A Note on Darkvision

When I first started running a fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign, I took for granted that darkvision (and its predecessors and analogues, such as “infravision” in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, “low-light vision” in Shadowrun and “night vision” in GURPS) improved a character’s or creature’s ability to see in both dim light and darkness. Then, while writing the first article for this blog, I inadvertently led myself astray by relying on the incomplete description of darkvision on pages 183–85 of the 5E Players’ Handbook, which seems to imply that it improves a character’s or creature’s ability to see only in total darkness. As both the PH chapter 2 race descriptions and the 5E Monster Manual introduction make clear, darkvision lets a character or creature see in dim light as if it were bright light (i.e., no penalty to Perception) and in darkness as if it were dim light (i.e., disadvantage on visual Perception checks, but not blinded). Thanks to Hemlock on the EN World forum for setting me straight.

Anytime a creature has darkvision, the natural implication is that it’s predominantly, if not exclusively, nocturnal or subterranean. In the case of monsters living aboveground, you can assume that they’ll prefer to attack at night, although they may sometimes move about during the day. However, unless there’s a reason to think of them as exclusively nocturnal (or if it serves the campaign to have the player characters stumble upon them while they’re sleeping), if a group of PCs encounters them, they’ll be awake and alert.

Click to reveal spoilers from The Lost Mine of Phandelver.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver begins with a goblin ambush: Two horses lie dead on the road, and while the PCs investigate, four goblins attack them from out of the woods. In all likelihood, this discovery takes place during the day. Goblins have darkvision. There’s not necessarily any contradiction here. While goblins may be more active at night and may prefer to fight at night, the travelers they enjoy waylaying move during the day. Therefore, if they want to carry out a successful ambush, it’s got to happen during the day.

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In other words, darkvision doesn’t rule out the possibility of daylight activity. It simply tells us when and where a monster will fight, given the choice. If there’s some other situational factor that justifies a daylight encounter, of course it can happen in daylight. Otherwise, every aboveground D&D campaign would be a succession of discoveries of groups of snoozing monsters, which the PCs could either easily circumvent or slaughter in their sleep.

Lizardfolk Tactics

With lizardfolk, we get into the territory of generic humanoid monsters that are more than mere cannon fodder. They’re not sophisticated, but they are significantly tougher than goblins, kobolds and orcs. According to the Monster Manual flavor text, their most salient behavioral trait is their territoriality, followed by their generally acting like South Seas cannibals in a movie from the 1940s. On the flip side, the text does acknowledge that lizardfolk may occasionally form alliances with outsiders, but we’ll set that aside, since it’s not going to influence their combat tactics.

Lizardfolk, like orcs, are brutes: average Dexterity, high Strength and Constitution. They’re also proficient in Perception and Stealth, and they’re more or less amphibious—they can’t breathe underwater, but they can hold their breath for up to 15 minutes, and they can swim as fast as they can move on land.

Based on this information, the most likely lizardfolk encounter scenario will be with a group of scouts patrolling the outskirts of their territory. They’ll be alert to intruders—it’s why they’re out there. Once they notice intruders, they’ll start stalking them (either from cover to cover, if on land, or underwater, if in a swamp), until they’re close enough to attack. Then they’ll strike first, with surprise.

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Orc Tactics

With orcs, I continue my examination of the cannon-fodder humanoid monsters of Dungeons & Dragons. Actually, orcs have always been somewhat tougher than goblins and kobolds, but they remain one of the undistinguished stock foes of low-level D&D parties. How does the fifth edition of D&D make orcs unique?

Unlike goblins and kobolds, orcs are strong and tough. They’re not very smart—their behavior is largely driven by instinct—but they possess average Wisdom and decent Dexterity. They have the Aggressive feature, which allows them to move their full speed toward a hostile creature as a bonus action, effectively allowing them to Dash, then Attack. And, curiously, they possess a social skill (Intimidation +2). Their standard melee weapon, the greataxe, deals damage that can be deadly to a level 1 character.

These are no hit-and-run skirmishers or snipers. Orcs are brutes. They’ll charge, they’ll fight hand-to-hand, and they’ll retreat only with the greatest reluctance when seriously wounded. (Being fanatical valuers of physical courage, orcs—unlike most creatures—are more willing to fight to the death.)

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Kobold Tactics

Last time I looked at goblins, one of Dungeons & Dragons’ basic cannon-fodder humanoid monsters; in this article, I’ll examine another, the kobold.

Kobolds differ from goblins in significant ways. Their Intelligence, Wisdom and Constitution are all lower. They have Sunlight Sensitivity, which means that while goblins may prefer to dwell in the dark, kobolds must. Like goblins, kobolds set traps; unlike goblins, they’re not nimble or stealthy. What’s most distinctive about kobolds is their Pack Tactics feature, which gives them advantage on attacks when ganging up on a target. And that’s the crux of how kobolds ought to fight.

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Goblin Tactics

I’m going to start with lower-level monsters and work my way up, and my first case study will be the monster that players beginning with the Dungeons & Dragons fifth edition starter set are likely to encounter first: goblins.

Here’s what we know about goblins from the Monster Manual: First, from the flavor text, they live in dark, dismal settings; congregate in large numbers; and employ alarms and traps. They’re low-Strength and high-Dexterity, with a very good Stealth modifier. Their Intelligence and Wisdom are in the average range. They possess darkvision and the Nimble Escape feature, which allows them to Disengage or Hide as a bonus action—very important to their action economy.

Because of their darkvision, goblins will frequently attack under cover of darkness, when their targets may be effectively blinded (attack rolls against a blinded creature have advantage, while the blinded creature’s attack rolls have disadvantage). They’ll also attack from hiding as much as possible, making use of their high Stealth modifier, and doing so in dim light decreases the likelihood that they’ll be discovered, since the many player characters will have disadvantage on Perception checks that rely on sight. (Important note for dungeon masters and players: Darkvision does not nullify the penalty to sight-based Perception checks in dim light. It only lets a creature see in darkness as if it were dim light, without being effectively blinded.) (The description of darkvision on pages 183–85 of the Players’ Handbook is incomplete: it implies that darkvision improves vision only in darkness. It improves vision in dim light as well, allowing a character with that feature to see without penalty.)

A picture of goblin combat is starting to coalesce, and at the center of it is a strategy of ambush.

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