Darkvision in D&D has gone through a lot of changes over the editions and the years. I’ve read a lot of griping about how almost every 5E race has darkvision so I decided to go through the Library of Past Editions and crunched some numbers. Due to the sheer amount of additional materials released for each edition, I concentrated on those appearing in the core Player’s Handbook for each.
THE BREAKDOWN – RACIAL VISION VS EDITION
|Race||1st Ed||2nd Ed||3rd Ed||4th Ed||5th Ed|
|Dwarf||IR Vision||IR vision||Darkvision||Low-light||Darkvision|
|Elf||IR vision||IR vision||Low-light||Low-light||Darkvision|
|Gnome||IR vision||IR vision||Low-light||n/a||Darkvision|
|Half Orc||IR vision||n/a||Darkvision||n/a||Darkvision|
|Half-Elf||IR vision||IR vision||Low-light||Low-light||Darkvision|
|Halfling||IR vision||IR vision||Normal||Normal||Normal|
|% of Races w/ ‘vision’||86%||83%||72% (29% DV, 43% LL)||62% (No Darkvision)||67%|
- 1st: 6 out of 7 races have ‘infravision’
- 2nd: 5 out of 6 races have ‘infravision’
- 3rd: 2 of 7 races have Darkvision, 3 have Low Light
- 4th: 5 of 8 have Low light, none have Darkvision
- 5th: 6 out of 9 races have Darkvision
- The standard distance of extraordinary vision was 60 feet for almost every race, the exception being mixed blood halflings in first edition who got only 30 feet of infravision (there was a roll to determine it)
WHAT THE HECK IS INFRAVISION & LOW LIGHT VISION?
- 1st Ed: Infravision sees into the infra-red, so heat patterns (UV Vision comes in for various monsters)
- 2nd: Infravision is defined as seeing in the dark.
- 3rd: Darkvison sees in black and white but just fine in the dark, low light sees normally twice as far in dim light.
- 4th: Darkvision can see normally in the dark, Low Light can see normally in Dim Light and not at all in Darkness.
- 5th: Darkvision sees in shades of grey and is at disadvantage in total Darkness (no penalty in Dim)
So all told by raw percentages, 5E is pretty close to the middle of the pack when it comes to core races that can’t see in the dark. 1st and 2nd editions are the ones where only humans can’t see in the dark. So if you are annoyed by almost all the races having dark vision, maybe you should be using some of the visions from 3rd or 4th. With expanded lore continuing to be released, races with darkvision are still the majority.
DEFINITIONS COPIED FROM THAT EDITION’S PHB OF DARKVISION, LOW LIGHT VISION, ETC.
1st “Infravision: … the ability to see into the infra-red spectrum, so a character is able to see … in the dark, noting varying heat radiation.”
2nd “Infravision: … enables them to see 60 feet in darkness.”
3rd “Darkvision: … can see in the dark up to 60 feet. Darkvision is in black and white only, but it is otherwise like normal sight, and [characters] can function just fine with no light at all.
“Low-light Vision: … can see twice as far as a human in starlight, moonlight, torchlight, and similar conditions of poor illumination.”
4th Instead of listing the definition of the vision type with each racial description, the visibility is defined much later on under Adventuring – Vision & Light.
“Low-light: Can see normally in dim light, can’t see creatures or objects in darkness.
Darkvision: Can see normally in dim light … can see without penalty [in darkness].”
The overall definition is –
“You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.”
Each race has it explained slightly differently –
“Accustomed to life underground, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions.” (Dwarf, Gnome)
“Accustomed to twilight forests and the night sky, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions.” (Elf, Half-Elf)
“Thanks to your orc blood, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions.” (Half-Orc)
“Thanks to your infernal heritage, you have superior vision in dark and dim conditions.” (Tiefling)
I totally understand why a streamlined system with new players in mind would simplify things to one kind of extraordinary vision, and even though they tried to flavour it differently there is a certain sameness to it all. Low Light vision would be interesting to bring back into the mechanics and maybe we will see something like it as a DMG option. The whole question of how darkvision ought to interact with other light sources (torches, sunlight, etc.) is the subject worth of an entire rant of its own. For humans et al to gain darkvision isn’t too difficult due to spells (Darkvision, level 2 spell), items (Goggles of Night, uncommon item and no attunement required), warlock invocations and so on, so at many tables it doesn’t matter as much as it might of in older editions.
Fact is, at far too many tables darkvision is treated as perfect night vision and thus are doing it wrong. As per 5e rules, with darkvision you can see normally in dim light and at disadvantage in total darkness (so affecting any vision related checks but no combat). The Roll20 interface has made for some interesting outcomes such as players looking at their screens and unable to tell friend from foe in the dimming of the darkvision as displayed.
Finally, there might be some changes coming soon with the One D&D playtest material that introduced dwarves having limited access to tremorsense. There were brief times when ultravision was a thing for an alternative sense and even more recently some Unearthed Arcana playtest options that allowed for a PC to have blindsight. Some other games had options for unusual targeting senses for that Daredevil inspired character. There remains lots of room to customize extraordinary senses and how to access them via existing rules as written, house rules using past editions for inspiration, or even transplanting Pathfinder vision and cover rules entirely. Each option sets up how your PCs interact with the mystery lurking in the shadows, be it for exploration or a combat encounter. And that’s a rant for another time …
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