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5E You still need to use your reason before ruling about concealment

Li Shenron

Adventurer
It seems inevitable, every year or so I have to witness a game of D&D where the DM tries to use the RAW to adjudicate visibility, and ends up with unreasonable results...

I don't think that 5e rules for this topic are difficult, but they have 2 problems:

(1) they are scattered in at least 4 different places of the PHB:
  • Chapter 7, "Hiding" textbox
  • Chapter 8, "Vision and Light" section
  • Chapter 9, "Unseen attackers and targets" section
  • Appendix A, "Blinded" condition

(2) there is a key missing distinction between opaque concealment and simple lack of visibility

------------------

For problem (1), I have distilled my own summary and attached it to my DM's screen, and it's really short... you can summarize the general situation in the following way.

First of all, remember that it's much easier to ask yourself the question "can subject A see target B?" directly, instead of trying to answer the wider question "can subject A see (anyone)?" or "can target B be seen (by anyone)?". Just focus on the A-to-B relation when it matters, and it will be easier to avoid pitfalls.

Then, consider the target first, which gives you only 3 possibilities:

a) the target B is not obscured (bright light and no cover)
b) the target B is lightly obscured (dim light, patchy fog, moderate foliage) = subject A has disadvantage on perception checks that rely on sight
c) the target B is heavily obscured (darkness, opaque fog, dense foliage) = subject A is effectively blinded

Blinded
means: disadvantage on attacks, advantage on attacks against, auto-fail ability checks that requires sight, and generically can't see (some obvious things here such as can't read, but also cannot target with spells that specify "a target you can see"). Note that "unseen" is technically not a listed condition, but essentially "blinded subject" and "unseen target" are equivalent, as long as you stick to the A-to-B relation.

Hiding requires a voluntary action and possibly a successful check; the requirements are purposefully left open so that the DM decides when someone can try to hide; visibility is not the only factor because other senses can be used to detect a hidden target, so it is generally assumed that hiding means making yourself as undetectable as possible, at least unseen and unheard. Being hidden therefore implicitly makes the target unseen (or equivalently, makes the subject blinded against it) but in addition it also means that the subject doesn't know the location of the target. If the target is already hidden to the subject before the encounter, the subject probably isn't even aware that the target exists.

Beyond sound and vision, you occasionally need to use your reason to handle hiding... for example a target normally cannot suppress its own smell, so a hound or another creature with a significantly good sense of smell requires some DM's thinking on how to take that into account. Be reasonable: a human could detect another person by smell but normally wouldn't; a dog normally would.

------------------

Problem (2) is more severe. IMHO it was a design mistake to lump together darkness or invisibility with opaque concealment such as smoke, dense fog, heavy foliage, or a giant octopus' ink spray. But they really are different cases:

- Everyone who is not blind in real life knows very well how mere darkness is not opaque: you can see out of it and you can see through it, you just cannot see into it.

- That's not the case with opaque concealment: you cannot see into it, through it, or out of it. If you have ever seen fog in your life, you know how it works.

So for example, if you are in your house at night with the lights on, you cannot see what is in the dark street outside (assume pitch black, no illumination), but you can see inside the windows of another house with lights turned on, on the other side of the dark street; someone in the dark street will see the interiors of both your and the other house. But if instead of darkness there is dense enough fog outside, you won't see either the street or the other house beyond it, and someone inside the fog won't see anything that is outside of it.

Unfortunately, both cases are treated simply as "heavily obscured" by the rules.

In early prints of the PHB, the text for heavily obscured said "a creature in a heavily obscured area effectively suffers from the blinded condition". This even lead Crawford to release some really bad sage advice as some point, with relation to someone being inside darkness and shooting arrow to a target outside the dark area with disadvantage because... blinded! The text was later errata-corrected to "a creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area", so the rule switched to the target's condition, not the subject wanting to see it. The problem is now that by RAW it sounds like you CAN see out of an opaque concealment area such as fog.

My opinion is that it's best to keep in mind the actual description of the situation, particularly when dealing with spells. Almost all spells* which create fog, smoke or similar, will say that the spell creates a heavily obscured area, but you will do your game a favor if you focus on what exactly the spell creates, and make it work appropriately. I am still seeing DMs claiming that it's just fluff text and only "keywords" as heavily obscured matter, or try to get away with the "it's magic" flimsy excuse (but then what, when it's not magic?). The problem is that this carries a serious risk of making your game look dorky, and doesn't do the gaming community a favor, particularly if you're playing with beginners and casual gamers... this was not the first time I've heard newbies at a gaming event commenting how D&D is "a stupid game for stupid people", when the DM ruled that monsters hiding inside (in this case) fog could see out of it with no penalties, because that's the RAW...

*Interestingly, one spell which does NOT explicitly mention a heavily obscured area is Darkness, which only talks about "magical darkness". However it does something even worse, by making it explicit that "a creature with darkvision can't see through this darkness", which seems to imply that this magical darkness behaves more like opaque concealment than natural darkness (I do not recommend to adjudicate the Darkness spell as creating opaque darkness). Even worse, the spell only mentions a creature with darkvision, but not a creature without it, so a strict reading of the RAW leads to even less reasonable adjudications.
 
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DEFCON 1

Legend
This is once again exemplifying my sincere belief that no one should ever try and play the game exclusively Ruled As Written. Because trying to come up with a whole set of rules before the fact for concealment, cover, darkness, light, blindness, deafness, hiding etc. etc. that works for every situation you can think of is a quagmire that is not worth wasting time on.

A DM has advantage/disadvantage, +2/+5 bonus to AC, and guessing the target's location at their disposal to assign as necessary. It's just three things. Look at where the attackers and defenders are, see what's between them, and then make a call.
 

5ekyu

Adventurer
It seems inevitable, every year or so I have to witness a game of D&D where the DM tries to use the RAW to adjudicate visibility, and ends up with unreasonable results...

I don't think that 5e rules for this topic are difficult, but they have 2 problems:

(1) they are scattered in at least 4 different places of the PHB:
  • Chapter 7, "Hiding" textbox
  • Chapter 8, "Vision and Light" section
  • Chapter 9, "Unseen attackers and targets" section
  • Appendix A, "Blinded" condition

(2) there is a key missing distinction between opaque concealment and simple lack of visibility

------------------

For problem (1), I have distilled my own summary and attached it to my DM's screen, and it's really short... you can summarize the general situation in the following way.

First of all, remember that it's much easier to ask yourself the question "can subject A see target B?" directly, instead of trying to answer the wider question "can subject A see (anyone)?" or "can target B be seen (by anyone)?". Just focus on the A-to-B relation when it matters, and it will be easier to avoid pitfalls.

Then, consider the target first, which gives you only 3 possibilities:

a) the target B is not obscured (bright light and no cover)
b) the target B is lightly obscured (dim light, patchy fog, moderate foliage) = subject A has disadvantage on perception checks that rely on sight
c) the target B is heavily obscured (darkness, opaque fog, dense foliage) = subject A is effectively blinded

Blinded
means: disadvantage on attacks, advantage on attacks against, auto-fail ability checks that requires sight, and generically can't see (some obvious things here such as can't read, but also cannot target with spells that specify "a target you can see"). Note that "unseen" is technically not a listed condition, but essentially "blinded subject" and "unseen target" are equivalent, as long as you stick to the A-to-B relation.

Hiding requires a voluntary action and possibly a successful check; the requirements are purposefully left open so that the DM decides when someone can try to hide; visibility is not the only factor because other senses can be used to detect a hidden target, so it is generally assumed that hiding means making yourself as undetectable as possible, at least unseen and unheard. Being hidden therefore implicitly makes the target unseen (or equivalently, makes the subject blinded against it) but in addition it also means that the subject doesn't know the location of the target. If the target is already hidden to the subject before the encounter, the subject probably isn't even aware that the target exists.

Beyond sound and vision, you occasionally need to use your reason to handle hiding... for example a target normally cannot suppress its own smell, so a hound or another creature with a significantly good sense of smell requires some DM's thinking on how to take that into account. Be reasonable: a human could detect another person by smell but normally wouldn't; a dog normally would.

------------------

Problem (2) is more severe. IMHO it was a design mistake to lump together darkness or invisibility with opaque concealment such as smoke, dense fog, heavy foliage, or a giant octopus' ink spray. But they really are different cases:

- Everyone who is not blind in real life knows very well how mere darkness is not opaque: you can see out of it and you can see through it, you just cannot see into it.

- That's not the case with opaque concealment: you cannot see into it, through it, or out of it. If you have ever seen fog in your life, you know how it works.

So for example, if you are in your house at night with the lights on, you cannot see what is in the dark street outside (assume pitch black, no illumination), but you can see inside the windows of another house with lights turned on, on the other side of the dark street; someone in the dark street will see the interiors of both your and the other house. But if instead of darkness there is dense enough fog outside, you won't see either the street or the other house beyond it, and someone inside the fog won't see anything that is outside of it.

Unfortunately, both cases are treated simply as "heavily obscured" by the rules.

In early prints of the PHB, the text for heavily obscured said "a creature in a heavily obscured area effectively suffers from the blinded condition". This even lead Crawford to release some really bad sage advice as some point, with relation to someone being inside darkness and shooting arrow to a target outside the dark area with disadvantage because... blinded! The text was later errata-corrected to "a creature effectively suffers from the blinded condition when trying to see something in that area", so the rule switched to the target's condition, not the subject wanting to see it. The problem is now that by RAW it sounds like you CAN see out of an opaque concealment area such as fog.

My opinion is that it's best to keep in mind the actual description of the situation, particularly when dealing with spells. Almost all spells* which create fog, smoke or similar, will say that the spell creates a heavily obscured area, but you will do your game a favor if you focus on what exactly the spell creates, and make it work appropriately. I am still seeing DMs claiming that it's just fluff text and only "keywords" as heavily obscured matter, or try to get away with the "it's magic" flimsy excuse (but then what, when it's not magic?). The problem is that this carries a serious risk of making your game look dorky, and doesn't do the gaming community a favor, particularly if you're playing with beginners and casual gamers... this was not the first time I've heard newbies at a gaming event commenting how D&D is "a stupid game for stupid people", when the DM ruled that monsters hiding inside (in this case) fog could see out of it with no penalties, because that's the RAW...

*Interestingly, one spell which does NOT explicitly mention a heavily obscured area is Darkness, which only talks about "magical darkness". However it does something even worse, by making it explicit that "a creature with darkvision can't see through this darkness", which seems to imply that this magical darkness behaves more like opaque concealment than natural darkness (I do not recommend to adjudicate the Darkness spell as creating opaque darkness). Even worse, the spell only mentions a creature with darkvision, but not a creature without it, so a strict reading of the RAW leads to even less reasonable adjudications.
So, I am eith you on most of this and more even, to me the description of outdoors at night as blinded equivalent goes too far...

But I am curious about the last bit.

I do treat magical darkness as opaque and that's how I differentiate it from regular darkness. I treat it as the light version of the silence spell. Vision cannot pass through it or out of it anymore than sounds can pass thru Silrnce (around is fine of course.)

What leads you to not want to use magical darkness as opaque?
 
Because trying to come up with a whole set of rules before the fact for concealment, cover, darkness, light, blindness, deafness, hiding etc. etc. that works for every situation you can think of is a quagmire that is not worth wasting time on.
That sounds like a challenge for this community. I'm sure we can do it. Half-sure. Maybe quarter sure...
 

Kinematics

Explorer
I wrote something up a few days ago, but lost it. Forum post concealment wins!

Anyway, I consider all of this to be describable as a combination of status effects. Some status effects affect creatures, while others affect areas. Status effects can be applied and removed by other actions.


Summary – The ability of a creature to perceive (see, hear, etc) a target is determined by the most limiting factor out of: the creature's sense status, the target's perceivable status, the target's area status, and any interfering obscurement between the creature and the target.

Tactical Rules – If a condition is met, cease further evaluations.
  • If a creature cannot be detected (not seen/heard/felt/smelled/etc, directly or indirectly), an attacker cannot attack the creature.
  • If a creature cannot see its target, it has disadvantage on attacks against that target.
  • If a creature cannot be seen by the creature it is attacking, it has advantage on attacks against that target.

Creature Status Effects

Creature Sense Status Effects – These status effects describe whether a creature can use its senses. Other senses may apply as appropriate. (EG: Numb – cannot feel; Congested – cannot smell; etc.)
  • Blind – Creature cannot see.
  • Deaf – Creature cannot hear.

Creature Perceivable Status Effects – These status effects affect how well a creature or object can be perceived.
  • Invisible – Creature cannot be seen.
  • Silent – Creature cannot be heard.
  • Partially Concealed – A creature that is partially concealed may have partial (half or three-quarters) cover. The creature may have disadvantage to be seen.
  • Fully Concealed – A creature that is fully concealed may have full cover, and cannot be directly targeted. The creature cannot be seen.
  • Hidden – Creature cannot be detected.

Area Status Effects

Area Status Effects (Light)
  • Lit – Creatures and objects in this area can be seen.
  • Dimly Lit – Creatures and objects in this area can be seen, but doing so is at disadvantage.
  • Dark – Creatures and objects in this area cannot be seen.
  • Total Darkness – Creatures and objects in this area cannot be seen, and there is no non-dark area within visual range.
  • Magical Darkness – The spell suppresses light within the affected area. Creatures within are blinded, and the area is considered heavily obscured with respect to light.
Unless specifically noted, lighting status does not interfere with seeing through or out of the area.

Area Status Effects (Sound)
  • Normal – Creatures and objects in this area can be heard.
  • Muffled – Creatures and objects in this area can be heard, but doing so is at disadvantage.
  • Silent – Creatures and objects in this area cannot be heard.
  • Magical Silence – The spell suppresses sound within the affected area. Creatures within are deafened, and the area is considered heavily obscured with respect to sound.
Unlike light, distance may affect the apparent area status.

Area Status Effects (Obstruction)
  • Unobscured – Creatures and objects in this area can be seen.
  • Lightly Obscured – Creatures and objects in this area can be seen, but doing so is at disadvantage. A creature in this area has disadvantage in seeing other creatures or objects, unless the creature is at the edge of the area and viewing an unobscured area.
  • Heavily Obscured – Creatures and objects in this area cannot be seen. Creatures in this area cannot see creatures or objects outside of their own occupied space.
  • Fully Obscured – Creatures and objects in this area cannot be detected. Creatures in this area cannot see creatures or objects outside of the area.
Barring special circumstances, obscurement always interferes with seeing through or out of the specified area.

NB: Obstruction may affect senses other than sight, but the descriptions are kept simple.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
As others have said, magical darkness has historically been an opaque area, and this is backed up by the way it worked in prior editions and in the fiction.

Changing this to a non-opaque area has a significant impact on how the spell would normally be used. As it stands now (opaque), you normally cast it on your enemies to blind them while in the area, forcing them to move out of it and controling the battlefield. If it's non-opaque, you'd cast it on yourself, hiding your exact position and attacking against a target that is effectively blinded by your attacks.

This is a massive increase in the power of the spell, since the normal use has the downside of limiting your attacks on the enemy. Given that Hunger of Hadar is a spell that creates magical darkness and deals damage to those inside, this is obviously not the intent of magical darkness (granting your enemy a benefit).
 

Charlaquin

Goblin Queen
Natural darkness is lack of light caused by an opaque object blocking transmission from the light source to the darkened area. Magical darkness blocks transmission of light to the affected area. Ergo, magical darkness must be opaque.

Also, it could create areas of natural darkness - let’s say you’re in a tunnel, lit by a torch. If you cast magical darkness such that it completely blocks the mind tunnel, it will block the torchlight from passing through, therefore the section of tunnel on the far side of the magically darkened area from the torch will be naturally dark.
 

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