for a shadowy interior (or a starry night) is -10 to the Strike Chance. Hardly a crippling disadvantage but it isn't made clear to whom this applies. Only humans? Certainly Elves and Dwarves see better in these conditions so should they suffer the same modifiers? It also provides a modifier for caves and unlit interiors of -30 but calls out pitch blackness separately as -40. Does this mean that caves aren't pitch black but somehow have some illumination that combatants can use? Unclear.

Vision for Elves is more simply defined though it doesn't provide much more clarity. Per the rules, "An Elf may see in the dark as a human does on a cloudy day. His effective range of vision in the dark is 150 feet under the open sky, and 75 feet elsewhere." This is a curious definition as humans see just fine on a cloudy day. Their ability to pick out fine details at a distance is less but the ambient illumination on a overcast day is still 2.5 times the recommended level for a well lit office. So an Elf can see just fine at night (starry or otherwise) under an open sky while within man-made structures or underground their range of vision is less but still good. Why Elves have lesser range indoors or underground isn't stated but it could be surmised that it is because of the lack of starlight but that doesn't really explain why they can see underground in presumably the complete lack of a light source.

As described, it appears that Elves have slightly superior low-light vision to that of Dwarves but as no penalty is assigned to humans seeing under dusk conditions there also no actual game-play penalty for the Dwarves.

For the three character races with infravision, two share the same description with different ranges while the third, the Halfling, has a slightly different description. As is typical for the time when DragonQuest was produced the designers had little or no understanding of the actual physics involved with infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. So we end up with these descriptions: Halflings can "...see solid red shapes where living beings are located in the dark." while Giants and Orcs can "...see faint red shapes where living beings are located in the dark." Taken as written this would mean that in a dark room without living beings nothing would be seen. No explanation is given for what it means to see solid red versus faint red shapes. The two with the greatest ranges, Orcs and Giants at 150 and 250 feet respectively, only get faint red shapes. The "living beings" portion suggests that undead would not be seen at all but this is only implied. What about cold-blooded entities whose temperature is roughly that of their environment? Unclear.

Why is it that Giants get infravision? They don't generally live in the dark or underground and the Cloud and Storm Giants live high up in the atmosphere above the clouds where it would be of dubious advantage. Why can they see farther? Seems to be a completely arbitrary assignment with not even a game balance excuse possible. Why do Halflings have infravision? Are they more closely related to Orcs than to humans, Elves, or Dwarves? The non-character race Gnomes cannot see in the dark but they are "cousins" to the Dwarves according to their description. Kobolds, which are described as "dwarvish types", can see in the dark.

Also missing from the vision descriptions is what effect light sources have on the races with infravision, Elf/Dwarf vision or whatever it is that Goblins, Hobgoblins and Kobolds have. From the Special Abilities portion of the Orc description we know they suffer a 5% to 15% penalty when "...aiming at a target during the daytime." The odd phrasing suggests that this applies only to ranged combat. Of the three non-player races, only Goblins "dislike sunlight, and fight at a reduction in the Base Chance of 10 when under a bright sun."

Vision from Spells

There are six Talents or Spells that grant some type of low-light or night vision. Two talents, T-1 of Illusions and T-1 of Black Magics, as well as the G-7 spell of Celestial gives the Adept, or target of the spell, the ability of Witchsight. Along with the ability to see magically hidden or obscured things it grants the "night-vision of an Elf." The term "night-vision" wasn't used in describing the racial abilities of Elves but this could be used to differentiate between Elven and Dwarven low-light vision. Elves have night-vision and Dwarves have something else. Maybe. Another curiosity is that Ensorcelments and Enchantments (EE) also has Witchsight as talent T-1 but it doesn't grant the night-vision of an Elf. Intentionally left out or a mistake? As all three editions of DragonQuest are the same I'm guessing intentional but why that would be I have no idea. Why would the College of Illusions have enhanced Witchsight with night-vision? It would make more sense to me that Illusionists only get the basic Witchsight that is T-1 for EE Adepts while the EE Adepts got the full package.

Fire Magics gives it's Adepts T-1 Infravision which strangely allows the Adept to identify the species of a heat source within range and also whether or not it is magical. Apparently magic has a thermal component to it. It doesn't explicitly say that the Adept can actually see in the dark as far as functioning in combat or navigating through a furnished room. It also has an abysmal chance of success for starting characters being based on Perception and Rank with the talent.

Celestial Magics has Night Vision as T-2 and it is shared with Black Magics as S-2 Spell of Nightvision. This talent/spell shows again how disadvantaged game designers were in the pre-internet world. The description of the talent/spell is: "The Adept has the ability to see in the dark with the same vision (near perfect) as a cat. However, everything will appear monochromatic and somewhat distorted (geometrical)." While cats can see well in low-light, only needing about 1/6 the light that humans need, their visual acuity is much worse. A cat is typically 20/100 to 20/200 compared to a humans 20/20 vision. They do see color just much less than humans so monochromatic is fair enough but I have to wonder where this notion of distorted or geometrical vision came from. The Black Magics college gets Witchsight as a Talent which is far superior so why S-2 is there at all is a good question. Celestial Magics gets Witchsight as a General Knowledge spell making the inferior T-2 mostly superfluous.

Light Spells

There are 12 colleges in DragonQuest as published plus three more in Arcane Wisdom but only three have spells to produce light. Once again the most general purpose of the colleges, Ensorcelments and Enchantments, gets left out of the fun. The three colleges are Fire, Celestial and Rune magics and they share the same spell, Spell of Light, as G-4, G-2 and G-3 respectively. There is a subtle difference to the Rune Magics version that, depending on the GM, probably has no effect on how it is used.

What probably seemed clever at the time it was written turns out to be more of a novelty than a useful spell for illumination. Here's the spell description:

"One 10-foot cube (1000 cubic feet) area may be brightly lit. The lighted area may be of any shape (even pencil-thin) but must emanate from the spot occupied by the caster."

On the face of it the "may be of any shape (even pencil-thin)" aspect sounds pretty nifty until you do the math. Assuming a pencil is 1/4" in diameter then 1000 cu. ft. produces a beam 2,933,544 ft long or 556 miles! How cool is that? Oh, wait, the maximum range of the spell is 15' + (15' * Rank) or 315' at R20. Well at maximum range what would the diameter of a beam be? Only 2.02 feet. How about a cone? For a 10' base cone, only 38 feet. Less than the range of a thrown dagger or dart. With a 5' base cone you get a 152 foot range so moderately useful now as long as you can keep it on target. As a 10' cube it doesn't even cover the hex your in plus the six surrounding hexes. Drop it to only 8' high and you get an 11' box around you which is still not enough. If you are using squares instead of hexes, you can cover five 5x5 squares up to 8' high. With a five foot wide wide corridor you can illuminate 25 feet of it up to 8' high. This is one of those spells that I always wondered how it made it through playtest to the final version.

It is pretty easy to make an argument that Adepts aren't good at producing light as the Powers of Light "...are non-magical in nature and are, in effect, opposed to magic." As such the light produced by Adepts would be lesser and lacking compared to something produced by an agent of the Powers of Light. I would still like to think that an Adept could produce illumination on par with an oil lantern.

Spells That Limit Vision

There are a number of spells or rituals that limit vision amongst six different colleges. The College of Illusions has two: G-1 Flash of Light Spell and Q-1 Ritual of Illusory Fog. Flash of Light works as you might expect temporarily blinding those affected reducing Strike Chance by 50 and cutting TMR in half. It also costs 2 extra FT to cast for some reason. Illusory Fog creates the illusion of mist or fog in a Rank dependent area around the Adept. No information is provided as to what effect this has on those in it or trying to look through it. As Illusory Fog is an illusion would all entities, regardless of type of vision, be affected the same? Fog and mist are not covered in the section on Lighting Condition Modifiers so no help there.

Air Mages get G-6 Spell of Conjuring Mist which conjures one plus one per rank 10' cubes of fog or mist. However, like Illusory Fog, no details are provided as to how this impacts those within it or attempting to see into it.

Celestial, Black and Rune magics all have a Spell of Darkness (G-3, G-2, & G-2 respectively) that creates a 10' cube of darkness plus another 500 cu. ft. of darkness for every Rank with the spell. The effects of this darkness are pretty well defined and depend upon Rank with the spell. The darkness created is that of a cloudy night at Ranks 0-5, a sealed room at Ranks 6-10 and at Rank 11 and above it is absolute blackness. As these more-or-less match entries on the Lighting Condition Modifiers chart the effect on combatants is easily determined.

The Necromancers get three different spells, all General Knowledge. The first is G-1 Spell of Conjuring Darkness. This differs from the Celestial Magics spell only in name and in the starting volume of darkness which is only 500 cu. ft.. Otherwise it is the same spell. Their second spell is G-3, Spell of Obscurement, which creates a 5' cube of oily, black smoke and limits vision to 5'. That's nice but it affects a much smaller volume than G-1 Conjuring Darkness, has a lower Base Chance, a higher Experience Multiple and can be resisted. The third spell for Necromancers is G-7 Spell of Noxious Vapors. This produces a foul yellow vapor that can cover a large area at higher ranks and even at ranks 0-5 where it only affects vision the area covered is quite good. Noxious Vapors reduces vision to 10'. It's curious that a college whose focus is on death has three spells affecting vision and all in General Knowledge.

So What

In many ways all of these quirks and vague descriptions are normal when it comes to RPG rules from the period. Gamemasters have long had to improvise when faced with missing, confusing or contradictory rules. DragonQuest is no different and probably suffers most not from a lack on the part of the designers but from the situation at SPI when it was released. All of the issues that I have raised are easily dealt with by filling in the holes with your own rules or by borrowing from other games. The downside to this is that each gaming group is probably playing a slightly different, or perhaps hugely different, version of DragonQuest. If someone were to do a new version of DragonQuest I hope that it would provide more complete and clearer rules for vision and light.


  1. Interesting article. I would suggest that all the racial visions be related to a human in daylight on a bright day. Define how far a human can see under optimal conditions with other races defined in relation to that. For example: a human can see 4 miles at noon, on a flat surface on a sunny day. Indoors, a human can see 90 feet with equivalent level of light. And go from there.

  2. Interesting. gruundehn's comment is good.

  3. I agree that relating other racial visions to that of a human is probably best. Also precisely detailing how well a human can see is important and then relating it to the combat modifiers.

  4. Good work. Hadn't realized what a mess this is!

  5. Thanks. Really until we were playing via a virtual table-top like MapTool most of the vision stuff wasn't a big deal. Just kind of hand-waved it away. The light spell however our group recognized as silly from the beginning.