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D&D 5E Revisiting RAW Darkness Spell

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
But we know that foliage dense enough provide Heavy Obscurement gives effectively gives observers the Blinded condition when trying to see anything in the area. The only way that can be true is if every possible sight line is obstructed by foliage.
Um no, just enough sight lines to the thing an observer is trying to see to make it so it can't be seen (clearly).

So yes, in three dimensions the foliage isn't a "solid block of plant material". But when seen from a distance as a two-dimensional image, the overlapping opaque branches, stems, and leaves fill the entire area. If there were any significant gaps that persisted even 5' into the dense foliage an observer would be able to see a creature at the edge of the dense foliage, which Heavy Obscurement does not permit.
I'm looking out across my backyard, and not more than forty feet away is a clump of trees with large leaves covering its branches which trail to the ground. A person could be standing in the shade among those trees right now. I can't tell, but I have no doubt that if there were such a person, they could see my house just fine by peeking through the small gaps in the leaves in front of them.

It sounds like you envision dense foliage as much less dense than I think the rules require. Even going with your interpretation, however, how can an area of dense foliage be sufficiently opaque to provide Heavy Obscurement to the creatures inside it while simultaneously not sufficiently opaque to provide Heavy Obscurement to creatures beyond it? (That is your position, yes? That a creature/object among the foliage can't be seen, but a creature/object behind the foliage can be?)
Yes, going back to the trees behind my house, even though the leaves and branches are close together enough in many places to obscure the presence of a person among the cluster of trees, there are also gaps large enough that I can see the shape and color of the house behind quite clearly.

It seems to me that you are the one not following your own guidance. You're imagining an area of foliage with gaps big enough to see through and into the area beyond, but then applying the mechanics for Heavy Obscurement even though the presence of such large gaps conflicts with the description of Heavy Obscurement as effectively inflicting the Blinded condition.
There's no contradiction. I really can't see anything in that area. There could be someone up in that tree looking at me, and I would have no idea. Nevertheless, I can see telephone wires traversing the area behind the tree and the sky peeking through the canopy behind that.
 

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Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
I'm not sure there's any way you could word it that would make me understand how anyone could interpret walls as transparent through any reading of RAW or Fluff. It's really outside anything I can get behind. And I've HONESTLY tried to follow your logic, I just haven't been able to.
Would it help if I used your most recent dog/bunny/cat example? Or are you ok on the mechanics of it now?

Ah, I see what you mean. I don't read "can't see" as a mechanical penalty. The penalty is "Fail Perception Checks" and "Have Disadvantage on Attacks", ETC. The rest is story-fluff. And when the mechanics make it seem like you might be able to see a little, to make it make sense, I'm going to say that you see a little, even if you're "effectively blind". To me that means you have all the mechanical penalties of the Blinded condition, but you can see whatever I feel like describing. (Be it shadows, movement, or whatever).
Interesting. In my mind "can't see" is basically the entire point of the Blinded condition, because it fundamentally changes how the character interacts with the game world (plus it's in the name of the condition ;)). A suddenly (actually) Blinded character no longer knows what the environment looks like (they have to operate from memory), they can't see what actions other creatures are taking (have to rely on hearing alone), don't know the locations of creatures beyond hearing range, etc. To me the rest of the Blinded condition is just details about action resolution. :)

Of course, how to interpret "can't see" when someone effectively suffers from the Blinded condition with respect to an opaque foreground object but not with respect to a background object it was occulting, that's a 40-page-thread can of worms.... :)

I think this comes from the fact that the creature can MOVE through it (sure, difficult terrain, yadda yadda) without having to hack away at it that makes it seem like it probably had more openings than you might imagine it to - leading back to "can't see WELL" over "can't see AT ALL" being a probable interpretation of "effectively blinded" by Heavy Obscurement.
Sure, but you can move through foliage that dense because the smaller branches and leaves bend away as you move through them, not because there are clear paths and long sight-lines. A line of landscaped bushes, for example, can easily be dense enough to be an opaque area yet let someone push their way through the line between bushes.

@Hriston seems to be arguing that a character in such a line of opaque bushes couldn't be seen, but that the character behind such a line of opaque bushes could be seen. There is support for that in the text of the Heavy Obscurement rules, but since it creates a paradox where the bushes are both an opaque area and not an opaque area, I consider that another place where the vision/darkness/obscurement rules are incomplete and/or contradictory.

Sort of? Maybe a little? It seems to me that it would be the wall itself not its silhouette that would block your vision - though you might see it's silhouette in the story fluff, if that's what you mean. I think it might not be so much that I can't understand how you could come up with a way to make walls transparent by RAW, but it's so far outside what anyone would rule that I can't understand why we'd even talk about it. It makes it hard for my brain to "go there" even if I'm trying to be with you for the intellectual exercise. I really am trying to play along here!
Ok, so in the weeds I've let the overall point of why I'm discussing transparent walls get lost. Thanks! I can address that. :)

In this thread I've made (several formulations of) one central claim: that the vision/darkness/obscurement (v/d/o) rules are incomplete, and can't be run as-is. From this central claim I've made several derivative claims:
  1. The v/d/o rules are too incomplete to permit a close reading of those rules to resolve whether the darkness created by the Darkness spell is opaque or transparent.
  2. Because spells are theoretically supposed to be self-contained (i.e. only do what they say they do, and no more), the fact that the text of the Darkness spell does not provide sufficient detail to resolve how the transparent interpretation would interact with the incomplete v/d/o rules is evidence that the transparent interpretation was not intended by the designers. (If it was intended to be transparent, the designers could have written the spell more like the 3.5 version.) I think this evidence is particularly strong because the edge cases where the v/d/o rules fall apart (e.g. backlighting) are much more likely to come up with magical darkness that can be summoned into a well-lit area than they are with natural darkness.
  3. Because the rules can't be run as-is, every DM is making choices about how to run the v/d/o rules that depart (to varying degrees) from the small amount of rules text we actually have. If every DM has to make atextual choices, criticizing a DM for a particular atextual choice on the grounds that it is atextual is meaningless.
I've presented a particular contradiction in the v/d/o rules as evidence supporting my central claim that the rule can't be run as-is. That contradiction involves silhouettes: adding silhouettes into the game (atextually, I note) contradicts the Blinded condition by letting observers see creatures that they are effectively Blinded with respect to. Not adding silhouettes would (if taken to an absurd logical consequence) lead to heavily obscured opaque creatures/objects/walls not being able to block vision of well-lit areas behind them.

Obviously no DM is going to go so far as to let observers see through walls just because those walls are in natural darkness. But avoiding that outcome while not allowing creatures/objects/walls to be visible as silhouettes requires making other atextual choices. I've spoilered my description of two examples of other atextual choices a DM could make to be able to run the game without silhouettes and still keep walls opaque.

One example suggested in this thread (I don't remember by who) was to make all silhouettes blobby and not outline the creature/object/wall. That totally works: observers would see a blobby patch of darkness where an a opaque creature/object/wall is located, rather than seeing the creature/object/wall OR seeing whatever the creature/object/wall was concealing. (For a similar effect, see Shadow of Moil.) But blobby silhouettes are definitely atextual.

Another work-around is to allow natural darkness to make opaque creatures effectively transparent, but not allow the same for objects or walls, and just accepting the (lesser) absurdity of transparent creatures. But again, making such an artificial distinction in what can and cannot be seen as a silhouette would be atextual.

So, to recap, I'm discussing the contradiction in the v/d/o rules between the "can't see" wording of the Blinded condition and the ordinary definition of the word "opaque" in the edge case where Heavily Obscured objects/creatures/walls are backlit. I'm using that contradiction as evidence in support of my central claim, that the v/d/o rules are incomplete. (I've offered as evidence another example of a contradiction in the v/d/o rules vis-a-vis the visibility of a character in heavy obscurement vs behind heavy obscurement, but that one seems less controversial.)

I recognize that you view my central claim as uncontested in this thread. However, my interpretation of the views of other posters conflicts with your interpretation. My understanding is that some posters think the v/d/o rules can be run as-is, and may still be arguing that doing so requires the transparent interpretation of the Darkness spell. If I'm wrong, great!
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Um no, just enough sight lines to the thing an observer is trying to see to make it so it can't be seen (clearly).
Not being able to be seen clearly is the standard for hiding. For Heavy Obscurement an observer effectively suffers from the Blinded condition, which means the observer "can't see".
I'm looking out across my backyard, and not more than forty feet away is a clump of trees with large leaves covering its branches which trail to the ground. A person could be standing in the shade among those trees right now. I can't tell, but I have no doubt that if there were such a person, they could see my house just fine by peeking through the small gaps in the leaves in front of them.
It doesn't sound like you are effectively suffering from the Blinded condition with respect to seeing things in the area of that clump of trees. It sounds like there might be particular places in that clump of trees where someone could stand where they were behind an opaque object, but to be "dense foliage" it shouldn't matter where exactly the creature is standing--an observer shouldn't be able to see a creature standing anywhere in dense foliage, which requires the opaque foliage to interrupt their line of sight everywhere. Otherwise the observer isn't effectively suffering from the Blinded condition, so the foliage in that area must not be sufficiently dense to qualify as Heavy Obscurement.

Yes, going back to the trees behind my house, even though the leaves and branches are close together enough in many places to obscure the presence of a person among the cluster of trees, there are also gaps large enough that I can see the shape and color of the house behind quite clearly.
Only the places dense enough to obscure the person would count as Heavily Obscured. The gaps are not Heavily Obscured, as a creature standing in such a gap would be visible to you.

There's no contradiction. I really can't see anything in that area. There could be someone up in that tree looking at me, and I would have no idea. Nevertheless, I can see telephone wires traversing the area behind the tree and the sky peeking through the canopy behind that.
If someone was in that area and intersected your view of the telephone wires, you would see them, yes? By definition? You can see the wires, so you'd definitely be able to see something in front of the wires. But anything you can see you aren't effectively Blinded towards, so you're not effectively Blinded with respect to everything in that area. So how can the area be said to be Heavily Obscured?

Maybe a good way of putting it is this: if you drop a stone monolith (shorter than the trees) at a random place in your clump of trees, are you, as an observer guaranteed to be unable to see the monolith? If yes, cool, then the area is Heavily Obscured--you are effectively suffering from the Blinded condition with respect to everything in the area. If instead you might see the monolith, then the area must not be Heavily Obscured because you aren't effectively suffering from the Blinded condition with respect to everything in the area.

So yes, it definitely sounds like we are treating different levels of foliage as sufficient to qualify as Heavy Obscurement. I think the rules for the Blinded condition require full opacity, and you do not.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
I recognize that you view my central claim as uncontested in this thread. However, my interpretation of the views of other posters conflicts with your interpretation. My understanding is that some posters think the v/d/o rules can be run as-is, and may still be arguing that doing so requires the transparent interpretation of the Darkness spell. If I'm wrong, great!

As far as I can tell, the other posters have only suggested that feel like their interpretation allows them to explain the inconsistencies in RAW for their own benefit. They were told that they were wrong to do so, and that their interpretation was inconceivable, and they've felt the need to defend it. Not to tell others that they are the only ones doing it correctly. I really don't think I'm wrong about that. They were defending their right to exist as an alternative viewpoint to the clearly much-more popular (but IMO equally problematic) Ink-Blot Darkness. In doing so, they may have tried to explain why THEY think it's "better", but that's not the same thing as "you have to do it this way too".

(Aside: I follow your wall-theory now, thanks).
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
As far as I can tell, the other posters have only suggested that feel like their interpretation allows them to explain the inconsistencies in RAW for their own benefit. They were told that they were wrong to do so, and that their interpretation was inconceivable, and they've felt the need to defend it. Not to tell others that they are the only ones doing it correctly. I really don't think I'm wrong about that. They were defending their right to exist as an alternative viewpoint to the clearly much-more popular (but IMO equally problematic) Ink-Blot Darkness. In doing so, they may have tried to explain why THEY think it's "better", but that's not the same thing as "you have to do it this way too".

(Aside: I follow your wall-theory now, thanks).
How about we agree to disagree as to the viewpoints of other posters expressed in past posts? The alternative is wading through 40 pages to find quotes, then arguing about the context of those quotes, and we'll likely just end up conceding that the other one's interpretation of the thread is plausible, even though we each prefer our own.

Can we skip ahead to that? :)
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
It sounds like you are saying that if a solid object should be backlit, but isn't due to Darkness making everyone blind to everything inside of it, that the object is transparent if you can still see things behind it.

That's a possible interpretation, but so is "magic." "Magic" seems like a cop out in this circumstance, so I think that making Darkness pitch black and allowing no light to go through it is the more elegant solution. No seeing anything behind an area of the Darkness spell.
Use small "d" "darkness" (I'm talking about natural darkness in general) and you're pretty close.

And magic can explain a physical impossibility, but just using "magic" as an explanation doesn't tell us what an observer sees. Somehow the DM has to describe to the player what the scene looks like to the character, and the text in the book definitely doesn't have any rules to that effect. :) So even if a DM hand-waves away any inconsistency, they still need to use their own judgement on the visual result.
 

Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Not being able to be seen clearly is the standard for hiding. For Heavy Obscurement an observer effectively suffers from the Blinded condition, which means the observer "can't see".
That's what the hiding rules said pre-errata, but that's why I put clearly in parentheses. The point still stands without that one word.

It doesn't sound like you are effectively suffering from the Blinded condition with respect to seeing things in the area of that clump of trees. It sounds like there might be particular places in that clump of trees where someone could stand where they were behind an opaque object, but to be "dense foliage" it shouldn't matter where exactly the creature is standing--an observer shouldn't be able to see a creature standing anywhere in dense foliage, which requires the opaque foliage to interrupt their line of sight everywhere. Otherwise the observer isn't effectively suffering from the Blinded condition, so the foliage in that area must not be sufficiently dense to qualify as Heavy Obscurement.
An observer only suffers from Blinded "when trying to see something in that area", so as long as there are sufficient places for things to not be seen, it works.

Only the places dense enough to obscure the person would count as Heavily Obscured. The gaps are not Heavily Obscured, as a creature standing in such a gap would be visible to you.
I'm describing a real scene. The rules are abstract. No area of vegetation is as uniform as you are describing, nor does it need to be imagined that way.

If someone was in that area and intersected your view of the telephone wires, you would see them, yes? By definition? You can see the wires, so you'd definitely be able to see something in front of the wires. But anything you can see you aren't effectively Blinded towards, so you're not effectively Blinded with respect to everything in that area. So how can the area be said to be Heavily Obscured?
Yes, if someone put their face in one of the gaps in the canopy, I could see it, but that's not where someone would be to not be seen. I don't think there's anything there to support someone's weight. They would be where the leaves are more dense, closer to the center of the tree. Again, you don't need to effectively have Blinded with respect to everything in the area, just things you're trying to see.

Maybe a good way of putting it is this: if you drop a stone monolith (shorter than the trees) at a random place in your clump of trees, are you, as an observer guaranteed to be unable to see the monolith? If yes, cool, then the area is Heavily Obscured--you are effectively suffering from the Blinded condition with respect to everything in the area. If instead you might see the monolith, then the area must not be Heavily Obscured because you aren't effectively suffering from the Blinded condition with respect to everything in the area.
No, that isn't how I think about it. I would say that in an area of moderate foliage, there would be pretty much no opportunity for a 15' monolith to escape notice, while in dense foliage there would be ample opportunity for it to be unseen.

So yes, it definitely sounds like we are treating different levels of foliage as sufficient to qualify as Heavy Obscurement. I think the rules for the Blinded condition require full opacity, and you do not.
That's what I've been telling you. The vision rules don't require considerations of opacity at all.
 

FitzTheRuke

Legend
How about we agree to disagree as to the viewpoints of other posters expressed in past posts? The alternative is wading through 40 pages to find quotes, then arguing about the context of those quotes, and we'll likely just end up conceding that the other one's interpretation of the thread is plausible, even though we each prefer our own.

Can we skip ahead to that? :)
Absolutely. I'm just telling you my opinion, not trying to get you to adopt my position.
 

Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
Use small "d" "darkness" (I'm talking about natural darkness in general) and you're pretty close.

And magic can explain a physical impossibility, but just using "magic" as an explanation doesn't tell us what an observer sees. Somehow the DM has to describe to the player what the scene looks like to the character, and the text in the book definitely doesn't have any rules to that effect. :) So even if a DM hand-waves away any inconsistency, they still need to use their own judgement on the visual result.
If it's normal darkness, them I'm really confused. Silhouettes and backlighting happen in normal darkness.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
If it's normal darkness, them I'm really confused. Silhouettes and backlighting happen in normal darkness.
I can't think of the last time I've seen a silhouette in real life :unsure:

I mean photo's where they can play with contrast and lighting sure, or photo's where they set up their camera to be at the perfect angle during a sunset to capture it, but in general - the phenomenon seems pretty rare.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
An observer only suffers from Blinded "when trying to see something in that area", so as long as there are sufficient places for things to not be seen, it works.
Ok, so we're coming at this from entirely opposite directions. In technical terms, you're reading "something" as invoking an existential quantifier, whereas I'm reading it as invoking a universal quantifier. So for you, an area can be Heavily Obscured so long as there are sufficient places for a "something in the area" to not be seen. For me, an area can only be Heavily Obscured if, for everything that is "something in the area", it cannot be seen.

I must confess that I don't understand how your reading is a plausible interpretation of the text. But English is notoriously bad at unambiguously referring to specific quantifiers, so I guess it shouldn't be that surprising to see this kind of ambiguity crop up.

Yes, if someone put their face in one of the gaps in the canopy, I could see it, but that's not where someone would be to not be seen.
Don't forget that the Heavily Obscurement applies to objects too, and they can't pick where to stand. It also applies to unaware creatures that don't know to try to not be seen.

That's what I've been telling you. The vision rules don't require considerations of opacity at all.
That's not true. For a very trivial counter example, "opaque fog" is listed as providing Heavy Obscurement. That pretty unambiguously refers to fog that is sufficiently dense to constitute an opaque area, I hope?
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
I can't think of the last time I've seen a silhouette in real life :unsure:

I mean photo's where they can play with contrast and lighting sure, or photo's where they set up their camera to be at the perfect angle during a sunset to capture it, but in general - the phenomenon seems pretty rare.
Just go outside and look at that distant, lit farmhouse you mentioned. Anything between you and that house that you can see as dark contrast against that lit background is a silhouette.
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
I see this contradiction as pretty straightforward (but apparently am terrible at explaining it!): if there's a big opaque object/creature standing in darkness between an observer and a well-lit background, then in the real world the observer can see the big opaque object/creature because it obstructs the well-lit background (i.e. it's silhouetted). D&D doesn't have rules for silhouettes, so the DM has to decide whether to include silhouettes in their game or not. If they do let observers see heavily obscured objects/creatures as silhouettes, the DM isn't giving full effect to the Blinded condition--the observer is able to see something the Blinded condition says they can't. By contrast, if the DM does not let observers see heavily obscured objects/creatures as silhouettes, then, by definition, the object/creature isn't obstructing the well-lit background, and so must not be opaque.

Obviously, I expect every DM to work around this contradiction in one way or another--that's the DM's job. Multiple ways to adapt/reinterpret the rules have been presented in this thread that would work well.

Well at least I understand your objection now. I'd like to propose a counter theory and get your thoughts.

What you are seeing when you see a silhouette isn't the creature but rather the lack of lighting on the wall where you would expect it. You might reasonably infer there's a creature between you and the wall but that's just it - it's an inference and not actually what you are seeing. That inference may even end up being incorrect.
 

Xetheral

Three-Headed Sirrush
Well at least I understand your objection now. I'd like to propose a counter theory and get your thoughts.

What you are seeing when you see a silhouette isn't the creature but rather the lack of lighting on the wall where you would expect it. You might reasonably infer there's a creature between you and the wall but that's just it - it's an inference and not actually what you are seeing. That inference may even end up being incorrect.
That isn't substantially different from how human vision works for well-lit objects: the brain is inferring where one object begins and another ends by noticing the edges as a contrast to a background. (That's why camouflage works even in bright light.) And in bright light the inference can also be incorrect, which is how optical illusions work
 

FrogReaver

As long as i get to be the frog
That isn't substantially different from how human vision works for well-lit objects: the brain is inferring where one object begins and another ends by noticing the edges as a contrast to a background. (That's why camouflage works even in bright light.) And in bright light the inference can also be incorrect, which is how optical illusions work
Then I think we have found our winner! No need to rule silhouettes don't exsist and no reason to believe you are seeing the creature when seeing darkness created by the superimposed absence of light it creates over a lit up backdrop.
 



Maxperson

Morkus from Orkus
I can't think of the last time I've seen a silhouette in real life :unsure:
I have. When it's really dark. I grew up in rural Michigan and during summer camps we would be outside without anything but starlight and a bit of moonlight. You just saw human shaped dark shadows sometimes. No features. More rarely during sleepovers as a teenager, we had so many at a friend's house that multiple kids had to sleep in a room. Saw some silhouettes then, too.
 


Hriston

Dungeon Master of Middle-earth
Ok, so we're coming at this from entirely opposite directions. In technical terms, you're reading "something" as invoking an existential qualifier, whereas I'm reading it as invoking a universal qualifier. So for you, an area can be Heavily Obscured so long as there are sufficient places for a "something in the area" to not be seen. For me, an area can only be Heavily Obscured if, for everything that is "something in the area", it cannot be seen.

I must confess that I don't understand how your reading is a plausible interpretation of the text. But English is notoriously bad at unambiguously referring to specific quantifiers, so I guess it shouldn't be that surprising to see this kind of ambiguity crop up.
I don't think that's quite it. I think the difference is in how we each expect this rule to function in the game. For me, it tells me what happens when and only when a creature tries to see something in that area. I get to make up why that happens. For you, it seems to establish some causative quality of the area (opacity) that exists in the fiction even when a creature is not trying to see something in that area. Does that make sense?

Don't forget that the Heavily Obscurement applies to objects too, and they can't pick where to stand. It also applies to unaware creatures that don't know to try to not be seen.
Again, this gets back to what I just said. If the question comes up whether something in the area can be seen, the heavily obscured area rules answer that question: it cannot be seen. The exact process whereby it is not seen are not (and don't need to be) covered in the rules. All the rules say is that the area blocked the observer's vision. Part of the DM's job is to invent how that happened.

That's not true. For a very trivial counter example, "opaque fog" is listed as providing Heavy Obscurement. That pretty unambiguously refers to fog that is sufficiently dense to constitute an opaque area, I hope?
Yes, opaque is used as an intensifying descriptor for fog. I don't think that establishes opacity as a necessary condition for something to constitute a heavily obscured area. Also, fog isn't actually opaque. It might appear so from a distance (like dense foliage), but at its edges it is quite translucent or even transparent, especially to an observer looking out into an area under daylight.
 

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